Restaurant and Bed & Breakfast
A Brief History: The story of the distinctive M-shaped Man of Aran cottages at Kilmurvey is closely bound up with the larger legend of the making of the famous film by the same name, Man of Aran, by American filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty.
Robert J. Flaherty first visited the Aran Islands late in November 1931. He came over from Galway by steamer with his wife and daughters with the idea of staying just one night. As they got off the steamer they were introduced to Pat Mullen, an islander who had spent many years in America and who, since his return to Inis Mor in 1919, had been supplementing his small income from kelp by driving tourists around the island in a horse and trap. In those days there were only one or two such 'tour guides' to show visitors around.
The Flaherty family, like most visitors to the island at that time, checked in to Mrs. Ganly's guest house in Kilronan. Pat Mullen drove them out to Dun Aengus, explaining the different places of interest along the way and answering the Flahertys' endless questions about the islanders' way of life. Frances Flaherty, Robert J's wife, had a camera and took picture after picture. The Flahertys' one night's stay turned into two and then three as the they became increasingly fascinated by the island. By the time they left on the fourth day Flaherty had made up his mind that, without doubt, this had to be the setting for his next documentary. Both the landscapes he saw and the people he met during his brief stay on Inis Mor convinced him that here he would find material to equal if not surpass his most powerful film so far, Nanook of the North.
In January 1932 Flaherty came back to the island, once more with his wife and their three daughters, Barbara, Frances and Monica They moved into a house just west of Kilmurvey beach, near the pier. It was a six-roomed cottage belonging to an Englishwoman, Mrs. Sharman, and would become the Flahertys home for the next two years. Flaherty immediately hired Pat Mullen as his "fixer" and right hand man. Forthright and highly intelligent, Mullen was a good match for Flaherty who had an extremely strong personality. They happened to be the same age, too, both in their late forties. As Mullen himself put it, "Mr. Flaherty was bound to be a leader in any game where he played a hand, and I felt that, should we ever meet in any deal, there were bound to be some clashes, because I never had much use for leaders of men. As things turned out we did have clashes. I have often since thought that there were times when he was right; but to be honest, there have been times when I felt sure he wasn't." Flaherty could not have made his film without Pat Mullen who served as an essential go-between, first in the delicate process of choosing the cast of the film and then in all subsequent stages of the shoot, relaying Flaherty's orders in the endless retakes, especially of the dangerous currach scenes.
Pat Mullen's first task was to have the old sheds on Kilmurvey pier transformed into a film laboratory and darkroom for Flaherty. The pier itself had been built in 1893 by the Congested Districts Board to make life easier for fishermen from the west end of the island. When the fishermen got together to start a cooperative society in 1915 the sheds were built on the pier so that the fishermen could process the mackerel they caught themselves before sending it by road to Kilronan for export.
Flaherty was not one to work on a shoestring or with makeshift props. Once he had his darkroom (he had brought his own petrol engine to generate electricity), he ordered a traditional cottage to be built beside Mrs. Sharman!s house for the interior scenes of his film. This would be the first of the two Man of Aran cottages as we know them today, the one closest to the sea. Here's how Pat Mullen described its creation in the book he wrote about his experiences working with Flaherty on Man of Aran:
"An Irish cottage had to be built for the inside scenes, and Mr. Flaherty left this job to me. This was work I liked, and I took great interest in it. I searched the three most westerly villages of the Island for a gang of picked men, men who I knew were good at handling stone; then I searched through the different villages for a tumbled-down old house that had in it an arch over the fireplace suitable for our cottage. A friend of mine from Gortnagopple village owned one, and like the fine man he is, he tore down the walls of the old house, took out all the stones that formed the arch, put them in his own cart, brought them to where we were building the cottage, and made us a present of them.
The cottage was duly completed, but the irony is that it hardly appears in the finished film. There are a couple of shots of the fireplace and of Maggie Dirrane peering out a window, but it is hard to believe that for those brief seconds Flaherty needed to have a full-scale, very solid cottage built.
The second cottage was added on at the end of the summer of 1932, thus creating the M-shaped building we know today. Flaherty wanted it for extra office space and a projecting room. By this stage he had shot copious amounts of film and, once processed in the fishing sheds (with some difficulty and frustration due to water shortages), he was anxious to view the rushes.
Some time in 1933 the authenticity of the original cottage was questioned. Friends visiting the Flahertys wondered whether, the arched fireplace that Pat Mullen had gone to so much trouble to find and have installed in the cottage when it was being built was really traditional or whether it should not have been a "small fireplace with just a lintel across it and no chimney comers". Pat Mullen felt his authority was being challenged and set out to prove the visitors wrong.
"The old arch, says I, is the right one, no matter what anyone tells you, and to- morrow when we pass through Creggaheran village I will prove it to you - that is if a house that has been standing a for a couple of hundred years is old enough for you. Yes, of course it would be old enough,they said. Next day we were passing through the village and, the driver stopping his old side car, I pointed out to Mr. Flaherty a roofless house built in a little hollow. On its gables tufts of grass and weeds were growing, and when we went inside we saw that the grass had found a foothold even there. The wind moaned dismally through the chimney and the few windowless spaces. It was a picture of desolation and decay, but a most beautiful arch still held over the fireplace, and on a stone wall above it was cut the day and year in which it was built."
Pat Mullen had won his point and the Flaherty party were given a lesson on the spot in the history of the island, its famines, landlords and evictions.
The first of the two cottages to be built, the one with the fireplace, was known as 'the Irish Cottage' and here frequent parties and ceilis were held. Christmas 1932 was an especially memorable time for the local children, and the adults, too. During the day Pat Mullen was sent around in his horse and trap delivering Mr. Flaherty's Santa Claus presents'. Then at night the house was open to all. A Christmas tree stood in the comer, lit up by electric lights. From it hung packages of candy. A swarm of children were grouped around when David Flaherty [R J's brother] dressed up as Santa Claus, came in and began to share out the candy amongst them.'
When the filming was finally over around November 1933, (Flaherty's London producers had to impose an end to the filmmaker's shooting and spending), a great emptiness was felt in the west end of the island even if, for the cast of the film, the excitement continued for some time longer. Promotion for the film took them to London, Dublin and later New York.
The Man o Aran cottages remained the property of the Flaherty family whose next destination was to be India. The house did not stand empty for long, however. In 1934, English-bom artist Elizabeth Rivers arrived on Inis Mor. Then aged 31, she was finding it difficult to settle back into London after three years studying under Andre Lhote in Paris and a friend recommended the Aran Islands for a complete change and source of fresh ideas for her work. Elizabeth Rivers had never been to Ireland before and on her first trip traveled straight from London to Galway without stopping. After one night in Galway she took the steamer on to Inis Mor After a short time in a smaller cottage in Killmurvey, she rented the Man of Aran cottages and lived on the island almost without interruption until 1943.
Elizabeth Rivers - or Betty Rivers, as she was known on the island - was well loved by her neighbours and spent much time sketching them. She also wrote down her first impressions of her new life and new neighbours and this was published, with her own illustrations, by the Cuala Press in Dublin in 1946. It was called Stranger in Aran. Betty Rivers took in paying guests - very often other artists - to finance her stay in Kilmurvey and the tradition established by Flaherty of music and parties in the cottages continued in her time.