Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

One catalogue card and four photographs of the Aran Islands, Ireland

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

1965.5.1.131-134 Aran Islands, Ireland. Photographs taken by Ingegard Vallin and Ellen Ettlinger 1949

1965.5.1.131-134 Aran Islands, Ireland. Photographs taken by Ingegard Vallin and Ellen Ettlinger 1949

1965.5.1.114 [Front] Woman and grandson Aran Islands, Ireland photographed by Thomas H. Mason

1965.5.1.114 [Front] Woman and grandson Aran Islands, Ireland photographed by Thomas H. Mason

1963.4.1 Aran Islands belt donated by Ellen Ettlinger

1963.4.1 Aran Islands belt donated by Ellen Ettlinger

Ellen Ettlinger appears to have been fascinated by the Aran Islands. Among the catalogue cards she donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum [PRM] showing folklore artefacts are several cards with small photographs, or parts of photographs stuck to them, taken by Ettlinger in the Aran Islands. Whilst the Aran Islands are patently not part of England, they reflect the kinds of topics she was interested in, in her private study, much better than other aspects of her collections given to the PRM. They also reflect the interest of anthropologists and folklorists during the first half of the twentieth century to concentrate on particular areas as a reflection of their supposed greater traditionalism.

You can find out more about Ellen Ettlinger (1902-1994) here. She was a keen member of the Folklore Society and the catalogue cards she donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum reflect that interest. She is known to have visited the Aran Islands at least once: she visited in 1949 with her friend Ingegärd Vallin of Boras Museum, Sweden. Whilst there she seems to have taken the opportunity to photograph a good deal, as did her friend. Find out more about these photographs here.

Ettlinger lived in England from 1939 to her death in 1994 and mostly confined her interests to English and German folklore, so her interest in the Aran Islands is unusual. There are also far more of her own photographs from the Aran Islands in the collection she donated to the PRM than there are from other areas.

The four photographs which are pasted together on one card she numbered 335/ 8 and titled 'Costumes (Ireland)' and which have the Museum accession number 1965.5.1 131-4 show (clockwise) a family and donkey in a lane outside a cottage, a woman standing in her garden behind a stone wall in front of her cottage, a man in a flat cap standing on a beach in front of an upside-down fishing boat, and finally a group of men standing on the beach with their backs to the field. As can be seen from the longer list of Aran photographs, these are fairly typical of the kinds of photographs she and Vallin took on the Islands. She also obtained some images of the islands taken by Thomas Holmes Mason of Dublin.

Whilst in the Aran Islands Ettlinger was obviously interested in technology, particularly in the spinning and weaving. She took several photographs of the processes involved and also some handicrafts. She donated one of these to the Museum, shown here. 'IRELAND, ARAN ISLANDS: Waist band, worn by men (CRISS). This specimen was woven on the Aran Isles in 1946. Red & white, green, yellow wool with navy wool edges. Both belt ends terminate in four thick plaits with knot & tassel.' 1963.4.1

The Aran Islands

The Aran Islands are three islands located in the mouth of the Galway Bay on the western coast of the Republic of Ireland. The largest island is Inishmore [Inis Mór], the second Inishmaan [Inis Meáin] and the third Inisheer [Inis Oírr]. According to wikipedia the Islanders 'adapted themselves to the raw climatic conditions, developing a survival system of total self-sufficiency'. The islanders husbanded cattle and sheep, the sheep wool was used to make clothing included the world-famous Aran sweaters, they fished using special boats.

Haddon's work on the Aran Islands

Alfred Cort Haddon (1855-1940) the famous anthropologist and leader of the Torres Strait expedition which was one of the earliest ethnographic fieldwork expeditions, actually undertook fieldwork before this expedition, in the Aran Islands. He was the Professor of Zoology at the Royal College of Science, Dublin from 1880 to 1900. In 1891 he co-founded Dublin's Anthropometric Laboratory, modelled on Francis Galton's in London, 'with the explicit aim of understanding the racial characteristics of the Irish people'. [Ashley, 2001: 7] He used this opportunity to study various aspects of the Irish population, starting with the Aran Islanders:

Though on his return to Dublin [from his first expedition to the Torres Strait in 1888] he continued his work and published papers on the British Actiniaria and on those of Torres Straits, he was turning his attention more and more towards the study of man, and organized a scheme for the Ethnographical Survey of Ireland, which he inaugurated with his work on the Aran Islanders (1893). [Quiggin and Fegan, 1940: 99]

In Ireland he attempted to organize an ethnographical survey and collected data especially concerning the Aran Islanders, but he also investigated physical characteristics of some Irish populations, approaching the subject biologically rather than statistically. His view was that anthropometrics were of use especially in giving more precise descriptions to what had been observed by the eye; he had grave suspicions concerning statistical abstractions. [Fleure, 1941: 453]

Haddon explained the motivation for his work on the Aran Islands as follows:

It is surprising how little attention we have given, in the British Islands, to a study of our fellow-countrymen, whether from an anthropological or from a sociological point of view. In this respect we are far behind the great continental nations. Nor is it from lack of suggestive facts to be recorded, or of problems to be solved. The mixture of races in these islands certainly renders the problems complex, but this should not paralyse effort. Very interesting results may be expected from a careful study of certain groups of the populace, but to gain them immediate action must be taken. Owing to migration and emigration, the mingling of peoples has become more intimate, and the newspaper and the school-board have been potent in sweeping away local customs and in levelling up the less advanced folk. All we can now do is to record the little that remains of old-time custom and thought. ... For some years past I have been increasingly impressed with the importance of these studies, and I recently determined to make a beginning with the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, being in every way suitable for such researches. It was therefore, with great pleasure that I found my friend Dr. C. R. Browne was able to join me in making the first of what I hope will be series of studies in Irish Ethnography, conducted in connection with a Committee appointed by the Royal Irish Academy for that purpose. [Haddon, 1893 [b] quoted in http://www.from-ireland.net/gal/aranislands.htm]

Haddon and Browne collated information on the 'anthropography' of the islanders, 'hair and eye colour ... the shape of head and face, height and build, sight and hearing'. [Ashley, 2001: 8] However, the two men also acknowledged that they had studied far more:

'It will .. be noticed that we have in the present study far exceeded the lines of research which the Committee at first proposed for itself. We have done so in the belief that the ethnical characteristics of a people are to be found in their arts, habits, language, and beliefs as well as their physical characteristics. [Haddon and Browne, p. 769 quoted in Ashley, 2001: 8]

Messenger discusses Haddon's work on the islands as follows:

In 1891, when he and Browne visited the large island, Inishmore, Haddon was transforming himself from a zoologist into an ethnographer after his 1888 Torres Straits expedition; the authors inclulde in what is primarily an anthropometric study brief compilations of archeological, historical, geographical, demographic, and ethnographic data. [Messenger, 1964: 42]

Haddon and Browne were not the first to carry out a survey in the islands, William Wilde (father of the more famous Oscar) had led the 'Ethnological Section of the British Association to Aran' in 1857. [Ashley, 2001: 8]

Haddon also reported on his paper on the ethnography of the Aran Islands to the Folklore Society, in 1893. Haddon's study of the Islanders in 1893 has been reviewed by several more recent authors including Messenger and Ashley.

The Aran Islanders and primitivism

As John Messenger's 1964 paper on the Aran Islands makes clear:

For over a century archeologists, historians, linguists, folklorists, anthropometricians, ethnographers, writers and film producers have visited the Aran Islands of western Eire, and their many books, short articles, films (and a French opera in 1952) have served to familiarise the world with the picturesque folk culture possessed by the Islanders and the numerous, well-preserved antiquities of Aran which attest to at least five thousand years of human habitation. [Messenger, 1964: 41]

the Aran Islands had long been a by-word for traditional culture. This is also remarked in the wikipedia entry for the Aran Islands:

In the second half of the twentieth century, up until perhaps the early 1970s, one sees a third kind of visitor to the islands. These visitors came not necessarily because of the uniquely "Irish" nature of the island community, but simply because the accidents of geography and history conspired to produce a society that some found intriguing or even beguiling and that they wished to participate in directly. It should be emphasized that at no time was there a single "Aran" culture: any description must be necessarily incomplete and can be said to apply completely only to parts of the island at certain points in time. However, visitors that came and stayed were mainly attracted to aspects of Aran culture such as:

  1. Isolated from mainstream print and electronic media, and thus reliant primarily on local oral tradition for both entertainment and news.
  2. Rarely visited or understood by outsiders.
  3. Strongly influenced in its traditions and attitudes by the unusually savage weather of Galway Bay.
  4. In many parts characterized by subsistence, or near-subsistence, farming and fishing.
  5. Adapted to the absence of luxuries that many parts of the Western world had enjoyed for decades and in some cases, centuries.

and by Ashley:

the Aran Islands were being invented as bastions of the ancient sublime, so the islanders themselves were endowed with nationalist and racial significance. They were modern primitives, insulated from the deadening hand of progress and anglicization, true Irishmen and women, models for an Ireland freed from British dominion. They were a pure
Gaelic stock, uncorrupted by infusions of degenerate blood from the mainland; they were, perhaps, the last true descendants of the Fir-Bolgs, the primeval inhabitants of Ireland. The influential Victorian scholar and popularizer on
all matters Gaelic, Samuel Ferguson, had in 1852 written: ‘If any portion of the existing population of Ireland can with propriety be termed Celts, they are this race.’ [Ashley, 2001: 9]

Arguments about the unspoiled traditions of the Aran Islands depended upon their relative remoteness and lack of contact with 'progress':

If the islands could be shown to have been less than isolated over the centuries and thereby subject to historical change, it became somewhat problematic to maintain the central fact of nineteenth-century Aran ethnography: that the islanders were primitives, whose language, customs and beliefs constituted a living museum in which modern man could contemplate his own concerns. [Ashley, 2001: 13]

Messenger remarks how much Haddon and Browne's interpretations of Aran culture and personality varied considerably from that of other literary and film interpretations. [Messenger, 1964: 41] He comments that:

Aran folk are thought by many to be direct descendants of Celts who built the seven massive stone forts on the three islands and to speak the 'purest' Gaelic in Ireland. [Messenger, 1964: 45]

Messenger believed that ideas of primitivism together with the Irish 'nativistic movement':

has been the factor of major importance causing distortions of cultural reality in Aran. ... Central to the primitivist position is the assumption that civilization - especially modern urban, industrial, and bureaucratic civilization - is a corrosive force that has dehumanized man and undermined his cherished institutions. It has caused social bonds to disintegrate, fostered immorality, and created mass neuroses and psychoses. Folk peoples, according to this view, represent man as he once was and could or should be again were civilized society drastically reformed. [Messenger, 1964: 46]

Given the nature of Ettlinger's photographs on the Aran Islands, it would seem that she was also interested in the survival of 'primitivist' traditions in Aran. She was certainly interested in the clothing made and worn by the Islanders, and their subsistence farming and fishing. Most images show women dressed in longer skirts than would be found at the same period in, say, Dublin and often carrying out traditional activities like spinning, weaving and fishing. It is a pity that Ettlinger did not record, or donate to the Pitt Rivers Museum, the same sort of record of her activities in England. It is likely that she must have carried out the same sort of photography elsewhere.

Further Reading

Ashley, Scott. 2001 'The poetics of race in 1890s Ireland: an ethnography of the Aran Islands', Patterns of Prejudice, 35:2, 5—18
Fleure, H.J. 'Alfred Cort Haddon. 1855-1940' Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 3, No. 9 (Jan., 1941), pp. 449-465
Haddon, A.C. with C.R. Browne 1893 [a] 'The ethnography of the Aran Islands, Co. Galway. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (3) 2: 768-830
Haddon, A.C. 1893 [b]. 'A batch of Irish folk-lore' Folklore, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Sep., 1893), pp. 349-364
Haddon, A.C. 1893 [c]. 'The Aran Islands, County Galway: A study in Irish ethnography' The Irish Naturalist, vol II December 1893 no. 12 [copy obtained via http://www.from-ireland.net/gal/aranislands.htm]
Messenger, John 1964 'Literary vs. Scientific Interpretations of Cultural Reality in the Aran Islands of Eire' Ethnohistory, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Winter, 1964), pp.41-55
Quiggin, A.H. and E.S. Fegan '123. Alfred Cort Haddon, 1855-1940' Man, Vol. 40, (Jul.,1940), pp. 97-100