This Dali-esque postcard has all the components of sepia-toned Ireland: geansied tow-headed child mulish-looking astride wicker-basketed donkey; overturned paint-bepeeled boat; distant thatched-cottage walls and roofs; long-skirted, black-shawled old biddy accessorised with spinning wheel and hen. Just a collection of stereotypes then?
And not to pleasant effect. Doesn’t it get more scary, the longer you look at it? That stick the old biddy is brandishing is quite threatening. And why is her face completely obscured by a shawl?
But then you see that the hair coming out of the shawl at the back isn’t white, but what looks to be a colour between dark and fair; mid-brown, maybe copper or auburn. And the face within the shawl becomes visible; solemn, dark-eyebrowed and young. And the photograph changes again from frankly sinister, to something much more gentle. And maybe, in a different light and a different mood, back to sinister, or even comic, again.
The Irish legends had their stories, like a Rorschach test come to life, of crones who turned into beautiful young women. All you had to do was be a presentable young gentleman, and be nice to them; a helping hand, a kiss or, if so inclined, maybe even something more, in which case great rewards ensued, usually proportionate to the extent of the service provided. If you could find the right crone to service, that is; like girls and frogs, an ambitious man probably had to be prepared to kiss an awful lot of ugly old women in order to find the one who would turn him into a prince.
This photo reminds me of those stories. The little boy on the donkey looks like he’s wondering if it’s worth it.
The most famous example of the ‘Loathly Lady’ trope in the Irish sagas is that of Niall of the Nine Hostages, who, when asked for a kiss by an aged wrinkly thing in the woods, elected not to stop at kissing. He was rewarded not only with the High Kingship, but with more descendants than even an Irishman could reasonably expect; most of the North-West is descended from him; not surprising, given his, ahem, generosity of spirit.