“Dark Ireland” records a way of life that has almost vanished. Its title possesses a message that the photographer seems unaware of.
The front cover of this evocative collection of photographs captures a moment that could have taken place in 1870 instead of a century later when it was actually caught by a camera.
It shows two figures returning home in a rainstorm, one riding a donkey and the other leading his animal, after time spent cutting peat in a turf bog. Overhead, thunderous-looking clouds look down threateningly on a barren landscape in the west of Ireland.
Fast forward to 2018 and the climate and the landscape are much the same but the hardy and earthy lifestyle depicted in the scene is a relic of past times.
Peat is still burned in Ireland but nowadays it is cut and dried by giant machines on an industrial scale. The days of cutting, stacking and drying your own fuel by hand are long gone.
Another photograph shows a man sitting on a stool in the middle of a country road while milking a cow. T
he location is anomalous – why in a road? – but another photo that shows a woman milking her cow in a field while her husband feeds a calf from a bucket was not unusual in the west of Ireland even in the 1970s when the photo was taken.
Many of the photos are authentic signatures of a past reality: open fires with a huge pot for boiling potatoes; hens entering a kitchen through a half-door to pick up crumbs; sheep and horse fairs conducted in the open square of a town; a farmer driving his donkey and cart to a creamery with his milk churns and his dog.
Some of the scenes have not yet been eroded by time: a stone wall in Clare; evening over a lake in Killarny; hauntingly beautiful scenery in Kerry; Celtic crosses in a cemetery.
In his introduction, the photographer Robert Fitzgerald traces his choice of a title –“Dark Ireland” – to his memories of growing up in an Irish countryside without electric lighting; an eerie gloom to the fields as night fell, flickering oil lamps in dimly lit rooms. All very nostalgic and nice.
But the title has a more ominous resonance that is radiated by the photographs that point to the pervasive presence of Catholicism in Irish life: religious icons and framed pictures of Christ and Blessed Virgin in homes, a priest hearing an elderly woman’s confession in her front room, a family on bended knees reciting the rosary – a nightly ritual that brought the material weight of an ideology into Irish people’s private dwellings.
It has taken the recent abortion referendum to resoundingly say no to a theocracy that allowed celibate males to exert total legal control over a woman’s body once she became pregnant.
Post-referendum Ireland is a more grown-up country, keen to write a fresh chapter in its social identity but history is a palimpsest and Dark Ireland is testimony to this.
“Dark Ireland: images of a lost world”, by Richard Fitzgerald, is published by Currach Press.
(Photos provided by the publisher)