The Last Blasket King: Pádraig Ó Catháin, An Rí

The writers Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Muiris Ó Súilleabháin and Peig Sayers enjoy wider acclaim than Ó Catháin, but the last king was clearly the most important person on the Great Blasket during their shared lifetime. This is his story

There is something magical about the notion of a king. The very mention of the word conjures images of castles, crowns, pageantry and, of course, great wealth and power.

In the case of the last King of the Great Blasket Island, however, none of these images apply. Pádraig Peats Mhicí Ó Catháin, An Rí, oversaw a humble and windswept island kingdom of just 176 poor but hearty souls. In the span of a generation after his passing in 1929, his beloved domain would be decimated by a combination of emigration to America and government evacuation to the mainland. Thus, this vibrant and storied Irish kingdom simply scattered but it is by no means forgotten.

Our unique collaboration in writing Ó Catháin’s biography, The Last Blasket King, reflects our respective Blasket connections: mine, as son-in-law to 94-year-old Michael Carney, the oldest of just seven surviving Blasket natives, and Eliza, as great-great-granddaughter of the last King himself.

The idea for The Last Blasket King came to me while helping Carney compile his recently published memoirs, From The Great Blasket to America. Our conversations provided an early insight into the king’s distinguished service on the island through first person stories relayed from Carney’s father and other Blasket elders. Carney enthusiastically credited the king with providing multi-faceted leadership in the face of virtually constant adversity. He spoke of the last king as a legend in his own time.

Carney’s passionate description of the Blasket’s last king piqued my curiosity. Just what kind of man was Peats Mhicí Ó Catháin?

My review of the Blasket literature, including well over 50 books, yielded frequent references to the King. For example, Tomás Ó Criomhthain, the quintessential islandman, was the king’s best friend and he delighted in telling stories of their joyous boyhood together on the island.

It became apparent that, while the Blasket writers Ó Criomhthain, Muiris Ó Súilleabháin and Peig Sayers have enjoyed wider acclaim than the last king, Ó Catháin was clearly the most important person on the Great Blasket itself during their shared lifetime. Yet, the existing literary references to the king were isolated snippets; there was no single comprehensive exposition of the life of this extraordinarily important Blasket figure.

I decided to fill this gap in the literature by compiling a biography of Ó Catháin. By bringing together a century of fragmented but surprisingly consistent recollections, a fuller portrait began to emerge of this unusual but undeniably worthy king.

Meanwhile, Eliza was working on Blasket research of her own. Having grown up around frequent discussion of the island and of her family’s heritage, she had naturally developed an interest in books about the island. When her brother John, a filmmaker, announced plans to shoot a documentary related to the subject, she quickly signed on as The Crest’s associate producer.

It was in that capacity that Eliza found herself in west Kerry at the same time as me, where we met at festivities in connection with The Gathering, a 2013 celebration that drew people of Irish descent from all over the world to Ireland. We got to know each other and our families over mutton pies at John Benny’s pub in Dingle, and there enjoyed live music played on Eliza’s great-grandfather’s fiddle, an instrument of modest fame that usually sits on display at the Blasket Centre in Dunquin.

Not long after we became acquainted, Eliza joined in writing the king’s biography as co-author. She concentrated on archival documents, often an exercise in frustration; early twentieth century records were not kept in a reliable way, and the subjects of our search shared names and descriptions with many Irish emigrants shipping off to America at that time. Persistence revealed previously undiscovered connections, details that brought Pádraig Ó Catháin and his offspring to life on the page.

Among the most precious resources was a taped interview Eliza’s father Jack had the foresight to make of his father (John, the grandson of the king) back in 1987. The recollections on the tapes greatly shaped our chapter on the king’s descendants in America. When Eliza listened to the tapes, it was the first time she’d heard her grandfather’s voice in the 16 years since his passing. It took many tries for her to transcribe them without shedding tears.

The stories that the tapes contained, now woven for all posterity into The Last Blasket King, affirmed Eliza’s admiration for her late grandfather. The attachment she feels to her Irish roots is mostly an attachment to him. And perhaps because all she can share with him now is the past, she will never stop looking for more Blasket stories, for new ways to feel close.

Our sense is that anyone with a Blasket connection, indeed anyone who has visited that island or experienced its mystique, has a similar desire to look deeper and feel closer. We hope that our collaboration in The Last Blasket King will not only be a significant contribution to the proud Blasket library, but also a way to bring us all a bit closer - closer to the true story of an unforgettable place, and to its leader, Pádraig Peats Mhicí Ó Catháin, a remarkable man and a true Irish king.

Gerald W Hayes lives in Springfield, Massachusetts. Eliza C Kane lives in Austin, Texas

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