Monday, 25 July 2011
Blasket Island Memories
This is a picture, taken from the end of the Dingle peninsula, of the Great Blasket Island. It's the largest of the small group of islands off the westernmost point of this westernmost peninsula in Ireland. The elegant, curving beach is called The White Strand.
People here don't talk of going 'out' to the island. They say they're going 'into' it. It's a form of words which suggests that a trip there isn't just another holiday stop-off. It's a voyage into the heart of something remarkable.
The islands are uninhabited now; the last people who lived there moved to the mainland in the 1950s. Isolation and emigration just made their life unsustainable. Today, you can get to the island by ferry from Dún Chaoin pier. You reach the pier by walking down a steep, winding slipway. To your left, it clings to the cliff face.To your right, a low wall protects you from the long fall to the Atlantic ocean below. It's partly made of concrete, partly of jagged rocks. When you get to the bottom you'll see the remains of an even steeper path, climbing directly up the towering cliff beside you. There was a time when the fisherman here climbed that crumbling path with their catch crammed into baskets on their backs.
When you reach the island you step from the ferry onto another slipway, and climb an even steeper path to a high, grassy road that leads to an abandoned village. The half-ruined houses, built of field-stones, cluster together against the Atlantic wind. Some are built so closely against the hillside that their roofs were on a level with the stony green fields.
Higher still, at the edge of a dizzying cliff, you can lie on cushions of sea-pink and look down on the white strand. The islanders used to dance there in the summer evenings. The last time I was there it was a windless day. The sun was blazing. The beach below me looked luminous and the ocean round the island was a dazzling silver sheet. On days like that it seems impossible to believe in long months of darkness and howling wind. But in winter the islanders lived a precarious life here, cut off from the mainland for weeks at a time. Often they were close to starvation. They lived closer than family and everything they had was shared.To make a living from the unpredictable ocean and their high, salty fields they had had no choice but to work together as a community.
At the beginning of the twentieth century some remarkable books came out of that community. Their own tradition of storytelling was an oral one. But, knowing their way of life was coming to an end, some islanders decided to write down their memories. They wrote in Irish, their native language, but their books have been translated into English, and some into German and French.
They wrote them, they said, 'because the like of us will not be here again.'
If you come to the Dingle Pensinsula you can visit the Blasket Island Centre on the mainland, in Dún Chaoin, and find out more. But before you take the ferry into the island, read the books.
They include An tOileánach (The Islandman) byTomás Ó Criomhthain; Peig by Peig Sayers; and Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty Years A Growing) by Muiris Ó Suilleabháin.
The like of them will not be here again.