One day Sue Redican thought to herself that the Great Blasket Island would be a nice place to live. Hasn’t that thought crossed all our minds from time to time?
The Welsh native moved to Dun Chuin, Co Kerry, in 1981, a time when emigration out of there was rife. Many from west Kerry were swapping their idyllic backdrop along the Dingle peninsula for that of some major city in her own motherland of the UK.
The story of the Great Blasket Island and the emigration associated with it is well documented, with its last residents abandoning the island in November of 1953.
“I was living in London at the time and I came to Dingle to visit a friend and just fell in love with the place, so I decided to move here,” Sue says.
“This was in 1981 so there were no jobs, people were leaving to go to England. It was more or less create a job, so I decided to take up weaving and spinning and I tried to make a life here with the craft.”
Back then, the tourism potential of the Great Blasket was not as realised as it is today. There were only about four small boats taking people out there. It had a peaceful appeal.
“I was looking out at it every day and it looked so peaceful, and when I visited it was really quiet when you got here. It was a different way of life.”
Sue was a member of a local artist collective in Dingle and had a spinning and weaving business during the winter months. She was a regular visitor to the island and eventually had the idea that marrying her craft with her taste for island life could provide her a work-life balance.
From 1987, Sue took up a part-time residence on the island, usually between Easter and the end of October. She began renting a house owned by a now-deceased former islander. The arrangement lasted for the 16 summers that followed and since 2008 Sue resides in a converted cowshed when staying on the island.
“It was a bit of both,” she says when asked whether it was a business or lifestyle decision to move out to the Great Blasket for half the year.
Spinning wool and the Great Blasket are synonymous with each other. Authenticity is the name of the game in Dingle — and Sue could see that too.
Standing beside her 10ft by 8ft island residence, she explains: “Every house on the Great Blasket would have a spinning wheel, and most people made their own socks and things, and there was a weaver on the island so people would have their wool ready and he would weave it into cloths for them and then, once a year, the tailor from Dingle would come into the island and measure them up and go off and make whatever the islanders ordered.”
She mainly spins wool and occasionally cotton, sometimes sourced from a local woollen mill, other times from farmers.
Right outside the door of her hut is the only shop on the island — a shelf with the hats and scarves made by herself set along each row.
“I enjoy the tourists, they’re here for the day usually, and most of them are very interested in the history of the island. They like seeing me do the spinning in particular. They want to see the old way of life.”
Visitors don’t have to look hard to have a sense of the history or the hardship of the islanders. Even today there is no electricity or running water as such. Sue’s water is accessed from a spring well that is protected by a tank and pumped through via a tap. Sue charges her phone via a makeshift apparatus comprising an old car battery and some kind of charger that I’ve never seen before. It works, though.
“The phone reception here is excellent. You can see the phone mast from here. It’s only across on the mainland on one of the hills and I’m used to the lack of facilities,” she says.
What are her main challenges living on the island? She has to pause and think. “I don’t really find any challenges. There’s no electricity, I’ve running water, there’s a tap outside so it’s a bit more work to get things done. But I don’t see it as a challenge, it’s just part of the life here.
“I used to wonder what the islanders did with their spare time. When you live without electricity, you realise there isn’t any spare time. I have a gas cooker. I boil the kettle for a cup of tea; boil the kettle to wash myself, to wash clothes. It’s lunchtime. There are no cars, no traffic. It’s very peaceful.”
The hut was previously owned by Ray Stagles, an Englishman who had visited there since 1966 and was known to have had a great love of the Blaskets. Ray and his wife Joan wrote a book called The Blasket Islands: Next Parish America and Sue wrote its flora and fauna chapter. In the ’70s, he bought the building from an islander and converted it from a cowshed into a hut.
Sue had been staying there for a few years and he left it to her when he died some five years ago, aged 95.
“The walls are very thick so it holds the heat and it’s got a tarred roof, so if it’s any bit sunny, the heat builds up inside.”
Over the years she has dealt with extremities of the Irish weather battering the island. One time the boats couldn’t get in or out for three weeks due to storms, but she talks about those periods in a fairly relaxed manner.
“You prepare by bringing lots of food. Canned foods, pastas, all that type of thing. I enjoy having the place to myself. This is actually a very sheltered side of the island, so even though the sea is raging, you’re protected.”
On a couple of occasions, she chose to stay an extra few weeks to wind down after the busy tourist season. Another year she was there until December to cook for workmen building the cafe next door.
“The hardest thing to deal with that year was the lack of light. By 4:30pm you’d have been lighting candles and cooking by candlelight.”
The building next door is the hostel famous for the media attention it received in recent years when its owners created a social media campaign to find a couple to run the accommodation and cafe.
So with all that experience braving the elements offered up by the Great Blasket, what advice might Sue have for young couples trying things out in the wilds?
“There have always been people managing the hostel and cafe. There have been some great people over the years. The couples who have been selected (to run the hostel) these past years are usually very busy but I had a good deal of interaction with the couple from the first campaign three years ago.
“I remember having to reassure one of them that the noise made by some of the birds at night was not the Bean Sidgh,” she says, laughing.
Because the boats didn’t begin running until June of this year Sue is having a shorter season on the Great Blasket. Her son owns a ferry and usually delivers her across, but his capacity was reduced from 48 passengers to 18.
With the overhead costs remaining the same as usual, it wasn’t viable to continue this year. She’s friendly enough with other boat owners in the area who are happy to help, so Sue can be seen weaving and spinning wool on the island for the foreseeable.