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


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.

The dinghy transfers are a necessity - and create a huge amount of hard work and worry for the ferrypersons, hence the steep ticket price - but they add an ingredient of adventure to the stunningly beautiful journey across the Blasket Sound, and help create a good-humoured "we're-all-in-it-together" atmosphere among the passengers.

As we wait to repeat the relay at the foot of the Great Blasket's apparently impenetrable cliffs, we're joined by a dolphin.We grin like idiots every time the creature leaps out of the water.

But if this merry, well-regulated and well-insured journey gives a casual tourist momentary pause, it is also, on a tiny scale, a reminder of what must it have been like to be an islander trapped by ferocious seas - for a pregnant woman, say, or for the men whose desperate dash to the mainland in a storm in order to get a coffin for young Seáinín Team Ó Cearna at Christmas 1946 forms the opening chapter of Cole Moreton's eloquent, angry book about the leaving of the Blaskets in 1953, Hungry for Home.

When we disembark the views from the island are, if possible, even more spectacular than those from the boat. But the sight of the ruined village, cottage after cottage roofless and crumbling, no signs anywhere, no explanations of any kind, is deeply disturbing.

So are the "bouncers". They are, it must be said, polite - actually they look more embarrassed than aggressive - but men in suits are not what anyone wants to see on the Great Blasket. They're employed by the Dingle solicitor Peter Callery, who owns 17 of the 25 land-holdings on the island and who has, under the management plan drawn up by both landowners and State, been given permission to build and run a café on the island when the Great Blasket comes under State control.

Callery insists that the other ferry which currently operates out of Dingle, run by Tom Hand, is "basing its business on trespass"; hence the security presence. Hand told The Irish Times he objects to Callery "being given the monopoly on landing rights as well as a monopoly on commercial activity on the island - for ever".

Callery retorts that it's his property, and his legal right to prevent Hand's fee-paying passengers - though not, he stresses, anyone else - from walking across his land.

The row is bitter, and may descend into a court battle which would delay the State takeover still further. But at the end of the day, it's a dispute about business interests; about property, control, profit. Should it be allowed to dominate the debate about what will happen to the Great Blasket?

At the Greenlane Gallery in Dingle, owned by Callery's daughter Susan, I listen to the arguments, speak to Peter Callery - who is out of the country - on the phone, and try to make sense of the intricate legal niceties.

But the gallery walls are dominated by overwhelmingly powerful images of landscapes and people by the painter Liam O'Neill.

We end up discussing the blues of the Blasket seas, the faces of the islanders. The Great Blasket is not, at the end of the day, a tourist attraction. It's a national treasure.

And the Office of Public Works, as Micheál de Mórdha, director of the beautiful and hugely informative Great Blasket Heritage Centre run by the OPW in Dunquin points out, is not in the tourism business. "The ruins of the houses where Peig Sayers, Tomás Ó Criomhtháin and Muiris Ó Suilleabháin lived are in a state of advanced deterioration," he says."If they're left for many more years, the village will just dissolve."

In his book An t-Oileanach, Tomás Ó Criomhthain wrote about: "the kind of magic that only a person raised by the water's edge can understand, who spends his days looking out across it at the base of the sky".

O Criomhtháin's granddaughter, Niamh Uí Laoithe, who was born on the Great Blasket and is one of the few remaining ex-islanders left in Co Kerry, is also concerned about the ravages time, weather, and careless campers are wreaking on the island.

"At one time," she says in her gentle, melodic English, "I took some friends to see where my grandfather's house was, only to find a tent inside in the ruins and somebody's washing thrown up over the wall. Which I was very upset about. I know it's not fair to stop some of the people, but there really isn't room for more ferries and more people. You have to draw the line somewhere.

"What we would love would be for the island to be made into a world heritage area. As an ex-Blasket islander, I want my people to be remembered." For as her grandfather wrote, their like will never be seen again.