Tuesday 21 May 2019

On the Edge, Ireland's Offshore Islands: Inside the minds of isolated islanders

History: On the Edge, Ireland's Offshore Islands, Diarmaid Ferriter Profile Books, €28.99

Father Frank Browne illustration for the WB Yeats Poetry book ‘A Lost City of the Bog’, Oughter, Co Offaly (1929)
Father Frank Browne illustration for the WB Yeats Poetry book ‘A Lost City of the Bog’, Oughter, Co Offaly (1929)
On the Edge

JP O' Malley

In 1896 a motley crew of bohemian Celtophiles embarked on a cultural sojourn to the Aran Islands. It included British impressionist writer Arthur Symons and Irish poet WB Yeats. Symons documented how civilisation on the three islands "was similar to that of the Homeric poems".

He also noted a story an islander told him, involving a man killing his father. That case of patricide would later be mythologised in JM Synge's controversial 1907 drama The Playboy of the Western World.

Symons, Yeats and Synge were part of a larger cultural trend that began at the turn of the 20th Century and continued for the next few decades: it saw a host of painters, artists, writers and anthropologists taking spiritual and cultural refuge on numerous islands scattered around Ireland's 7,800km coastline.

All these cultural archivists and spiritual dreamers were seeking to understand - or even momentarily become part of - a mystical ancient Celtic society that sat at the fringes of Western Europe: which modernity and industrialisation had overlooked.

However, these artists tended to frame their experiences on the islands in the language of Social Darwinism - romantically depicting the natives they met almost in a colonial manner: viewing them as simple-noble-savage-peasants.

Diarmaid Ferriter's comprehensive study of Ireland's offshore islands purposely eschews such a reverent, patronising and romantic tone. The Dublin historian begins by looking at island life in the mid-19th Century, taking the reader right up the present day.

Preoccupying the book's central thesis lies a fundamental question: what exactly did island life mean to the native islanders themselves? The answer, Ferriter contends, is there wasn't one single island experience. Another valid question the historian explores concerns the relationship - culturally and economically - between the Irish State and islanders since 1922.

Again, the historian stresses, nuance must be applied. Poverty and tragedy was certainly part of island life. Surprisingly though, the records show islanders were not any worse off than mainland life - particularly in the west of Ireland - during the years when poverty was particularly egregious in Irish society. Moreover, islanders often avoided paying rates and taxes that were mandatory across on the mainland.

Ferriter attempts to deconstruct an apparent paradox contained within the complex story of Ireland offshore islands. On the one hand, the simple, rural life islanders seemingly epitomised was one that displayed just the kind of traits that Irish nationalists were desperately promoting as an ideology in the early years of the Irish State: a deep commitment to communitarian values, agrarian self sufficiency, and, for the most part, a dogmatic attachment to pious Catholicism too.

And yet, mainly for reasons relating to economic hardship, the islanders' narrative is predominantly a downward spiral. In 1841, Ferriter notes, there were 34,219 people living on 211 offshore islands. By 2016 that number had dwindled to 8,756. Like the broader narrative of Irish history over the last 150 years, the island story is one of emigration.

Ferriter soberly reminds us that many islanders were more likely to be familiar with details of the transport systems they help to build in London and Boston, than the ancient songs and stories from their local community.

Prejudices of patronising outside writers notwithstanding, culture is still the most obvious place to look for answers when seeking to understand the island mind: if indeed it is possible to believe in such a concept.

There is certainly a long list of films, books, paintings, poems and plays to choose from to explore this; with Ferriter dedicating two fascinating chapters, citing various examples from these cultural gems along the way.

The highlights include Emily Lawless's 1892 romantic tragic novel Grania, which raised some interesting ideas at the time regarding the status women living on islands coveted in comparison to their mainland counterparts. Then there is the books the islanders wrote themselves.

The Blasket Island canon delivers the two most obvious examples: Peig Sayers's, 1936 memoir, Peig, and Tomas O'Crohan's 1929 memoir, The Islandman. Robert Flaherty's documentary, Man of Aran, it's worth noting, won Best Film at the Venice film festival in 1935.

The cultural, sociological and anthropological evidence Ferriter meticulously sifts through here shows us that island natives, historically at least, did have their various customs, traditions and beliefs: whether that was how they played the fiddle; smoked tobacco; approached the concept of death at a wake; or spoke about mystical elements like storms and the ocean, with a pagan-like superstition.

Ferriter avoids single definitions, broad brushstrokes and hyperbole. Primarily because he is a historian who always favours fact, sources and evidence, over subjective opinion; and the great array of archival material he brings to the surface here is a good testament to his dedicated approach to research.

This enormous attention to detail, however, becomes a little overbearing at times. A 50-page chapter dedicated to island priests, for instance, is tough going: feeling like an uncomfortable mix between academic obsession and a bad Father Ted parody.

Still, if this is the book's single major flaw, it's one that can be forgiven, as elsewhere it's packed with intriguing analysis and historical detail.

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