Living the Blasket life

Gordon Bond (28) and Lesley Kehoe (27) will work and live on an Blascaod Mór until autumn. They told Tadhg Evans there's still life on the island

Gordon Bond and Lesley Kehoe
Gordon Bond and Lesley Kehoe

Com Dhíneol and the mainland are only kilometres away, and America is the nearest parish to the west.

But the sights, sounds, and fauna of An Blascaod Mór would have you believe heaven is closer than either.

Imagine living and working there as Lesley Kehoe and Gordon Bond are, tending to a hostel once home to Peig Sayers, greeting visitors and selling teas, coffees, taytos, and other treats from a building once home to Micheál Ó Catháin.

Imagine waking up to the view of grey seals rolling on the of An Trá Bán, of Arctic Terns settling on nearby Beiginis. It's an experience few have had since the island's evacuation in 1953, but it's been part of their life for a month. It'll be that way until autumn.

"We were both commuting to Dublin from Kildare. I left home at 7am and got home at 7pm, and four hours each day were taken up by the commute," Lesley says at a timber picnic table adjacent to the island shop. "I was in the heritage sector, working in the 'Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again' exhibition. Gordon was in the civil service. I loved my job, I love Heaney, but the commute does drain you after a while.

"I was on Facebook on the train home from work one evening when I came across this post looking for someone to look after the hostel and shop for the summer. I got off the train, sat into my car, and rang the people who put the post up - Billy O'Connor and Alice Hayes - and two weeks later we met them."

"On February 10, we were told the job was ours," Gordon says. "We've been here nearly a month, and we still can't believe we're sitting here."

The transition from life in the Dublin area to life on an island that feels a world removed from west Kerry, never mind our largest city, is as craggy as the cliffs that skirt Na Blascaodaí.

Billy O'Connor ferries visitors from Dingle Marina most days, weather permitting. He also brings the essentials for Gordon and Lesley.

The couple stay overnight in a room upstairs from the island shop. Their water comes from a spring. There's no electricity, or course not, and they rely on gas for cooking. Timber and coal fuel a stove in the house, but it doesn't kill the chill.

"What gets you [when it comes to heat] is when the light fades in the evening," Gordon says. "We're so busy with all the visitors coming in that you keep moving, and you don't get cold. But when the light is fading, the houses have small windows, you have to open the half door, and then the wind whips around. But it's a case, really, of throwing on another jumper.

"The weather changes so quickly. Today it's beautiful, but on another day, you can't even see the coastline, never mind Dún Chaoin."

"But there's beauty in that as well, and it's a privilege to be able to see the place when it's like that, when this huge wind comes at it," Lesley says. "When the weather is bad, no visitors come out by boat, so very few people get to experience what we experience."

The island hasn't had a community for almost 70 years, but it lives on.

Tourists are today treading its neatly mown walkways. There isn't much by way of chatting, but rather than being glued to phones, they're transfixed by the views, the greenery, the animals, the buildings, the ruins.

People make hostel bookings months in advance, Lesley explains. One woman is here studying the seals, while Lesley's parents have gone off for a walk as their two-day visit to the island nears its end.

It is a quiet place now, but it has energy.

"It still has this vibrant life that's been going on since 1953," Lesley says.

"We're hearing more and more stories. You've had scholars coming over ever since, and you hear about how former islanders came over on day trips.

"We came here first in 2017, while I was writing a dissertation on the Blaskets' intangible heritage. But even we are learning something new every day. Like how the islanders couldn't get their heads around the new two-storey building that were being built here in the 1910s. They couldn't understand why someone 'would build a house on top of another house'.

"Gordon was fortunate in that he could take a career break to do this. I left my job, but I don't feel like I've left the heritage sector. Even though it's a case of minding a hostel and a shop, I still feel like it's a heritage job."

"Even a woman was here today telling us how she came over here in her teens for two weeks on co-op and you had football matches on the beach," Gordon says. "We're learning more and more about its afterlife.

"We're not really thinking about the transition back to the mainland right now. We have to soak this up. It'll be a tough experience to match. But I suppose we'll just have to ease ourselves back into everyday life slowly. I'd guess we won't be back to the 7am commute right away!"

A few hours later, the visitors board Billy's boat, and the chatter is of how the visit trumped even their lofty expectations.

As the motor noises and the boat sets off on the hour-long journey to Dingle, Lesley's parents, Gaye and Noel, wave from the deck; Lesley and Gordon wave back from the island.

It's not as painful a departure as the ones made by the island's former inhabitants, setting off for mainland life prior to 1953. But it's poignant all the same.

Some things never change 'round here.

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