It's 6.30 on a wet October evening and I'm at the launch party for Jane Shackleton's Ireland, a book of photographs compiled by archaelogist and photographer Chris Corlett from a private collection of Mary Shackleton and Johnathan Shackleton and published by Colllins Press (www.collinspress.ie/ .) The book features photos taken by Jane, who married into the famous explorer family, as she took her camera with her on the road in Lucan where they lived and with her around Ireland to the family flour mills and to the Aran Islands. The book is compiled from one of the largest collections (over 4,000) of early photos by a female photographer- from the late 1880s.
The launch opens with the playing of uilleann pipes and a fiddle in one corner of the gentile yet somewhat down-at-heel surroundings of the Royal Society of Antiquaries on Merrion Square. A warm feeling comes from the crowd that gathers in the room of bare floorboards, Persian rugs and bookcase laden walls. Present are members of the Shackleton family, grand-sons and grand-daughters; Tom Condit, the editor of Archaelogy Ireland; Con Collins of Collins Press, the publishers of this lovely book and a speaker on behalf of the Royal Society of Antiquaries.
The thing that's so pleasing about so many of these photographs is the way Jane Shackleton captured a casual pose and a slight smirk in the eye of her subjects- so unlike the stiff posed studio photographs that we are familiar with of this period (late 1880s-early 1900s) and the more casual clothing, if there was such a thing at the time, not the Sunday best worn for the studio. Photographs of early Lucan where the family lived, with its unpaved mud road, is unrecognisable and a photograph of freezing conditions in 1900 provided her with the oportunity to record skating on the ice at Luttrellstown.
It truly is a priceless collection, a record of the architecture of the time, mills since demolished and early industrial scenes of turf loading on barges, brick kilns and canal boats. The god-forsaken barrenness that emanates off the page in her photographs of Inis Mor emphasise the hardness of the life and the terrain- bare rock everywhere, but later photographs of the young male tour guides availed by Jane Shackleton show a hint of mischief in their eyes. One of the final photos shows a group of members of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland at Staigue Fort in Co. Kerry in 1847. A handsome group of men and women, they stand together proudly exuding an air of quiet confidence in their persons.
A touching letter from 1890 reproduced at the books close tells how Fred Carr, an Englishman who would go on to marry Jane Shackleton's daughter Mary, was at first uneasy on his visit to the wilds of Kerry but soon felt the hospitalityof the locals. A year of potato blight, he stresses the hardness of the life and the resilience and hard working of the people along with tales of their oppression. He blamed the Unionist voter, an unusual comment in that time for an Englishman; "Do we in England fully realise the status of these peasants, who, amid toil and oppression, live from hand to mouth on the verge of chronic starvation?" The answer of course was no.
Jane Shackleton can truly be described as 'intrepid'. Chris Corlett told those present how Jane gave lectures and wrote about where she had visited and that from his reading he knows Jane thought her photographs "inferior being home-made." The truth is that they are 'superior' by their human touch
An emotional journey for the family members present and for Johnathan Shackleton in particular, a great-grandson of Jane who spoke to the gathered crowd, we all left into the damp evening feeling privileged to have been a part of the launch of what will surely become recognised as an important contribution to Irish history.