From the archive: Island's new era met with discord

Dunquin harbour, on the west tip of the Dingle peninsula, which services boats for the Blasket Islands

Dunquin harbour, on the west tip of the Dingle peninsula, which services boats for the Blasket Islands

Wed, Aug 3, 2005, 01:00

As you turn the corner from Slea Head, Co Kerry, it rises out of the water like a miracle: An Blascaod Mór, The Great Blasket or, as it used to be called, "the island". On a sunny summer morning it looks serene, timeless, its emerald slopes glistening amid sapphire waters - the sort of place to inspire storytellers to weave great art from skeins of words. Which, of course, is exactly what it has done, writes Arminta Wallace.

The body of literature which emerged from writers born on the Great Blasket in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has long been recognised, both in Ireland and in the wider world, as something very special.

In this summer of 2005, alas, some of the stories coming out of this supremely beautiful corner of Ireland are of an uglier order altogether. The details vary according to who is doing the telling, but the tone is as sour as month-old milk on a windowsill.

A row among ferry operators over licences; talk of "bouncers on the Blasket". Behind it all, an unspoken threat to the tourist industry which has dominated the economy of the area since the filming of David Lean's big-budget weepie Ryan's Daughter ushered in a visitor bonanza more than half a century ago.

When this latest chapter of the island's story opened, ironically enough, it appeared to skip straight to a happy ending.

"State to purchase Great Blasket," read the headlines in early July. "The Government is to purchase An Blascaod Mór, Minister for the Environment Dick Roche has announced." The deal involves buying out a number of landowners and will cost €1.7 million. The Department of the Environment also set out details of a management plan for the island, which involves a new pier, café and public facilities.

It will also limit the number of visitors to 400 a day - 300 from Dunquin and the rest from Dingle, the traditional point of embarkation for the island - in order to protect the fragile ecosystem and preserve its tranquil atmosphere.

Good news, one would think - so why all the uproar? Hoping to find out, I turn up at the pier in Dunquin. "You'll need to hurry," the girl at the ferry-person's hut warns, as she relieves me of €25. "The 12 o'clock boat's just about to leave." I hurry.

If the ticket price seemed steep, it's nothing compared with the descent to the pier, which hurtles down the side of a 60-foot cliff and, pretty much, into the sea. I arrive at the bottom to find a rubber dinghy bouncing and swaying in the water and a ferryman cheerfully handing out life-jackets for the short transfer out to the ferry. I'm tempted to scoot straight back up the cliff, Road Runner-style.