Is Great Blasket Island a victim of its own success?

IT’S commonplace nowadays to hear concerns about the impact of large numbers of visitors on wild places, writes Donal Hickey.

Is Great Blasket Island a victim of its own success?

IT’S commonplace nowadays to hear concerns about the impact of large numbers of visitors on wild places, writes Donal Hickey.

Croagh Patrick, in Co Mayo, where there’s glaring erosion from the footfall of tens of thousands of pilgrims, is an example.

However, almost a century ago, there were similar worries about an influx of tourists to the Great Blasket Island, in Co Kerry, after the island and a few of its inhabitants became quite famous following the publication of a number of books in the 1920s about life there. A literary wave hit the island, it could be said.

More recently, nature lovers highlighted threats to wild birds on Skellig Michael, in Co Kerry, because it was chosen as a location for the shooting of Star Wars films. Already, numbers going to Skellig are limited and the same will happen on the Great Blasket if plans to designate it a national historic park (already about 20 years in gestation) ever come to pass. There are organised boat trips to the Blasket, which many visitors take, while its mystique continues to grow.

The Blasket library is also expanding and the latest book is a biography of Tomas Ó Criomhthain, author of the memoir, An tOileánach (The Islandman), and other works. He spent his entire life on the island and was a jack of all trades; a carpenter, stonemason, fisherman, turfcutter, gardener, rabbit hunter and someone who, along other islanders, salvaged shipwrecks.

“You can’t live on the scenery,” he once said, memorably, saying that a person had to be a multi-tasker to survive in such an environment.

In the biography, The Blasket Islandman, author Gerald Hayes says the island’s growing fame and corresponding rise in visitor numbers became a problem. The influx became something of a nuisance, interfering with the islanders’ daily work and people galore calling to see Ó Criomhthain’s house.

Ó Criomhthain wrote that, on holidays, people could be seen making for the islands in boats from every direction.

“They don’t leave either without their dinner. Someone said that you’d think that the islanders were paid by the Government to prepare tea for them every Sunday and holiday,’’ he noted wryly.

One observer, Mairin Nic Eoin, felt tourism was contributing to the erosion of the native lifestyle that had made the island popular in the first place.

Much of the island, abandoned in 1953, is now owned by the Office of Public Works, which is also restoring the old village.

Conservation works have also taken place to several other historic houses on the island and further works are planned. Around 10,000 people land each year, but it doesn’t yet have a public toilet, but one is planned.

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