Stormbound on the Blasket

Despite its name the Great Blasket is only a small island; essentially it is an undulating ridge three and a half miles long and three quarters of a mile at its broadest which rises steeply out of the sea: the largest of a group of six islands (hence the name ‘Great’) which lie one and a half miles off the westerly point in Ireland. For hundreds of years it was an inhabited island. At its peak, a hundred years ago, the island population numbered nearly three hundred. But then in the first half of the last century emigration – usually to America – became the common practice of anyone growing up in to adulthood on the island. By the late forties the there was barely forty people living on the island. With such few numbers the island way of life was hardly sustainable. When De Valera as Taoiseach made a visit to the island and asked the islanders what he could do for them their answer was simple: help them leave. The island was thus evacuated in 1953.

The islanders, however, left not just their houses to fall in to decay and their fields to become overrun with rabbits: remarkably they also left a literary heritage. All around the coast of Ireland there are islands which were once populated but are now empty. In most cases there is little record of the people that lived on them – not so the the Great Blasket. At the turn of the century the island came to the attention of writers and academics. They were interested in the islanders because were deemed, due to their isolation, to possess one of the purest forms of the Irish language then spoken. They stayed with them, often for long periods, to study their language and in time they did something very exceptional: they encouraged the islanders to write about themselves. This led to the publication of three autobiographies, still in print, both in Irish and English and other languages:’The Islandman’ by Tomás Ó Criomhthain, ‘Twenty Years A Growing’ by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin and ‘Peig’ by Peig Sayers.

It is not much of an exaggeration to say that these island biographies are revered in Ireland almost as much as the works of Synge or Yeats. At any rate it is not that long ago that a map of the island adorn the back of an Irish twenty pound note to honour the contribution it had made to Irish culture. And since those three main works other books on the island have appeared written by other islanders and researchers. To date there have been some thirty books on the island published. Last year there was book published that dealt with with the lives of those islanders that emigrated from the island; ‘Hungry for Home’ by Cole Morton.

The island seizes the imagination – and there is a simple reason for this, or at least I think so: no other island in Ireland looks so inspiring from the mainland or is more enchanting to visit. I’m sure this is also why academics of a hundred years ago were drawn to the place and not solely for linguistic reasons. If I was ever to be confined to one square mile of Ireland I would chose the eastern end of the Great Blasket where the islanders had their dwellings and where the area of land they tilled was sited overlooking a sandy beach of startling beauty. Rising up steeply from behind the village is the first of the island’s three main summits from the top of which is obtained one of the most dramatic views in Ireland: the coastline of west Kerry. In that one square mile of Ireland there is much to gaze on.

Of all the books written about the island none has been devoted to describing what the island is like today almost fifty years after its evacuation. Life still goes on there at least in the summer months though it is a very different from the way of life that existed in the past: to begin with, for every word of Irish spoken on the island today a thousand must be spoken in English. My purpose in this short piece is to described the island’s present day condition by giving some account of a recent stay I had there. It was, to be sure, only a brief stay – six days – a snapshot in time, but nevertheless I think it gives a true picture of what the island is like today.

For four of the six days I was on the island I was storm bound. It is those four days I shall concentrate on for during them I became a member of an island community consisting of just eighteen souls: eight males and ten females. At 53 years of age I was easily the eldest. At least eleven of the group were in their twenties and youngest was only nine months. If it was a decidedly young community it was a very international one as well. Amongst the eighteen of us there were no less than ten nationalities: Irish, English, Welsh, American, Dutch, German, Basque, Finnish and New Zealand.

The group divided evenly between those who were on the island because they had a livelihood connected with the place and those of us who were there to enjoy, I suppose, some degree of remoteness from the wider world. Of those who had an economic link with the island the longest established ‘resident’ was Sue Redican. If I remember correctly when I met Sue on this occasion it was her twentieth summer on the island. ‘Summer’ is actually something of a misnomer in Sue’s case for her stay can last from April to October and even longer. She is a weaver and lives in a small one up one down cottage. The downstairs room of the cottage serves as Sue’s workshop, show room, living room and kitchen – it is consequently a very full room but amazingly well ordered. Sue sells most of her output to the day visitors to the island – which can run in to hundreds – when the island isn’t stormbound.

During the winter months Sue moves to the village of Dunquin on the mainland just three miles away, so even when not on the island she sees it every day. Enjoying a mug of tea and one of Sue’s homemade scones in front of her open fire in the late evening whilst gazing through her open door across the island strand and the wave washed rocky islets beyond I thought it the most congenial house in Ireland, small and cramped though it was.

Only a hundred yards or so from Sue’s house is the last house to be built on the island – built in the thirties when the island was still thought to have a future. It has now become the summer base of the Slattery brothers.

There are four of them but during the stormbound days I was there only two of them were staying in it. The brothers grew up in Dunquin whilst their father sometimes fished and sometimes ferried visitors to the island. The brothers have taken over from their father the business of ferrying people to the island in conjunction with about four other boatmen from Dunquin.

The reason why only two of the brothers were on the island and not four was due to the other two having helped to take the island boats to safer anchorage in Dingle whilst the sea was rough.

Both brothers had consorts and one was planning to work in the island cafe and hostel when things got busier with day visitors. Already there were four people working there: Briggita from Bonn, Cathleen from Rhode Island, Paul a young lad of 17 from Dingle and Seán from Kilkenny. Seán was the eldest of the group and the main person in charge. He had only just come out of the American army having served in Bosnia and until that year had never been to the Great Blasket. He had obtained the position he was now in by responding to an advertisement in a national newspaper.

The hostel and cafe were based in those island houses which were built at the turn of the century by a government agency that had for its title the very inelegant name: The Congested Districts Board. They were quite unlike the traditional houses on the island in that they had two stories and were built of concrete rather than stone. There were five of them: two twin semi-detached houses and one that stood on its own. One of the twin semis served as a cafe and the other as a hostel. The isolated house presently stood empty having only recently been reroofed and renovated. The thinking was that it might become a holiday cottage.

As far as I know all the Congested District Board houses were in a ruinous state until the early seventies when a very rich American called Taylor Collins bought them. Apparently Taylor Collins first became aware of the Great Blasket when he was in Belfast and went to watch a film which had just been released called: ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ – the island frequently provides a dramatic background in the film. He saw the celluloid version and had to see the reality. He travelled; landed; investigated and like all fabled Americans sought to buy.

In order to buy the island Taylor Collins had to buy all the holdings that had been apportioned to the original islanders. Individual islanders only had an absolute right to a handful of acres – the rest of the island, some 95% of the island, was owned jointly between them as commonage. Had Taylor Collins been able to secure all the island’s individual twenty two holdings he would have owned the island out right – he actually secured 17. This was just as well for he aimed to establish on the island what he was pleased to call: ‘The Great Blasket Island Ranch’. Mercifully he lost heart in the project, had he he owned the island outright maybe he would never have done so. But before loosing heart he spent a great deal of money on the island restoring four the Congested District Board houses which now provide the island with a cafe and a hostel. These are now owned by a solicitor in Dingle to whom Collins sold out, some years ago, together with all his other interests on the island.

Though a lot of money was spent on these houses they are still extremely basic; the floors are concrete and there is no plaster on the walls – there is nothing plush about them, but for anyone camping on the island they provide a very comforting haven, somewhere a little more cheerful than a wet tent when the weather was bad.

During the four stormbound days I was on the island the majority of visitors were camping. There were eventually five tents. I say, eventually, for initially when Marie France came she was staying at the hostel but her pockets were not deep enough to stay at the hostel when the bad weather forced her to extend her stay, to help her out Briggita lent Marie her tent. It was Marie’s first time in a tent and also her first time on the island. She had just started working in Kruger’s pub in Dunquin, having worked some time in Dingle. She had come to celebrate her birthday and within days she was talking of staying there the winter!

Although there were five tents on the island they were never all occupied at the same time. One camper, a man in his his early thirties from the north east of England called Dave, soon abandoned his tent and took shelter in what remained of the King’s house. The name ‘King’s house’ sounds very grand but it was in fact just like every other traditional house on the island, It’s original occupant, however, had an exceptional personality and often took on the unofficial role of representing the island and greeting visitors: for one thing he had a command of English which not many islanders had. He was consequently given the title of ‘King’ by the other islanders by way of a sobriquet. Little remains of his house now but a gable end room.

On my previous visits to the island it had always been used as a hen house by the people running the cafe/hostel. The previous year, however, a local fisherman from the mainland had made it just about livable. He was a maker of curraghs and particularly wanted to make a curraghs on the island – a thing which had not been done for over fifty years – what was left of the King’s house became his base during that time. Apparently, however, its future function was to serve as an ‘office’ for the girlfriend of one of the Slattery brothers who had started running boat trips round the the other Blasket islands. During the days I was stormbound, however, it was just standing empty and Dave took his chance to be a temporary squatter.

Not so lucky in the squatting stakes was Laura from Canada. She was also a recent employee in Dingle, in a cafe, certainly that year if not the year before. She had hoped to occupy a beehive hut that an islander had built as a storeroom perhaps a good hundred years before. Growing from the top of it is a small bush, the only bosky growth on the island as it grows beyond the reach of rabbits and sheep.

The year before some other young woman had had a wooden floor installed in the hut and a proper doorway made for the entrance, her intention was to spend the whole summer there, apparently, however, she only spent a fortnight in it and then left. Laura seems to have learnt about this or had seen the hut the year before. But Laura’s plans were not to materialise. Just the day before she arrived on the island three men from the mainland had been on the island to sheer the island sheep. The shorn fleeces had been stuffed in to large sacks which in turn had been stuffed into the hut! There was no room for Laura so instead she pitched her tent nearby. She had intentions of spending the whole summer on the island making necklaces out of hemp!

There were two other workers from Dingle camping on the island: a couple, Louise and Jason. Louise was from Wexford and Jason from the the other side of the globe – New Zealand. They had only intended spending one night on the island as both had to get back to their jobs. Louise particularly fretted about not being able to get back to work. She had only just started her job in a cafe in Dingle and was fearful that her absence would lead to her loosing her job. However, because this was the age of the dreaded mobile phone she was able to let her employer know why she was unable to return to work as did Jason, though he seemed to have no qualms about loosing his job as a chef in one of the top hotels in Dingle. The mobile phone they used belonged to Sue, she was very generous in letting people use it. I used it myself to let friends know I wouldn’t be appearing when I said I would to save them any anxiety. It was virtually the only time I’ve had cause to be pleased that this modern piece of technology was ever invented.

My situation as a visitor was the most privileged of all – I was in a cowshed! It was the only cowshed ever built on the island. If cattle needed sheltering they were brought in to the house, unless a family had built themselves a new house, as Tomás Ó Criomhthain did, and then the cow was housed in the old house. Of course, it was a good many years since the cowshed I was in had seen a cow – it now had a wooden floor and a bed and a worktop surface. By island standards it was five star accommodation. It was the only bit of the island not in Irish hands as it was owned by an Englishman, a former headmaster called Ray Stagles and one of the island’s greatest devotees. Ray has been visiting the island since the sixties.

With his first wife he wrote a book on the island that is still in print. I met Ray on one of my earlier visits and not trusting my tent I’d contacted him before visiting the island to ask if there was any chance of using the hut – he was kind enough to say yes. Every other visitor to the island cast an envious eye on my circumstances.

One of those envious eyes belonged to a young woman called Miira from Helsinki. Miira was undoubtedly the island’s most remarkable visitor for she was the mother of the nine month old baby I’ve already referred to. It was an act of astonishing determination on her part to cross the length of Europe with a small child in toe to be on the Blasket were she planned to stay a whole month. Given all the paraphernalia she had to bring with her to attend to the child it was also a great logistical feat as well – Miira may well have been the first person ever to bring a pram to the island.

Miira and her child Vilma were the only two people staying in the hostel during my stay on the island, apart from the two nights Marie France was there. Like Máire France, Laura, Louise. Jason and I suspect Briggita as well, Miira had also lived and worked awhile in Dingle, in Miira’s case two years during which time she must have paid at least one visit to the island. Miira must have learnt a lot of her English in Ireland so there was quite a distinctive Irish brogue to her speech: “Oi t’ink Oi might like that” she would say.

As much as I learnt anything about Miira she was a poet. She was often scribbling away in her notebook whilst she rocked the child’s pram with the other – but it was prose that she wrote and not poetry. I idly asked her one day if you would like to read some of what she had written to me: “Oh no!” she expostulated as if I’d asked to read it directly, which, of course being Finnish I wasn’t able to to do. It was obviously very personal stuff.

On my second day on the island I walked with Miira to the very end of the island where it terminates in a tapering line of storm ravished rocks. Miira walked with Vilma strapped to her chest and I carried in my rucksack everything that was necessary to attend to the child. Covered over by Miira’s cagoule the child happily gurgled to itself for much of the way. When we had finally got as far as we could Miira sat down and asked me to retrieve the food which she had prepared for Vilma from my rucksack.

Whilst Vilma was being fed Miira asked me to take her picture – the consumption of the most westerly baby feed in Ireland. It was obviously an important occasion for Vilma, one I think she had set her heart on achieving, for I would have turned back long before getting to that final point on the island. As soon as we had left the island village we became enveloped in mist and we remained shrouded in it until we got back again, we saw absolutely nothing, but even so Miira expressed her delight with having made the journey.

On returning back to the village I heard that a woman called Lesley had been on the island – this was the day before the weather closed in. Lesley was English and I had met her once before for she and her then husband were running the island cafe the first time I ever visited the Great Blasket more than twenty y00ears before and I had never seen her since. I was keen to see her again to see if she would have any remembrance of me, or I of her, after so long a period. But our meeting was not to be – she had left the island about twenty minutes before Miira and I returned to the village. I was told, however, that her son was camping on the island. I took this son to be the young toddler I had once played with on a particularly wet afternoon in the cafe. I remember him being an engaging little fellow but in all honesty it was probably the warmth of the cafe’s fire, in contrast to the chilly dampness of my tent, that caused to appreciate his company as long as I did. However, Simon, the son Lesley had left on the island, was not the toddler I had played with all those years ago but a second younger son. The toddler I had known was presently on the other side of the world in New Zealand.

Simon was camped in a small flimsy tent on the northern tip of the island which is just about the only flat area of ground on the island – it is where the islanders held dances on fine summer evenings. Though it is a nice level area it is also fairly exposed to the elements as well. Every other tent on the island, save for Dave’s, Simon’s friend, was pitched in the shelter of the ruins. Simon was cooking his evening meal outside his tent when I met him and his method of cooking was as shaky as his tent. He cooked on an open fire, a meal which seemed to consist wholly of rice and courgettes, in a pan of boiling water that kept tipping over as it was resting on burning embers.

There was something about Simon that put me in mind of the sixties singer Donovan, it was more to do with his persona than with his looks, for apart from his tousled hair there was no real similarity at all, but apparently I was not the only person to make this comparison; Simon told me several other people had done so. One of the very first questions Simon asked me was whether I had done anything constructive with my life? It was a good question but it surprised me, and still does, that it should have come from such a source. Two things struck me about Simon: firstly, he was someone content with very little and secondly, he was unlikely to put much effort in to anything unless he found the exercise congenial. It didn't seem likely to me then that society would ever think of Simon as being one of life’s great dynamos. But in this I could prove to be wrong and I hope I am. One day, apropos of nothing, Simon said to me: “I’m a poet you know?” “Good,” I responded. “The world needs poets.” Simon smiled. “And a writer,” he added. “They need writers too,” I assured him. And Simon smiled again.

In the day Simon would drift around the island fields in his bare feet wearing a fur jacket which I suspect had once been a feminine garment that Simon had bought in a charity shop in Dingle where he and his mother now lived having spent the majority of his developing years in England – he spoke with a very soft English accent. One day he drifted past the cowshed I was stopping in whilst I was cutting some slices of cheese to go on some rye crispbread. I offered him the slice I'd prepared – given the iron rations I was existing on I thought this to be a particularly generous action on my part. However, within thirty seconds he handed me back the crispbread minus the cheese – the cheese alone had taken his fancy.

Like Simon I spent a good part of my days taking walks round the island. In one respect though I did apply myself to a more productive task: preparing fuel for the hostel fire. Although it was mid-June it was surprisingly chilly in the evening and there was the want of a good fire. It had happened that much of the timber work which Taylor Collins had put in the hostel and cafe had recently been replaced as it had become rotten, a great pile of it lay behind the hostel. Each day I spent an hour or so breaking up some of this wood and preparing it for the hostel fire in the evening which I and most of the campers would gather round in the evening as well as Miira. I don't think it would have been unfair for Seán to have fixed a charge for the way we used the hostel in this fashion but a charge was never asked for, nor could it have been really without bringing a mercenary spirit in to the way everyone interrelated.

On my final evening I took a stroll to the back of the island, a much longer walk than I had intended. I eventually made it to the island’s highest point. On the way I explored the southern slopes of the island and was pleased to rediscover the slab of rock on which the islanders had carved their names. It was Ray who had first pointed the rock out to me some ten years beforehand. Prominent amongst the names was ‘P. Donleavy 1951’. I had met Paddy Donleavy once on one of my previous visits to the island. His mother had been the island school teacher, a profession Paddy himself entered in later life. His island home was the lowest sited house on the island. He never abandoned it. Every summer he returned to spend a few weeks in the home of his childhood and repair any ravages the previous winter may have inflicted on it. Consequently Paddy’s house was the only traditional island cottage which still retained a roof. By rights, I think, Paddy should have received some governmental bursary for his efforts, but he never did, nor will he ever – I learnt on this visitation that he had died a few years before and the house had now passed on to his sons.

When I returned to the village from my late evening wander it had grown almost dark. I immediately called on Sue as I'd said early in the day I would. I was meant to collect some rations from her which the Irish Army had left her with on one of their visitations to the island.

But this I had never done and I was worried she might be fearing I had fallen over a cliff. I sat for a while with a very welcome mug of tea and a scone and then as I was leaving I became aware of a very shadowy figure approaching Sue’s house – it was Simon. Up at the hostel they had been wondering whether I had come to grief, seeing as I wasn't there to enjoy the fire I had laid down earlier in the day. There was welcoming cheer for me when I returned back with Simon.

I reflected afterwards how this small incident demonstrated the degree of mutual concern which had developed between us in such a small span of time. Most of the members of that small community I was briefly part of will have departed from the island soon after I did – but others will have taken our place, and after them others will have taken theirs. The island’s ‘population’ today is continually in flux and ever changing, mostly youngsters seeking a degree of adventure. Though it may be only a matter of days they stay their thoughts of the place afterwards are likely to be far out of proportion to the length of their actual stay. I’m minded of the words Yeats used when writing of another island, though to make them apposite words for the Blasket requires the replacement of the word ‘lake’ with ‘sea’:

“I hear sea waters lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadways, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”

©: Paul Buttle of Keswick, Cumbria, writes and publishes his own books on hill walking. He has been learning Irish for a number of years.

Published in The Green Dragon 11, Summer 2002