Wednesday 21 November 2018

Blasket Islands - A trip back in time for your Irish bucket list

Pól Ó Conghaile journeys back in time with a sea-blown visit to the Blasket Islands...

Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

The Great Blasket Island is brimming with ghosts.

Walking its grassy paths, poking our noses into the crumbling husks of its houses, I feel like we're being watched; like spirits are scooting away seconds before we turn their corner.

It's treeless, and the stories are grim. Of coffins carried down Bótharín na Marbh ('path of the dead') and beetled to the mainland on currachs. Of infant mortality and treacherous cliffs. Of nearby Inis Tuaisceart, and how its silhouette resembles a dead man in repose (An Fear Marbh, as it's known).

"We're close to the mainland, but it feels so remote," I muse aloud to my eight-year-old son, Sam.

"What do you mean, remote?"

"Well, I suppose it's when something is far away from other things, and hard to get to," I say.

He seems happy with that.

The talk may be of death. But when I look at Sam's sunny flower of a face, at his big inquiring eyes scanning this ghostly Gaeltacht, I feel alive.

View of Trá Bán from inside a cottage on the Blasket Islands
View of Trá Bán from inside a cottage on the Blasket Islands
Dún Chaoin (Dunquin) Pier, Co. Kerry
Trá Bán, Great Blasket Island. Photo: Fáilte Island
OPW tour on the Great Blasket Island
Safety First: Visitors are warned to stay away from cliff edges. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Inside an OPW-restored cottage on the Blasket Islands
The Great Blasket Island. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Mark Murphy of the Little Cheese Shop in Dingle
Pól on the Great Blasket Island
Bacús Bakery in Dingle
Waiting at the Great Blasket Island slipway
Sign for Peig's house, Great Blasket Island
Gearóid Keane in 1951 - then the only child on Great Blasket Island. Photo: WATFORD/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images
A Woman at her spinning wheel on the Great Blasket Island, circa 1898. Photo by Past Pix/SSPL/Getty Images
The Blasket Islands from Dunmore Head. Photo: Fáilte Ireland
Trá Ban, on the Great Blasket Island
Blasket Islands picnic. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
The Blasket Centre at Dún Chaoin. Photo: OPW
Seals on Trá Bán, Blasket Islands

Our journey began back home in Wicklow, a five-hour drive away. A few weeks beforehand, I'd shown Sam the Blaskets on the map on his bedroom wall, moving my finger as far west as it would go. I told him that, to get there, we would need to drive across Ireland, then out to the end of the Dingle Peninsula. We'd need to get tickets in a little hut at Dún Chaoin, before walking down the steep, zig-zagging pier. From there, we'd take a rib to a boat that would ferry us across the short, mutinous sound, get into the rib again, and eventually end up at the very edge of Europe.

"I'd be up for that," he said.

En route, we got a picnic. Stopping in Dingle, we called into Bacús Bakery for a fresh baguette and sticky cinnamon roll and The Little Cheese Shop next door for a nice, stinky selection of Irish cuts. The first tour buses of the day were pulling into the harbour car park, and the town's pastel shopfronts popped like Instagram filters.

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Mark Murphy of the Little Cheese Shop in Dingle

"Every year I make a list of all the things I'm going to do in winter time," said Mark Murphy, chopping lumps of Cáis na Tíre and O'Brien's Cheddar and other goodies to go. But Dingle stays busy. "Come March, I throw it out," he laughed.

"Are ye going to the Blaskets?" his colleague, Louise, asked with smiling eyes. She wasn't the first. Along the way, we told several people of our destination - they all delighted in the detail, whether they've done a Blasket Islands visit themselves or not.

"Oh, ye're going to love it!"

Driving out along Slea Head, the roads pinched thinner and traffic was tetchy, so we skipped over the hills after Ventry and swooped down towards Dún Chaoin that way. We were both taken by surprise when widescreen views of An Fear Marbh and Skellig Michael - "the Star Wars island", as I found myself explaining it - pulled into focus before us. "After that, the next stop is America," I dad-splained goofily.

I didn't care. I was excited. But why? I hated reading Peig for the Leaving Cert. I've been to the Skelligs, to Malin Head and Mizen Head and so many other wild corners of this country. But something about setting foot on the Blaskets put the hook in me. And it only got livelier as the satnav closed in.

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Dún Chaoin (Dunquin) Pier, Co. Kerry

"Ye've missed the rain," said the girl in the bright red jacket with our ferry tickets. She was stationed just above the Sheep's Highway - the nickname given to the ribbed walkway down to the pier, famous for its images of sheep being marched up and down. The rain was gone, but big grey clouds were bellying down over the islands, and we'd come prepared for any weather - sunscreen and hats stuffed in with the waterproofs and cheese and baguettes and camera gear in my increasingly bulging backpack.

"And the chocolate?" said Sam.

Yes, I hadn't forgotten that.

Walking down, we passed two American tourists setting up a selfie. "We saw it on Instagram," one told me, pointing to sea stacks punching out of the water like tectonic slabs of Toblerone. I offered to take the photo for them, before carrying on down, pausing to examine a coffin rest-stop on the way.

At the bottom, a boy stood by a small rib and a stack of orange life jackets. He took our tickets and we were soon on our way out over seaweedy waters, taking the strong hand of the captain who hauled us onto the ferry. It's a short, kilometre-long crossing from Dún Chaoin, but I'd read how lethal the sound can be, and even on this relatively calm day, the boat rolled around like a toy in a bathtub.

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Waiting at the Great Blasket Island slipway

"Don't you get seasick?" someone asked.

"Well, we get sick of the sea," the captain called back over chomping diesel engines. It was the first of several one-liners ricocheting around the 20-minute journey, as passengers' faces got a little green and the boatmen shared tantalising tales of dolphins, puffins and even basking shark encountered on their daily crossings.

Before we knew it, we were back on the rib, puttering into a tiny cove hidden behind dark rocks and scrambling up a slanted, natural slipway that, even in the 21st century, does not contain a single manmade step.

"Peig's House & Café," read a note written on a piece of slate in the grass. It pointed towards one of the few white buildings among the island's stony shells. "If you take a wee, please buy a tea!"

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Sign for Peig's house, Great Blasket Island

A steep path brought us up to the old settlement and now here we are, wandering around with a handful of visitors and a pair of sea-kayakers with shortie wetsuits peeled to the waist. The stone buildings seem at once hardy survivors, and teetering ruins. Stepping into one, we peer out an empty window hole towards the seals sunbathing on Trá Bán.

An OPW tour kicks off, and a young guide in hi-vis vest paints a picture of a long-gone Gaeltacht community that peaked at some 176 souls. We hear about houses built on the sheltered side of the island, their hearths to the hillside. We're told of diets loaded with fish and potatoes, of a society cut off for weeks at a time in stormy weather, of shipwrecks that brought tragedy for some, and treasure washing up onto the shoreline for others.

World War I was good to the island, as one character quips in Muiris Ó Súilleabháin's Fiche Bliain Ag Fás. "If it continues, this island will be the Land of the Young."

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A Woman at her spinning wheel on the Great Blasket Island, circa 1898. Photo by Past Pix/SSPL/Getty Images

It's tempting, of course, to romanticise this harsh lifestyle. In his forward to Ó Súilleabháin's book, E.M. Forster hailed a "Neolithic civilisation" detached from the mainland. J.M. Synge visited in 1905. Others came to study a "primitive" people whose food, clothes and traditions changed little over the centuries. Blasket Islanders were people who told vivid stories, danced to the fiddle, burned turf, travelled by currach and absorbed fewer English words into their "pure" Irish, the world was told. They won documentary-style fame as a sort of lost tribe, an idealised version of Ireland.

The reality was another story. "STORM BOUND. DISTRESS. SEND FOOD. NOTHING TO EAT - BLASKETS" was the famous telegraph sent to De Valera in 1947. Six years later, the island was evacuated.

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Inside an OPW-restored cottage on the Blasket Islands

Remarkably, dozens of books have been written by or about Blasket Islanders, including Peig's biography. There's a groan from Irish visitors when her cottage is pointed out, but our guide gently encourages us to hold our judgement. "It was probably the wrong audience... but it's not a viewpoint you get very often."

This summer, the cottage of another author, Tomás Ó Criomthain, was opened after a €300,000 OPW restoration. We're invited to explore its three tiny rooms and small hearth surrounded by bare chairs, blackened kettle and picture of the Sacred Heart once another visitor is released.

"As soon as I get this bird out ye can wander in," the guide says.

"Your son's bedroom is probably bigger than that house," says a visitor from Salt Lake City, Utah, pointing into a ruin in which some 10 kids once slept.

"No it isn't," he whispers.

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Blasket Islands picnic. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

After the tour, we climb up to a ruin overlooking the beach and break out the picnic (above). Our cheeses feel a bit ostentatious now, but we're both ravenous, so we bat away the midges and tuck in. The only signs of 21st century life are the trickle of tourists, a few boats offshore and the OPW guide now leaning against a wall with his cup of tea down below.

The weather is changing. Slowly, dark clouds slip away and bits of blue come through, throwing a summer spotlight down on Trá Bán.

After lunch, we follow the cliff path down, discarding our shoes and feeling the sugary scrunch of sand in our toes. There are hundreds of seals basking on the beach; their weird wooooooing audible from far away. I take out a long camera lens for a closer look, and peering through it, we see them lolling around, occasionally nipping and barking at each other. We're the only humans on the beach with them.

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Seals on Trá Bán, Blasket Islands

The Atlantic looks crisp and delicious, with short, curly waves dumping down at the shoreline. We've been warned against rip-tides, however, and so paddle rather than swim. Sock-hot feet hit icy froth, and whoops ring out over the white sands.

The light is breathtaking. One moment, the beach is shadowy and ominous. The next, clouds are whipped away like clothes on a washing line, and Trá Bán seems cut from the Caribbean. We examine seaweeds stuck to rocks, tasting sea lettuce and pepper dulse. A grain of sand gets stuck between my teeth, and Sam remarks on the fact that we've seen no rubbish - apart from a single cigarette butt back at the steps where I sit him down to help clean the sand from his toes.

"Teaching the techniques?"

A German accent turns our heads. It belongs to a friendly visitor from Austria, we learn, and I ask what has brought him here.

"My daughter had this as a screensaver!" he delights, gesturing about at the view. "We spent a week on a boat on the Shannon, and then she said could we come here. So we did!"

We put our shoes on, he takes his off, and we part ways, heading back up to the cliff again. On our way, we pass a young woman in a bright yellow Mac. She skips down the steps and we watch from a height as she ventures out onto the strand, leaving another set of tracks to join her father for a stroll.

"I wonder was it her screensaver," Sam says.

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Trá Ban, on the Great Blasket Island

Wandering back through the ruins, back towards Bótharín na Marbh, back down the slippery slope to the island's improvised pier, I notice a kind of collegiality among those who have made the journey. The hours have flown by and moods are up. Sitting onto the rib, bums soak up drops of salky water and a lady opens a bag of sucky sweets. A chat kicks off, and a group of hikers from Limerick wonder where their tardier members have gotten to.

"The weather cleared up nicely in the end."

"It did. It's lovely now."

"Jesus!" someone says as the boat jerks.

"A lot of people call me that," grins the boatman, back with his one-liners to collect us. "Jesus, Mary, Joseph... all the names."

As the boat pulls anchor, Sam scours the water for jellyfish and I look back up at the old ruins on that sea-blown slope, wondering about the disarming effect this short visit has had on me. Why do these islands seem so soulful? Is it the draw of a deserted village, the lyrical literature, or the slowly jolting effect of a cross-country journey?

We all seem so busy these days, eye-deep in devices. But this long drive and short boat trip have momentarily driven a wedge between me and the mainland. The fresh air is a drug. It feels like there is space between my ears, like time has been fenced-off for me and a boy for whom 1953 is ancient history.

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Pól on the Great Blasket Island

That was the year the last islanders were evacuated from the Great Blasket. People have since lived here over the summer months, and you'll spot the odd habitable dwelling today - including a seasonal café, cottages and hostel on the hill - but it's just too tough a place to stay year-round.

Maybe that's part of the appeal, too. This chapter in Irish life is closed, but pushing away from the shore, as the island recedes and the swell engulfs us and the ghosts of the Great Blasket Island reclaim the buildings and the pathways between them again, this death-drenched story still feels part of us.

"It's nice to see a bit of life coming to the island in summer," the OPW guide said. "The people are gone. But they won't be forgotten any time soon."

Sam also has some parting words.

"I'd like to stay the night."

Get there

Blasket Island Ferries (085 775-1045; blasketisland.com) operates between Dunquin Harbour and the Great Blasket Island from April to September. The 1km crossing takes roughly 20 minutes, with tickets at €35 (adults) or €25/€15 (teens/kids) return. Under-3s and dogs go free.

See also wildatlanticway.com.

3 travel tips...

1. Tea and a tour

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OPW tour on the Great Blasket Island

After you land on the Great Blasket, make a beeline for the free OPW tour - it's a super induction to the island. Further up the village, you can stay at a small hostel (doubles from €100) Peig's cottage (from €140) and grab a cuppa at "the most westerly coffee shop in Europe". See greatblasketisland.net.

2. Centre of attention

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The Blasket Centre at Dún Chaoin. Photo: OPW

The Blasket Centre (Ionad an Bhlascaoid Mhóir) is an OPW-run heritage centre and museum on the mainland at Dún Chaoin. It explores the lives and literary legacy of the island community through exhibitions, artefacts and art. March to November; €5/€3 (kids U12 go free). See blasket.ie.

3. Be prepared

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Safety First: Visitors are warned to stay away from cliff edges. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Great Blasket Island is a "wilderness site" with no wheelchair access and limited weather cover. Bring hiking shoes, rain gear, sunscreen, snacks and water. Ferries are weather-dependent, swimming at Trá Bán is unsafe due to rip-tides, and visitors should not get too close to cliff edges... or seals!

Read more:

The Skelligs: How to get to there, and get the most out of your trip

Irish Independent

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