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Friday 25 May 2018

Opinion: Why there's more to the Blasket Islands then Peig Sayers

Trá Bán, Great Blasket Island. Photo: Fáilte Island
Trá Bán, Great Blasket Island. Photo: Fáilte Island
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

After the previously reported travails with a B&B scammer, we did manage to get going to Dingle, where the highlight was a trip to the Great Blasket Island.

(By the way, many thanks to Tom from Lispole who rang to sympathise at our misfortune and even stood us a drink. Now, that's the kindness of a stranger.)

My first and only previous encounter with An Bhlascaod Mór came courtesy of Peig.

This infamously bleak autobiography of Peig Sayers (1873-1958), long obligatory for the Leaving Cert Irish syllabus, single-handedly turned generations of school children (including myself, sadly) off our native tongue.

Its opening words set the tone: 'Seanabhean is ea mise anois go bhfuil cos léi insan uaigh is an chos eile ar a bruach. 'I am an old woman now, with one foot in the grave and the other on its edge.'

More recently, Peig the person has undergone something of a rehabilitation, with the release of other material showing her lighter side. But the harm will not be undone overnight.

While long inhabited, the Island's population swelled in the early 19th century due to evictions on the mainland, reaching a peak of 176 in 1916. Emigration then led to declining numbers and the last residents left in 1953/54.

Access to the island is now by ferry. The shortest crossing, from Dunquin, is two miles of notoriously choppy waters.

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At this time of year, the roads on the mainland opposite are flanked by battalions of brightly coloured flowers.

On the island, the 60 acres of once-worked land had been divided into fields by banks of soil.

Now slumped, these banks are covered in old bleached grasses gone to seed interspersed with a few shy wildflowers.

The remaining few sheep and a few donkeys roam freely over the land and unsurfaced green paths.

The sparse vegetation makes the island perfect for rambling.

There are no trees. Apparently, a poster of a tree hung on the wall of the school (which was open from 1864 to 1941) for the information of pupils who had never seen one in real life.

This snippet of information was shared with us by an Office of Public Works guide named Louise. Most of the island is now managed by the OPW and, during the summer, there are guided tours for visitors which, depending on the weather, can number up to a few hundred.

The island is stunningly beautiful in an understated way. But the main interest in the Blaskets arises out of its remarkable literary output from the 1920s onwards, with other famous books including Tomas Ó Criomhthain's An t-Oileanach and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin's Fiche Blian ag Fás.

In reality, the residents' lives at the time were possibly no tougher than those on the mainland but, for whatever reasons, theirs were the stories which got told.

Admittedly, much of the interest was a linguistic one, in that the Irish spoken there was largely unchanged down through the centuries.

But, even in English, I have discovered that there is appeal to at least some of the writing.

I started reading The Islander but it wasn't my cup of tea. However, I loved Twenty Years A-Growing. O'Sullivan's simple description of life growing up on the island is full of energy, wonder and joy.

Obviously, the experiences of a young man starting out in life are going to be very different from a woman nearing the end of hers. But I can't help wondering if many people would have a different view of Irish if this was the book we'd studied for the Leaving, instead of Peig!


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