Just beyond the breaking surf at the White Strand on the Great Blasket island, seals were standing up in the water to get a better look at us humans.
There were few of us, although it was one of this summer’s rare, perfect days. We didn’t swim; the water was chilly and I couldn’t imagine going for a dip in a wetsuit. I’m told that 2,000 seals haul up on the strand in the breeding season. Too many, it seems.
The ferry crosses from Dunquin Pier every hour or so, depending on tides. One appreciates the dangerous approaches at both landing places. To have rowed a namhóg between the rocks on crashing waves or rising swells must have required a strength and expertise bred into the islanders from birth. The sea is as fearsome as ever today.
The bare mountain that is the Great Blasket rises out of the sea above Trá Bán, its beach of pure white sand. The literature created by the population, averaging perhaps 100 souls — three classic books written in Irish, Tomas O’Crohan’s, The Islandman, young Maurice O’Sullivan’s Twenty Years a-Growing and Peig Sayers’s, An Old Woman Remembers — recounts the everyday and stoic life of the islanders.
From the mainland, the ruined and roofless houses are all but indiscernible footholds on the mountain, their stone walls unplastered, doorways and lintels fallen, clustered on a green slope without a tree or a bush, or a road or track perceivable.
Seals on the Blaskets
The islanders, when they left for ever in 1953, took the roof timbers from their houses with them, to set up mainland homes. Without roofs, the ruins decayed. A planning notice is pinned to Tomas O’Crohan’s house, an application for its restoration as a museum recounting the islanders’ lives.
The old dwellings blend into the dark, green fields around them. Seen from the mainland, the few restored houses, whitewashed and neat, bring the island closer, diminishing its remoteness and grandeur, as if it were an extension of the mainland. There were always a few whitewashed houses, the schoolhouse among them but it would take from the romance, were the green slopes speckled with white.
For many islanders, stone was the only affordable material. The ruined dwellings evidence this culture. As an icon of our heritage, the physical and spiritual integrity of the Great Blasket might be best preserved by leaving most restored dwellings unpainted.
Ironically, recent planning diktats on the mainland have ordained that many new houses, often in inappropriate urban settings, be stone clad. Some large, stone-faced dwellings with iron gates have the appearance of Victorian prisons.
While Kerry was glorious, the views unsurpassable, the verges golden with montbretia, the hillsides blanked in flowering dwarf gorse and purple heather, some lovely things had changed and some ugly things remained.
At Inch Strand, the full 4km of tide-line was littered with fish boxes, discarded nets, ropes, rubber gloves and plastic drums and bottles. The glory of the vast, beach still pristine in the early 2000s was gone.
Unfortunately also, the pseudo- literary garbage enshrined metres high on the side of the Inch beach restaurant was still there, freshly-painted and as offensive as when I first wrote about it over 20 years ago.
What, one asks, must overseas visitors think of the famous Irish respect for words and skill with language when they are confronted with this ignorant, semi-literate corruption of famous lines from one of the most beautiful and best-loved poems of the last century, Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”?
As readers know, the lines that make the poem great and universal come in the final verse: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,/ But I have promises to keep,/ And miles to go before I sleep,/ And miles to go before I sleep”
The “promises” may be perhaps to the poet’s wife, to be home for dinner, but really they concern the fulfillment of the promise with which we are born, and our duty to live up to it. We are born ‘full of promise’. We cannot, like the patient horse that stands nearby, be at one with the snow falling, the woods filling; we are human and as humans, we have thing to do, promises to keep and much to do before we sleep.
On the restaurant gable, the dog’s-dinner lines of some pathetic, would-be poet is written, in nine inches letters, “Dear Inch must I leave you/ I have promises to keep/ perhaps miles to go/ to my last sleep.”
Oh, my God! Does the Robert Frost literary estate know about this? There oughta be a law!
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