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.

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