Last word from a lost island?

An Irishman’s Diary: The Blasket School of Literature writes another volume

A 1972 photograph of Sean ‘Faeilí’ Ó Catháin (front) and Maidhc ‘Léan’ Ó Guithín (back): two of the three cousins who rowed across Blasket Sound in a storm in 1947 to get a coffin for the deceased Seán Ó Ceárna. The man in the middle is Seán Ó Guithín. Photograph: From the Great Blasket to America – The Last Memoir by an Islander, published by the Collins Press

A 1972 photograph of Sean ‘Faeilí’ Ó Catháin (front) and Maidhc ‘Léan’ Ó Guithín (back): two of the three cousins who rowed across Blasket Sound in a storm in 1947 to get a coffin for the deceased Seán Ó Ceárna. The man in the middle is Seán Ó Guithín. Photograph: From the Great Blasket to America – The Last Memoir by an Islander, published by the Collins Press

Fri, May 24, 2013, 01:01

Mike Carney is not quite the last of the Mohicans. He is, however, one of the few surviving members of a famous tribe: the native-born Blasket Islanders. Of the remaining 10, he is also – at 93 – the oldest and most authoritative. If the islanders still had a “king”, it would be him.

He may have another significance too. When he launches his memoir From the Great Blasket to America in Dunquin today, he will add to an already extraordinary body of literature. There are at least 50 books now, by and about the islanders. Of the second variety, there will probably be more. But from the Blasketeers themselves, Carney’s biography (co-written with his son-in-law Gerald Hayes) may well be the last word.

Born in 1920 as Micheál Ó Ceárna, the author spent only 16 years on the island. Like most of its young people then, he soon sought a better life elsewhere: first Dublin and later Massachusetts. Several uncles had already established a US colony; his own father had emigrated there twice, before deciding “the food didn’t agree with him”.

So America always exerted a strong pull. For this and other reasons, the Blaskets were probably already doomed when the young Ó Ceárna first saw the light there. But his childhood was to coincide with interesting times, when in the years following Irish independence, the surprised islanders found themselves suddenly important to the new state’s sense of identity.

The books by Peig Sayers, Tomás Ó Criomhthain, and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin were in part a response to outsiders’ fascination. The also increased it. The Blaskets were romanticised for their Irish and their simple, heroic way of life. Even so, as Myles na gCopaleen’s famous lampoon An Béal Bocht hinted, the picturesque hardship would have been no economic reward.

Carney recalls the islanders as being “saintly”, without knowing it. Certainly they lived like monks, although monks would have had a place of worship, which was more than they ever had. As the book puts it, the Blaskets had: “no police department, no courthouse, no post office, no general shop, no doctor, no electricity, no running water, no church, and no pub.”

In fact, they lacked even a sanctified cemetery. There was a burial place for unbaptised children and for victims of shipwrecks. But for Christian burials, the islanders had to go the mainland. They went there for Sunday Mass also. If the weather was too bad – a regular occurrence – saying the Rosary in Peig’s house had to suffice.

There is a nagging paradox here. While deeply attached to the place, the islanders were also in some ways semi-detached, as if they believed evacuation inevitable, sooner or later. In his introduction, Hayes touches upon such “contradictions”, juxtaposing their everyday stoicism with a folk music “characterised by lamenting”. But neither he nor his co-author attempt explanations.

There are, of course, many bereavements described in the book, including, poignantly, that of Carney’s mother, in a Dingle hospital. The Blaskets didn’t have a radio link then, so the Ó Ceárna family learned of her passing via a “signal fire” lit by relatives on the mainland. The author was not allowed attend the funeral, it being the custom then to keep children away from such events. He was 13.

But an even more traumatic death, probably, was that of his younger brother Seán in January 1947. Which, tragic as it was in its own right, probably also marked the beginning of the end for the whole island.

Amid the usual atrocious weather, with sea-crossings impossible and the battery-operated phone-line down, the 22-year-old Seán Ó Ceárna died painfully from meningitis, without doctor or priest. The only consolation would be a Christian burial, and for a while that too was in doubt. The island didn’t even have a coffin, and three young men risked their lives rowing to Dunquin in a vain attempt to bring one back. But it took the Valentia lifeboat, finally, to get a coffin to the island and collect the body.

Three days had passed by then and decomposition was already beginning. So the author recalls his arrival with the boat in short, clipped sentences: “Everybody was crying. We put Seán in the coffin and nailed the lid shut. There was no wake; there was no time. The lifeboat was waiting.”

After that, Carney became a campaigner for evacuation, appealing directly to the taoiseach, Éamon de Valera. When doctors were certifying Seán’s cause of death, the author’s father had angrily suggested they write “the government”. But Carney concedes that at least Dev was interested. When he lost power in 1948, the Blasket problem was sidelined. It had to await De Valera’s return before resettlement plans resumed. Apart from one family, which held out a while for sentimental reasons, the last islanders left 60 years ago, in 1953.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com