Tami Aftab travels to Ireland to retrace the memories of her late grandmother, Ethna

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Accompanied by her mother, aunt and cousin, the family create charming scenes of theatre and dance, imagining and interpreting their grandmother’s life and journey.

When Tami Aftab travelled to Ballinamore, in Ireland, she yearned to see the place she only recognised through her grandmother’s stories. The photographer was there with her mother, aunt, and cousin, to picture the childhood of her grandmother Ethna, who left the country at 15 for Dublin, and never returned. When the family arrived, the trees, fields, river and lake that Ethna had so vividly described were still there. But the house, like the town life, was much changed since Ethna lived there in the 1930s.

The Children of the Wildflower, the resulting photography project, is something of a reenactment of memories never lived. The scenes are based on stories Ethna passed onto her family: dances with friends, walks around the open fields, the view from the window into a giant lake. “It was like a multi-generational recreation of grandma,” says Aftab. Every family member had something to contribute to the puzzle, whether by validating a narrative or adding new elements. 

But memory lapses and distorts the past. We remember some events, forget others; most of us carry around memories that never happened. Aftab’s pictures don’t shy away from this ambiguity: rather than pretending to unearth the full history of Ethna, the women bring fragments of it to life through play and representation. “It feels like a place that doesn’t really exist, because in a lot of ways it doesn’t,” the photographer says. One picture, of three women rolling down a grassy hill, emphasises the blur between time, fact and fantasy. It refers to an old Irish custom which consisted in disguising young boys as girls to protect them from fairies, who were thought to steal boys only. All children wore the same smocks to school, Ethna recalled, so they would roll down the hill to figure out who was a boy and who was a girl.

Through the project Aftab learned about the more difficult chapters in her grandmother’s life. Having moved to Dublin in the early 40s to seek work, when she was 19, Ethna became pregnant outside of marriage and took the ferry to Liverpool, where she gave birth in a convent. In England, Ethna met her husband and moved to London, but grew distant from her family whom she was unable to visit, especially her mother who suffered from psychotic episodes. “There’s a picture of my cousin Jessy with her arm by a pole,” Aftab explains, “and that story has a darker meaning. It comes from when my great grandma would tie herself to a tree because she was overwhelmed with mania.”

Aftab had thought of posing alone in the pictures to reflect her grandmother’s solitary journey, but changed her mind when she realised what a close-knit family Ethna had created. “Being by myself wouldn’t be accurate to what she actually brought on us,” she says. Aftab likes to quote from The Lonely Girl, Ethna’s favourite book: “Even if I do leave you, I will have passed on to you something of myself; you will be a different person because of knowing me; it’s inescapable…”



The Children of the Wildflower is made in partnership with WeTransfer.

Clara Hernanz Lizarraga

Clara Hernanz Lizarraga is a freelance journalist currently living in London. Her words have appeared in The Guardian, the Financial Times, VICE and Dazed magazine, among other publications.