BLASKET'S CASE

TRAVEL SPECIAL: Though hastily abandoned in 1953, the island of Great Blasket will never be forgotten thanks to its rich literary heritage
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The Independent Culture
THE ISLAND group of the Blaskets lies off the extreme point of the Corcaguiney Penninsula, the most northerly of the three great digits of land that thrust outwards into the Atlantic from Kerry in Ireland's south-west. The Great Blasket, the largest of the six that make up the group, was inhabited from ancient times up to 1953 when the island was evacuated. Discovered by scholars of Irish and folklore at the beginning of this century, many of the Blasket islanders wrote about their lives, some with considerable distinction. Today, the Great Blasket society has vanished and the village is in ruins, but the writings remain.

In spring, summer and early autumn the Corcaguiney Penninsula - more often now called the Dingle Penninsula - is daubed with the red of fuchsia and the orange of montbretia. Dingle, the main town, is a seaport of hills and narrow back streets, a market town in a wild world of intertangled mountains. North of Dingle is Mount Brandon, west, Mount Eagle. It is Mount Eagle that divides the parishes of Ventry and Dunquin and it is to the parish of Dunquin that the Blaskets belong. We took the coast road through Ventry and around Slea Head. Distances are short here, the roads often one car wide. Our first view of the islands was through a late afternoon haze. The sea was the light blue of blackbird's-egg, its texture that of ruffled taffeta.

Two ferries run between Dunquin harbour and the Great Blasket. Because of the weather, the journey season is confined to the months of April to October, starting at 10.30 every morning and returning back around six in the evening. It's advisable to telephone ahead to ascertain conditions. Good weather in, say, Tralee, in no way guarantees that Blasket Sound is passable.

We arrived too late to make a trip that day worthwhile, and stayed the night on Slea Head in the farmhouse of Caitlin Firtear. Her home, half- way down the cliff and surrounded by old, abandoned stone dwellings, looks directly out to the Blaskets. Caitlin put our beach clothes on the range, and gave us hot whiskeys and we went to bed and slept like kittens as the moon rose over Blasket Sound.

In his classic autobiography, The Islandman, Tomas O'Crohan describes going off to the mainland for a wedding, being caught by bad weather and being marooned for three weeks in Dunquin. Back on the island his family thought him drowned. O'Crohan's family, like many others on Great Blasket, came from the mainland in the first half of the 19th century, evicted tenants of Lord Ventry. Their lives were shot through with the purity of isolation, their society one of primitive simplicity. O'Crohan more than anyone else captured this uniqueness in his writings: "The likes of us will not be seen again."

In the first light of dawn the islands looked much more distant than on the evening before. We could scarcely make out the shadows of the village on Great Blasket, or, to its right, the old field divisions. The other islands - Tuaisceart, Inishvickillane and the Tearacht, this last the most westerly landmark in Europe - appeared dark and impenetrable.

The journey across Blasket Sound takes no more than 15 minutes. It's nothing on a fair day in a big launch - built with contributions from Brussels; ex-Taoiseach Charlie Haughey owns the island of Inishvickillane - but even so there was talk over the radio of bad weather as we neared the harbour on Great Blasket. There's no shelter for boats here in a storm; everyone runs for shelter to Dingle. We transferred from the ferry to inflatables and were taken "into" the island.

Words say a lot about a place. Throughout the literature of the Blaskets, the writers speak of being "in" the island. From the island they always went "out" to the mainland; they came home "into" the island. The Great Blasket was their centre around which their universe spanned.

There is a long slip upon which, in old photographs, the islanders' naomhogs or canoes can be seen up-ended. The way up into the village is precipitous. The ferry took on a few returning campers and departed. Tide - translucent and irresistible - was coming in on Tra Bhan, the White Strand. All at once, it seemed, our fellow passengers had disappeared, leaving us climbing up into the village alone. It's what everyone wants to do when they come here; to shed the world of the mainland and become part of this silent and beautiful community of ghosts.

In the "lower village", the tiers of stone cottages stand with their gables to the sea. Above them, in the "upper village" built in 1909 by the Congested Districts Board, the houses are two-storied and face the mainland. The lower village houses were once thatched with rushes, a mixed blessing since, although thatch gave heat to the houses in winter, it was also home to laying hens, fieldmice and shrews. In the second half of the 18th century thatched roofing was replaced by felt and tar. The older houses were 20ft long, at most. O'Crohan describes the interiors:

"To divide the house... a dresser stood out from the wall... and a partition met it from the other side. There were two beds in the lower portion, where people slept. Potatoes would be stored under these beds... On the other side of the partition - the kitchen side - the family, 10 of them perhaps, used to spend the whole day. There was a coop beside the partition with hens in it, and a broody hen just by it in a cooking pot. At night- time there would be a cow or two, calf or two, the ass, the dog on a chain by the wall or running about the house."

In the years following the evacuation of the Great Blasket, the titles to these holdings - and their rights to grazing and tillage land, plus their common share of the turf ground in the mountain - were sold off. Now, most of Great Blasket is owned by a company in Tralee. And although the Irish government wishes to turn the island into a national park, such design has for years been mired in dispute and litigation.

The roadways and paths of the village now have a thick, soft layer of grass on them. When 150 people lived here these walkways were worn down by the islanders' bare feet. Although Great Blasket measures little more than three miles from end to end, to walk it takes most of a day due to the mass of the island. Tracks exist which were once used to haul fertilising seaweed and mussel shells up from Tra Bhan to the pastures, and to bring home from the summit of the island - from Sliabh na Duna - the black, indigenous peat that was the islanders' fuel in winter.

A prehistoric cliff fort exists on Sliabh na Duna. On the southwest facing slopes at the back of the island are the remains of beehive dwellings which may mean that, as on the Skellig Rock to the south, a monastic settlement existed here around the sixth century. The ruins of a Martello tower dating from the French wars exists above the road taking you to the back of the island.

Away from these paths, near the breathtaking edges, gulls, gannets and puffins swirl in their thousands. These sloping cliffs are also lethal. O'Crohan lost a child down one of these sheer, rocky inclines, and so did many others. Unlike the adults who are all buried on the mainland, Blasket children, as a tiered field of little headstones shows, were laid to rest in their island.

Even by the standards of the early 20th century, these people were untouched by progress. Few of them had ventured further than Tralee. At the turn of the century they had only recently discovered the use of tea (having salvaged tea-chests from the beach after a storm), had not seen spectacles, and were but newly aware that the lobster had a value. They used oil from seals for light and scattered the white sand on their floors to keep down damp. They sailed to Dingle - "to town" - to sell their fish and lobsters, and sheep, and to buy meal and boots. The island had its king. Daily life was based on hard work and a necessary order and forbearance. In the rich, literary tradition of Munster, they told the stories they had learned at the knee, and then, uniquely, many of them wrote down those stories, and that of their lives.

It was a life of rugged hardship and constant struggle. When illness struck it meant a three-mile crossing to the mainland - weather permitting - followed by a five-mile walk to fetch the priest, or twice that for a doctor. Death finally claimed the Great Blasket. The evacuation in 1953 was in no small part the result of the death by meningitis of a young island man cut off by bad weather from medical help.

Beginning in the late 19th century, a tradition of emigration from the Blaskets to Massachusetts evolved and continued up to the island's evacuation. Many came back to visit their old island home, but many did not.

"Those who left were often sad and unhappy in their new life," says the photographer, Anthony Haughey, who lived here for more than two years and who has travelled to the United States to interview surviving Blasket islanders. Most have since died in America. "Their island haunted them to the end," Haughey adds.

You can come here today, of course, with nothing more in mind than a sunny picnic on Tra Bhan. But how can you do so without at least a thought that on this beach each Christmas Day the men of the island played their annual game of hurling, chasing the ball in and out of the tide?

Strange, but much of Ireland is explained by this place. As Seamus Heaney has said: "We are no longer innocent ... no longer parishioners ... and when we look for the history of our sensibilities [we look] to the land itself." Nowhere in Ireland is that history more apparent than in the Great Blasket. Because of this, I will go back there. In the lengthening days when the seas are calm and the warm heart has come back into the island, I'll swim on Tra Bhan and when night comes I'll lie out on a grassy bank in the village and see all the people who passed through this place as they fish among the stars.

A day trip ferry costs adults pounds 10 return, children half price, with a reduction for families; the journey takes around half-an-hour. Contact Blasket Island Boatmen at Dunquin Quay on 00 353 66 56455. The Great Blasket Centre is open daily in Dunquin, Co Kerry (00 353 66 56444/fax: 00 353 66 56446). If you are staying overnight on the mainland, bed and breakfast at the Caitlin Firtear's Slea Head Farm costs from pounds 15 per person (00 353 66 56120). For more information, contact the Eire Tourist Board on 0171 493 3201.

Recommended reading: 'The Islandman' by Tomas O'Crohan (OUP); 'Twenty Years A-Growing' by Maurice O'Sullivan (Oxford University Press); 'Peig' translated into English by Bryan MacMahon (Talbot Press); 'The Blaskets People and Literature' by Muiris MacConghail (Country House).

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