If the remote islands off the west coast could be thought of as microcosms of the larger island, Ireland itself could be imagined as Gaelic, preindustrial, heroic and a repository of older and purer values. The Aran Islands functioned in this way, not least through the impact of Robert Flaherty's 1934 film Man of Aran.
In literature, however, the most potent archipelago was the Blaskets, off the Kerry coast, which produced a remarkable crop of autobiographical writings in Irish. The most significant is Tomás Ó Criomhthain's An tOileánach, a milestone in the emergence of 20th-century Gaeltacht literature.
Like most great works, An tOileánach is far more complex and ambiguous than any simple ideological reading might imply.
The stylised illustration on the cover of the original edition depicts a giant-like man in profile. In fact Ó Criomhthain was no more than 5ft 4in tall, and the disparity hints at a disjunction between the desire for a heroic narrative on the one side and Ó Criomhthain’s keen-eyed, unromantic vision on the other.
His story (unlike Flaherty’s film) is certainly what it purports to be. Ó Criomhthain was a fisherman who spent his life on his native Great Blasket. He provides a unique insider’s account of the personal, social and economic life of a tightly knit coastal community, one subsisting on the periphery of national life and preserving a deep oral culture.
His story, indeed, is much more communal than personal: the values that underpin it are always collective ones. This is autobiography not as confessional baring of the soul but as a record of a way of living.
Some parts of Ó Criomhthain’s original manuscript were excluded from the 1929 edition, such as Tomás and a companion, as they emerge naked from the sea, encountering young island women, and criticism of a priest.
Even so, An tOileánach is not naive. Ó Criomhthain is highly conscious of his own literacy, acquired during sojourns in the mainland village of Dunquin. He read such authors as Maxim Gorky and Pierre Loti. His sparse style is a conscious aesthetic effect (much admired by later writers like John McGahern).
The world he presents does have heroic elements, in the perseverance of the islanders, the intrepid nature of their fishing and the need to be “cliste chun gach gnótha”, demonstrating “multiple intelligence”, including detailed environmental knowledge and a range of practical skills.
Still, Ó Criomhthain is equally clear about the sheer difficulty of island life and the tragedy of its high mortality rates.
Nor is An tOileánach in any sense timeless. There is an acute awareness that the island is not in fact isolated: emigration, cultural tourism, regular communication with the mainland and involvement in the fish trade all shape the place.
And Ó Criomhthain is conscious that the very need to write these things down arises from the reality that they are disappearing and will otherwise be forgotten: “Beidh an Blascaod lá gan aenne de’n dream atá luaidhte agam sa leabhar so – ná aenne go mbeidh cuimhne aige orainn.” (“One day there will be none left in the Blasket of all I have mentioned in this book – and none to remember them.”)
His beautiful book ensured that, although the first of these predictions came true, the second may not.
You can read more about this week's artwork in the Royal Irish Academy's Dictionary of Irish Biography; see ria.ie