The Great Blasket and Its Literature

      Looking across Blasket Sound, awaiting the ferry from the slip at Dunquin, I had expected Europe’s former westernmost settlement to appear as little more than a speck on the distant horizon. But it was unmistakable: a hulking mass of green so close I can discern the tattered remains of its once-thriving village.

     The Great Blasket Island, An Blascaod Mór (On Blascayed Moore), is the largest in a group of seven islands off the tip of the famed Dingle Peninsula in southwest Ireland. It lies only 3 miles west of the mainland, but it may as well be 3,000. This seemingly short yet unpredictable stretch of water was once a chasm that separated modern-day Ireland from its medieval roots.

     Now 50 years after the Great Blasket’s November 1953 evacuation, its legacy is not just that Europeans once considered it the end of the earth but that its secluded inhabitants cultivated a rich oral tradition that spawned some of the greatest Irish literature of the 20th century.

     “There have been other isolated communities in remote places, of course, each capable of inspiring horror at the hardships and longing for the simplicity of such a life,” writes author Cole Moreton in his book “Hungry for Home: A Journey from the Edge of Ireland.” “The people of the Great Blasket had something special about them, however. They lived on an island of stories.”

     The islanders were among the last surviving communities that spoke only Irish, a microcosm of medieval Ireland that persisted despite its proximity to the mainland. They lived for years in relative isolation on the rocky outcropping, only about 4 miles long and less than a mile across at its widest point, existing primarily on the meager 60 acres of farmable land, the few cows and sheep they raised, and the bounties of the ocean.

     In the early 20th century, Irish scholars were drawn to the island to study its primitive inhabitants and their authentic use of the Irish language. Among them were Irish playwright John Millington Synge, who wrote “The Playboy of the Western World,” Norwegian Carl Mastrander, an Irish scholar and linguist, and Mastrander’s student Robin Flower, who wrote “The Western Island.”

     Throughout their visits, the scholars befriended many islanders and discovered not only a treasure trove of authentic Irish language but also a community of people gifted in the art of storytelling. Many were encouraged to begin writing down their stories in their native tongue, contributing to a collection of approximately 40 books about island life, including “The Islandman (1929)” by Tomas O’Crohan, “Twenty Years A-Growing (1933)” by Maurice O’Sullivan and “Peig: The Autobiography of Peig Sayers of the Great Blasket Island (1936).”

      As we advance by ferry across the Sound, I think of Peig as she first made this journey as a young newlywed in 1892, having married an islander and begun a new life away from the Peninsula she’d called home since birth.

     “Isn’t this a queer place?” she recounts asking a villager in “Peig” after her arrival. “How is it that cows don’t fall over the edge of the cliff? Is the Island all as high as this? I’m shivering in my skin with dread when I look down on the blue sea running right underneath me and then when I look up see a hilltop between me and the sky.”

     We get closer to the island, and the village Peig first set eyes on more than a century ago comes into focus, now a dilapidated collection of stone cottages burrowed into the northeast face of the island, the most protected slope on Great Blasket’s largely uninhabitable terrain. Toward the north end of the village are a handful of restored cottages that include Peig’s former home, which house a seasonal café and hostel accommodations, their color a searing-white contrast to the drab gray of their neglected counterparts. Stone walls demarcate plots of land—a Mondrian canvas of squares and rectangles—and not a single tree interrupts the exposed landscape.

     Our six-person group lands on the island by Zodiac, the rocky cove too treacherous to negotiate by ferry. As I climb up the primitive slip toward the sloping village, I envision the cove below as it was in the islanders’ day, bobbing with a row of canoes called naomhóga (nay-voga; singular naomhóg), their only source of contact with the mainland until the 1930s, when a radio-telephone was installed to make contact with the post office at Dunquin.

     We hike upward toward the sloping village, the crumbling houses mere shells of their former glory without roofs, windows or doors to protect against the elements. Sheep still graze the land on which the islanders carved out their survival, and brown rabbits flit through the grassy hillsides. Three donkeys approach us, one so furry she’s like a wooly mammoth in miniature, and are clearly accustomed to visitors. They soon dismiss us and return to grazing, disappointed we’ve no treats.

    We continue walking northbound until we see The White Strand below the rocky precipice of the island’s northeastern edge. To islanders this was An Trá Bán (On Traw Bawn), a white strip of sand where they once played in the surf and gathered cargo that washed ashore from countless shipwrecks, now occupied solely by a herd of seals. As we look north, we can easily make out the profile of the Sleeping Giant that comprises Inis Tuaisceart (Inish Tooshkert) or “north island.”

    Although life for islanders was difficult, particularly during harsh winter months when islanders had virtually no contact with the mainland, days like these—clear blue skies and the ocean’s 40 shades of blue to match Ireland’s legendary shades of green—must’ve been the ones that kept them here.

     There was no priest, doctor or police, no shops from which to buy food. They had only one leader, the King, a respected islander who settled disputes and acted as Great Blasket spokesperson. Without electricity, islanders gathered turf for fuel from the highest reaches of the island, the “hill,” burned seal oil for light and depended fervently on one another for survival.

     “It was a community that had to rely on its own resources and skills in order to survive,” says Micheal de Mordha, director of The Blasket Centre in Dunquin. “The people were hardy, adapting their skills according to the season. Whether fishing, farming or hunting, it was an ongoing relentless struggle for survival. However, it is obvious from reading the literature that the islanders were proud of and loved their island home.”

     Historians believe the islands’ earliest inhabitants date back some 3,000 years. Spanish documents confirm the Great Blasket was inhabited toward the end of the 16th century, and around 1800, there was an influx of families due to population growth and evictions on the mainland. The Great Blasket was a safe haven to escape persecution on the mainland because, as Moreton writes:

     “The island was difficult to get to but easy to defend against land agents, whose attempts to collect rent were repelled by throwing stones from the cliff above the landing slip.”

     At the time of the first census in 1821, 128 people lived on the island, reaching as high as 160 in 1911. But by 1947, the population dwindled to 53 as young islanders sought better fortune on the mainland and in America, among other factors. On November 17, 1953, the government evacuated the island and relocated the 22 remaining islanders on the mainland at Dunquin. 

     There is little left of their rugged island life except this crumpled, overgrown village and the words that live on in their books.

     “…I have done my best to set down the character of the people about me so that some record of us might live after us, for the like of us will never be again,” writes O’Crohan, a famous line in the final chapter of “The Islander.”

     Such records, de Mordha says, have played a crucial role in preserving Irish culture.

    “The community of The Great Blasket has gone,” he says. “But this library of books still holds a deeply significant place in the literary culture of Ireland and its language.”

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