Islands in the Atlantic stream: a lost way of life
Mayo man James Morrissey has written a number of books about his first loves: the west, the sea, the islands.
The latest of these, Inishbofin and Inishark, appeared just before Christmas, launched by another well-known man from the county, Enda Kenny, who was fulsome in his praise. Already, the entire hardback print run of 2,000 copies has sold out and a paperback edition is now in bookshops.
The book is an impressive piece of work, both a chronicle of the island way of life now gone and a celebration of what remains today. Although it is a coffee-table book, with evocative photographs from the distant past and glorious pictures from the present, it is really the text that makes it so fascinating.
In his introduction, Morrissey remembers the first time he saw the two islands which lie out in the Atlantic, west of Cleggan.
It was 1960 and he was a young boy, unaware t would be the last summer the inhabitants of Inishark would spend on their island home. It was evacuated later that year (the final straw had been the death of an island man with appendicitis) and today is a beautiful, abandoned place with a few roofless cottages where sheep graze undisturbed. Inishbofin, the bigger island, is doing well, although tourism has replaced fishing as the main source of income.
Morrissey's introduction and his closing piece about a return to Inishark a few years ago are tinged with regret about what has been lost and the tone is certainly nostalgic. But in between, there is a great deal of rigorous material offered (some chapters present texts written over a century ago) which gives a unique insight into what life on the islands was really like before the modern era began.
The detail is fascinating, from a 10-page history of the islands by parish priest John Neary, published in 1920, to a 35-page chapter on the ethnography and ethnology of the islands by Charles Browne of the Anthropological Laboratory in Trinity College, published in 1894. The study which forms this latter chapter is conducted almost as if the islanders were a tribe in the remote Amazon, with all kinds of head, limb and other measurements being taken (the average height of the men was 5ft 5.5in, a good deal less than on the mainland).
There were 186 families on Inishbofin and 26 on Inishark when the study was done in the 1890s and "consanguineous unions" were not just common but inevitable. The blood lines had been given an outside injection generations before by Spanish pirates and Cromwell's soldiers. But, by the 1890s, every family on the island was related and all marriages were arranged. The study says this had no effect on mental health, although it did produce "a great similarity in appearance". Interestingly, illegitimacy was unknown on the islands and there was no crime, drunkenness or violence.
Life, of course, was very tough and the chapter (an 1892 Congested Districts report) dealing with outside attempts to alleviate poverty makes clear the level of deprivation.
Also compelling reading is the chapter (a Fisheries report from 1873) which details how the islandmen pursued the huge basking sharks in primitive boats. It makes The Old Man and the Sea seem tame in comparison.
There is much more in this fascinating book about the way of life and the culture of the islands. It's a rare glimpse into how a small, self-contained society survived on remote islands with little regular contact with the outside world up to a century ago. It was hard, but there was great joy in the life as well.
And both are still visible in the striking portraits of today's islanders – the descendants of the families who have been there for generations – which are also in this rewarding book.