Sunday 19 January 2020

Dying moments of the ancient world in West Kerry

The Loneliest Boy In The World by Gearoid Cheaist Ó Cathain. The Collins Press, €12.99

Great Blasket
Great Blasket
Gearoid Cheaist Ó Cathain
The Loneliest Boy In The World

JP O'Malley

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Great Blasket Island, the furthest outpost of western European civilisation, located three miles off the coast of Dún Chaoin in west Kerry, was virtually unknown to the modern world.

But this windswept seaboard became of great interest to historians, anthropologists, and linguists, as a fascination for Celtic languages and customs during this period.

By the time the very last islanders had departed for the mainland in 1953, leaving it permanently uninhabited, the Great Blasket had produced a number of classic works of Gaelic literature: all of these documented a form of peasant life that was dying out.

Among these are The Islandman by Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Twenty Years a Growing by Maurice Ó Sullivan and Peig by Peig Sayers.

Anglophile academics could be slightly patronising when describing these isolated communities, whose cultural roots lay in a remote past.

EM Forester referred to life on the Blasket Islands as "a Neolithic civilisation", while Professor George Thompson a Cambridge Marxist scholar, said it was representative of a "pre-capitalist society." And Professor Kenneth Jackson, a linguist specialising in Celtic studies, claimed that Peig Sayers almost resembled a woman from the Middle Ages.

But still, this utter fascination from English academics displays how this tight knit community were certainly a people apart, whose lives were hidden from the inexorable forces of modernity.

Gearoid Cheaist Ó Cathain is the last surviving member of this community. And he has just recently published The Loneliest Boy in the World, a memoir about growing up on the island. At the time, the nearest person in age to Ó Cathain was his uncle who was thirty years his senior.

In December 1948 an Irish journalist wrote a story, published in several newspapers around the globe, describing how Ó Cathain was the last child left on the Great Blasket.

The article was met with much enthusiasm, good will, as well as a plethora of letters sent to the Ó Cathain family from numerous well wishers. An Irish American called Patrick Fitzgerald even offered to fly the entire Ó Cathain family over to Minnesota, where he promised them full time employment on his ranch. The offer, though, was graciously declined.

Some of the simple descriptions of basic agricultural and fishing life are beautifully captured here in this memoir. They show how a community that lacks any market or trading culture to buy goods, must ultimately work together to ensure that they can live self- sufficiently.

Planning thus became an essential part of their lives, which correlated with the natural world around them.

In spring, the islanders prepared fields for the setting of potatoes; in summer they fished from dawn until dusk, often catching between two and three dozen pots of lobsters; while in winter, due to the shorter days, much of the hours were spent resting and getting ready for the coming season.

But Ó Cathain is careful not to sentimentalise or romanticise what was essentially a life of poverty. And he makes it clear that when he settled in Dún Chaoin he never really missed island life again.

The second half of this book, which documents the latter period of Ó Cathain's life, I found less inspiring. And if his stripped back prose style works effectively for recreating a simple peasant life, it becomes slightly jarring when he's then essentially explaining just a normal Irish, Catholic, childhood.

These small inconsistencies aside, The Loneliest Boy in the World is yet another important historical artefact that contributes significantly to the existing literature on Blasket living. And to our understanding of a community and way of life, that is now gone forever.

But thankfully, we still have their literature to cherish.

Sunday Independent

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