Evacuation marks end of an era as last families leave the Blaskets

The late Peadí Mhicil Ó Súilleabháin on the Clasach overlooking the islands where he was born. Pic: Kevin Coleman
The late Peadí Mhicil Ó Súilleabháin on the Clasach overlooking the islands where he was born. Pic: Kevin Coleman
Disembarking from the St Lawrence O’Toole in Dingle on 17 November 1953 were, from left: Sean S Ó Cearnaigh, Padraig Misteál, Sean Ó Súilleabháin, Sean Philí Ó Cearnaigh, Sean Ó Guithín and Sean Ó Catháin. Pic: Irish Examiner

About 9.30 on Tuesday morning, Dingle Harbour was placid and the fishing boat St Lawrence OToole left the pier and proceeded towards the Great Blasket. Weather conditions looked ideal except for a troubled sea which broke into white foam against the Blasket group and the headlands.When approaching Inis More on the Blasket Mór, Mr Michael Brosnan, skipper of the f

THE Atlantic, which dominates the lives of the Blasket Island people, asserted its supremacy on Tuesday, the day appointed by the Irish Land Commission to have this community of twenty-two people and their furniture transferred over the Sound to four newly-built cottages at Dunquin with three acres of arable land attached.

About 9.30 on Tuesday morning, Dingle Harbour was placid and the fishing boat St Lawrence O’Toole left the pier and proceeded towards the Great Blasket. Weather conditions looked ideal except for a troubled sea which broke into white foam against the Blasket group and the headlands.

When approaching Inis More on the Blasket Mór, Mr Michael Brosnan, skipper of the fishing boat, shook his head. It was doubtful if the islanders with their furniture could be transferred to Dunquin, owing to the heavy seas.

When the islanders espied the fishing boat coming close they put out a canoe or naomhóg and came alongside the fishing boat and informed those on board that it was dangerous to land. Mr Dan O’Brien of the Irish Land Commission asked that he be taken into the canoe and his request was granted. Mr O’Brien reached the little landing slip under most dangerous conditions and obtained the signatures of those who will occupy the new houses at Dunquin. The names of the families are, Dunleavy, O’Sullivan, Guiheen and Keane.

The naomhóg made three trips to the island and brought John J Kearney, John Maurice Keane, John Guiheen, John O’Sullivan, Pat Mitchell and John P Kearney to the fishing boat. They were unable to bring any furniture beyond a chair and two boxes.

The fishing boat remained cruising about for a few hours but was forced at last to give up the project and return to Dingle.



NO FUTURE

Mr D O’Brien on his return told me that he will not forget his experience for some time. Landing was difficult and dangerous but leaving the slip was much worse. “The islanders were all ready to depart,” he continued. “All household furniture was packed. They realised that there was no future for them on the Blasket. They signed the necessary forms. They can return to the island in good weather to look after their sheep.”

Mr John Goulding, also of the Irish Land Commission who, with Mr O’Brien, had charge of arrangements, said the four cottages at Dunquin were most comfortable. Everything had been made ready for their occupation. The fires were actually lighting but the elements had their say in the matter.



POST OFFICE CLOSED

Two post office engineers, Messrs Denis Clifford and Michael Quirke, were on board the fishing boat and intended to land on the island to recover the radio telephone equipment which has been installed since 1941 and the Blaskets’ only means of communication. They were unable to accomplish their task. The carrying of this cumbersome apparatus in a canoe to the fishing boat was deemed impossible under such conditions.

The Blasket Island post office was closed on Monday.

John J Kearney, postmaster, remarked to me that the older people saw this day approaching. “There are fifteen people left behind until the weather improves,” he said. The number includes three old women who are well over seventy years – Mrs Mary Guiheen, Mrs Cath Keane and Mrs Joan Sullivan. When I said to him that I understood that the number on the island was twenty-two he replied that that was so up to a few days ago. That number included his mother, Mrs Eilís Kearney, who left her home two days ago and is at present in Dingle.



NO HOUSE OR LAND

John P Kearney, the Blasket Island postman, said that his services were no longer required. For many years he crossed the Sound to and from the island to Dunquin. He was getting no house or land but would stay for the present with his sister, Mrs Hanna O’Sullivan, in Dingle.

Mrs Hanna O’Sullivan, who was also on board to greet her island relatives, said that she left the island fifteen years ago and would not live there again. The younger people were not prepared to live under the same conditions as their predecessors.



CLASSICS RECALLED

As the Blasket Mór faded into the mist, I recalled Tomás Ó Críomhthain’s An tOileánach and similar classics in Irish like Peg Sayers’ life story and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin’s Fiche Bliain Ag Fás. These books were written when the Blasket was more populous. According to the census of 1901, there were 22 families comprising one hundred and thirty-two people living in the hollow of the Great Blasket.

Dr Robin Flower, ‘An Blaithín’ as he was affectionately called by the islanders, wrote extensively about this fine old Gaelic stock. In fulfilment of his dying wish his ashes were strewn on Crough More, the peak of An Blascaod Mór.



ISLANDMAN

The film ‘Islandman’ is an Irish-made feature with a love interest and was made on the Great Blasket some years ago. It has splendid photography, a really excellent céilidhe with sets, step-dances, songs in Irish and English, an island regatta and the many aspects of Blasket life.

The cast includes players from Dingle theatres, Eileen Curran of Cork and Brian O’Sullivan, who had a leading part in the Killarney-made ‘Dawn,’ as well as the islanders themselves. The story was written by Donal O’Cahill.

Now that the islanders have been transferred to the mainland, the film has an added importance and is an unique record of Blasket life.





The Kerryman, November 1953







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