It is a truth much to be regretted but the world is becoming universally the same. This global trend towards bland, awful sameness was underscored for me a few weeks ago whilst sitting in a pub in Inishmaan, one of the Aran islands that lie in Galway Bay. In my company was a Japanese photojournalist called Matchko Kawanda whom I'd come to know because we were staying in the same B & B.
It was Matchko who'd persuaded me to visit the pub. She was on a mission to gather photographs - a mission she was always on. Matchko's audacity was astonishing. After photographing the landlord she simply ducked behind the counter and began photographing the pub's clientele who were lined up at the bar. "Please - show me." she kept asking. "Show you what?" one of the imbibers asked suggestively. However, they took Matchko's antics in good part, - whatever magazine she worked for was unlikely ever to reach Dublin let alone Inishmaan.
Possibly Matchko used a whole roll of film on the exercise. Seventy years ago it would have been worth the expense (though seventy years there probably wasn't a pub on the island) for the islanders then were as distinctive in their dress and way of life as the Lapps beyond the arctic circle - but today in the island pub there was hardly a man who wasn't wearing jeans and those that were wearing head gear were wearing baseball hats. I doubt if men sitting in a bar in Tokyo were dressed much differently - and if there are bars in Lappland I've little doubt they dress the same way there as well.
Matchko snapped away all day at seemingly any activity she saw using six rolls of film a day. What was it she saw as being so unique? What I saw as being unique - the actually physical nature of the island itself - she had little interest in. I urged Matchko to walk to the southern end of the island where there was a great piazza of limestone bedrock a hundred feet above the sea, which the sea was gradually undercutting and trapping itself inside a chain of caves thus causing great sheets of water to suddenly shoot above the line of the cliff and then just as suddenly to drop down again. The sea there was a maelstrom of activity. But she had no interest - she was interested in people she insisted.
So while Matchko was snapping at people I went wandering the southern half of the island, not just to view the spectacular seascape but to explore the island's fantastical field. This pattern covered the whole of the island but in the south it was empty of houses - far from the sight of them even; empty of roads and empty at that time of year also of animals. I wandered in a great void amidst walls, and walls and yet more walls. An islander told me that it had been calculated that there were three thousand miles of walls on the island enclosing fields usually no bigger than a suburban garden, and often these enclosures were as rocky as the walls enclosing them. For me at least this part of the island was still unique. Here there was nothing that eradicated or altered the workings of the past. Each wall bore a history; each field was part of some man's struggle.
Only once did I find myself in the same place as Matchko and that was on the Sunday when I decided to go to mass. Again Matchko was there with her camera. This time though I thought the pictures she took were worth the taking: the island's more elderly men were gathered sitting on a small stone wall opposite the church waiting for the priest to arrive. They didn't wear jeans or baseball hats but cloth caps and old worn suits - the standard masculine garb that was worn all over rural Ireland twenty or thirty years ago. This wasn't a vestige of past island life, it was a vestige of past Irish life. Then a knot of elderly women arrived and they wore rather colourful headscarfs and sturdy skirts. This was most definitely a form of dress unique to the island - at least I had never noticed it on the mainland.
The most unusual sight that morning, however, Matchko missed, for it materialised after she had ensconced herself in the church: the priest arrived in a golf buggy. On an island only three miles by two individual transportational needs are adequately met with a golf buggy. In fact I thought they were adequately met just using a bicycle. I got great pleasure in cycling the island's five to ten miles of surfaced lanes, especially in the evening and I wondered why I saw no others doing it. Maybe it was because the island's topography caused there to be a few sharp inclines on these lanes. Though these inclines were of no great length they seem to have been enough to have caused the islanders to favour mopeds over bicycles. Man it seems always puts a high value on avoiding physical effort.
The most distinctive social aspect of Inishmaan was impossible to photograph; besides which I doubt whether Matchko was thoroughly aware of it - the islanders spoke Irish. I never heard a single islander speak to another islander but in Irish. The children in the playground only conversed in Irish. There are many parts of Ireland demarcated by the government as being a Gaeltacht - an Irish speaking area - but in truth in most of these areas you won't hear a word of Irish spoken, and where you do hear Irish spoken you hear as much, if not more, English spoken as well - but on Inishmaan English was only used to communicate with strangers. On Inishmaan for the first time in all my years of wandering in Ireland I met an Irish man who could only speak Irish - that at least is what he professed, and certainly in the brief conversation I had with him he never used a word of English. Leaving aside babes and toddlers, I doubt if there are more than a hundred such monolinguists in Ireland today. In another score years there will probably be none.
When I bade Matchko farewell she was on her way to the neighbouring island of Inisheer. She departed promising to send me a copy of the article she would have published - I have a Japanese friend who will be able to translate it for me. Hopefully it will explain why she took so many shots of activities I deemed to be fairly ordinary, such as the shot she took of me making a cheese and tomato sandwich outdoors on the garden table of the house where we stayed - and I wasn't even an islander.