A long-time fan of plastic cameras, Argentinean writer and photographer Lorraine Healy is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera. In this article, Healy revisits Western Ireland, where her paternal grandparents were born and raised.
My paternal grandparents were both from the West of Ireland. Even though a series of unplanned events landed them in Argentina in the early 1930s, they both held strong ties to the land where they were born, and as a result, their Argentinean children and grandchildren did too. I spent many winters in Ireland (my summer holidays) as a teenager and a young adult, and loved visiting my Grannie’s siblings still living in the old ancestral house in County Roscommon.
After almost 30 years of not going back, I returned in 2013—loaded with film and Holgas. Apart from visiting both my grandparents’ houses and chatting with the few remaining relatives from the old generation, I wanted to see places I had never been able to visit before, like the Aran islands off the coast of Galway and the Dingle Peninsula. In the midst of Irish winters, the Aran Islands were almost cut off for the duration and Dingle was hard to reach if you did not drive. I also wanted to revisit the breathtaking ruins of Clonmacnoise, where I had found myself in 1979 with my Yashica 35 rangefinder…and no film! My 16-year-old self was not a very careful planner. But the powerful spirit of the place got a hold of me then and never let go. Would it be as striking as I remembered it?
Actually, that was a question that I kept asking myself about every place. In the 30 years since I had last been in Ireland my grandparents’ country had experienced an economic revival so spectacular, it had its own name: “The Celtic Tiger.” There had been a veritable explosion of building and development, not all of which had come to fruition. New highways had been built crisscrossing the land every which way. What was it going to be like? My grandfather had returned to Ireland after 30 years and so hated the changes that he never went back. My grandmother thought the changes were wonderful and she proceeded to spend 6 months in the house where she had been born and 6 months in Buenos Aires for years and years.
Mid to late September was the perfect time to go. To the memories of endless rain during my Irish winters, I could now put a succession of dazzling sunny days— at least for part of the day! Light would change from moment to moment, but this time I was prepared, and various Holgas were loaded with Fuji film of different speeds. I even managed to shoot a couple of rolls of Velvia 50 and the results were not too shabby! The tail end of summer also meant fewer people whenever I strayed into more touristy areas, while the ferry service to the Aran islands (which is only available until the beginning of October) ran daily.
And Ireland was different, yes, and as lovely as ever. There was also this: driving a compact rental down the little country paths with stone hedges on both sides and seeing a monster SUV barreling down my way was a recurring nightmare. The Irish cars of my youth had been tiny. The years of prosperity had brought bigger vehicles to the Irish countryside, but nothing could make these tiny roads wider! A piece of advice: If you rent a car and you plan on exploring away from the bigger Irish cities, get the full insurance coverage from the rental company. It is worth every penny because you will scratch that car something awful…
But other than stressful driving, there was nothing I did not love. The Dingle Peninsula, the extreme southwestern edge of Europe where the next parish— as they will tell you— is Boston, is still quite remote. As a result, it remains unspoiled (even if highly visited, in part because it is a hotbed of traditional Irish music), its green hills and mountains densely crowded… with sheep. The same is true for the Arans, where the hardy Gaelic-speaking islanders only have the summer months to cater to the tourist industry that significantly helps them survive and stay on their gale-swept plots of land. So the ferry gets met with an abundance of vans, traditional horse-drawn carriages, and private cars and taxis, all wanting to take you around the wonders of Dun Angus, a Neolithic fort hanging over the Atlantic cliffs, the Seven Churches Road, and back to the charming village of Kilronan for a bit of shopping and a bite to eat before catching the ferry back to the mainland. I could have stayed for a week, a month! But it makes for a magical day trip from Galway City, provided that the weather doesn’t make the 1-hour ferry crossing too choppy for comfort.
Galway Town, so close to my Grandfather’s tiny village that I could have walked, is a fun, vibrant, hard-drinking sort of place. The day I arrived happened to be Arthur’s Day, a day of celebration of the 250-year-old Guinness Brewery, which meant 1 euro plastic glasses of stout and lager on the streets, and loud happy people getting happier and louder into the wee hours. The following week was the start of the famed Galway Races, and after that, the start of the college year. Not exactly the quiet Irish hamlet of some book covers!
And Clonmacnoise? I photographed it to my heart’s content, roll after roll after roll, to make up for that lack of film all those years ago. And I still felt like I was stepping on a strangely powerful site, like I felt at 17. There was a new visitors’ center, an archeological research center, and a dementedly big parking lot, whereas in 1979 you just pulled to a byway on the road, parked and walked on to where the medieval monks had toiled.
Lorraine Healy (@lorrainehealy) is an Argentinean writer and photographer living in the Pacific Northwest. A long-time fan of plastic cameras and she is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera, available as an eBook from Amazon.com.