‘Overnight, my family and I became famous’: The Loneliest Boy in the World
Gearóid Ó Catháin beautifully observes life on Great Blasket before the choppy crossing from island to mainland
Gearóid and his pet donkey in Dunquin in the 1950s. Photograoh: Donal MacMonagle/macmonagle.com
The Loneliest Boy in the World: The Last Child of the Great Blasket Island.
Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin
Gearóid Ó Catháin, or Gearoid Cheaist, is the last surviving Blasket Islander. Born in 1947, he left when Great Blasket was evacuated, in 1953, and spent much of the rest of his youth in the parish of Dún Chaoin, within sight of the beloved island.
This memoir, a considerable expansion of an earlier account published in Irish last year, is (unless Ó Catháin writes another) the last in a lengthy line of memoirs written by Blasket Islanders. Constituting some of the most renowned works of Irish literature, they include An tOileánach, Peig and Fiche Bliain ag Fás.
What does this book add to that most distinguished literary and ethnological corpus of writing? The book is in many ways a riposte to its own title. Ó Catháin was dubbed the Loneliest Boy in the World by a journalist, Liam Robinson. He visited the island with the photographer Donal MacMonagle, at Christmas 1948, and syndicated an article to Irish and international papers.
“Overnight, my family and I became famous. An avalanche of post flooded in from all over the globe. Seán Filli, our postman, had a path worn to our door.’’ Ó Catháin was only a year old when he became famous; the letters and toys flowed in for years after the newspaper story.
Ó Catháin was far from lonely on the Blasket. A general pet, he delighted in the company of doting adults. When he moved to the mainland, the promise of young playmates held no appeal: “The schoolchildren had frightened the daylights out of me earlier that morning when we had passed by the school.”
His memoir intersperses personal recollections with general historical information about the island. Those who are familiar with the rich Blasket literature will find his additions to the well-known facts most interesting; the latter will be useful to Blasket neophytes.
Ó Catháin’s book is very different in nature from those of, for example, Tomás Ó Croimhthain or Muiris Ó Súilleabháin.
He lived for only a few years on the Blasket, and his life experience is less exotic than those of the intrepid hunter-fisherman and brilliant wordsmiths. Here are no descriptions of close shaves with killer whales or terrible shipwrecks yielding magnificent bounty and corpses.
But Ó Catháin’s observations of the more ordinary aspects of life are sharp and valuable. He has a keen eye for the interesting detail: “Some tilted their caps to the side, right or left. Others wore them back-to-front or with the fastener open. The style they wore often depended on their mood. Dad took off his cap only at mealtimes and left it on a rung under his chair when he ate.” And: “During the winter many of the men on the island slept a lot during the day, especially between the hours of two and five o’clock. Some even visited neighbours’ houses for the sole reason of having a snooze there.” Ó Catháin paints a positive picture of island life but avoids sentimentality.
Evacuation By the late 1940s
the population had dropped below the point at which a community can viably function: the balance of old and young was skewed fatally in one direction. This record of the evacuation dispels any myth of compulsory banishment. Ó Catháin reports that some islanders requested evacuation in 1952 while others, though by no means all, desired it.
“Somehow, I sensed my mother wanted to go. The younger men, like Faelli and his brother, seemed to want to go. But the older men, most of whom had spent all their life on the island, were noncommittal.”
Ó Catháin’s style and perspective have a freshness, and this book enhances our picture of the Blasket experience: it provides the final chapter of the great epic.
Possibly the most significant contribution is in the latter part of the memoir, which describes life after evacuation. The special sense of insular community, of belonging to one tribe, was immediately lost.
Ó Catháin himself was plunged into normal life, which proved challenging even for someone of his cheerful disposition. For instance, when he went to a boarding school, St Joseph’s, in Co Kilkenny, he found that “not being fluent in English was a huge drawback, as I couldn’t express myself well when a teacher asked me a question. It ruined my confidence.”
Transition to a new worldHe quickly adapted to English, but his initial difficulties prompted consideration of the position of others in the same boat. “I thought of all the people from the Blasket who had emigrated and wondered how they coped.”
St Joseph’s was a choice, not compulsory, and later he attended the Irish-language secondary school in Dingle, where he was much happier. But in Kilkenny, Ó Catháin cursed his linguistic heritage, not the system, when he finally experienced real loneliness, in a big boarding school full of boys and English.
Where this book fits into the great Blasket literary tradition is as a memoir of transition: from the island to the mainland, from the past to modernity, and from Irish to bilingualism. It’s a fresh, vigorous, often amusing record of this choppy crossing, full of unique insights.
Simply written, it is accessible and provides an excellent introduction to the most eternally beguiling of Irish cultures and places: the Blasket Islands.