Lost in the mists of time


'It's stunning when you can see it all,' Chris Binchy was told . But even through the mist, a visit to the Great Blasket island is a magical experience.

The Blasket Centre at Dunquin was spoken about with great affection and regard by everybody we met, local and tourist. This despite its outward appearance. "You can't miss it," Gráinne from our guesthouse told us. "Seriously. You can't." It is not a beautiful building seen from the outside, but inside it's a different story. A huge stained glass window designed by Róisín de Buitléar and installed by the Kawala Studio depicts various aspects of life on the islands. A long passageway with angled slate floor tiles, representing waves, leads to a window looking directly across to the islands. "Some people think it's like looking through a stone telescope," Mícheál de Mórdha, the centre's director tells us.

There is a documentary video showing people living on the Blaskets, talking about their life there. They talk of the hardship but also of the pleasures. To see the island like this before going out to it, to see the houses intact, the fields being worked, old people, young people and children, means that you arrive with an idea of what kind of place it had once been.

This is the last point in western Europe, I tell my girlfriend, in case she hadn't heard. She was probably the most westerly Scottish person in Europe at that moment. I found the point striking. If you kept going that way into the Atlantic you would eventually hit Newfoundland or Maine or, if you were a bad sailor but a lucky traveller, New York. It makes one think, I tell her, that in many ways the peripheral nature of our island nation ... "Enough," she says. "You are currently the most boring person in western Europe."

On a good day, we would have been looking across at Valentia, the Macgillycuddy Reeks, Inisvickillane and Skellig Rocks. It was not a good day. We were walking in single file along a path on the Great Blasket through what seemed to be a large grey cloud. The grass sloped casually away on our left side for a bit, before getting very serious and disappearing into the sea 100 feet below. "It's stunning when you can see it all," T.P. Ó Conchúir, our guide, tells us. "You'll just have to imagine."

I was glad to have an excuse not to be looking at scenery, concentrating instead on putting one foot in front of the other squarely on the path. When the islanders moved to the mainland they were easily identifiable, always walking in single file through the streets of Dingle and even when they emigrated further to Springfield, Massachusetts.

Most of the people coming the other way are hiking types with proper boots and telescopic walking sticks and beards. I take the inside of the track as we pass them.

It had been beautiful when we left Dunquin, beautiful when we were crossing the three-mile sea route, which the islanders called an Bealach, between the mainland and the landing point beneath the village. It allowed us to look back at Slea Head and Ventry, when out of nowhere the rain rolled in and the mainland disappeared.

We walked up the steep path to the village past the remains of the school and the houses of Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, Tomás Ó Criomhthain and Padraig Ó Catháin, known as the King, where Synge, Robin Flower and other academics stayed at the start of the last century.

They knew even then that the culture and traditions of the islands were in danger of being forgotten. The sense that their unique way of life was coming to an end may explain why the islands produced so many works of literature. Among many others The Islandman, Twenty Years a-Growing and Peig stand out. It would be nice to be able to mention Peig without talking in clichés about how it made generations of young people afraid of Irish and folk history and old people, but that day has not yet come. Peig's house is one of only four on the island that still has a roof. It now forms part of a hostel and is marked by a small sign in the window, Tigh Pheig.

We looked in through the front window and saw a very 21st-century view of bunk-beds and rucksacks and mobile phones recharging. Two American girls in raincoats were eating soup at a picnic table outside, seemingly oblivious to the conditions.

The island never had its own church or doctor or shop. There was a spring, but no running water. The people lived on fish and potatoes and milk, occasionally eating meat, usually mutton but also seal or gannet or seagull. They kept cows for milk on the Great Blasket and a bull across a small body of water on Beiginish, transferring cows over to him by currach as they required. The islanders, that is. The cows apparently used to gather at the point closest to Beiginish and moo over at him and he used to call back. On one occasion the bull grew tired of this solitary life and swam across to join them.

It was a hard, dangerous place to live. To get to a doctor meant travelling by currach to the mainland and walking for up to 12 miles. The currents and tides around the island are treacherous, and drowning was common. Many island people couldn't swim and children often fell from the narrow island paths. T.P. spoke of a stoicism that was characteristic of the Blasket people, an ability born of necessity to mourn the dead and very quickly resume life as normal. Local historian Mícheál Ó Dubhshláine's book A Dark Day on the Blaskets was inspired by an example of this. He was struck by how in The Islandman Tomás Ó Criomhthain deals briefly with the death of his son, Dónal, as he tried to save a visiting Irish scholar, Eibhlín Nic Niocaill, and his own sister from drowning. The sister was saved, the other two died. The incident in 1909 was a national event, with thousands attending Nic Niocaill's funeral in Dublin. She was a close friend of Padraig Pearse, a member of the Gaelic League, and was buried in Glasnevin.

Ó Criomhthain's son was buried in Dunquin. This was the norm. Island families returned to their parish of origin to bury their dead. There was a small unconsecrated graveyard on the great Blasket where unbaptised children and unidentified bodies that washed up on the island beach were buried. Apart from these, the dead were taken to Dunquin or Ventry or Dingle to be buried. This despite some families having been on the island for nearly 200 years.

By the early 1950s the population of the island had fallen to 20 from a high of 170 in 1916. Emigration was the most significant reason for this. Young women in particular found island life tough and would send money back from their service jobs in Springfield to their friends, encouraging them to move to an easier, more exciting life. In 1953 the Government decided it would evacuate the remaining ageing population. The final family left in 1954, 50 years ago.

We walked for an hour through the cloud. At some point it turned into rain and by the time we got back to the hostel we were wet in that saturated west-of-Ireland soft-day kind of way. We had tea in the company of Germans, Australians, Americans, a Dublin family and the above-mentioned walkers. Everybody seemed somehow perked up.

On the boat back to Dunquin, the conversation was more lively than it had been on the way out. By the time we got back up the winding steep path to the road it had started to brighten and we could barely see the island's silhouette, a darker area of grey behind the mist. u

Chris Binchy travelled to Kerry as a guest of Fáilte Ireland, the National Tourism Development Authority. For more information on holidays in Ireland, see www.ireland.ie. This concludes our Roving Writers series