Changing Times Of The Great Blasket
By:Bill MCstay

Search County Kerry

Changing times of the great blasket islands, lying in the Atlantic Ocean some three miles from Dunquin, on the coast of County Kerry.

Lying in the Atlantic Ocean some three miles from Dunquin, (Dun Caoin) on the coast of County Kerry, are the windswept uninhabited Blasket Islands. a group of seven of which the Great Blasket (An Blascaod Mór) is the largest. About five miles long and less than one broad. The Island was home to about one hundred and fifty souls until its final evacuation in 1953.

Entirely Irish-speaking in the early twentieth century the small population had few of the resources common to mainland Ireland. There were no shops, roads, phones or electricity and no doctor or priest. There was a one teacher a school and twenty- eight dwelling houses. The way of life centring round fishing, hunting and cultivation of crops for home consumption, had remained unchanged for centuries.

Shortly after 1900 with usage Of Irish shrinking fast throughout Ireland, the Great Blanket with its pure Irish speech and its close-knit community became a magnet for scholars and writers. First of those in 1905 was JM Synge, friend of the poet WB Yeats and lady Gregory of the Abbey Theatre, who would go onto create his masterpiece called The Playboy of the Western Word.

Five years later, 28 year-old Robin Flower, an Assistant Keeper in London’s British Museum, would fall in love with the Island and its people, and would return again and again until old age. Affectionately known on the Island as Blaithin (Little Flower), he would recognise the talent of the islander Tómas 0 Criomhthain - a small lively man with an intelligent expression.

With the encouragement of Flower and a School inspector called Brian 0 Ceallaigh, Tomãs would begin to write! and would later bring out a book called An toileanach (The lslandman), which would bewitch generations of readers.

Perhaps the most devoted of all Blasket visitors was George Thompson a native Londoner and son of Ulster parents. Whilst still a student, George became fascinated by Ireland and all things Irish, going so far as to Join a branch of the Gaelic League, become proficient in Irish and began signing himself as Seoirse MacTomais.

Encouraged by Robin Flower, he visited the Great Blasket in August 1923 when aged eighteen. There he met Maurice O`Sullivan, with whom he would form a lasting friendship.

Popular with the islanders for his fluent Irish and friendly manner, George would return to the island year after year and would cherish into old age memories of island life, like the thunder of the surf on its coastal cliffs, the fishermen’s canvas curraghs, called naomhogs, and the nights of story- telling, singing and dancing in houses, like that of Peig Sayers, later to find fame herself as an author and be hailed as the queen of Gaelic storytellers.

With Thompson’s encouragement, Maurice joined the recently formed Garde Siochána, rather than follow the Blasket trend of emigrating to America. As a Guard aged twenty-three, he was appointed to a police station In the Galway Gaeltacht. Though he complained after a couple of years to George about finding his job boring, George urged him to persevere but also to keep on writing, citing the sensational reception there had been for Tomas 0 Criomhthain’s “The lslandman”.

In 1931 George Thompson, Honours graduate of Cambridge, was appointed Lecturer in Classics in University College Galway, having easily met the requirement to conduct some lectures in Irish. Here he was able to meet often with his friend Maurice a few miles away. “Twenty Years a Growing” was published to a rapturous reception in 1933, hailed as yet another classic about an isolated self sufficient community on the verge of great change.

It was, said critic Sean O Faolain, though set only three miles from its mainland, located in time about five hundred years ago.

In this of all years, a Blasket resident had remarked in 1933, never was the island so full of visitors, attracted by the literary talents of an isolated community such as Peig Sayers “An old Woman’s Reflections” and Micheal O’Guitheens “A Pity Youth Does not Last”.

The island’s flow of visitors declined after the outbreak of the European war in 1939 and it became virtually sealed off from the outside world. Its future looked bleak. There was no employment, fishing was affected by world conditions, the Island’s best turf had been cut and burned, marriages had dwindled, and the young were leaving in increasing numbers.

By 1941 the school had only three pupils, and its closure was ordered by the Irish Government. An islander’s tragic illness in 1946, which highlighted the absence of medical facilities, resulted in the community contacting Taolseach Eamon De Valera about their plight. After his visit a decision was taken to resettle the entire population on the mainland.

17 November 1953 was the day of departure. With heavy hearts, the people of Great Blasket, with all their possessions, left their Island for the last time, and were allocated houses in or near Dunquin. And, as time passed, so memories faded! But still there would always be those who, from the mainland cliffs on a clear day, would look across Blasket Sound, and see the familiar outline and well-remembered landmarks of their once-loved home.

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