Friday, 19 July 2019

West Cork Literary Festval Fringe at Organico

So thrilled to  read at Organico cafe, Bantry as part of the West Cork Literary Festival Fringe on 18th July. 
A good crowd came, including many locals since Organico is well known for the varied and fascinating Fringe programme they have hosted for many years and also my fellow poets on the Festival Poetry Course run by Liz Berry. I invited these poets to also read a poem each after my event. (Organico happy about this. It's very hang loose here.) Here is a photo of the poets on this 'magical' course:

 L to R Back row: Angela Carr, Judith Janoo,
           Maree Coveney, Elish Stanley, Eliz Ryan, Frank Farrelly,
    Collette Colfer;
                                        L to R front row: Marie Haugh,  Liz Berry (tutor), Rachel Parry and me.

Owned and run by Rachel and Hannah Dare the cafe was manically busy at lunch time during the festival as it serves scrummy wholefood ('organic' of course) salads plus delicious cakes.

Family friendly and community oriented, the cafe also puts on events all year round and most interesting is the Death Cafe which Rachel told me about.  It is an event where people in grief for a recent death, or even after several years, can meet to share their feelings.  Rachel and Hannah thought it would only be a one-off event, but such was its popularity, they have been requested to put it on again several times.

                                         Me and Rachel Dare outside Organico, Bantry.

Monday, 8 July 2019

On the Great Blasket, the main island, off Kerry, S/W Ireland. Next stop America.

This Blog is Part Two of my previous Blog, best read first.

A grassy track leading up from the landing spot. This is also known as 'The Coffin Road.'
Grim thought.  The dead were buried on the mainland and transported in their naomhogs (curraghs)

Looking east.

The village, now mostly in ruins, on the main island was built on very steep slopes on the southern side facing the mainland. Not much evidence of life now except for these donkeys (above) and the few tourists who visit, weather dependent, in the summer. 

 It must have been bleak and isolated in the winter, though a close community.  Reading about it (see bibliography below) I learnt they would have been pretty busy, men and boys fishing, catching rabbits on the island, clubbing seals to death on the sands (it seemed a beautiful stretch until I knew this). Interestingly the islanders suffered least during the Famine Years because of the wealth of wild food they had access to and not being dependant on potatoes. They also looked forward to shipwrecks for what goodies would wash ashore. (You can't blame their hard hearts. Life was hard.) They had the sense to marry outside, either from the other smaller Blasket island or from the mainland, to keep the gene pool healthy. They were arranged marriages in those days -  how else could you meet anyone? But luckily there was choice or refusals allowed.

  Of course, the Blaskets are famed for their Irish Gaelic-speaking storytellers: Maurice O'Sullivan, (Muiris O'Suilleabhain), Peig Sayers and Thomas O'Crohan (Tomas O'Criomhthain) and luckily they were persuaded by visiting Irish scholars to write them down (or were written down for them.) so they are still available to us.
Peig Sayers' first cottage.

The photo above shows the ruined  remains of a terrace; the nearest a back wall and shared side wall is all that remains of Peig's first house. Imagine bringing up a family of small children in this confined space, plus hens though they would peck away on the turf roof where the children would find their eggs. Since the roof was level with the grassy bank this was not as dangerous as that sounds. 

Peig Sayers would tell the island children such scary ghost stories at night that when they left her cottage to stumble home in the dark on the steep slope, they were terrified and some remarked how it was a wonder they did not slip and fall into the sea. I was told her work was later forced on secondary pupils throughout Ireland and unfortunately now evokes hated memories, putting them off learning Irish too.  

I was fortunate that our group was given a guide whose grandfather lived on the island. She pointed out his cottage, now restored and used as a holiday home. Her enthusiasm for the island, its history and culture was infectious.  There are few others restored and none available to let. Thomas O'Crohan, the storyteller's has been restored for tourists to visit and get an idea of the way of life.
Back view of Thomas O'Crohan's restored cottage.
Thomas O'Crohan ( Tomas O Criomhthain)'s cottage restored.

And below, inside his cottage.
Clay pipe in nook by the fireplace.

Later, in her 90s, Peig was moved to a larger house  which is now restored and used as a summer-time only cafe and staffed by women wearing traditional dress and plaid shawls. It has very intermittent hours so best to come prepared with your own picnic and drinks. N.B. If the cafe is closed there are no other loos and they only have the one.

Peig Sayers' last home, and next door the cafe.

 My guide was so inspiring I determined to read as much as I could, both history, memoirs and  the work of the story-tellers. I could only carry so much so bought some on the island and the rest in Dingle bookshops.

The Islandman by Thomas O'Crohan, Peig by Peig Sayers and Twenty Years A'Growing by Maurice O'Sullivan (published between 1929 and 1935)

General History:  Blasket Islands by Joan & Ray Stagles (O'Brien Press Ltd, 2019)
The Western Island by Robin Flowers (Oxford, 1944).

If you decide to go to the Blaskets, I suggest you go to the terrific Blasket Centre in Dunquin beforehand to gen up, and it's a good destination if a rainy day and ferries not sailing. By doing this,  I got so much more out of my visit to the Great Blasket itself  but there's almost too much to absorb in The Centre. I suggest a quick tour round the whole place first, then going back to the rooms that interest you most - because some of those might be at the furthest corner away.  There's a cafe and bookshop too. See previous blog.

The Blasket Islands, off Dingle peninsula, Ireland.

Given my interest in isolated island communities and in particular abandoned ones, I have been meaning to visit the Blasket Islands for years and years but never got round to it till now. Invited to read at the West Cork Literary Festival Fringe in Bantry, I leapt at the opportunity to go a week earlier and visit the Dingle peninsula and if possible to take a ferry to the Blasket Islands, and even better to spend some hours on the main island exploring the ruined cottages.

Like St Kilda, (Scots Gaelic-speaking) which I've visited and written about, the Blasket Islands (Irish Gaelic-speaking) were once inhabited by a thriving community which later had to abandon their island home and were evacuated in 1950. (St Kilda's evacuation was in 1930.) Unlike the St Kildans who lived off sea-birds, the Blasket Islanders lived off fish and seals (as well as rabbits, hens' eggs and wheat when they could get it from shipwrecks) and they are famed for their elegant  boats, made with felt stretched over a wooden frame and then coated with tar. They are a modern version of the early Celtic curragh (though a curragh used animal skin, mainly ox hide, coated with mutton grease) in which St Brendan is reputed to have sailed to America. (Tim Severin reconstructed a curragh and followed his journey.) You can see various examples, and also 19th c photos of them at the stunning modern Blasket Museum near Dunquin.

I had left booking a place on a ferry till the last moment since I knew all trips were weather dependent and in that part of Ireland it's unpredictability is not something the British Meterological website can cope with in advance.

Reckoning a trip from Ventry would be less crowded than from Dingle, I rang to book for the next morning but the skipper told me, the next day a squall was predicted and he would not be sailing. Besides, he charmingly confided, he'd been going out for 3 weeks and needed a break! But if I could get there in 15 minutes, he had one place left.

OMG, I have never driven so fast down country lanes (observing the speed limit, of course). Luckily the road is fairly straight from Dingle to Ventry (not the narrow, windy, sheer-cliff drops you get further along the peninsula.) and just in time, parked at the quay as the skipper phoned my mobile.
'Ah it's you,' he said as I ran along the quay waving my ringing mobile.

What luck!  It was a misty start, windy and cold on deck but very soon that cleared and we treated to a glorious heat wave. Great views. Blue skies and  water, and slightly darker blue  of the Iverleagh peninsula the far side  of the Sound. We could also see on the far horizon due south, the triangular Skelligs in miniature. Unfortunately, the fact 'Star Wars' was filmed there means thousands of tourists now visit it (or at least circle it) since climbing the almost vertical steps, with no handrail, is arduous. The crowds mean you won't get a sense of  peace those early Celtic monks had sought, building their beehive cells on its vertiginous slopes.

View from above the skippers' cabin. (Is that the foc'scle?)
Nearing the Blaskets.

We approached the scattering of Blasket Islands (there are several) and made for the Blasket Mor (Great) which had the largest number of inhabitants in its day.

 First, we had to transfer to a dinghy and be taken to the only opening in the rock - one can not call it a quayside - followed by a steep climb up crooked boulders. The hard life these islanders led immediately apparent.  They would have used their naomhogs, of course (not dinghies).

Stony walk up from the landing place and warning of what's to come.

 More will follow on the main island, the Great Blasket itself in following Blog.

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