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A Step Back in Time: My Trip to the Great Blasket Island
by Erik Falvey
We're in luck. The sun is out and the forecast says there'll be none if little rain for the rest of the day. This is the first full day of our week in Ireland, and we're as happy as a young couple can be on the first day of their honeymoon.
We've already gotten off to a great start, having woken up to a grand morning in our room at the Greenmount House, a luxury guesthouse in Dingle town, up on John Street with big bay windows overlooking the harbor and village below, and treating ourselves to their award-winning traditional Irish breakfast complete with home-made marmalade, coffee, scones, toast, fresh-squeezed orange juice, eggs, ham, sausage, and something called "white pudding." Now we're heading out the front door with our backpacks, snacks, water, raincoats (just in case) and the day is ours!
Ever since I can remember I've dreamt of coming here. As a boy, I remember my father's stories as he traced our family origins on his map of Ireland, pointing here to the Dingle Peninsula, one of the long fingers of Co. Kerry in the southwest part of the country that jut out into the Atlantic. The stories and photos I had seen of our ancestral home left a magical effect on me, a special feeling, like it was reserved and waiting just for me to return.
The village is filled with tourist shops and visitors pack the streets. There are lots of pubs, too, and I take note of some of the more promising ones I'll be sure to visit later: Murphy's Pub, Dingle Pub, Ashe Pub, Foxy John's (also a hardware store), Tom Long's, McCarthy's, Dick Mac's (" Where's the church? Next to Dick Mac's. Where's Dick Mac's? Next to the church."), and Paudies. We meander our way through the village and take a stroll down to the marina. Our eyes come upon a sign advertising boat trips out in the harbor (to visit Fungie the bottlenose dolphin) and a more adventurous one taking passengers on a 35-minute trip out to the Great Blasket Island - "weather permitting" - at 1:00 P.M.
The Great Blasket Island. Just three miles off the Dingle Peninsula and twelve miles from Dingle town. It used to be home to over 200 people, but is now deserted, and has been since 1953. I've read two books by authors from the island that I will always treasure, "The Islandman" by Tomás O'Crohan and "Twenty Years A-Growing" by Maurice O'Sullivan, and now I'm looking forward to seeing first-hand where their adventures took place -"weather permitting," of course.
Shortly after we're armed with our tickets and waiting to board the small, orange, 12-seater passenger-boat, the Peig Sayers. We make our way down the plank and are escorted aboard by the deckhand, a 19-year-old I later find out is from Dunquin, a village on the Atlantic coast and just across the bay from the Great Blasket. Ducking inside I see an Irish couple with two young children. The girl is sitting on her mother's lap, working on her ice cream cone while the boy is in his father's arms looking out the window at the seabirds cruising through the marina outside.
We take our seats and introduce ourselves. After explaining where we're from (Muriel, my wife, from Paris; me from San Diego) I learn that they're from Dublin, vacationing in Dingle for a week's holidays. "About a twelve-hour drive," the father says. "Exhausting, but well worth it. There's nothing like West Kerry."
Suddenly a somewhat disheveled man in his mid-40s appears carrying two ice cream cones. He's got wind-swept hair and is in very relaxed attire: loose-fitting jeans and a baggy blue shirt. Obviously our captain. He bounds to the bridge and hands an ice cream to the kid, then starts up the motor. After some preliminary equipment checks the Peig Sayers is untied from the pier and we're on our way.
The harbor is very calm, with light winds, and tons of sun. Directly ahead, however, things are much different. Outside the mouth of the harbor awaits Dingle Bay, and a wild, savage-looking thing it is, too!
The captain opens her up as we make a right-hand turn into the bay with her six-foot swells. They crash into our boat with a bone-crunching ferocity. What a difference from the gentleness of the harbor! The ship rises and smacks back down with every passing swell. From a distance the bay looks so calm. "Yet when you're in it..." I mutter to myself: "And this is a good day; what the hell's it like when the weather is "not permitting?" Muriel and I exchange wide-eyed glances with the father each time there's an uncomfortable plunge downward. The boy is now asleep in his father's arms while his sister has her mom busy looking out at the peninsula crawling by agonizingly slow out to our right. I try and remain focused by looking out at the horizon, an old trick I learned to keep from getting seasick. I cast a quick glance up front to the captain and the kid. They're finishing up their ice cream cones as they nonchalantly navigate through the choppy white caps. I get somewhat concerned as I see craggy rocks jutting up here and there on both sides of the boat. But I soon discover it's better to keep my eyes out on the horizon, and that's where they stay for another half hour or so.
Finally, at 1:45, we pull into the Blasket Sound and much calmer water. It's hard to imagine it was right here that the Santa María, a vessel of the Spanish Armada, went down over 400 years ago. A reminder of how quickly and violently the weather can change out here.
Up and to our left looms the Great Blasket, a sad symbol of Ireland's impoverished and isolated west coast and of the dying Celtic world. Once home to over 200 people, the island is now uninhabited and in disrepair. Some tents, their loose cords flapping in the wind, speckle the shoreline. In between the tents I spy the ruins of the ghost village now mostly filled with roofless houses. My eyes are then drawn down to the right to the White Strand, its bright white sand blindingly white in the summer sun, and, contrasted with the emerald green hilltops and the dark blue of the ocean surrounding it, it's almost surreal.
We pull up slowly to an orange buoy where there awaits a small inflatable boat with outboard motor. The kid jumps aboard and ties it up to the Peig Sayers. One by one we all climb down and before long we're gliding on the glassy smooth sea and heading towards the island. A minute later he's pulling up alongside the concrete slipway at the tiny harbor to let us all out and the island is now ours!
We say our good-byes to the Irish family and begin our trek up the pathway that reaches into the old deserted village. As we reach the top a young woman approaches. She's carrying some clipboards and pencils. She's from the Blasket Island Centre and is asking people to take part in a survey about what, if anything, should be done to "improve the island." We take the questionnaires with us and tell her we'll drop them back off before we go.
We continue on toward the ancient village, all but one or two of the houses now totally roofless and beyond repair, but still a reminder of life that once was here on the island. Most of the houses are surprisingly close to one another, and small. Some are only 8x10 feet, others 15-20 feet long. It's hard to believe these homes used to hold not only the families but also their cows, donkeys, cats, dogs, and even a pet lamb or two - not to mention the hens nesting in the thatched roofs above.
I search for the home that once belonged to Tomás O'Crohan, and I think it must be this one over here. It's only a yard or so away from the remnants of another house, most likely where the grey old hag with the double row of teeth used to live. And this one here, is this where Pats Micky ("The King") used to live? And this one, could this have been the home of Maurice O'Sullivan?
Many images flash before me: the women and boys with creels on their backs fetching turf up on the hill, the girls driving home the cows and cutting black seaweed at flood-tide, stout young women up to their bellies unloading boats down in the harbor, men hunting seals in the caves at Inishvickillaun (the fishermen carrying fish home on their backs, the boys diving for crabs and hunting rabbits, the women keeping their ranks above the harbor throwing stones at the armed tax collectors and driving them away, the men getting lost in the fog when returning from the mainland, the women fetching water and milking cows, the hurley matches on the White Strand.
There were times when the islanders were swimming on the high tide of fortune and able to live well when the whole countryside was famishing in extremity. Most often this happened when a shipwreck would leave them with palm-oil, timber, wheat, or brass and copper bolts to take to market in Dingle. But on the whole, life was very hard here, and I think back with a heavy heart to Tomás O'Crohan who once had ten children, but lost eight of them to drownings, accidents, and the measles. He lost his wife too, and in the end only one of his sons remained with him on the island, the other having left for America. His story typifies the sorry fate of these Gaelic-speaking people. When most of their children came of age they departed either for the mainland or for America to find an easier life. Little by little the community got so small it could no longer support a teacher or a doctor, or look after its ill and aged or educate its children. Emigration escalated and soon the island was deserted.
As we walk further into the deserted ghost town Muriel and I stop to watch a lone razor-bill cruise by overhead and continue on his way over to the mainland. No sound now, save the soft breeze in our ears and the muted, steady roar of the waves rolling in at the White Strand below.
I lead Muriel up the hillside to capture our visit to the island by taking her picture. Slea Head makes for a beautiful background, with the sunlight breaking through the dark silvery clouds and falling here and there on the green countryside below. Out to our left is Clogher Head, followed by Sybil Head and the Three Sisters. Way out in the distance, standing sentinel, is Mount Brandon, shrouded with clouds below its summit. My eyes sweep from the mainland and out to the Atlantic. And at once I'm taken back in time nearly eighty years ago and standing with the stranger from London talking to Maurice O'Sullivan, "And believe me, if one of my countrymen could see this view out before me now, he would give his riches for it."
We spot a nice area to start our picnic and we instinctively pull off our shoes to enjoy the feeling of the puffy green grass under foot. Our windbreakers and sweaters follow, with the sun beating down and the sea breeze making them absolutely unnecessary (for the moment). We finish our sack lunch and lie down in the carpet-like hillside to enjoy looking up at the low-flying cumulous clouds drifting by overhead. On our backs, looking up at the deep blue sky with the distant sounds of waves breaking and the soft breeze sweeping by, a powerful feeling comes over me, a feeling of connecting with nature - really connecting with nature - without in any way disturbing it. It feels like a step back in time. A chance to commune with yourself, with the elements, with the wind and the sea and sky.
After a while we're both in need of a coffee and we head up the eastern part of the island to one of the houses that shows some sign of life. From pictures I've seen, it must be the home that once belonged to Paddy and Sean O'Sullivan, cousins of Maurice O'Sullivan. The bell hanging from the door makes a clinkety-clink ring as we step inside. Handspun shawls and scarves hang from some metal racks, with hats, bags, and belts here and there on display. A wooden staircase is off to the right, and at the back of the room sits an old rock stove. We quietly close the door and are met by a small woman in her mid-40s with brown hair. She's got her hands full of woolen goods and invites us inside.
After having a look around we ask for some coffee. "No trouble," she says, and strikes up a match to get her stove going. "If you like, have a seat outside and I'll bring it out to you."
We seat ourselves on the creaky wood bench and enjoy more of the view and the healthy fine air. She joins us a few minutes later with some coffee and we introduce ourselves. I take note of her name, for she's definitely someone to remember: Sue Redican. She's the lone inhabitant of the island and known as the "Blasket Weaver." Originally from Wales, she now enjoys her time alone on the Blasket. The mainland is terribly overcrowded, she says, especially now during the summer months when Dingle swells to over 5,000 people. Our conversation touches on many things, from the beautiful surroundings of the Great Blasket, to the "Patriot Act" and other current-day topics. It occurs to me that although she is isolated on this island way out in the western most part of Europe, Sue Redican doesn't seem to be at a loss for knowing what's going on in the world. And I'm thinking how lucky she is to be viewing it all from a distance, and in this way being able to see things more clearly.
We spy a long path reaching westwards and out of sight up the hillside to our right. We walk past some more of the roofless island houses and think of the rich stories they could tell. A billy goat stops chewing his grass to watch us as we make our way up the trail. We walk slowly past him and he doesn't move an inch. His eyes stay on us as we press on, keeping a good and steady pace up the hillside.
The path stretches up and around to the west, limitless till it disappears around the side of the island. Cold wind suddenly sweeps in from the Atlantic. Skies darken. What was once a sunny calm paradise turns suddenly violent and scary-looking. How fast the weather changes out here! We're in luck though, because behind the heavy rain-filled clouds is some more sunshine, ensuring us a somewhat more pleasant journey back to the mainland. But way out in the distance the skies are dark and angry and there's no more sunlight left. A good thing we're heading back now.
Making our way back down the trail we stop for some water. Muriel reaches into her backpack for the bottle but fishes out two questionnaires instead. We forgot all about filling them out! Our leisurely stroll escalates into a free-for-all dash down the hillside. We've only got a few minutes before our boat leaves for Dingle. I look over and give a nod to the billy goat as I pass. Only this time he doesn't stop chewing. Catching our breath we park ourselves on the grassy embankment, pencils in hands, answering the survey about what could be done to improve accommodations on the island. We both write an emphatic NOTHING that went something like this: "No Improvements need to be made here". No 4-star luxury hotel. No new and improved this. No updated that. Nothing needs to be added here. Left alone the Great Blasket is a magical experience. A step back in time. And any "improvements" done to it will take away from its natural beauty and wonder. So what if sometimes you can't reach it if the seas are rough? So what if there's no real hotel here? The last thing this island needs is to be "modernized." Leave it alone!"
A few moments later we're climbing aboard the Peig Sayers and heading out the Blasket Sound and back for home. I turn and take my last long look at the island. Sad and lonely it is now with the dark clouds approaching from the west. My eyes sweep back to the mainland and I think again of all my Irish ancestors, unwept and unknown, who have stood on these very shores. Your struggles and your lives have helped shape who I am today. I am one of your children returning from overseas. I am home.
The captain takes her back into the bay. And an easier time we're having now, with our back to the wind making for a much smoother (and quicker) journey back to Dingle. I join my wife at the open-roofed part of the boat in back and we hold each other as we look out at the mainland. I am so happy to be with her, here in Ireland, my ancestral home, and starting our life together.
Originally from California, Erik now resides in Paris with his wife and newborn son. He's a sales director and world traveler, self-taught in history, philosophy and economics. He spent more than ten years in publishing. His many interests include screenwriting, reading, film, and Guinness.
© 2004 by Erik G. Falvey
Fri, Nov 3, 2017
The Round Towers
The Round Towers of Ireland are remarkable among the world's ancient monuments; one author has called them 'Elegant, free-standing pencils of stone.' Today, 65 survive in part or whole. Hand-crafted in native stone and cemented with a sand, lime, horsehair and oxblood mortar - a technique imported from Roman Britain - it's said by many historians that they were built by monastic communities to thwart Viking invaders. And yet, there's reason to believe that the towers were built long before Christianity came to Ireland. Whatever their origins, monasteries did indeed flourish where the round towers existed. And why not. These imposing edifices provided a watch tower, a keep and a refuge.
Image: By kind permission of Stephen Cassidy, The Cassidy Clan.
Click for More Culture Corner.
Photo Prints & Cards from Ireland
by Marcus Günther
Irish-based professional photographer Marcus Günther offers ready for framing prints, outstanding “Exhibition Standard” prints, and hand-made greeting cards created from images taken mainly around the Ring of Kerry. We’re rather fond of the Aran Island donkey we used to accompany our Jokes Page. It’s just one of many great shots available as a print or card from Marcus’ new on-line store, including this delightful Puffin.
Click here for Marcus Gunther Photos.
by Maurice O'Sullivan
A book to buy, to beg, or to borrow. For here we have that rare thing, a piece of literature springing from the same natural impulse which makes a bird on a branch in April time give out a sprinkle of a song.
All the customer reviews on amazon give it 5 stars. We're anxiously waiting for our copy to arrive!
Click here for 20yrs a'Growing
Note: The cover illustration is called "Launching the Curragh" by Paul Henry and the original is in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.
by Tomás O'Crohán
A valuable description of a now vanished way of life, the author's sole purpose in writing this book was in his own words, '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.'
Click here for The Islandman.
The Queen of Gaelic story-tellers reflects on the days of her youth, and, while here were `clouds of sorrow', helping to lift them was the friendship she found in the community, which `was like a little rose in the wilderness'.
Click here for An Old Woman's Reflections.