• Jane W. Shackleton’s Western Islands

    One of the largest collections of early photographs taken by a female photographer in Ireland were taken by Jane W. Shackleton (née Edmundson, 1843-1909). Mrs Shackleton was from a well-established Quaker family that could claim descent from William Edmundson, who held the first Quaker meeting in Ireland in Lurgan in 1654. During the later 19th century and early 20th century, an interest in photography was a feature of many Quaker families. The most famous of these was the Belfast photographer, William A. Green (1870-1958), and his photographic interests are broadly similar to Jane W. Shackleton. A lesser known, but highly skilled Quaker photographer was Robert L. Chapman (1891-1965).

    Jane Wigham Shackleton was the daughter of Joshua and Mary Edmundson. Joshua Edmundson (1805-48) had established a firm in the 1830s at 35 and 36 Capel Street, Dublin, called Joshua Edmundson & Co. that was described as ‘house furnishers, iron mongers, cabinet makers, upholsterers, plumbers, gas fitters, brass & iron founders, gas, lighthouse and sanitary engineers, electricians’. In March 1866 Jane married Joseph Fisher Shackleton, of the famous Shackleton family whose Irish roots were established in Ballitore, Co. Kildare in the early 18th century.

    Joseph Shackleton’s father George decided to expand the Ballitore milling business by establishing an office at 35 St. James’ Street in Dublin and acquiring three mills in the Lucan area of County Dublin. The Dublin mills were at Grange and Lyons (on the 12th and 13th locks of the Grand Canal) and Anna Liffey on the River Liffey. Joseph Shackleton managed the three mills, and he and Jane established their home beside the mill at Anna Liffey. The Anna Liffey Mill produced the famous Lily of the Valley flour, as well as semolina, ground rice and wheat, and worked until 1998.

    The origins of Jane W. Shackleton’s interest in photography are shrouded in mystery. It appears that she first began taking photographs in the mid 1880s, and from the outset processed her own prints from the negatives at Anna Liffey. From about 1889 Jane W. Shackleton began producing lantern slides from her photographs. At this time Jane W. Shackleton occasionally found herself giving lectures to various groups, and illustrated these with her own lantern slides. As well as the lantern slides, several volumes of her lecture notes also survive. Generally these give little insight into her developing interest in photography, but it does appear that she did not see herself as an accomplished photographer. While it may be true that she did not have great technical skills, Mrs Shackleton’s photographs display a very intelligent choice of subject matter and composition.

    It appears that Jane W. Shackleton first began taking photographs of her six children, extended family members and friends in the mid 1880s. Soon Jane W. Shackleton began to include subjects of local interest around Lucan, and the family connections with Ballitore and Mountmellick are also reflected around this time. As the children grew older, family excursions became more numerous and more adventurous. In 1888 Jane W. Shackleton and her husband spent three weeks in Norway, where they took an interest in an 18ft boat built on the Hardanger Fjord. Sometime later this boat arrived at Anna Liffey, and in 1889 the family took this boat by rail to Carrick-on-Shannon from where they spent ten days travelling down the River Shannon to Killaloe. Over the coming years the family made regular trips along the Shannon, as well as the Grand Canal.

    In 1892 Jane W. Shacketon was elected a member of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, and she regularly participated in the Society’s trips around the country. This presented Jane W. Shackleton with even greater opportunities to visit many more places around the country.

    The west of Ireland, and in particular the Aran Islands, was a favourite subject of many photographers at this time. Many of Jane W. Shackleton’s contemporaries tended to focus on either people or places, in particular the rich archaeological remains of that part of the country. However, more than most photographers of the time, Jane W. Shackleton tended to encourage local people to be part of her photographs. Some photographers, such as Robert Welch, frequently included young children who were carefully placed and often in side profile. Jane W. Shackleton included much larger groups of people of all ages. While these people are always placed in the photograph, Jane W. Shackleton does not appear to have contrived their positioning, resulting in more natural looking portraits than was usually the case at this time.

    Jane W. Shackleton first visited the largest of these islands, Inis Mór during a five day trip in August and September 1891, and she returned to the island in July 1892. Apart from these personal trips to Aran, she also visited the islands on shorter occasions as part of the archaeological excursions organised by the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland in July 1895, June 1897, July 1901 and June 1904. She last visited Inis Mór in April 1906.

    During her visits to Inis Mór, Mrs Shackleton regularly photographed the children attending the various schools on the island, such as at Onaght and Killeany. In particular she seems to have developed a relationship with David O’Callaghan, the teacher at Oatquarter since 1885. He became actively involved in trying to improve the lives of the islanders, and unlike many of his colleagues elsewhere in the country, he passionately believed in the importance of the Irish language and teaching in the Irish language also. This is reflected in what appears to have been Jane W. Shackleton’s first encounter with the teacher when she arrived in a cruise ship Caloric that anchored off Kilmurvey in July 5th 1895. Jane W. Shackleton was one of a large party of members of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland that had visited several islands along the west coast before arriving off the Aran shoreline. According to her subsequent lecture notes:

    “Soon canoes [curragh’s] came off from the shore. From one of them a respectably dressed man came on board; he was the school master from Oatquarter, one of the villages. He had brought his children to show them the steamer. He inquired gravely “Is the Society going to make investigation of the oldest monument of all” – “What may that be?” he was asked. The Irish language was the reply. He went on to suggest that perhaps some of the learned gentlemen would give an address to the islanders in their native tongue! He sang some songs in Irish, as also did some of the island men & they danced some jigs for the amusement of the company”.

    She noted that the schools were given a holiday in honour of the Society’s visit - primarily because if they had not been given a holiday they would have taken it. In April 1906 she visited the school at Oatquarter and arranged with David O’Callaghan to photograph the school children. In a letter to her family she describes the girls singing some Irish songs for them:

    “Then came the photographing – a troublesome job as it was very windy. First the boys - & then the girls. They all look hearty & healthy – very clean and well dressed, mostly in white and red flannel”.

    Mrs Shackleton took an active interest in many of the people that she met. During a visit in July 1895 she met and photographed Bridget Mullins;

    “The people were so glad to be photographed & were very obliging in bringing out a spinning wheel as I had expressed a wish to see one. The spinner was so grateful for the photographs I sent her that she sent me shortly after a pair of stockings that she had knit for me from wool of her own spinning”.

    At one point in her lecture notes Jane W. Shackleton commented that:

    “There is no difficulty in finding guides – even if you do not want them – they will keep by you for half a day for the pleasure of your society”.

    In particular she was fond of a young boy named Michael Dillane who seems to have been a frequent companion and she felt that in time he would make an excellent guide for visitors to the island.

    These were not the only islands visited and photographed by Jane W. Shackleton. In 1894 she personally visited Iniskea, Co. Mayo and Inishmurray, Co. Sligo. In July 1895 she revisited Inishmurray and also stopped off at Tory Island, Co. Donegal and Clare Island, Co. Mayo, as part of a cruise around the northern and western coast of Ireland organised by the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. The Society organised a number of similar cruises at this time in the hope of bringing public attention to some of Ireland’s most extraordinary and inaccessible archaeological monuments.

    When the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland visited Inishmurray in July 1895 the island’s King, Waters, was on the mainland, so instead they were received by Heraughty. Jane W. Shackleton was already acquainted with Heraughty, having visited Inishmurray the previous year. She later wrote:

    “Heraghty received us on landing & was most kind in showing us all he could in the time. He met me as I went ashore from the Caloric’s boat with a hearty welcome - inquiring for the others who had been with me before ... he ought to be Righ or King as his father before him - but his mother married again & his step brother Waters now seems to be the leading man on the island”.

    In fact, the island was repopulated in the early 1800s, and it was decided to instate the title of King of Inishmurray in keeping with the long standing traditions of other western islands such as Tory and Iniskea. However, the title on Inishmurray was largely nominal and came with little of the authority that the so-called kings of other islands enjoyed. Jane W. Shackleton wrote that Heraughty took the group to see the holy well known as:

    “Tober-na-coragh, meaning the Well of assistance. The legend attaching to it is that when there are storms of long duration preventing communication with the mainland if the waters of this well are drained off into the Atlantic and certain prayers offered, a calm will ensue. Surely this may be considered a relic of paganism, and yet our friend Heraghty spoke of it in all seriousness.”

    Heraghty’s daughter seems to have been keen to leave the island and visit the Shackleton’s home at Anna Liffey;

    “She was very anxious to see a little of the world outside her island home and entreated me to ask her Dada if he would let her go by train to pay a visit to us, but I put it off to some future occasion.”

    During the early 1900s Jane W. Shackleton was still visiting many parts of the country and actively taking photographs. However, in 1906 her mother, Mary Edmundson died, and her husband Joseph suffered from a stroke. This seems to have brought a sudden end to her photography. Joseph died in April 1908, and on 5th April 1909 Jane W. Shackleton herself died. The Shackleton family continued to operate the mill at Anna Liffey for many years to come, but for many decades the photographs were forgotten. Today the collection consists of over 1000 lantern slides and several thousand prints contained in 44 albums. Unfortunately, the original negatives of these photographs are almost entirely lost – only 58 negatives survive, all of which are glass plates. Despite this, the collection of photographs is a substantial one by any standards and because Jane W. Shackleton was so astute at recognising the importance of a subject, a very large proportion of the photographs are of tremendous historical value.

    For more about Jane Shackleton's photographs see Jane W. Shackleton's Ireland



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