It’s easy to fall in love with The Blasket islands. Looking up at the craggy cliffs and over the massive swells of Atlantic Ocean that wash around these islands off the coast of County Kerry.
What initially strikes you about the place was the people, or at least the idea of what the people who lived on this land must have been like. Imagine the tenacity, the sheer stubbornness, of those who could create a life, make a livelihood, out of this beautiful, rocky, treacherous landscape.
The Blasket Islands, or as they are known in Irish Na Blascaodaí, lie around 6 km beyond the most westerly tip of the Dingle Peninsula (Leithinis an Daingin) in County Kerry.
The most Westerly lands in Europe are a unique group of islands
off the coast of Kerry know as “The Blaskets”. The name “Blasket” is a mystery
and nobody knows how or why the group of Islands came to be known as “The
Blaskets”. One suggestion is that it originates from the Norse word “brasker”
which means “a dangerous place.”
Although now uninhabited, the Blasket Islands were once home to
a thriving community, cut off from the rest of Ireland by the two miles of sea
forming the Blasket Sound.
The largest of the islands, The Great Blasket or An Blascaod Mór, was finally abandoned in 1953 when the last twenty two people living on the island were moved to the mainland. The island's population, which once boasted one hundred and seventy five residents, had steadily declined through emigration.
All supplies had to be carried by boat, and in the days when the only means of transport was a canvas covered curragh or naomhóg, the islanders were sometimes marooned for weeks at a time, especially in the stormy winter months.
It is no doubt that the Blasket Islanders led a life strewn with hardship, danger, isolation, and sacrifice. It was a constant battle for life on what was little more than a wind swept rock. These hardy people eked a life through fishing supplemented with a ridge of potatoes, a patch of oats and (if lucky enough) a cow
All families kept a few grazing sheep on the steep hills of the island, which was considered commonage, and during the summer months turf was cut and dried in preparation of the harsh winter.
As a Gaelic-speaking community, away from the influence of the rest of the country, the islands had gained a reputation for refinement of language that attracted scholars to their shores in the summer months. No other island community of this size has yielded such a literary wealth, producing world renowned writers.
In the early years of the 20th century, visitors, such as Carl Marstrander, George Thompson, Brian O'Kelly and Robin Flower, persuaded a few of the islanders to write their autobiographies as a record of island life.
The first to do so was Tomás Ó Criomhtháin in 1929, followed in 1936 by Péig Sayers. Péig dictated her book to her son Mícheál, to whom she dictated her story because, although she had spoken Irish all her life, she had only been taught to read and write in the English language.
Ó Criomhtháin's book, The Islandman (An tOileánach), and Péig's autobiography, (Péig, A Scéal Féin), became classics of Irish literature. Muirís Ó Súilleabháin, who later left the island to join the Gardaí, was persuaded by George Thompson to write his life story, entitled Twenty Years A-Growing (Fiche Bliain ag Fás). This became a best-seller, translated into several different languages.
Other islanders followed suit: Tomás's son Seán Ó Criomhtháin wrote A Day in Our Life (Lá dar Saol); his wife Eibhlís wrote a volume of letters entitled Letters from the Great Blasket, while Péig's son Mícheál Ó Guithín, was the author of A Pity Youth Does Not Last. These, together with books and papers by the visiting scholars, give a fascinating insight into the experiences, joys and sorrows of an island community whose way of life has now disappeared for ever.
Numbers dwindled over the years as emigration took its toll, but the final decision to evacuate the island came when the turf supply (the only source of fuel on the island) became scarce, and the last remaining islanders left the Great Blasket in 1953.
Aided by Government grants, the last inhabitants of the island were re-settled on the mainland, mostly in the parish of Dunquin. From their new home, the islanders could still look across the stormy Blasket Sound towards the little islands that held so many memories for them.
About 9.30 on a Tuesday morning in 1953, Dingle Harbour was placid and the fishing boat St Lawrence O’Toole left the pier and proceeded towards the Great Blasket. Weather conditions looked ideal except for a troubled sea which broke into white foam against the Blasket group and the headlands.
When approaching Inis More on the Blasket Mór, Mr Michael Brosnan, skipper of the boat new the seas where becoming rougher. The Atlantic, which dominates the lives of the Blasket Island people, asserted its supremacy on that Tuesday, the day appointed by the Irish Land Commission to have this community of twenty-two people and their furniture transferred over the Sound to four newly-built cottages at Dunquin with three acres of arable land attached.
When the islanders saw the fishing boat coming close they put out a canoe or naomhóg and came alongside the fishing boat and informed those on board that it was dangerous to land. Mr Dan O’Brien of the Irish Land Commission asked that he be taken into the canoe and his request was granted. Mr O’Brien reached the little landing slip under most dangerous conditions and obtained the signatures of those who will occupy the new houses at Dunquin. The names of the families were, Dunleavy, O’Sullivan, Guiheen and Keane.
The naomhóg made three trips to the island and brought John J Kearney, John Maurice Keane, John Guiheen, John O’Sullivan, Pat Mitchell and John P Kearney to the fishing boat. They were unable to bring any furniture beyond a chair and two boxes. The fishing boat remained cruising about for a few hours but was forced at last to give up the project and return to Dingle.
Mr D O’Brien on his return said that he would not forget his experience for some time. Landing was difficult and dangerous but leaving the slip was much worse. “The islanders were all ready to depart,” he continued. “All household furniture was packed. They realised that there was no future for them on the Blasket. They signed the necessary forms. They can return to the island in good weather to look after their sheep.”
Mr John Goulding, also of the Irish Land Commission who, with Mr O’Brien, had charge of arrangements, said the four cottages at Dunquin were very comfortable. Everything had been made ready for their occupation. The fires were actually lighting but the elements had their say in the matter.
Two post office engineers, Messrs Denis Clifford and Michael Quirke, were on board the fishing boat and intended to land on the island to recover the radio telephone equipment which has been installed since 1941 and the Blaskets’ only means of communication. They were unable to accomplish their task. The carrying of this cumbersome apparatus in a canoe to the fishing boat was deemed impossible under such conditions.
The Blasket Island post office was closed on Monday. John J Kearney, postmaster, remarked that the older people saw this day approaching. “There are fifteen people left behind until the weather improves,” he said. The number includes three old women who are well over seventy years – Mrs Mary Guiheen, Mrs Cath Keane and Mrs Joan Sullivan.
John P Kearney, the Blasket Island postman, said that his services were no longer required. For many years he crossed the Sound to and from the island to Dunquin. He was getting no house or land but would stay for the present with his sister, Mrs Hanna O’Sullivan, in Dingle.
Mrs Hanna O’Sullivan, who was also on board to greet her island relatives, said that she left the island fifteen years ago and would not live there again. The younger people were not prepared to live under the same conditions as their predecessors.
As the Blasket Mór faded into the mist, you could recall Tomás Ó Críomhthain’s An tOileánach and similar classics in Irish like Peg Sayers’ life story and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin’s Fiche Bliain Ag Fás. These books were written when the Blasket was more populous. According to the census of 1901, there were 22 families comprising one hundred and thirty-two people living in the hollow of the Great Blasket.
Dr Robin Flower, ‘An Blaithín’ as he was affectionately called by the islanders, wrote extensively about this fine old Gaelic stock. In fulfilment of his dying wish his ashes were strewn on Crough More, the peak of An Blascaod Mór.
The film ‘Islandman’ is an Irish-made feature with a love interest and was made on the Great Blasket some years ago. It has splendid photography, a really excellent céilidhe with sets, step-dances, songs in Irish and English, an island regatta and the many aspects of Blasket life.
The cast included players from Dingle theatres, Eileen Curran of Cork and Brian O’Sullivan, who had a leading part in the Killarney-made ‘Dawn,’ as well as the islanders themselves. The story was written by Donal O’Cahill.
The Great Blasket remains uninhabited today but the island is open to visitors. Explore this historic island on foot along its steep grassy paths and hilly tracks. Discover the pre-historic remains and extraordinary bird life as well as the large colony of seals who have made The Great Blasket their home. You can even camp the night on this wild and romantic island. Visit the Blasket Islands centre in Dún Chaoin for an insight into the islands.