An Irishman's Diary

Fri, Jun 3, 2011, 01:00

It happened as recently at the 1950s when they left their former home, the Blasket Islands. Never more than 200-strong, the islanders must by then have produced proportionally the largest body of literature – not including Myles na gCopaleen’s spoof of the genre, An Beal Bocht– of any indigenous population anywhere.

Unfortunately, the attentions of scholars and publishers didn’t make life on the islands any easier. And the locals had already begun abandoning the Blaskets long before the government arranged the final evacuation in 1953. Some moved to mainland Kerry. Others bypassed the island of Ireland altogether and headed for Springfield, where their descendants – and a few of the original emigrants – still live.

Infamously bad as the Blasket weather was, the islanders can hardly have seen any tornadoes there. But of Atlantic storms, there were plenty. The community’s last years saw a series of dramas in which the islands were temporarily cut off by seas too rough even for the most skilled and fearless boatmen to make the crossing.

In April 1947, a group who made the crossing to Dunquin for relief supplies were trapped there for several days before they could make the return trip. During an an even worse storm, in December 1951, the landing pier at Inishtearaght – the most westerly isle – was washed away.

There was concern that Christmas when residents on the Co Kerry coastline reported not seeing the traditional lighted candles in the windows of the Great Blasket’s cottages. And by early January, when the weather’s siege finally lifted, the Blaskets had been cut off for four weeks, with no food except potatoes.

The last straw for some was when a teenager called Sean Kearney died from meningitis during one such period of isolation. In 2008, nearly 60 years later and now living in America, his younger brother Martin recalled the tragedy: “He got sick after Christmas and we couldn’t get him to a doctor. He was . . . suffering for a week and then all of a sudden he died. He stayed three days in the house dead. That turned me against (island life) – I didn’t care about it any more.”

The Kearneys and others are now part of Springfield, Massachusetts. They may even be part of the Simpsons’ Springfield America. I hope they and theirs are well and that they all dodged this week’s windblown trees and trucks.