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Ireland - A vanished life in the Blasket Islands

Deanna Keahey  ·  Jun 12, 2010  ·  4 Comments

The Blasket Islands are a set of small islands, 3 miles off the southwest coast of Ireland. The Blaskets are abandoned now, and visitors to Great Blasket Island today find the crumbling ruins of stone houses, on a windswept island with glorious views.

Village ruins on Great Blasket Island

Village ruins on Great Blasket Island


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Most of the time when we visit ruins left by vanished people, they're so long gone that much of the life there has been lost in the sands of time, and is a matter of reconstruction and speculation by historians and archaeologists. Not so with the Blaskets, where the last residents evacuated in 1953. But even though it's not that distant in terms of time, they inhabited a very different world than our modern world today.

I just finished reading a couple of books about life in the Blasket Islands, that provide fascinating views into the life on the island.

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The first is Twenty Years A-Growing, by Maurice O'Sullivan in 1933. This is a joyful book, full of the energy, enthusiasm, and high spirits of a young lad growing up on Great Blasket Island. As he says at one point,

An egg would not have broken under my feet with the lightness and gladness in my heart."

Twenty Years A-GrowingJust reading this book gives me a little of that same feeling! Whether he was off with a friend hunting puffins and rabbits around the island, exploring a cave, or describing the villager's excitement at scavenging timbers and supplies from a shipwreck, he always seemed to have a sense of optimism and joy. :)

Of course, the adults on the island didn't always share this happy view. In one conversation, Maurice tells his grandfather than the fishermen seem to have a fine, healthy life, and "there's no man on earth as contented as a seaman". In reply, his grandfather says "a man of the sea never had a good life, as I know well, having spent my days on it."

I visited Great Blasket Island after reading this book, and saw the whole scene through those youthful, exuberant eyes. As we walked around the island, and climbed to remnants of the Napoleonic fort at the top, I couldn't help but think of the fun he and the other kids had there, and it seemed like a fine place to grow up.

Twenty Years A-Growing was originally written in Irish, then translated to English. According to the Introductory Note (also from 1933), the author was mainly concerned with the Irish version, so that it would be read by people in the Blaskets, who would appreciate it more than we ever could. It's a sad irony that a mere 20 years later, there would be no one left in the Blaskets at all.

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Blasket MemoriesAnd what of life for the adults? What was this isolated island life really like, for those who had to worry about feeding a family? Blasket Memories: The Life of an Irish Island Community explains a lot more about that. Published in 1982, this is a collection of manuscripts and interviews compiled by Padraig Tyers, with the goal of preserving as much of the island knowledge as possible before it disappeared.

He covers the history of the islands from early settlers (who had no boats, since there was no good landing place), until the days when they were finally evacuated. In between, much of the life was tied to nayvogues (called curraghs in the O'Sullivan book). These are small open boats, light enough you could carry them up onto the shore. The three miles to the coast of Ireland would seem like much more if you had to row it in such a seemingly fragile boat. Now imagine taking a cow to market in a nayvogue like this... (!)

The men did a lot of fishing for mackerel and lobster, and the women worked hard too, carrying loads of seaweed to the fields, and gathering turf for their fires. As the author put it,

Any man who had a good wife had a good workhorse. The man lucky enough to have such a wife was much envied. One fellow would remark to another: 'What a woman he got'."

The isolation and the sea posed many difficulties. For instance, if a woman was having difficulties in childbirth, they would send four of their strongest men to carry a nayvogue down to the water, row to the mainland, ride a horse to Dingle to fetch the doctor, and then all row back out to the island, no matter how treacherous the sea conditions. If the child was born OK during that period, the islanders would light a fire, so that the returning oarsmen would get the signal that they could slow down and ease up on the way back.

This book continues right up to the end, interviewing one of the very last people to pack up and leave the Blasket Islands, late 1953. He recalls the loneliness of closing the door the last time, knowing he'd not be back. He also acknowledges how much simpler things became after moving to the mainland. "I can go for a doctor or priest on my own, and not bother with anyone else."

This comes full circle as the book wraps up with an interview with the widow of Maurice O'Sullivan (Muiris O Suilleabhain). She paid one last visit to the island after Maurice died.

The place looked terrible, all the houses fallen down except a few at the top of the village, nothing to be seen, no welcome for anyone at a door or on a hill, or on a cliff, nothing but the seagulls. There's no doubt the seagulls have it to themselves at last."

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Our Ireland trips for women include a visit to Great Blasket Island, and it's lovely. If you're planning a vacation in Ireland, this is a wonderful place to include, and these books will give you a much greater sense of the place.  Even if you never expect to step foot on the island yourself, they give a fascinating window onto this vanished life.
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Categories: Ireland · Reading
Posted from:   Tucson, AZ       Photo credit:   Deanna Keahey

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bill B. // Jul 21, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    A wonderful day trip. The Blasket museum on the mainland is also worth seeing.

    While you can swim during your visit to the island, there were no facilities or rest rooms when we visited. Say hello to the nice artist lady who spins wool while she summers on the island.

    I would suggest reading Peig and Letters from the Great Blasket, each wonderfully written less than a century ago. While it is hard to imagine such a minimal existence, It certainly is wonderful to imagine such community.

  • 2 Deanna Keahey // Jul 22, 2010 at 11:57 pm

    Bill - Thanks for the excellent tips! I have to say, I never even thought of going swimming there, but they certainly did talk about loving to swim in the books!

    Before I go the next time, I'll check out the other books you suggest. It really is amazing how different their lives were, and not all that long ago. Thanks again!

  • 3 Marian Lena // Nov 19, 2010 at 9:46 am

    It's hard to imagine life without all the amenities we are so used to. I can't blame those people if they have to leave. But, like that young lad, it really depends with how we see and appreciate things. Good thing you have included Blasket Island as part of your Island Trips.

  • 4 Allison Turner // May 18, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    I've never been to Ireland but I've always wanted to go. I will definitely take a trip to Blasket Island. Reading this I felt as if I was standing there among the remnants...

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