island life

Photos: This man's been documenting life on Ireland's Wild Western Islands for over 50 years...

Loading turf, digging potatoes, herding sheep… trying to fit a bewildered cow into a currach — all human life is here…

PHOTOGRAPHER JOHN CARLOS has been photographing life on Ireland’s western islands since 1963.

He ‘caught the bug’ aged 12 when visiting Inish Mór from Galway with his mother — and was allowed use her simple Instamatic to take snaps of daily life.

“It would have been a child’s interest. I found old cameras at home after that and began experimenting with shots of scenery, things like that,” Carlos says.

After a few “wild years” when he left his childhood passion aside, he was encouraged to respond to a job ad in the Connacht Tribune seeking new photographers.

Carlos was with the regional paper for 13 years, later taking up a post at the Sunday Tribune under the editorship of Vincent Browne.

Carlos also worked for the Sunday Times from the mid-90s — all the time making regular trips back west to photograph daily life on islands like Inishbofin, Inishturk, Inishark, the Aran Islands, Clare and Turbot Islands.

Coming & going…

Summer was always a busy time on Iris Oirr, Carlos recalls — as Gaelgoirí from all over the country descended on the island for summer courses.

Transport to and from the tiny island was always a bit of an adventure: the CIE ‘Naomh Éanna’ ferry couldn’t dock at Iris Oirr as the pier hadn’t been completed — so students had to wait on the beach with their suitcases, to be rowed out to the waiting vessel by currach.

And humans weren’t the only cargo… From livestock to motorbikes — pretty much anything could, at a push, be made to fit aboard the traditional fishing craft…


Carlos was dispatched to Turbot, off the Connemara coast in 1978, after the remaining islanders had been told to evacuate their homes.

They were to be rehoused on the mainland, near Clifden. The photographer recalls anger among the locals…

I remember talking to one woman, and there was a sense of ‘well, why didn’t you come before’.

The below photo was taken at the island’s schoolhouse. “The shyness of the kid kind of conveyed where they were going to end up”.

The problem was with islands like that — after they were evacuated the traditions just became non-existent.

As a man I once spoke to said, there was ‘a scatter’ put on them — like a diaspora just spread all over the globe.

Life & Death…

Carlos recalls how he was working for the Connact Tribune in late 1970s when he received an unexpected direct call from then Defence Minister Bobby Molloy.

A resident of Inishbofin had died in hospital on the mainland, and the man’s coffin was to be flown back to the Co Galway island aboard a Defence Forces helicopter.

He recalls the pilots made as many as three trips, as they first picked up the coffin, then the man’s family, so the funeral could be held in Inishbofin Church.

“Whereas the nature of press photography is descriptive, with these pictures I’ve tried to place the camera in the community to act as protagonist,” Carlos says.

The photo below was taken as Carlos happened to be passing a funeral in Kill Éanne Cemetary on Inish Mór in the early 1970s.

Says Carlos, “I had to be careful not to invade the couple’s space. It was more of a spontaneous shot”.


“This is not an attempt to define the islands or the people but rather to preserve a memory of the islanders and their homelands,” Carlos says

“What I wanted to do with these photographs is to celebrate the islanders in their environment.”

The photos are collected in a new book ‘Ireland’s Western Islands’. It’s available from bookshops, and via the publisher’s website at

Read: David Walsh has been to 503 islands off Ireland’s coast. He’s now written a book

Read: Taking advice from the Germans? Greece ready to sell off uninhabited islands

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