Monday, 8 July 2019

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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