The Go Between:

Alfred Cort Haddon and a forgotten engagement between Irish Folklore and Anarchist Ethnology.

Ciarán Walsh, Maynooth University in partnership with the Irish Research Council, TCD School of Medicine, and Shanahan Research Centre.

Irish Conference of Folklore and Ethnology | November 17, 2018 | Belfast




This is a short clip – in GIF format– of a minute or so of footage that was shot in the Torres Strait in 1898, three years after the invention of the cine camera. Liz McNiven, writing for the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia’s (NFSA) Australian Screen website, attributes it to Alfred Cort Haddon and explains that it is a  performance the Malu-Bomai ceremony that was performed by men in the eastern Torres Straits.



This is a photograph taken by Clara Patterson. It shows a group of schoolchildren playing “Poor Mary” in the  townland of Ballymiscaw in County Down. The photograph is one of a series that was shown at a meeting of the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club in November 1893. J. R. R. Adams identified the game as “Poor Mary” in  The Linen Hall Review [Vol. 10, No. 3 (Winter, 1993)] and described a variation of it in Ulster  Folklife [Vol 37, 1991].

What is the connection between these images?

If I was to say Pyotr Kropotkin, the Russian geographer and anarchist, it might seem a bit farfetched.  However, there is hard evidence to support a claim that anarchist ideas influenced Clara Patterson’s contribution to the first meetings of organised folklore collection in Ulster. That begs another question. How likely is it that  Clara Patterson had met Kropotkin?


Pyotr Kropotkin (1841-1921), the anarchist prince and Russian exile in London.


Unlikely, but the influence of Kropotkin  can be explained by looking at another connection, that between Haddon and Patterson. The footage of  the Torres Strait islanders establishes Haddon as a pioneer of visual ethnography and illustrates his relentless advocacy of photography as a superior form of ethnographic representation. Clara Patterson’s photograph of “Poor Mary” anticipates Haddon’s  film of the Malu-Bomai ceremony by 5 years.

This is not accidental. Clara Patterson studied zoology and learned fieldcraft under Haddon in Belfast in 1892. She would have been aware of the photographs he had taken in the Torres Strait in 1888 and 1889 and similar photographs of folklife that were taken in the Aran Islands one year later.

Haddon had read Kropotkin in 1890 and adopted Kropotkin’s proposition that the study of social organisation and customary practice proceeds from the simple to the complex. Patterson repeated the proposition in her presentation to the field club in 1893.  Haddon, clearly,  acted as go-between for Patterson and Kropotkin and, as such, between anarchist geography and folklore collection in Ulster.

That is the main claim of  a paper I will be presenting at the Irish Conference of Folklore and Ethnology in Belfast on November 17, 2018. The paper takes as its starting point an entry in Haddon’s “little black book,” a notebook containing the names and addresses of his network of contacts in the 1890s.


Measuring heads in the Aran Islands, Charles R. Browne and Alfred Cort Haddon in action in September, 1892. Photo: Courtesy of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.


Douglas Hyde was listed and the question has to be asked: Why would the person who gave a speech “On the Need for the de-Anglicisation of the Irish Nation” in 1892 be listed among the contacts of an “Anglo-Saxon” who measured the skulls of “Celts” in the Aran Islands, also in 1892? The next question, then, is what has this got to do with Clara Patterson?

That question will be addressed in Belfast, 125 years after Patterson’s long forgotten act of solidarity with the Islanders of the Torres Strait.