The Great Blasket Island
I have never been to the Blasket Islands! Although I hope to very soon. Isn’t it queer that I have lived here for a quarter of a century and yet I had never even driven around Slea Head until last year, when an old school friend Ann visited me? I was so pleased with the journey that I made it again soon afterwards when my sister Susan came to stay! On that occasion we stopped for lunch in Dingle and I bought “Peig”. I knew, from various friends, that Peig Sayers, a famous story-teller from the Great Blasket Island, was compulsory reading, in Irish, for generations of school girls here.
Reading Peig’s book (translated into English I hasten to add) “An Old Woman’s Reflections”, which she dictated to her son, Micheál Guiheen (Sayers being her maiden name), gave me an appetite for more knowledge of the Blasket Islanders. According to the census records of 1901 and 1911, Peig, or “Margaret Guiheen” as you’ll find her, could both read and write, but this seems not to have been the case. From what I gather, a few of the islanders (and bear in mind that Peig came from Dunquin on the mainland and married into the island), learnt a little English during brief periods when there was a school on the island. Their own language though had been passed down orally, with their stories and poems. None could read or write in Irish. This is hardly surprising when you consider how under British rule, for several centuries, the language and religion were banned, discouraged and sent underground. The miracle is it survived at all! As “The Tailor” (Tim Buckley from Kilgarvan) observes in Eric Cross’ “The Tailor and Ansty” (a book which was banned when it was first published!) “All the schooling was in English. There wasn’t a syllable of Irish. It was against the law, and you would be beat if you used it. But the people had the Irish, and good Irish too, and they spoke it amongst themselves. Now the world has changed round, and you are paid to learn it and few people have it! It’s a queer state of affairs.” It has been observed by academics who are knowledgeable in these matters, that the Irish language that was spoken on The Blasket Islands, during the 19th and early 20th century, was a “pure” form of the language; unadulterated by foreign influences. It was for this reason that these academic gentlemen first went to the Great Blasket Island.
The first of these esteemed gentlemen was playwright (Edmund) John Millington Synge, best known for “Playboy of the Western World” (which caused riots when it was first performed in Dublin!) Synge didn’t receive a very warm welcome from the Islanders when he arrived in 1905. Memories of Bailiffs and Land Agents (attempting) to land on the Islands to extract rent and rates from the impoverished islanders were too recent in their minds. There is an account in Tomás Ó Crohan’s “The islandman” from his childhood, when a steamship was sighted, moored outside the island. It had put out a large boat full of uniformed officers with guns. These armed soldiers would have ‘sacked’ the houses of the islanders had they succeeded in coming ashore. They hadn’t reckoned on the women of the island though, who stood above the strand, on the cliffs and pelted them with rocks! The children gathered more ‘ammunition’ and the women continued to rain stones upon them until one had his head split open and they retreated back to their boat and rowed back to the safety of their steamship! In those days the islanders were supposed to pay £2 per cow in rates to the (Earl of Cork) which would be about £8 for the whole island; it may as well have been eight hundred pounds! Tomás Ó Crohan was born in 1856 and he was a boy when he observed the above event, so I am supposing it to have taken place in the 1870’s; just thirty years or so before Synge’s visit, so not surprising then that they were still very fearful of strangers!
The next of these academic gentlemen to dock was a Norwegian called Carl Marstrander in 1907. They called him “The Viking” (‘An Lochlannach’). Marstrander was interested in Celtic languages and visited Scotland and the Isle of Man as well as all the islands. He was already fluent in ‘Old Irish’ when he arrived on the Great Blasket. A Pole-vault champion from Norway, he succeeded in astonishing Tomás Ó Crohan by vaulting over his house using the oar of a naomhóg* for a pole! Marstrander, so the story goes, “worked and laboured on both sea and land” from the first day he arrived. Later he took up a position teaching Old Irish in the School of Celtic Studies in Dublin. One of his first students, a scholar named Robin Flower from the British Museum came to read Old Irish and was advised by his professor to visit the Blasket Islands. He arrived in 1910 and immediately struck up a rapport with Tomás Ó Crohan, who was chosen by the ‘King’ of the Ireland, (An Rí), Pádraig Ó Catháin, to help Flower learn ‘Modern Irish’. The whole island had great affection for Robin Flower and called him “An Bláithín” (meaning Little Flower).
Tomás Ó Crohan, with the help of visitors to the island, like Robin Flower, as well as his relations living on the mainland, learnt to read and write in his own native language.
One of these visitors was the son of a businessman from Killarney called Brian Kelly (Brian Ó Ceallaigh), who eventually persuaded a sceptical and reluctant Tomás Ó Crohan to write down his recollections. Kelly read him Pierre Loti’s “Pescheur d’Islande (an account of a Canadian fisherman) and stories by Maxim Gorky “My Childhood” about Russian peasants, which eventually persuaded him to put pen to paper. Tomás Ó Crohan began writing about his life, as a sort of diary, which he sent, almost daily, to Kelly in Killarney. These precious papers were subsequently sent to Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha “An Seabhac”. These were eventually published as “Allagar na hInse” (Island Cross Talk). Although they were written first, they were published after “An tOileánach” (The Islandman) – generally regarded as the greatest literary work to have come from these poetry-speaking islanders, and considered a classic.
After Reading Peig, I was sent Muiris Ó Súilleabháin’s (Maurice O’Sullivan) Fiche Bliain ag fás (Twenty Years A-Growing**) by same sister, Susan (she had bought it at Kerry Airport after leaving me). Twas then I really fell in love with the Islanders! Maurice O’Sullivan was a beautiful writer: truthful and candid in his intelligent observations. His mother died when he was an infant and there being no-one in his home yet old enough to look after a baby, he was put into an orphanage in Dingle (part of the poorhouse). When he was about seven years old his father brought him back home. At that time he hadn’t a word of Irish, but he wasn’t long picking it up! When he first clapped eyes on the naomhóg, below the cliff he thought it was a giant beetle “twice as big as a cow” and as it was being carried by two or three men underneath it, as was the custom, one can easily see why!
The houses that they islanders lived in were tiny, (about 102ft) and built huddled together like a flock of sheep huddles to avoid bad weather. Originally the roof was made of rushes but later they copied the canvas and tar of the naomhóg and these were anchored with ropes and rocks holding them down and keeping them from being blown off during the many storms. The kitchen had an open fireplace and perhaps a few súgán chairs (woven straw) and maybe a settle that could be turned into a bed. Below the kitchen, another room for sleeping was formed by placing a dresser between the two apartments. The floor was just a dirt floor and the women went down to the beach for sand twice a day to keep it dry. By night the animals were brought inside. All the cooking was done on the open fire, and bread would have likely been made in a bastible (a large iron pan on legs with a heavy lid upon which you put red-hot sods of turf). Their diet was very simple. It consisted of whatever could be caught. They snared rabbits, which were very plentiful, hunted for puffins, scaled the cliff face for gulls eggs, caught thrushes nesting in the stone walls by night and of course fished. Sometimes they went off to another of the Blasket islands and found seals in caves. A typical meal would be a plate of potatoes, some salted fish and some milk over it. To drink they had skimmed milk, until the arrival of Tea.
In this way, people have lived since Neolithic times.
How sad that their number fell into decline. The young people emigrated to America. The fishing came to an end when huge French trawlers fished off the islands, depriving the islanders of their livelihood. Eventually, the handful of islanders remaining, were almost starving when the government finally evacuated the island in 1953. Very quickly the wind and rain tore the roofs off most of the houses and the stone walls began to crumble. Most houses now look as though they have been unlived in for centuries. In recent years one or two have been restored and visitors can now go and see them as they once were.
Looking back at historical documents, such as baptism, marriage and census records, the signs were there to see. In the early 1800s there were more than forty different surnames associated with the Great Blasket Island. By the early 20th century fewer than a dozen names survived on the island.
It is impossible (for me anyway) to read Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, Tomás Ó Críomhthain, Peig Sayers or Michael Carney (Michéal Cearnaigh)’s “From the Great Blasket to America” (subtitled The Last Memoir by and Islander) without weeping. I have a genuine love for these people and the deepest admiration for them.
I would love to have the mental capacity to learn Irish and read these books, and a lot more besides that haven’t been translated into English at all! But I find it impossible to learn from books and most the CDs are Ulster Irish with is so very different from the beautiful, soft Munster dialect spoken in Kerry along its west coast. What a pity I wasn’t born a hundred years ago and could have gone, like Robin Flower and George Thompson, to live on the island, where only Irish was spoken! Perhaps then even I might have picked it up!
Do have a look at this website:
And if you ever find yourself in Dingle, drive on a little further to Dunquin (Dún Chaoin) and visit the Blasket Exhibition Centre. There, watch the short documentary, take your time to stroll through the exhibition, and if you have time, and the weather and tide are with you, take the Blasket Island Ferry over to the Great Blasket Island, as I will, myself, very shortly, God willing! Booking is advisable, and the telephone number is 066 9156422 or from outside Ireland 00 353 66 9156422
*Naomhóg (sometimes called a curragh and pronounced ‘knave OhG” (hard G) is described by Maurice O’Sullivan as “A canoe of wicker covered with canvas and tarred”
**The title comes from an old Irish saying that Maurice learned from his grandfather: “I dare say a man grows weak when he reaches you age, daddo?” “Oh, musha, he does, my heart. Did you never hear how the life of a man is divided?
Twenty years a-growing (Fiche bliain ag fás)
Twenty years in blossom Fiche bliain faoi bhláth
Twenty years a-stooping (Fiche bliain ag cromadh)
And twenty years declining (Agus fiche bliain ag meath)
Maurice O’Sullivan’s friend, George Thompson, who translated Maurice’s book into English, and wrote the preface, also wrote a brief postscript in 1951. He tells us that his dear friend, from whom he learnt to speak Irish, drowned while swimming in Galway in 1950, leaving a widow, a son and a daughter.
One cannot help thinking back to the words of “Mirrisheen”s Grandfather, “Daddo”:-
“Musha, my heart, a man of the sea never had a good life and never will, as I know well, having spent my days on it, and I have gone through as many perils on it as there are grey hairs in my head, and I am telling you now, wherever God may guide you, keep away from the sea”