IT was Christmas Eve, 1948, when reporter Liam Robinson and photographer Donal MacMonagle arrived at the jetty on the Great Blasket Island. The duo stayed on the island for three days, until St Stephen’s Day.
Their mission? To meet the last child of the Blaskets — Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin, then 18 months old and living with his parents in the primitive fishing village of Bun a’ Bhaile, which had no electricity, doctor, school or priest — for Sunday mass, the community rowed three miles across open sea to the village of Dún Chaoin, on the mainland. Robinson’s subsequent article was syndicated around the world. It made Gearóid famous.
Gifts of toys, clothes, books and offers of help poured in — a Minnesota rancher offered to adopt ‘the loneliest boy in the world’, whose only playmates, the article said, were seagulls.
A couple from Iowa wanted to provide his parents with jobs and rear Gearóid to take over their family grain operation. “The article was extraordinary,” says Gearóid, now 66, who later moved to Cork and trained as an accountant.
“The journalist chose the heading ‘The Loneliest Boy in the World’. The article was syndicated and it went everywhere — New Zealand, Australia, America. I got a huge amount of presents and clothes and toys, and people would come to the Blaskets and take photographs of me, the miniature Tarzan of the islands. There was a big rancher in America, who wanted to buy me and adopt me — he had no heir and he decided I’d be the one who would take over his ranch. My parents were amazed by this, but they decided not to take him up on his offer,” says Gearóid, who met Robinson in 1988, after the journalist heard him being interviewed on the Gay Byrne show about the islands.
Gearóid was the last person born on the island and the only child living there at the time — his young sisters, Áine and Josephine, were born on the mainland, where his family and the other islanders had moved.
But for Gearóid, island life was never lonely. He grew up surrounded by family and neighbours in a tight-knit and supportive community.
He never noticed that he was the only child in the village — he saw everyone as the same age, even though the next-youngest person was his uncle, Faeilí (30).
“I lived on the Blaskets until I was six years old,” he says. “My memories of those years are brilliant — I knew no different, so the old people were my playmates.
“I was involved in everything they were doing — shearing sheep, catching rabbits, fishing, collecting turf from the bog and sailing the islands in the naomhóg. They gave me a piece of whatever they were doing.”
The youngster even met the indomitable Peig Sayers, whose autobiography was a memorable part of Leaving Certificate Irish for so many students: “She was a beautiful woman — I met her when my mother visited Dingle.
“Peig was in hospital in Dingle at the time.
“I was about eight or nine and I’d go to the hospital to see her with my mother.
“She was a fine, lovely woman; I remember her as a big, cheerful woman in her 80s.
“She’d be wearing her bed jacket and a crucifix. She had a lovely, friendly face, a young face, and she’d always shake my hand,” Gearóid says.
Gearóid was six when the island was evacuated — it had been coming since the year he was born.
In April, 1947, just a few months before his birth, the island was battered by such a terrible storm that the islanders sent a telegram to Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, pleading for help: ‘Storm bound, distress, send food, nothing to eat.’
A few months later, de Valera visited, and spoke to the community, and within a few years the island had been evacuated.
However, nine days after Gearóid was born, on July 21, 1947, in St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Dingle, he returned to the islands with his parents.
All the islanders — by then there were only 30 people on the island — gathered to give their blessings to an leanbh.
On September 5, 1953, Gearóid and his parents were the first to be evacuated from the islands, soon to be followed by the rest of the islanders. “We ended up in Dún Chaoin, in houses built by the government,” Gearóid says. “I went to school the day after we arrived. It was strange to be around other children, at first, so I ran away from the school on the first day, because I didn’t want to be mixing with these young people. I wasn’t used to them. I was used to the presence of older people, but it didn’t take long for me to settle.”
Once settled in Dún Chaoin, he pursued Gaelic football, traditional music and formal schooling, as he and the other former islanders adapted to a new environment across the water from their deserted island.
Gearóid received his second-level education in a boarding school in Kilkenny and, afterwards, worked in Cork — he now lives in the leafy suburb of Blackrock. He trained as an accountant, and married and had two daughters.
Of the evacuated islanders, Gearóid is now the only survivor. His memories are entwined with beliefs and customs handed down through the generations — the name Ceaist, for example, comes from the word ‘ceast’, which is a heavy stone or lump of iron, and distinguished Gearóid’s family from others of the same surname.
Ceaist originated at a time when his paternal grandfather, Pádraig Ó Catháin, was the best at rock-throwing, a popular pastime with the men of the island, when they gathered on the flat of the Great Blasket’s main path above the strand, An Tráigh Bháin. From then on, his grandfather was called Ceaist.
Despite the dramatic evacuations of the 1950s, The Blaskets, of which nothing remains but crumbling cottages and windswept land, will live on, in part due to the invaluable memories of the last child of the Blasket Islands.
“It’s a while since I went to the Blaskets,” he says.
“It makes me feel sad and lonely to go there. I’m the only surviving member of the 1953-54 evacuation. All the others are dead and it’s very sad.
“The island is barren and crumbling and I’d like the Office of Public Works to restore even the old houses and the jetty. It’s difficult, and even dangerous, to land there at the moment, though people come in their droves every summer.
“It’s a huge attraction and we should be making more of our heritage.”