A new book reveals the story of the King of the Blasket

The King, a man of sound judgement and good English, was once chosen by fellow islanders to oversee major fishing expeditions, settle disputes and even offer marital advice, says Ailin Quinlan

A new book reveals the story of the King of the Blasket

THERE’S something magical about the notion of a king of a small, windswept island — especially when that island is just off the Kerry coast. Even a cursory look around the less-than-palatial ruins on the Great Blasket makes it hard to imagine a king could ever have lived there. But he did.

He was Pádraig Ó Catháin, ‘Peats Mhicí’, who served the islanders for 25 years, until his death in 1929. He is now the subject of a fascinating book by two US authors, the son-in-law of the oldest surviving Blasket islander and the great-great-granddaughter of the king. Tall, articulate, with a strong voice and a dominating physicality, the king was a forceful presence on the island — there is even speculation that if the king had had a successor, the evacuation of the Blaskets might have been averted.

Several years ago, Gerald Hayes, who lives in Massachusetts, but whose grandfather emigrated from Effin, Kilmallock, in Co Limerick, was helping his father-in-law to write his memoirs, From The Great Blasket to America — The Last Memoir by an Islander. At 94, Michael Carney is the oldest surviving Blasket islander. He left the island at the age of 16. During the book’s research, Michael often made references to a king. “The whole idea of a king being on an isolated, windswept island with 176 inhabitants really intrigued me, because when you think about a king, you think about crowns and planes and wealth and power, but the notion of a king in this kind of community is very intriguing,” Gerald says.

Three generations of the king’s American descendants: Back row (l–r):

Eileen Kane Anderson, Ronnie Bencevenni (oldest grandchild of Mike ‘The

Fiddler’), Mary Foley Kane (the King’s daughter-in-law), John Patrick Kane,

and Mike ‘The Fiddler’ Kane (the king’s son). Front row (l–r): Joseph Roland

Kane, Dorothy Kane Caramazza, Kathryn Kane Bencevenni and Theresa

Kane Byrne.

He inquired about the king, and learned about the leadership role he played and the high esteem in which he was held by the local community. Fascinated, Hayes spent 18 months researching the story of O’Catháin, who was the last of three known kings of the Great Blasket. “There was no real formal process for designating a king, no lineage entitlement; it more or less arose from a consensus of the village elders that a particular man possessed the qualities of leadership, integrity, good judgement and work ethic. After he died, in 1929, there was no successor.

“He was a very forceful presence, he had a very loud, very commanding voice, which he didn’t hesitate to use. He could be heard throughout the village when he was holding forth, and he had a way with words. He was physically tall and strong, was a very dominating presence,” says Gerald. There was no job description, but among the king’s duties was leadership, particularly in the co-ordination of communal activities, such as organising transportation to the mainland or in putting together major collaborative fishing expeditions. He was also the village postman, travelling twice-weekly across Blasket Sound, by naomhóg {a boat}, to send and collect the island mail and to bring oral and published information, detailing regional, national and world events, to the mainland. The king also had a command of English, the official language of government, and often represented the islanders in matters involving officialdom and business.

He provided transportation, by way of naomhóg, to and from the island, which dovetailed with his responsibilities as postman, because his were the only regular trips between the island and the mainland.

The King and a group of Islanders. (l–r): Mícheál (Bofar) Ó Catháin (the King’s brother-in law), Mícheál Ó Guithín, Tomás Ó Duinnshelé, Seámas Ó Duinnshelé, Muiris Ó Catháin, The King and his daughter Cáit. The other children are unidentified. Photo: John Millington Synge (1905).

He was host-in-chief, offering semi-official welcomes and farewells to visitors, for whom he regularly provided accommodation in his house, and his guidance was often sought on a wide range of issues — even on marital problems.

The king was also called upon to resolve disputes among islanders. Hayes met with his co-author, Eliza Kane, at the 2013 Gathering. The great-great-granddaughter of the last king of The Great Blasket Island, Kane is the co-producer of The Crest, a documentary film about the king and his descendants.

Recalls Hayes: “From my first exposure to the idea of a king, my interest in the subject grew exponentially. It’s a fascinating and captivating story.” To the islanders, the king was arguably the most important citizen and was the central figure on the island during a period when it produced three renowned writers (Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Muiris Ó Súilleabháin and Peig Sayers). He collaborated with the other ‘elders’ in planning the transfer of ownership of the island from the Earl of Cork to the Congested Districts Board, in 1907, and, in turn, to the islanders themselves. This first account of the last Blasket king’s extraordinary life, written in collaboration with his descendants in the USA and Ireland, tells the story of a unique man, his many contributions to the island and his extended legacy.

The Last Blasket King – Pádraig Ó Catháin, An Rí,  by Gerald Hayes with Eliza Kane, is published by The Collins Press, price €12.99. It is available in all good bookshops and online from www.collinspress.ie

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