Gerard Dillon & the Aran Islands
Gerard Dillon (1916-1971) wrote this letter to his friend Madge Connolly in London, in 1944. Sent from Dillon's home on Clonard Street in west Belfast, the letter was written in two sittings, before and after his visit to the Aran Islands. Although Dillon grew up in an urban setting, he was attracted to life in rural Ireland - the western counties in particular - and he travelled often in search of subject matter for his paintings. He seems to have relished island life above all and on returning from the Aran Islands he told Madge his trip was, ‘a change away from the world completely and absolute peace […] a very natural and almost primitive life’.
Dillon's letter to Madge is illustrated with eleven drawings, scattered throughout its eight pages. Each drawing complements Dillon's descriptions of life on the island and its landscape. His observations on aspects of social life are accompanied by a sketch of a group of young men relaxing at a pier, another shows a ‘funeral on Inishmore’. He notes the rocky landscape and shows its influence on the construction of closely built houses and winding roads. A drawing of a man riding a donkey accompanies his comment that ‘they are always riding about on donkeys’. These quick sketches and short notes give a sense of the culture and environment that Dillon experienced on the island.
Landscape & People
Dillon was captivated by the dramatic landscape of the the Aran Islands, ‘the islands are desolate – all rock – small very small fields all stone walls – and has terrific grey cliffs facing the outer Atlantic – 300ft high with mountainous waves thundering over them’, he wrote. However, he was aware of the hardships associated with island life and recounts a story of witnessing men swimming cows from the beach towards boats to bring them to market. One of the curraghs capsised, but the man hung onto two oars to stay afloat. ‘These men live in the sea [and] by the sea yet they cannot swim’, he wrote. ‘My god it was the most glorious holiday I’ve ever had’, Dillon concluded.
Ciara O'Brien, ESB CSIA Assistant Archivist
Published online: 2022