Monday 22 January 2018

Blasket native recalls 'talking machine' Peig

DREAMS OF CHILDHOOD: Dr Micheal O Cearna, the oldest surviving person born on the Blasket Islands, pictured on a return visit to Great Blasket.
DREAMS OF CHILDHOOD: Dr Micheal O Cearna, the oldest surviving person born on the Blasket Islands, pictured on a return visit to Great Blasket.
NOT DOUR: Peig Sayers


SHE'S turned generations of Irish schoolchildren off the Irish language, as they battled to get to grips with the unique style and sombre themes of her famous autobiography.

But Peig Sayers was anything but the dour figure her often dreaded book Peig might suggest – according to the oldest surviving former resident of the Blasket Islands.

Micheal O Cearna, 93, said he has fond memories of spending much of his early years at Peig's house on remote Great Blasket, which was evacuated 60 years ago today.

Dr O Cearna left the Co Kerry outpost in 1937 to seek a better future in Dublin, settling over a decade later with other emigrant islanders in Springfield, Massachusetts, in the US – where he still lives to this day.

But the grandfather of five said some of his happiest memories were of his regular visits to Peig's modest cottage.

He said: "Schoolchildren in Ireland didn't enjoy her book, because she had a hard and very direct kind of Gaelic, but that was the way she spoke.

"But you had to know her and live with her, as I did. She was a very easy-going and warm person, very entertaining and a wonderful storyteller. She was a talking machine."

Peig, who died in Dingle in 1958, is one of the many figures that Dr O Cearna will remember today as he reminisces about the evacuation of the island exactly 60 years ago.

The father of four was instrumental in persuading the then Taoiseach Eamon de Valera to evacuate the 22 remaining islanders from the increasingly desperate conditions they faced on their storm-ravaged outpost on November 17, 1953.

But Dr O Cearna, one of just nine surviving natives of Great Blasket, said he constantly dreamt about "a lost way of life" and said he expected "to be full of emotion" today.

The native Irish speaker admits the tears flowed when he set foot on the abandoned, windswept isle, with members of his US-based family, last May.

He had returned to his former home, which lies three miles off the Dingle coast, to launch his memoirs, From The Great Blasket To America – The Last Memoir by an Islander.

It was the death of one of Dr O Cearna's eight siblings, Sean, 24, in 1947, from meningitis, that triggered the abandonment of the Irish-speaking island six years later.

But despite the hardship and daily struggle of island life, Dr O Cearna, whose doctorate is in Celtic literature, insists his happiest memories are of his childhood amongst the tight-knit community.

Speaking from his home in Springfield, he said: "There are just nine islanders left. There's six in Ireland and three here in the US – myself, my sister and my niece.

"It's the most beautiful place on Earth, but the best thing about it was the people. We had no court, no doctor, no nurse and no priest, but we had the best community you could imagine.

"But in the last few years life had become very difficult. The youth had left the island and the older people were left to fend for themselves."

Dr O Cearna, who in his colourful life worked as a barman, store manager and security officer, was pivotal in setting up the successful Blasket Island Centre in Dunquin in west Kerry 20 years ago.

He added: "I dream about the island and my childhood there, snaring rabbits (and) fishing off the rocks".

"I'd love to go back and live there, but I don't think my old bones could take it."

Sunday Independent

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