Travel: The Book that Inspired Me - `Twenty Years A-Growing' By Maurice O'sullivan

Paul Buttle
Friday 23 July 1999 23:02
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MORE THAN 15 years ago, I heard a reading of Twenty Years A-Growing on Radio 4's Book at Bedtime. For a week or so I looked forward each evening to listening to this autobiographical work by Maurice O'Sullivan about his early life on the Great Blasket: a small island off the western-most tip of Ireland.

The programme would start with the evocative sounds of the Uillean pipes and then a warm, soft Irish voice would begin to read.

I was fascinated by the language of the book, originally written in Irish: much of the idiom of that language had been retained in the English translation. I was enraptured, too, by the island life it described, though I knew from previous travels that that life was long since past as the island had been abandoned in the early Fifties. The programme made me decide my next holiday would be to the Great Blasket.

I travelled by train and boat to Dublin and then train again to Tralee. As soon as I arrived in Tralee I went into the first bookshop I could find and bought a copy of Twenty Years A-Growing. At that time the book was still published as a hardback in the Oxford World Classics series (today it's only in paperback).

From Tralee I set off to walk to the village of Dunquin at the end of the Dingle Peninsula. Every time I stopped to rest, I would read a few pages of the book.

When I reached it, the island was nothing like I had imagined. The village where Maurice O'Sullivan had lived, even then almost totally in ruins, was like no other village I had ever seen in Ireland.

It was closely huddled together on the steep incline of a hill so as not to infringe on what little land on the island was suitable for cultivation.

It was much smaller than I had envisaged. So too were the small lanes which ran between the island fields. They were astonishingly narrow; the islanders had never used wheeled transportation, only laden donkeys.

Below the fields was a spectacular white beach. The whole place was pervaded with a wonderful, melancholy tranquillity: it was one of the most beautiful places I'd ever been.

The day after I arrived I set off to walk the full length of the island, which is basically a three and a half mile long ridge rising to almost 1,000 feet at the highest point. It is with little doubt one of the finest walks in Ireland. To the north lay Inish Tuiscirt and before me to the west the Tearacht, Inish na Bro and Inishvicillane, compelling and intriguing islands, especially the Tearacht which rose out of the sea like a mountain peak: a surreal image.

On the way I fancifully tried to to locate the places O'Sullivan had described in his narrative, but I doubt that I really succeeded.

Moving westwards, the island became narrower and narrower, eventually concluding in a tapering ridge of storm-ravaged rocks. I moved out along them as far as I could and sat down. After eating an orange, I took out the book once more, and with a bee buzzing round my orange-scented fingers, I finished reading the final pages.

`Twenty Years A-Growing' is published by Oxford University Press at pounds 6.99

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