Blasket Islands in focus in exhibition

AGE-old connections between the people of Listowel and west Kerry were rekindled with a night of ceol agus craic in St John's on Saturday that marked the opening of a facinating exhibition of photographs of life on the Blasket Islands.

The 60 or so images come courtesy of Ionad an Bhlascaoid Mhóir in Dun Chaoin, drawn from the centre's archive and opening a new window for the people of Listowel on life on the Blaskets over the decades up to its evacuation.

But the night also teased out the connections that exist between the people of north Kerry and the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht as a number of local figures who played no small part in bringing the literature of the islands to a wider, English-speaking readership were fondly recalled.

Cul Aodh native Liadh Ní Riada - Sinn Féin MEP and daughter of revered composer Sean O'Riada - launched the exhibition, alongside fear an tí on the night Gabriel Fitzmaurice as well as Mícheál and Dáithí de Mórdha of the Blasket Centre, St John's Manager Joe Murphy and a host of friends and musicians.

"For a number of years now we've held events like this that celebrate the deep connections between north and west Kerry, between the people and the literary heritage we share with Corca Dhuibhne," Joe said. "We're soulmates in a sense and it's great to keep the connection alive like this through celebrating a series of stunning images of life on the Blaskets over the generations."

Mícheál and his son, Dáithí, are among those keeping the flame of Blasket civilisation alive into the 21st Century through their work at the centre. For Mícheál, the north and west Kerry connections are deep.

"They go way back and it was even reported in some of earliest recorded history that St Brendan's mother was a native of Corca Dhuibhne. But into modern times there are deep connections with the Blaskets and Listowel. Bryan MacMahon translated Peig into English of course and another Listowel native, Tim Enright, translated three key works of Blasket Island literature, including Tomás O Criomhthain's Allagar na h-Inise or Island Cross-Talk, helping to bring the works to a much wider readership," he said.

Meanwhile, among the visitors to the Blaskets was Thomas Savage, who lived among the community for 20 years while teaching in the island's school before he moved on in his career to his final posting in Duagh. Indeed, Tom Savage's children were reared as Blasket Islanders.

Dáithí is the archivist of photographs at the centre, with an understanding like no other of the celluloid record of life on the islands.

"My favourite images on show in St John's are some of the earliest ones going right back to the 1890s as they show us a life vastly removed from ours today. And you can trace lots of subtle differences in the changing culture of the Island itself over the generations. For instance I grew up thinking of the peak cap as being a traditional form of headwear worn by the men of my grandfather's generation. However, their fathers would have worn black hats and in fact the younger generation started wearing the peak cap to look 'cool'!" he said.

Some of the most arresting images on display are those taken by Charles R Browne, a member of an anthropological expedition to the Blaskets in the late 19th Century that attempted to find supporting evidence for a then popular theory that the people of the west were a completely different race from those in the east.

"They studied the shapes and sizes of the islanders' heads, down to the finest details like the nature of their ear-lobes and they even dug up skulls to examine. Today we talk about the north-south divide, but back then it was all about a divide between east and west," Dáithí said. "But some of the photographs we have from that time are incredible. There are fantastic photographs of the school and all the children and you can even see the decline of the community in the series."

This extraordinary glimpse into Blasket Island life runs in St John's until the end of the month.


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