The Blasket Islands


By Tobin Bennison

“One day there will be none left in the Blaskets of all I have mentioned in this book — and none to remember them. I am thankful to God, who has given me the chance to preserve from forgetfulness those days, that I have seen with my own eyes and have borne their burden, and that when I am gone men will know what life was like in my time and my neighbours that lived with me.”

So wrote Tomás Ó Criomhthain in “An t-Oileánach” (translated into English from the Irish as “The Islandman”), the 1929 chronicle of his world’s slow decline.

That world, which spun around Great Blasket, the largest of the six islands that make up the Blasket Islands, lay just 2 km. to the west of mainland Ireland’s County Kerry. But to any European visitor at the time it must have seemed as alien as Bombay.

A small community of native Irish speakers once lived there in primitive, thatched stone homes, subsisting mainly on fishing and whaling. The number of Blasketers peaked at 176 during WWII, but their culture would have disappeared much earlier were it not for the efforts of scholars devoted to preserving their stories and way of life.

Upon “The Islandman’s” publishing, Ó Criomhthain became the first and most famous of a small group of writers whose stories were on the cusp of vanishing forever. Linguists, historians, and cultural anthropologists riding the late wave of Ireland’s Gaelic Revival, which began in the 1840s, came to the Blaskets to collect the stories of others, resulting in a compact blossoming of literature the like of which the world had never seen.

Subsequent visits by Celticists resulted in the translation of Maurice O’Sullivan’s lyrical “Twenty Years A-Growing” in 1933 and Peig Sayers’s bleak memoir “Peig” three years later.

Despite burgeoning interest in the Blaskets, however, things looked grim for its inhabitants then. In 1947, they were cut off from the mainland by an extended spell of dangerous weather, and the islanders appealed to then Taioseach Éamon de Valera for emergency supplies, which arrived an agonizing two days later.

The event saw the departure of many Blasketers to the mainland in subsequent years, and those who remained — now working with diminished manpower and a depleted fishery — found it difficult to make ends meet.

In 1952, the Irish government announced that it could no longer guarantee the safety of the populace, and by the end of 1953, the last of the Blasketers had been evacuated.

Since then, the islands have seen visits from morbid curiosity seekers in search of romantic ghosts and from nationalists who find the last vestiges of an older, truer Ireland forever sealed in amber.

For many years, as part of the country’s reinvention, Sayers’s “Peig” was required reading for all secondary-school students, but its popularity waned in the ’90s with the rise of Ireland’s “Celtic Tiger” economy, whose prime movers viewed it as too backward to merit inclusion in their vision of modernity and European acceptance. It says a lot about how far — or how short — Ireland has come since then that it once again enjoys a prominent place in school curriculum.

Tourists usually flock to the Aran Islands to the north, west of Galway, perhaps because they offer a more picturesque image of a perceived “authentic” Ireland — one rife with whitewashed cottages adorned with flower boxes, trundling horse traps, and quaint, open-air folk museums.

For a visitor more in touch with the tragic vein that seems to run fatedly through Ireland’s history, the green, eerie Blaskets provide valuable perspective — a dismal reminder of what can be lost, irretrievably, in the pursuit of progress.

Ferries still operate to the islands from the Dingle peninsula, and the Irish government is in the process of making the Blaskets part of a sprawling national park and heritage site, but their fate rests, once again, in the hands of a fickle, charm-loving public.

Ireland is full of pretty ruins and crumbling testaments to its past, but none are more evocative of of the country’s intangible spirit than the sad, fallen gray walls of the abandoned cottages on Great Blasket.

Through them, the mists twist and the wind echoes the thoughts of all the Blasketers who once found voice through Sayers, O’Sullivan, and most eloquently, Ó Criomhthain, whose final, prophetic words remain both timeless and pan-cultural:

“I have written minutely of much that we did, for it was my wish that somewhere there should be a memorial of it all, and 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.”

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