Even on the day of their departure from the Great Blasket Island for the last time 60 years ago, the final 22 inhabitants fell victim to the whims of the Atlantic — the constant presence that had shaped the rhythm of their lives.
Waiting with their few belongings on the tiny quayside to be transported the short distance across the Sound to new lives on the mainland, a sudden sea swell delayed the long-planned passage away from a homeland still clutching them in an embrace of wind and spray.
“Conditions were calm when we left Dunquin, before the sea began to rise in white foam across the headlands,” recalled Michael Brosnan, skipper of the Saint Lawrence O’Toole. “It was doubtful if we could land to take the islanders and their belongings due to heavy seas.”
Met by fishermen who had rowed across the swell in their handmade naomhogs, Dan O’Brien of the Irish Land Commission, the agency tasked with relocating them to new homes just visible in the distance, was transported to the slipway where the last inhabitants stood waiting.
Obtaining the names of the families who would occupy the new houses — Dunleavey, O’Sullivan, Guiheen, and Keane — the official forms marked the end of a way of life thereafter to be found only in the literature that survived them.
“The islanders were ready to depart” Mr O’Brien said later. “They knew 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.”
In his autobiography The Islandman, Tomas Ó Criomhthain remarked: “The likes of us will not be seen again.” His family, like many on the islands, were forced there by eviction in the early 19th century, to a life of primitive isolation, marooned forever by the tides and gales that surrounded them.
Living under thatched roofs where field mice and birds made their nests, and upon floors scattered with sea sand to combat the damp, he charted the lives of a people sharing space with their animals in dwellings barely 6m from end to end.
“There were two beds in the lower portion, where people slept,” he wrote. “Potatoes would be stored under these beds. On the other side of the partition, the family, ten of them perhaps, used to spend the whole day. There was a coop beside the partition with hens in it, and a broody hen just by it in a cooking pot. At night-time there would be a cow or two, a calf or two, the ass, and the dog on a chain by the wall or running about the house.”
Other memoirs of the life — Peig by Peig Sayers, and Twenty Years A-Growing by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin — further charted an existence that ultimately disappeared due to a combination of economics, hardship, and isolation. As well as the sheep dotting the steep hillsides, many families owned donkeys — but only males; the land was too dangerous for both genders, with the constant threat of falling from the cliffs during the mating season.
Rabbits were the main source of meat in the island diet, underpinned by the bounty of the sea that made up the primary sustenance. Potatoes were farmed only to a small extent — the ground was too rough — and the Blaskets were not as badly affected as the mainland by the Great Famine.
Access to a doctor or priest was a 5km journey across the Sound, and were often delayed.
Ó Criomhthain recalled going to a wedding once in North Kerry during a particularly stormy winter period, and finding himself caught in Dingle for three weeks as gales lashed the coast. When he eventually returned, his family were shocked to see him, having thought him drowned on the journey.
The population began a decline from its peak of 176 in 1916, steadily downwards to just that final handful in 1953. Micheál Ó Ceárna, the oldest surviving Blasket Islander at 93, left in 1937 for Springfield, USA, along with many others from the islands. This year, he penned his own memoir of his birthright, From the Great Blasket to America — The Last Memoir by an Islander.
After the death of his younger brother on the island without a priest or doctor in 1947, he played a key role in lobbying Éamon de Valera to relocate the remaining islanders from a place becoming increasingly uninhabitable. Yet, even after a lifetime away from Ireland and his beloved Blasket, Mike Carney, as he’s been known in the US for 60 years, continues to speak Irish, and was given an honorary doctorate in Celtic literature from Maynooth for his efforts on behalf of the Irish language.
“I can’t get the island out of my mind,” he said. “It has stayed with me all of my life. There was no court, no doctor, no priest, but we didn’t need them.”
But even before he left in 1937, the end of a way of life was becoming ever more apparent: “The youth had left the island and the older people were left to fend for themselves.”
Isles of man
There are more than 50 inhabited islands dotted around Ireland’s coast — many with less than five people, according to the census figures 2011.
Some of the centres of population are:
* Bere — 216
* Haulbowline — 146
* Inchydoney — 149
* Sherkin — 114
* Whiddy — 20
*Árainn Mhór — 522
* Toraigh — 144
* Gabhla — 15
* North Bull — 14
* Árainn — 845
* Eanach Mheáin — 141
* Garmna — 1,055
* Inis Oírr — 249
* Inis Meáin — 157
* Leitir Mealláin — 241
* Leitir Móir — 548
* Maínis — 140
* Valentia — 665
* Rossmore — 10
* Carraig — 9
* Achill — 2,569
* Clare — 168
* Inishturk — 53
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