Irelands Blasket Islands

By:JILL WORRALL

Search County Kerry



Stand on Slea Head at the tip of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula and look out to sea... if you can. Often the sea mist rolls in so thick it is hard to even see the dry stone wall that snakes along the hill contours just a few metres in front of you....

But on a clear day the view is dominated by a cluster of islands that sits like a rather ragtag armada, only a few kilometres from the County Kerry mainland.

These are the Blasket Islands, Na Blascaodai in Irish, seven in all, along with a scattering of rock stacks and islets, the latter so low-lying that during Atlantic storms they can be completely submerged.

The largest island is Great Blasket. It rises steeply from the sea, an undulating hilly island with one small curve of bright, white sand. To its north is a long, lower island, known as the Dead Man. And in profile it does look very much like a man asleep peacefully on his back, afloat in the sea.  There are ancient ruins on this island and on the Inishvickillane, the island further to the west, in fact this is considered to be the most westerly point of Ireland.

But, it is only on Great Blasket on the slope above the beach that there was ever any sizeable human settlement on the islands.  At its peak in 1841, 153 people lived here but by 1953 there were fewer than 30, most of them elderly or the very young.

In the same year, the Irish government decided that it could no longer guarantee the safety of the remaining population and ordered their resettlement in a new village on the mainland, within view of their island home.

PRECARIOUS LIFELINE 

Today, visitors can make the journey in reverse, descending the steep, walled path that leads to the small pier at Dunquin on the mainland that was once part of the islands' precarious lifeline to the rest of Ireland.  The path down to the small rocky cover has high walls, built by the islanders to enable only a few people to easily load and unload flocks of sheep.

Even on a warm, summer's day and in a rare limpid still sea it's easy to see why life became impossible to sustain on islands only a few kilometres from the mainland. Strong currents rip through the channel separating the two and especially on Great Blasket the landing is a tiny slipway in little more than a cleft in the rock.  It takes great skill to land here even in calm conditions;  on  a more characteristically wet and windy day, it's impossible to land passengers.

And when the weather is bleak and the wind is howling, it is not difficult to understand why so many islanders said goodbye to their home for good. A notable proportion of those who left didn`t just settle for life on mainland Ireland- Springfield, Massachusetts, became a centre for ex Blasket Islanders.

My first visit to Great Blasket was on a cloudless, hot day. The beaches of Kerry were full of sunbathers; yachts and runabouts were moored off the sands on the island and children were swimming in a turquoise sea. If the surrounding hills had not been so green it could have been mistaken for a scene in the Mediterranean.

We arrived by Zodiac, the small passenger boats unable to get into the narrow rocky inlet. A steep path led up to the scattered remains of the village. With the exception of the school, almost all the buildings had been private homes. The island had no doctor, and even more remarkably, this being Ireland, there was neither priest nor pub. 

In the evenings people would gather in one of the larger cottages for the Dail or assembly, to share news, discuss problems and, most of all, tell stories. On fine evenings they would dance on the hill above the village.

PUREST LANGUAGE

All of this was conducted in Irish (Gaelic). Because of its isolation, the Irish spoken here was some of the purest in Ireland. It was studied at length by outsiders in the early 20th century and the islanders were encouraged to write down their stories of island life.

The result was an outpouring of literary works, some of course more memorable than others, with three books still in publication today, translated from their original Irish into English and several other languages besides. They remain poignant reminders of an island lifestyle lost forever.

The most famous of these books was Peig, Peig Sayers's autobiography. Ironically, this became such a revered Irish language book it was made a set text in schools and thus, according to Irish friends of mine, became reviled by several generations of Irish students because it was compulsory to read it.

Bed and Breakfast Kerry

The islanders subsisted on grazing sheep and house cows, with the very small amount of arable land used to grow oats and rye.  They also grew potatoes, so the Irish potato famine took its toll here too, although because of the availability of livestock and fish, not to the same devastating effect as it did in the rest of Ireland.

Rabbits were plentiful, as were seabirds: the islanders ate puffins, gannets and petrels and preferred roast seal meat to pork. Once introduced to commercial crayfish and lobster fishing, they became adept at catching these but weren't keen on the taste, or on that of salmon either; the latter was sometimes used as lobster pot bait.

Before a chest of tea washed up on the island, most meals were accompanied simply by water from the village well, or possibly with a bowl of sour milk. There was little alcohol on the island.

Islanders cut turf (peat) for fuels from the island hillsides. Male donkeys were used to carry the peat home. There were no female donkeys on the islands because it was believed that when the females were in season, there was a real chance the animals would end up chasing each other over the cliffs to their deaths. 

Traditionally, the island cottages were built facing north or south with the hearth ends built into the hillsides for extra protection. It was important that the kitchen space gave "room enough to dance or wake a corpse". Although there might be a few stoneflags in the kitchen, most of the cottages had earth floors, the damp reduced by spreading sand across them  up to twice a day.


BACKBREAKING TOIL

The descriptions of day to day life are imbued with a sense of backbreaking toil that was needed to survive here and the spectre of the ever-present perils of the sea that regularly claimed island men fishing to feed their families.  Isolation meant unimaginable efforts when someone on the island was sick, for example. After a sea crossing there was a 20-kilometre walk to the nearest doctor (and a mere 8km to the closest priest).

A walk around the cottages on a summer's day is to be drawn into the romance of island life: convivial nights sharing stories with members of a tight-knit community; long warm evenings fishing, sounds of singing and dancing coming from the cottages.

We walked around a track high on the island's flanks, the hills of Kerry shimmering in the distance, the rugged cliffs of Inishvickillane, owned by former Irish president Charles Haughey to the south. 

The hills were splashed with magenta heather, a solitary black-faced sheep bleated mournfully from a hillock among the peat. Storm petrels from the Dead Man swooped high overhead. I hankered for an island childhood; of barefoot clambers around rock pools, running wild on the hills; nights in cottages fragrant with turf fires.

But on my second visit the mist followed us ashore and the island became damp, the views to the mainland and the other islands, even of the sea itself, were lost in the curtain of grey.  The fog closed us off, shut us away from the rest of the world, and pressed on us claustrophobically.

Then I could appreciate why many islanders, the young ones especially, began to dream, not just of mainland Ireland a few kilometres away but the continent that lay beyond the fog, far to the west across the Atlantic. 

And today there is no-one left and just a few weeks ago one of only seven remaining native Blasket Islanders died. Mike Sheian Tom O Cearna was 94; he'd campaigned to have the government resettle the remaining villagers during the late 1940s after his brother died of meningitis and stormy seas prevented a doctor from coming to his aid.

Mike O Cearna wanted a better life for the remaining islanders but right up to his death he'd also campaigned for the heritage of their island life be treasured forever. And every visitor who steps gingerly ashore on the slippery, seaweedy rocks of Great Blasket soon understands why.


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