An Isle Too Far
By Cole Moreton, Contributor
August / September 2000
Beautiful, haunting, and cut off from the westernmost tip of lreland by three miles of treacherous sea, the Great Blasket lsland lies abandoned since the last remaining islanders were evacuated in 1953. Cole Moreton goes in search of the lost community and finds a few survivors still living.
This is the end of the world. The air is full of a terrible wailing. A gale scalps the waves, spilling foam. Gulls shriek as they tumble, caught between the spray, the rain and the low, dark clouds. A mountain stands alone in the sea, its back breaking the wind so that the invisible forces scatter over its slopes as raiders from the north once did, howling and running down from all directions on to the shuttered buildings of a settlement.
A dozen decaying cottages huddle into the hillside, each long and low and built of stone upon stone, each with a bolted door. The wind worries at the roofs, ripping back felt, and animals sheltering in outhouses bellow. This is a wild and lonely place for any living creature, and tonight there is no escape. The Great Blasket Island is surrounded, blinded by a wall of grey clouds, half a mile out in every direction. Behind it, somewhere through the rain and snow, is the mainland, the coast of Corkaguiney, the most westerly tip of Europe. The End of the World, the maps used to say. Beyond be dragons and sea monsters.
It is January 1947. Elsewhere they have split the atom, but on the Great Blasket life is much as it has been for a century or more. There is no electricity, no source of heat but the cut turf and the only water comes from the wells. A 24-year-old islander called Seáinín Team O Cearna lies dying in his family home, from a mystery illness, and nobody can help him. The nearest doctor is on the mainland, but the radiotelephone is broken, and the sea too rough for anyone to cross. The only medicine available is a traditional remedy: a sack of flour warmed through and placed on the forehead to ease his pain.
Seáinín is popular, one of the few young men left on an island whose population has dwindled from 150 to fewer than 50 over the past three decades. The remaining islanders visit every day, offering such help and advice as they can. He is cared for by his sister Céit, not yet 30 but already the woman of the house since her mother’s own premature death. On the afternoon of the 12th day of Seáinín’s suffering she enters the bedroom to check on him, but hears no breathing. Her brother is lying on his back, face up to the ceiling, mouth wide open in a yawn that never ends. Her fingers touch cold lips.
There is no priest on the island, and none can be sent for, so there are no last rites. Instead, an aunt kneels by the bedside, stroking Seáinín’s forehead, and speaks fast, under her breath: “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee and I detest my sins above every other evil…” And so the young man goes into the next world without the comfort of a priest, with his aunt whispering the Act of Contrition into a dead ear.
The old bus gave a smoky cough, shook itself, and eased forward out of the station at Tralee, the county town of Kerry, in the southwest of Ireland. It was a warm day in late August 1998. We passed a windmill and a steam train on the edge of town, and crossed flat lands with a mountain range rising up ahead. The driver let his passengers off wherever they wanted, without having to be told. A young mother in a tracksuit and her baby were deposited at a village pub, and the single-decker wheezed to a halt on the open road for an elderly man in a black suit and cloth cap, who gave a flick of the hand in thanks as he began the long, slow walk along an uphill path to his bungalow. A bend in the road revealed a wide beach with a bright white beard of surf. Boys kicking a ball in the center of a crossroads stopped their game to examine the bus for familiar faces.
The map on my knees showed a finger of land pointing out into the Atlantic from Tralee Bay. The Dingle Peninsula, otherwise known as Corkaguiney, was 30 miles long, with the Slieve Mish mountains running down its center. The knuckle in the finger was Mount Brandon, named after the saint who sailed west in search of a mythical Land of Promise.
The mountain range followed Saint Brendan westward to the very tip of the peninsula. On the way, the northern slopes were sprinkled with villages and solitary cottages, as they fanned out into the wide sweep of Smerwick Harbor. Back across the peaks, the southern glens provided a glorious backdrop for the town of Dingle, once a fishing community but now a tourist trap. We stopped for a moment at the quay, which was crowded with trawlers and old fishing boats adapted to take parties out to see Fungie, the dolphin who lived in the bay. His image was painted on pubs, cafés, shops, and anywhere else a stranger might be parted from his money. But those in search of wilder beauty stayed on the bus as it traveled still further west, a dozen miles in the shadow of the mountains, through the landscape described by National Geographic Travel as “the most beautiful place on earth.” The houses separated, bounded by flinty fields where no tree could grow, but where dry stone shelters built by pilgrims 1,000 years before still stood. The sun broke through, reflected by countless raindrops in the fuchsia hedgerows. On we went, along the coast with the Atlantic lashing against the window through a stream that crossed the road, and past the sudden, shocking sight of a life-sized crucifixion scene by the passing point at Slea Head. The Christ figure was a weather-blasted white, with painted blood flowing from his hands and feet.
Around the next bend, rising up between two valleys at the end of the peninsula, was the headland of Dún Mór, the last flourish of the Slieve Mish mountains before they plunged down into the sea, their black heels kicking up foam as they disappeared into the Blasket Sound.
And then there it was, the sight I had traveled so far to see. Three miles out, the Slieve Mish range came back up from the depths, returning to the surface in the mountainous shape of the Great Blasket. The village was in ruins, barely visible, but the impervious island stood as it always had, first and largest in a group of six. “Seen from above you would think them sea-monsters of an antique world languidly lifting time-worn backs above the restless and transitory waves,” wrote the scholar Robin Flower in The Western Island. Others had compared the Great Blasket among its neighbors to a whale nursing her young.
There was hardly any level ground on the steep mountain slope where the houses were built, but it was protected from the west wind. The village was just above what passed for the island harbor, a small and partially sheltered cove where a canoe, or naombóg, could be brought ashore. The rest of the shoreline was made up of high and dangerous rocks, except for An Trá Bhan, the White Strand, a long beach that led away from the village, below the only fields on the island that were worth cultivating.
Nobody had lived here for more than 40 years. The death of Seáinín O Cearna broke the community’s will, and in November 1953, after five-and-a-half years of government deliberation and repeated pleas from the islanders themselves, the Great Blasket was evacuated.
But not forgotten. It was remembered, in Ireland at least, for its strange people, and for their ways of living and talking which had remained unchanged for centuries, right until the end. There have been other isolated communities in remote places of course, each capable of inspiring horror at the hardships and longing for the simplicity of such a life. There was something special about the people of the Great Blasket, though, before they dispersed to the mainland and, in most cases, America. They lived on an island of stories. They spoke Irish as it had been in medieval times, before the language was driven west and into the ground by plantation, famine, and oppression; and in the early part of the 20th century Gaelic scholars had flocked to the islands. This in turn had inspired three islanders – Tomas O Criomhthain, Muiris O Suilleabhain, and Peig Sayers – to give written form to an oral tradition that had prompted the classical scholar and Marxist George Thomson to write: “It was as though Homer had come alive.” On the pages of their three books, I had discovered a place where time moved slowly, and where the rhythms of the sea and the seasons meant more than the ticking of the clock. Their stories had drawn me to the island.
If you want to know what it was really like, people said, talk to Séan and Muiris. The elderly brothers lived in a cottage behind hydrangea bushes at the crossroads of Maile na Rátha in the valley of Dunquin, within constant sight of the island that was once their home. The advice came from my fellow patrons at Kruger’s, the most westerly bar in Europe, where the locals and others seeking remoteness found refuge from the blinding rain. After days of waiting for the sea to calm, I was frustrated and angry. This was totally irrational, I told myself, watching the waves blow huge wet kisses at the edge of the Great Blasket. If you’re going to write about a remote island that is inaccessible for great swathes of the year, you can’t really be surprised when the ferryman won’t take you there.
Séan and Muiris O Guithín had been born on the Great Blasket when the settlement was full and the life relatively comfortable, and had stayed until it became unbearable. They had known Séainín, and been educated with his brother, but after the evacuation they chose to stay close by – unlike so many of the other islanders who crossed the Atlantic in search of the mythical Land of Youth they had heard of from the storytellers. They were the last of the brood, the ones who did not change; and when they died, the last traces of their world would be gone for good.
Behind the blooms was a simple cottage, with a curl of smoke coming from the chimney. A black-and-white cat slunk out of the bushes, padded up the path and waited by the door. The key was in the lock, but it didn’t seem right to walk straight in. Fionnán, a young man from the parish who knew the brothers well and had agreed to act as translator, tapped on the window. The room inside was dark, and impossible to see through the old net curtains.
The door opened, “Conas tá tu?” The speaker was a small, thin man with a long, bulbous nose and startled eyes.
“Go maith, ” said Fionnán. “Conas tá tu féin?” Muiris was as well as could be expected, and glad of company. He seemed fit for a heavy smoker of 79, and walked lightly as though on tiptoe, with rounded shoulders. He shook my hand, then shook his head at my clumsy Irish, a grin splitting a face dusted with white stubble.
Muiris led us into the main room of the house, where his brother was sitting by a peat fire. Séan rose to greet us, transferring the stub of a filterless cigarette from one shovel hand to the other. He was a big man, with a big, broad face and a tar-deep voice. In his youth, Muiris must have been naughty, nippy, a bit of a rogue, but Séan was five years older, and very much the big brother. Not slow, but solid. When their father died, Séan was just 12. He became the man of the house. Authority lived in the many folds of his face, and warmth too.
The room was large, with a stone floor and a high ceiling from which the blistered, nicotine-yellow paint was peeling. In the half-light I could see that it was like all the old island homes, but for a small stove in the corner with a gas bottle. A long wooden bench ran along one wall, underneath the window we had tried to peer through. Opposite was a formica dining table with wooden chairs, and above it on a shelf a plaster statue of the Virgin Mary. A curled print of the Sacred Heart was nearby, and under it a small candle burning in a red glass.
Séan sat back down on the left of the hearth in an old armchair with a black metal frame. Muiris was on the right, on a wooden stool. Both men wore cloth caps that were darkened and shiny with use, island jerseys with a zip at the neck, and straight flannel trousers with heavy leather boots. Their hands made shapes in the air as they told us about the games they used to play on the island as children, and their smiles were accompanied by wheezy giggles. Life had been hard for these two, who had stayed until the very end and never married, but they knew how to laugh.
Through the window behind Séan I could just see the island in the distance. On the wall behind Muiris was a map of it, with the place-names in Irish, based on information they had supplied. Their portrait was on the map, a popular seller in the tourist shops of Dingle. Listening to them talk as we sat by the fire, I knew that many visitors had been there before me exchanging whiskey and cigarettes for a few tales about the old life. Séan insisted that they never tired of the subject. “I love telling stories about the island,” he said. “We thought at that time, when we were growing up, that it was the nicest place in the world, because we didn’t have experience of anywhere else.” Still, life on the island was never easy. “As you would say, a lot of work followed it. Hard work: going to sea and fishing and then going to Dunquin in winter for messages when there was bad weather. There was another thing – when you would be sowing potatoes and oats and the like, there was no plough there, save for the spade, shovel, and a fork. That was the plough we had.
“You couldn’t do anything on your own. If you were going to get food, for example, you’d need somebody else to help you put a canoe down on the water. We were very dependent on each other, yes we were. If a sheep went down a cliff you’d have to depend on me to go with you, and the same the other way.”
The brothers were two of the four signatories who wrote to the lrish Independent in 1952 appealing for the people on the Great Blasket to be “released from our island fortress.” They had known for a long time that their only hope of a secure future was to persuade the government to help them resettle on the mainland. Nonetheless, when it did finally happen they felt an unexpected sadness. “We had one consolation: it was very close, the island. You could go to the gate every morning and see it.” They still looked west every morning without fail, although age and infirmity meant they would never return. “That was the end,” said Séan.
“You’d feel it,” said Muiris. “Lonely. When you’d think of the great times we had in there during our youth. Back then, you wouldn’t feel any hardship until the winter. But from Christmas time on, it wasn’t too good at all.” To entertain themselves through the winter nights, the islanders played chess or draughts, and card games like high-low jack, which had been brought back from America. Then there was poirini. “There were five small rounded pebbles and they’d be on the ground,” said Séan. “You’d have to take one, throw it up in the air and try and pick up the other four. There was great sport involved in that. Arra, they had a lot of games, if you’d call them games.”
The islanders had maintained a close relationship with the people of Dunquin, some of whom were their relatives. “When you’d come out on the boats, the people of Dunquin would be on the cliff-edge,” said Muiris.
“They’d tell you where the tide was breaking and where you should bring the boat in, that’s if there was a swell or it was rough,” said his brother. “And when Dunquin people would be fishing for mackerel they’d come to the island.”
Every morning at opening time Séan and Muiris wandered a couple of hundred yards down the road for a glass of stout at Kruger’s, where they settled on stalls in the corner of the bar. When there was a crowd, the younger villagers assembled in a protective circle around them, instinctively. Muiris told me that they used to have to walk five miles into the next village of Ballyferriter for a barrel of porter, then carry it down to the boats on their shoulders. He tried to convince me that there was little alcohol on the island. “We drank only water from the spring,” he said. “Better than whiskey or porter, the water there.”
At one point I noticed them glancing across to the television at the far end of the bar. “You would be happy with that all right,” said Séan. “It would depend on the programs. Life has improved greatly if you have the money. The money is a lot more plentiful now than it was.”
After spending all day with them, I walked back through the valley of Dunquin in the rain. The island was invisible in the darkness: there were no lights out there, no moon to shine on ruined houses. You could feel it, though. I thought of the island at its peak, crowded with children and dogs and chickens. Muiris would have been a gawky boy then: shy, awkward, in awe of his handsome elder brother. They had long lives ahead of them, but the friends they loved would all disappear in time. Somewhere out at sea in the night was the O Cearna home, half-fallen to the ground. ♦
From Hungry for Home by Cole Moreton © Cole Moreton 2000. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.