Absence-of-light entertainment - Frank McNally on Irish words for dusk, the Celtic Twilight, and the original Monsieur Silhouette

A trick of the light

In her recent book Into the Dark: What Darkness Is and Why it Matters, Jacqueline Yallop describes the rise in medieval Europe of what we might now call light pollution.

Fearful of the subversive power of nightfall, civic authorities required households to hang out lamps, asked people venturing outdoors to carry torches, and demanded that those doing business sign contracts before the sun went down, “darkness being the realm of the untrustworthy”.

But Yallop also notes a more complex, and positive, relationship with the dark in some cultures and languages, including Irish, which almost wallows in the fall of night via such poetic intermediary stages as idirsholas (“between light”) and amhdhorchacht, which has been translated as “raw, uncooked darkness”.

Of course, leaving Yallop aside a moment, twilight was a crucial concept in Anglo-Irish literature, thanks especially to WB Yeats.


His best material – excuse the pun – included “The blue and the dim and the dark cloths/Of night and light and the half light”.

Yes, the Celtic Twilight referred not so much to an Irish light condition as a presumed mental one. The Oxford English Dictionary defined it as “the romantic and mysterious atmosphere that many people associate with Irish people and their literature, including their belief in fairies”.

But the Belfast writer Robert Lynd, who inhaled Yeats deeply, thought that the actual twilight of dusk was the best time to appreciate the landscape here.

“There is one thing which gives a unity – a personality, as it were to Ireland,” he wrote. “It is the glory of light which comes towards evening and rests on every field and on every hill like a strange tide. Everywhere in Ireland, north, south, east, and west, the evening air is, as a fine living poet has perceived, a shimmer as of diamonds.”

Even James Joyce, who took a dim view of Yeats’s version, was not above enjoying the poetic gloom of evening. “The twilight turns from amethyst/,” he wrote in the poem of that title, “To deep and deeper blue,/The lamp fills with a pale green glow/The trees of the avenue.”

Then there is the quintessential ballad – or one of them – of Joyce’s novels, Love’s Old Sweet Song, the chorus of which begins: “Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low,/And the flick’ring shadows softly come and go”.

But back to Yallop’s book, and to a lovely word I used here as recently as yesterday in connection with a trip to darkest Meath on Christmas Day.

Despite its obvious origins in France, it had somehow escaped until she mentioned it that “silhouette” is a Gallic eponym, like guillotine, bigot, and chauvinism, but by a more circular route.

The original, elegantly named Étienne de Silhouette (1709–1767) was a finance minister to Louis XV, in which role he became obliged to curb France’s sprawling fiscal deficit, worsened by the Seven Years War with Britain (1754-1763).

The resultant austerity drive made him synonymous with penny-pinching so that anything cheap was soon said to be done “à la silhouette”.

By some accounts, including Yallop’s, he also spent his spare time making cut-out shapes in black paper, a revival of a form of art that went back to bronze outlines of deities in ancient Rome and, long before that, to cave art.

In any case, these blacked-out portraits became fashionable during Silhouette’s lifetime. And since they were the cheapest form of portraiture, they too came to be named after him.

Silhouettes are a more definitive version of shadows, which Yallop quotes a French scientist poetically calling “holes in the light”. And there were different ways of making them, some cheaper than others.

A Swiss clergyman Johann Lavatar went as far as inventing a silhouette chair, which held the subject’s head steady while a shadow of it was projected onto a sheet of white paper and traced.

Some portraitists made a lucrative career out of the form, notably the Frenchman Auguste Edouart, whose work encompassed full-length and group silhouettes and who, during one three-year residency in Edinburgh alone, produced 5,000 likenesses.

Perhaps ironically, despite – or because of – having the word “art” in his surname, he did not become a synonym or eponym for this line of work.

But the eponymous Monsieur Silhouette himself may be the subject of a bigger irony. No portraits of him, even outlined black ones, survive. There were a few oil paintings, apparently, but they were all destroyed in the French Revolution.