Heroic stoic of the island


AUTOBRIGRAPHY: What prompted a fisherman from the Blasket Islands to write his own autobiography almost 80 years ago? Today An tOileánach, which Tomás Ó Criomhthain started in 1923, excites unbridled pride, love and respect in the hearts of Irish speakers.

There was a palpable sense of excitement at the National Library recently when the long-awaited new edition of An tOileánach (The Islander), first published in 1929, was launched by director, writer and film-maker Seán Ó Mórdha. This is "an leabhar Éireannach par excellence", he said. "There are no 'characters' in An tOileánach. There is no Kerry-long-ago stuff. Níl buckleppers ná buckleppin' anseo."

He recalled the reaction of Flann O'Brien, aka Myles na Gopaleen, to An tOileánach, who called it "the superbest of all books I have ever read . . . it's impact was explosive. In one week I wrote a parody of it called An Béal Bocht. This prolonged sneer will be republished shortly. My prayer is that all who read it afresh will be stimulated into stumbling upon the majestic book upon which it is based".

Ó Mórdha also reminded us of the poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi, who "would include An tOileánach in any list of those books one would like to have handy on a desert island".

The book is regarded as a classic and a cornerstone in the canon of Irish literature.

The writer John McGahern, writing in the 1989 academic quarterly, Irish Review, says what emerges finally in An tOileánach, is a poetry, which "seeps through the book as a whole, like water or the sea air round the place itself, so persistent is the form of seeing and thinking, and this, equally persistently, seems all the time to find its right expression. Unwittingly, through the island frame, we have been introduced into a complete representation of existence".

It is unlikely Tomás Ó Criomhthain would have undertaken the writing of his autobiography, had he not been almost driven to it, as Prof Cathal Ó Háinle, of TCD, told delegates at a lecture to the 1991 Conference of the Canadian Association for Irish Studies, which is published in Biography and Autobiography by Carleton University Press. "The greater part of his active life was that of a farmer-fisherman, engaged in the humdrum existence of scraping out a living in a remote and harsh environment," he said. Up to the time a number of scholars began to come to the island, "his was an anonymous existence without any involvement in public life or any part to play on the national, not to speak of the international, stage".

"It was, however," explained Ó Háinle, "his intelligence, his stock of lore and his linguistic sophistication which drew to him the people who provided the impetus towards committing his life story to writing."

Ó Criomhthain began by providing material in writing for those who came to learn from him. He ultimately produced a great number of brief pieces on island life.

"There was so little that was truly eventful in his life that it was necessary to flesh out the account by making it a record of the life of the island community as well as an account of his own," says Ó Háinle.

Ultimately, what Tomás Ó Criomhthain succeeded in doing, he says, is to lay bare "the qualities of character that enabled the islanders to survive: heroic courage and endurance, qualities which classical scholars and critics have identified as being those which inform the poetry of Homer". It's to Ó Criomhtain's credit that he represents himself "without undue boastfulness" as possessing those qualities of courage and heroism in a high degree, he says.

"It is Tomás's great achievement that he has made his autobiography a remarkably challenging record of heroic stoicism, whereas Peig Sayers's story fails to rise above the level of pathos."

The new edition, which boasts "the complete text" with neither addition to nor deletion from the author's original manuscript, is the third edition of the book. Unlike the first 1929 edition and the second 1973 edition, this is the original text, cleansed of earlier editorial insertions and omissions.

The book's editor, Seán Ó Coileáin, Professor of Modern Irish at UCC, has spent the last 30 years working on the original manuscript to uncover the true text of a book, which "lies at the heart of the literature and culture of the Irish language", as Muiris Mac Conghail, whose own film Oileán Eile - Another Island, tells the story of the writers of the Blasket Islands, said on the night of the book's launch.

Ó Criomhthain "had a very clear idea of what he was about" but, explained Mac Conghail, subsequent insertions, in particular those written at the prompting of the book's first editor, Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha, "effect a change in the character of the narrator created by Tomás at the start of the book, from 'that of the child who would speak his mind' to that of 'a seasoned anthropologist'". Changes such as these have now been placed at the end of this edition. He believes Ó Coileáin has finally "retrieved for posterity the literary miracle conceived by Tomás in that faraway and now deserted western island".

Meanwhile, for the majority of readers, there is always The Islandman, a translation by Robin Flower, published in paperback by The Oxford University Press.

Catherine Foley is an Irish Times staff writer who won an Oireachtas Literary 2002 Award for Sorcha sa Ghailearaí, her novella for adult learners, which will be published by Comhar early this year

An tOileánach. By Tomás Ó Criomhthain, edited by Seán Ó

Coileáin. Cló Talbóid, The Educational Company of Ireland,

346pp. €35 hb/€14.95pb