Wednesday 21 February 2018

Last child of the islands - a youth on the Blaskets

Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin grew up with only adults for company on the Blaskets, and this made him an international cause célèbre.

Last survivor: Gearóid as a child with one of the adults on the island
Last survivor: Gearóid as a child with one of the adults on the island
Gearóid pictured as he is today.

Graham Clifford

The loneliest boy in the world isn't lonely anymore – in fact, he never was. In his home in Cork, Gearóid Cheaist Ó' Catháin, the last child of the Great Blasket Island, smiles as he recalls the newspaper article which made him something of a star.

"I was far from lonely, sure I was the centre of attention without knowing it," he says. "I spent all my time tipping around with older people. There were no other kids on the Great Blasket so you didn't pick up children's ways – you picked up older people's ways. I didn't miss what I didn't have."

The feature, written in 1948 by reporter Liam Robinson with superb photography from Donal McMonagle, was first published in the Sunday Press before being syndicated across the world. With the emotive sub-headline "he only has the seagulls to play with", it appeared in newspapers from New Zealand to the USA.

Gearóid lived on the island with his parents until 1953 before they were 'evacuated' to Dún Chaoin on the mainland when he was six. The last tribe of islanders consisted of 30 people, most of whom were elderly.

Next Thursday Gearóid and writer Patricia Ahern will launch their new book, The Loneliest Boy in the World, looking back at his youth on the remote island off the west Kerry coast and reveal what happened next in his life. Soon after the newspaper feature appeared Gearóid, who was just one-and-a-half at the time and is the last survivor from the evacuated islanders, was inundated with gifts from across the globe.

"Overnight, my family and I became famous," writes Gearóid. "An avalanche of post flooded in from England, America, Australia and New Zealand. Séan Fillí, our postman, had a path worn to our door.

"He'd empty his postbag on the kitchen table, turn to my mother and laugh 'More of the same Bídí'.

Toys, clothes and books arrived. Soon, he built up a children's library: "I'd fall asleep to my mother reading comics about Roy Rodgers, Davy Crockett and Buffalo Bill and books by Hans Christian Andersen."

One American ranch owner even offered to adopt Gearóid. He told the Irish Independent this week: "A fella in Texas wanted to buy me. Another family in Iowa wanted to take my parents and I to live with them ... sure my father would hardly go across the road if he didn't have to.

"A medical student in New Zealand, used to write to me regularly. He promised to come to visit in the 1960s but he never did and then gradually the letters stopped."

Battered by the elements, the population of the Great Blasket, which stood at around 200 decades before the evacuation, dwindled and with an ageing population self-sufficiency became progressively harder for the islanders.

"Everyone looked after each other but in the end we only had two crews fishing – it became very tough to survive," Gearóid says. "I think in many ways my mother was content to leave. She had good English and had spent time working in Dublin and Tralee as a younger woman.

"She was the only woman of child-bearing age on the island and it must have been a bit lonely for her. Also, she was concerned about my education and wanted me to go to school."

Still the draw to the island, the close-knit community and traditional way of life lived with the islanders long after their left its harsh environment. "We were moved to a house in Dún Chaoin and from the back window you could see the island," Gearóid tells me. "In the morning I'd often catch my parents looking out across the water. They missed it greatly, sure why wouldn't they – it was their home.

"Also, when some of the men from the island would be walking down the road in Dún Chaoin they'd walk in single file because that's how they were used to walking on the narrow paths out on the Great Blasket."

In The Loneliest Boy in the World, Gearóid describes how the islanders would dote over him. They even lined the slipway when his mother brought him home from St Elizabeth's Hospital in Dingle to greet the youngest member of their community.

"I was wild as a child, I had no barriers and could do what I wanted," he writes. "I was probably spoilt.

"You'd have to go back years for the last time a child lived on the Blaskets, so this was a huge novelty for the people and they felt very protective of me."

Like the famed Blasket writers before him, such as Muiris Ó'Súilleabháin, Tomás O' Criomhthain and Peig Sayers, Gearóid relives a way of life where fishing, community, music and nature played such a huge part in the lives of the island people.

"They were tough times but there was great joy too. I feel the way Peig (Sayers) was depicted, as being sorry and sorrowful, was not accurate. She was an amazing woman who dealt with life's tragedies and got on with it."

Gearoid went on to attend boarding school in Freshford, Co Kilkenny, and recalls how startled he was to see so many students in one place. Despite having very little English, he got an honour in the Leaving Cert. He later married Marie and he has two adult children, Graham and Sandra.

"It's nearly 10 years since I was on the Blaskets," he writes. "I've had no mind to return since my mother died in 2004. It was always hard to see our homes falling to pieces, overgrown with weeds. Now I'll be on my own going there and that will be difficult, but one day I'll go back."

The Loneliset Boy in the World: The last child of the great Blasket Island by Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin with Patricia Ahern is published by the Collins Press, price €12.99.

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