Oldest living islander honoured on home turf

Marian O'Flaherty

RAPTUROUS applause greeted Dr Mícheál Ó Ceárna in Ionad an Bhlascaoid on Friday as a packed auditorium rose to their feet in honour of Blasket Island native's achievements.

It was a worthy homecoming for the man who, during his life, championed the cause of the Irish language and the culture of his people at home and in his adopted home in the US.

At 92 years of age Dr. Mike had elected to make the journey home to launch his memoirs - walking in the great literary footsteps of his Blasket Island forefathers.

Speaking before his Irish and American families, his Blasket Island and West Kerry brethren and a host of dignitaries including Minister for Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan, Dr. Mike was visibly emotional as he addressed the crowd who hung on his every word.

It proved a fitting climax to a very poignant and joyous occasion which saw Minister Deenihan officially open the 'Blasket Island & West Kerry Welcome Home Week', touted as one of the most eagerly anticipated events of The Gathering. The Minister's speech was extremely well received with Gorta Dubh native and former President of The Kerrymen's Association of New York, Muiris Bric, commenting to The Kerryman afterwards on the heartfelt nature of Minister Deenihan's words. "He gets it," said Muiris, "he [the Minister] understands how important this whole thing really is."

The crowd then de-camped to the audio-visual room at Ionad an Bhlascaoid where co-author Gerald Hayes introduced his father-in-law's memoirs, 'From The Great Blasket to America - The Last Memoir by an Islander'.

"This is probably the last contribution to the Blasket Island library," said Mr Hayes who jokingly described himself as Dr. Mike's "administrator". He described the book as a "love-story" referring to Dr Mike's love of the Blaskets, his Irish heritage and culture, America, his family and the love of his life, his late wife Maureen Ward.

Dr Mike is the son of Seán Tom Ó Cearna and Neilí Ní Dhálaigh, who sadly passed away in 1933 leaving nine children behind on the Great Blasket. At the age of 16 Dr Mike moved to Cahersiveen before making his way to Dublin where he lived for 11 years, working in Davy Byrne's pub. It was also in Dublin that he met his wife-to-be Maureen Ward, a native of Roscommon.

In 1947 tragedy struck as Dr Mike received word from home that his brother Seán had passed away at the age of 24 on the island. This was "the last straw" for Dr. Mike who wrote a letter to Eamon de Valera, which was to start the ball rolling for the island's eventual evacuation on November 17, 1953.

Dr Mike set his sights the USA, leaving Southampton on the Queen Mary. He carved out a life in Springfield, Massachusetts where his beloved Maureen joined him and they married and raised a family. He became a US citizen in 1954 but went on to become a bastion of cultúr and dúchas coaching GAA teams, teaching Irish in Springfield for 10 years, eventually becoming the President of the John Boyle O'Reilly. During his lifetime he also remained resolute in his quest to preserve the heritage of the Blasket Island in order to establish a worthy legacy which could be passed down to subsequent generations. In 2009 he was awarded an honorary doctoral degree in Celtic literature from NUI Maynooth for his contribution to Irish culture.

"He was and is a genuine Irish force of nature," said Mr Hayes who spent countless hours collaborating with Dr Mike in compiling his memoirs. "When I asked him 'why write these memoirs' he simply quoted Tomás Ó Criothain, 'so I can live while I'm dead'."

Mr Hayes also acknowledged the contributions of the many people who were instrumental in making the book a reality, including Mícheál and Dáithí de Mórdha, Mícheál Ó Cinnéide, Maureen Hayes, Seán Cahillane and publishers Collins Press to mention but a few.

A video interview with Dr Mike was then screened to the captivate audience, revealing the motivation for his life's work. "If you lose your heritage you might as well lose yourself," he said, adding that "the island never left my system." At the video's conclusion Dr. Mike rose to his feet to acknowledge the audience and he received a lengthy standing ovation. It proved a poignant tribute and as hands clapped, tears were shed in abundance.

Bringing the evening's events to a close, Mícheál Ó Cinnéide spoke of the importance of the work undertaken by men such as Dr Mike in preserving the heritage of the Blaskets. 2013 is a significant year as it marks 60 years since the evacuation of the Great Blasket Island and it also marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of Ionad an Bhlascaoid.


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