Nobody knows the people who once lived on the Great Blasket better than Micheál de Mórdha. Nobody has spent more time with the islanders and their descendants, listened more closely to their stories, studied their history with more diligence or understood their language, habits and culture more fully than him.
Now, in this new English translation of a work originally written in Irish, de Mórdha describes the ebb and flow of one of Ireland’s most famous offshore communities, from the first written evidence of settlers to the present day. The island life that inspired JM Synge and Eamon de Valera and was portrayed in the books of Tomás Ó Criomhthain and the much misunderstood Peig Sayers is now examined in this cool, clear account backed up by exhaustive research.
An Island Community is like a session with a guide who lays out the maps, photographs and documents and carefully explains each one. De Mórdha assembles obscure maritime journals, yellowing government papers, archeological studies and transcripts of the interviews he carried out himself with so many of the island exiles.
This is not perhaps the place for readers new to the Blaskets to begin (I'd suggest Fiche Blian ag Fás by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin if you have Irish or The Western Island by Robin Flower if you don't) but it is vital to those who want to understand the place and its culture more deeply.
De Mórdha grew up in a house at the end of the Dingle peninsula looking out at the Great Blasket. The islanders were his family friends: as a child he was kept awake by the scary fireside stories of one Mike Guiheen, godfather to his sister. “Local myth has it that a man called Michael Moore was once banished from the island because he was not very popular there,” writes de Mórdha, before the wry confession a sentence later: “He may have been related to this writer.”
This former Raidio na Gaeltachta journalist became the first manager of the new Blasket interpretative centre in 1993 and only retired last year.
His account of how the Great Blasket island was first inhabited by families fleeing cruel landlords then the Famine is more detailed and fascinating than any we have seen before.
De Mórdha charts the swell towards the high point in the first few decades of the 1900s when the fishing was good, 160 people lived on the island and visitors including Synge were drawn there to study Irish.
He takes us to the tragic death of a young man that broke the hearts of the islanders in early 1947 and on through their desperate attempts to seek help or evacuation, assembling new evidence.
De Mórdha describes the official evacuation in November 1953 but reveals the links that many who moved to the mainland continued to have with their remote home.
The author has been a fine advocate for the islanders and was a generous guide when I was writing my own book Hungry for Home (Viking/Penguin 2000), which tells the story of the end of the island life and the pull of many of the islanders towards exile in America.
De Mórdha goes there only briefly in his book, preferring to explore the tussles between the government and various entrepreneurs that eventually led to laws protecting the Great Blasket.
Not so saintly
The island may be small but we know that its place in the Irish psyche was unusually large for a while, as the inspiration for a certain vision of the emerging nation. De Valera saw a rural, communal idyll here and de Mórdha appears to believe that too.
Let’s be clear: this is as close as we will get to an authorised biography of the island, by a man concerned with presenting the people of the Blaskets in the best possible light. That is frustrating at times, particularly for those of us who know the islanders were not always the near-saints they have been portrayed as over the years.
Peig Sayers, for example, was a far wittier, wiser, saltier woman than she appears in her sanitised “autobiography”, which was edited to be Catholic propaganda.
De Mórdha quotes a Marxist scholar as saying “the morality on the island reflected that of the more liberal Gaelic past” rather than the church but this is not explored, which is a shame.
Many books have been written about the Blaskets. To read some of them you’d think nobody on the island ever fell out, went to bed with someone they shouldn’t have, made out with visitors or had to go to a wise woman for help in dealing with a pregnancy they didn’t want. I have certainly heard otherwise and I presume de Mórdha has too.
He does hint at such things, briefly: “It is said, for example, that single, nubile women on Great Blasket Island were not averse to letting the marriageable men from the island or the mainland see that they were attractive. They may have been bolder, in this regard, than the women on the mainland.”
But there he leaves it, which is a pity. The islanders were warm, welcoming and hospitable people with a high moral code based on their own superstitions and traditions as much as the teachings of the church, but they were also liberal, playful, earthy and mortal. They practised a form of rough justice that could be brutal at times.
Women were generally not allowed to speak up and at least one was abducted against her will to be married to an older man. They were feisty, resisting assaults on their liberty by throwing rocks to sink landing boats or – on one memorable occasion – driving away a bailiff by shoving a pair of shears up his rear end.
All these stories are in here, but de Mórdha only touches lightly upon them, perhaps pushing it as far as his strong sense of duty to the islanders will allow. He has done them a magnificent service with this book – but could have served them even better by being less coy.
Still, it is up to others now. As we face a wider migrant crisis, the big story of this little island resonates again and will surely inspire new thinkers and writers to offer their own interpretations.
With this impressive work of scholarship, Micheál de Mórdha has given them a great place to start.
Cole Moreton was recently voted Interviewer of the Year at the British Press Awards. His books include Hungry for Home and Is God Still an Englishman?