A Blasket bore
Blasket Island native Tomás O’Crohan
AUTOBIOGRAPHY: The Islander, By Tomás O’Crohan, translated by Garry Bannister and David Sowby, Gill & Macmillan, 314pp. €24.99
BORN IN 1855 on the Great Blasket Island, Tomás O’Crohan wrote The Islander, his autobiography, in his later years, at the request of others who foresaw the end of lives like his, and who worried, too, about the end of the Gaelic language. The book stands alongside those by Peig Sayers and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin as testimonies to the lives of people who seem connected to us now only very remotely, and tenuously. And as central, vital texts of the Gaelic Revival.
There is, in Prof Alan Titley’s foreword, and in Prof Seán Ó Coileáin’s preface, and in the introduction from the translators themselves, a repeated emphasis on the difficulties of translating from Irish to English. There is a sort of defensiveness in this, an insistence almost on the impossibility of it. As Titley puts it, “between Irish and English there are vast shelves of libraries and vast cities and practised bureaucracies and marching troops and technical wrestlings which make the gap of feeling immense”. The only previous translation is by Robin Flower, from 1934. Flower knew O’Crohan (who refers to Flower, sweetly, as Bláithín) and was one of the scholars who visited O’Crohan in the latter part of his life, keen to get him to account for himself and the Blaskets, and to document his language.
This new translation seeks to update that of Flower, and to present a version that prioritises, as the translators put it, clarity and readability. And in this they have succeeded. It’s clear, and you can read it. The translators also ask a question in their introduction: “To whom is our translation being addressed? – to students of Irish who might be studying the original Gaelic or to a much more general readership?” But they don’t answer it. And I wonder if that’s because here is a book which, in its full, repetitive, tedious entirety, I can only imagine being useful to Gaelic students as a reference, and of appeal only to the most masochistic of general readers.
Whomever it’s intended for, they will be frustrated by curious presentational deficiencies. There is talk in the various introductions, and on the book cover itself, of several “earthy” passages missing from the Flower translation and restored here.
Nowhere are we told which passages they are. Five short appendices contain more from O’Crohan on aspects of island life, but there is no explanation of why these are separated out from the main text, or where they are from. There is no index. There is no assistance for the general reader on things such as dates (O’Crohan rarely specifies a year) or geography (a simple map might help), nor any context provided by way of notes on matters such as land ownership, taxes and rents, what was behind the various attempted administrative interventions in the islands that O’Crohan mentions, and so on. It makes for frustrating reading.