The Perfect Irish Colleen

She was gorgeous in red, was Main Kelly. At fourteen she was described by her image capturer as ‘…the perfect Irish colleen.’

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Normally I would not cite one of the world’s richest men, in any era, as one of my heroes, but an Alsatian jew has become that. Albert Kahn, born in 1860, was a young man when he moved to Paris after the Germans took over the Alsace, France’s punishment for losing the Franco-Prussian War. Starting off as a lowly banking clerk, he worked his way up the finance ladder, largely because of his willingness to take audacious risks with his hard-earned; this being mostly to do with South African diamonds. But there was more to the man than lust for dough. He gave back. He was an art lover – mates with Rodin. He was also prepared to put his riches into philanthropic interests. In 1893 he acquired a large parcel of land in Boulagne-Billancourt, on the outskirts of Paris, using it to landscape magnificent gardens where he attempted to create harmony between the plants of different biomes. He entertained the greats of his era there, from royalty down. He maintained a special interest in all matters Japanese, intent on further opening up that then exotic nation to Western trade and ideas; whilst taking a few of their notions as well.

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Kahn first became fascinated with photography through his chauffeur, Alfred Dutertre, whom he paid to train in it. On a trip to Japan he observed his minion gaining expertise and was captivated. When the Autochrome process, invented by the Lumière brothers, came along in 1903, giving the world quality colour images, he started to formulate another audacious plan. He would use it, together with the brothers’ other great contribution in cinematography, to create another take on harmony. Why not use both to record the differing cultures of the world for the purposes of education to create greater understanding, particularly as Kahn feared many ways if life would soon disappear in his modern world? That would be something worthwhile to finance, would it not? He would canvas the entire planet, between 1909 and 1931, sending out his representatives to the four corners. At the end he managed to amass 72,000 Autochrome plates and 183,000 metres of moving film. It remains a one off – a truly remarkable record of human activity during early last century; the pictures all in stunning, even by today’s standards, colour.

For a very long time the archive languished in storage, but in 1986 came a systematic ordering of it and it is now on display, for one and all to view, in a new museum, established in the grounds of his famous gardens.

Australia in Colour’ was showing on SBS when I came across ‘Edwardians in Colour’ while meandering around YouTube. Thinking it would be similar, I clicked on it and was taken into the world of Kahn, discovering, in the first episode, Miss Kelly as well, or to give her her moniker in the old language, Main Ne Tuathail. I doubt that there’s the remotest possibility the two ever met, but he certainly would have espied the glorious Autochrome plate of her. The woman who bought them together was remarkable in herself – and remarkable for her time. She was Marguerite Mespoulet – the only photographer of her gender Kahn employed on his mission to to harmonise and create understanding across the cultures. Kahn was right about her subject’s lifestyle – Main’s was almost gone.

Mespoulet had been an early recipient of the banker’s travelling scholarship, taking the opportunity to also visit the Land of the Rising Sun. She received a portion of his generosity due to her brilliance as a student at the Sorbonne. Her discipline? Celtic Studies. Once she mastered the Autochrome process, she was a cinch to be employed as a travelling photographer, despite her sex. The Ireland of 1913 would be her destination. She was intrigued to find whatever traces of the ancient ways that still lingered there.

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When MM and her travelling companion, Madeline Mignon, arrived in the spring the place was in dire straits under British rule. It suffered from economic depression, outbreaks of disease such as typhus and a rising republican movement that would soon explode into the Easter Rebellion. Plus, for the camera-lugger and her pal, the weather was appalling.

But the lady was made of tough stuff. Contemporaries describe her as of ‘… strong of presence and personality.’ She soon picked up on a whisper that here remained in Galway a small village, the Claddagh; a collection of a couple of hundred small thatched cottages, in disrepair, on the outskirts of the county’s major town. Mespoulet wrote in her travel journal that the place reminded her of villages in that other Celtic outlier, Brittany. Claddagh’s citizenry lived in filth, scratching a living from the sea. The husbands went out in boats, the women did everything else and were the mainstays of the community. Ringworm was rife in the children. But under grey skies Marguerite M enticed some photographs from the populace, using bribery and cunning to convince them to sit still long enough for the process to take effect. The images currently enchant our generation and will those in the future. Without doubt the standout one is of Main, bedecked in her red cloak, the signature clothing item of her fast disappearing way of existence.

Already the Galway City Council was starting to provide these people with better housing, complete with running water rather than their traditional well, but having little notion how this would destabilise community. It did make for a healthier populace, but soon the language started to die on the ground and the red cloaks evaporated.

The two MMs spent three weeks in the Claddagh with the people as they went about their lives. They then moved on, leaving Main and their other subjects to their futures. A descendant in the documentary describes Main, fully grown, as a happy woman who bought joy to all around her.

When her photographer and partner returned to France they bought with them just a relatively small number of plates compared to other Kahn operatives, but what treasures they were. Included in their number was a rare photographic record of the use of coracles, also about to be replaced by more manoeuvrable craft. Then there was the memorable image of a fringe weaver. Her art was soon to go as well. In her journal MM described how this gaunt woman struggled to make ends meet whilst raising her seven children. We don’t know we’re alive.

FT5S Mother of seven making fringes for knitted shawelscoracles

But what of Mespoulet and Kahn? Soon after her Irish expedition the former moved to North America and embarked on an academic career as a professor of French literature. She returned to France frequently and lived to the ripe old age of 85.

The Great Depression, sadly, ruined Kahn. He ceased funding his passion in 1931 and died penniless. But what a legacy! And you can meet him, Mespoulet and Main by clicking onto YouTube’s ‘Edwardians in Colour’, Episode 1. She was/is beautiful, Main. Her like will never be seen again in Western Europe and she is very much worth a look for all lovers of stunning images from the past. Just mesmerising.

‘Edwardians in Colour’, Episode One = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpijOSSlZCI

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