The islands of Ireland are very special places. Going to any of them, and spending time on them is a great, different experience. Living on one helps to have some insight into others. The Blaskets are one of those sets of Irish islands that loom strongly in the Irish mental hinterland. Many grumbled about the Irish texts they had to read while at school of tough, poetic, romantic, windswept lives on the Blaskets, Peig, Twenty Years a Growing and much more. During a very short period of time, like the painters of Tory, the writers of Great Blasket Island captured, in words, a captivating sense of what life was like living out there, on that bleak, exposed outcrop.
The author is very aware of this literary heritage, and yet also treads a careful path between what was written, and, at times, what actually may have happened. This book was written in Irish first and then translated into English. This is a less common occurrence, but the book doesn’t suffer for it (too much, there are a few phrases that scan a little awkwardly in English – but you imagine that usually it is the other way round for Irish speakers). The book is a labour of love, with a wide and deep appreciation of the numerous accounts of the island that have been written. It is long, over 500 pages, 600+ once you include the appendices too. That said, and it took me a long time to read it, it is well worth reading.
Reading it on Cape Clear there were parallels you could quickly identify with. At times too, the narrative even visited Cape itself as comparisons and contrasts emerged. The closure of the school on the Blaskets one more critical step towards the de-population of the island. As the population in neighbouring school on Sherkin dwindled below eight, similar concerns were expressed. On Cape too, it has been a yearly concern as the head count in the school is silently totted up, and noted in terms of how close it might come to the time when their school might have to close too. Currently the Cape school numbers 14, every year those reaching secondary school age take the numbers down again. On Blaskets sadly the numbers only fell and never recovered.
Perhaps in this way this book on Blasket is a great book to read, both for what happened there, 70 odd years ago, and what is a living concern for every other Irish island that remains inhabited and with a school going age group. Many celebrate the literary and musical heritage of the islands, for a week or two in the summer, before quickly retreating away from the perceived isolation and loneliness. The reality is actually not nearly so bleak. On the whole the islanders loved living on the Blaskets, but poverty and emigration to the US took it’s toll. Once there was no one left to marry, well nature then followed it’s logical course.