Six months on the Blasket: ‘People accused us of ruining it’

Lesley Kehoe and her partner, Gordon Bond, spent six months on the Blaskets. Photograph: E+/Getty
LESLEY KEHOE LOOKS BACK ON A DREAM JOB LIVING AND WORKING ON KERRY’S GREAT BLASKET ISLAND

“It was kind of a magnetic sense that brought me there,” Lesley Kehoe says. Kehoe is trying to explain the draw that the Great Blasket Island exerted on her. When we meet it is only five days since she came off the island after a six-month stay.

“I may be in shock,” she says. “We were meant to be there for another week, but the weather was changing. The boats wouldn’t have been able to get out, and we would have run out of food.”

People from all over the world applied for the job. But when I saw the ad I was gone – I was already there in my head. I was on that boat

On Saturday, October 5th, Kehoe and her partner, Gordon Bond (there are no Bond-related jokes they haven’t heard), realised that the forecast meant they would be stranded on the island indefinitely unless they left the next day. “We spent Saturday clearing out fireplaces and the fridge, and cleaning. Then we got up at first light to pack.”

The boat came to take them off the island at noon, as soon as they were finished, so there was little time to process the fact that their island adventure was ending a week early.

In January of this year Kehoe was working as part of the team that had put together Listen Now Again, the Seamus Heaney exhibition in Dublin, and commuting home to Kildare each day. Her partner, whom she met when they worked together at the National Museum of Ireland, was also working in Dublin. The couple had been talking about taking time off and possibly going travelling.

“It was the end of January, and I was on the train going home,” says Kehoe. She was scrolling through her phone, and on Facebook saw a job ad for a couple to manage the Great Blasket Island accommodation and cafe from April to October. There was a number to call.

Lesley Kehoe and Gordon Bond
Lesley Kehoe and Gordon Bond

Kehoe knew the person who had put up the post. A long fascination with the culture of the Blaskets had drawn her to visit in the past, and she had stayed in one of the cottages available to rent – one of the same cottages whose owners were now seeking seasonal managers for. She had written her master’s thesis at Trinity College Dublin about the cultural heritage of the islands.

“Within about three minutes of the post going up I had called the number and asked how we could apply.”

There was another phone call on the hoof to her partner, who, although a bit bamboozled by the speed at which things were moving, agreed to the application.

Our best memory of the island is the same moment, repeated a lot: the sun setting or the moon rising over Iveragh. It was great for our relationship. We were a great team

Unsurprisingly, the prospect of a live-in job on an Irish island that had been uninhabited for decades appealed to many. “People from all over the world applied for the job,” Kehoe says. “But when I saw the ad I was gone – I was already there in my head. I was on that boat out there.”

Their job interview was a two-hour coffee the following weekend with Billy O’Connor and Alice Hayes from the Dingle peninsula, who co-own the island accommodation.

“We talked for about two hours. It helped a lot that we had been there before, so we understood there would be no electricity and no hot water. And that they knew we were fit: there was a lot of physical work involved. They kept asking if we were really sure we wanted to leave our jobs to do this.”

After the interview Kehoe and Bond headed home. “I was in the kitchen, and hadn’t even got my coat off, when I got a text and said we had it.” It had been less than 10 minutes since they had left O’Connor and Hayes.

Although stunned, they immediately accepted. Kehoe gave in her notice, and Bond organised a leave of absence.

Their arrival, like their departure, was not on schedule: poor weather meant they didn’t get out until almost a week into April.

So what did the job involve? “There are three self-catering cottages, which sleep seven per house, so there could be up to 21 people on the island at any one time, plus campers.”

Lesley Kehoe and Gordon Bond’s accommodation was over the island’s simple cafe. Photograph: Lesley Kehoe
Lesley Kehoe and Gordon Bond’s accommodation was over the island’s simple cafe. Photograph: Lesley Kehoe

Their own accommodation was over the island’s simple cafe. As there was no electricity, the food offering was simple: teas and coffees, and scones made in Dingle that came in on the daily boat from Dunquin that also brought the passengers. They also offered breakfast to the people in the cottages: hot drinks and porridge with toppings.

“We were fully booked for all of July and August, and there were always some people staying the rest of the time,” she says. “On average, they stayed one night, but nearly everyone who stayed a night said to us that they should have stayed two.”

Most of the visitors were Irish and American. “We had some Germans and Australians, too, and then some people who were just hiking in the area, and knew nothing of the history, but thought it looked like a nice place to visit.”

With no electricity they relied on candles, head torches and gas. A tiny wind turbine at the back of their cottage provided enough power to charge one socket and one USB port

Once their guests in the cottages checked out they had to race to clean and prepare the cottages for when the boat would land, at 11am. By noon there was a queue for the cafe, which didn’t stop until the last boat left for the day. The logistics of a daily turnover from three cottages on an island with a restricted water supply and no electricity depended on external support.

“We sent all the laundry out to Alice every day, including our own. We went down to the boat every day with the laundry and the recycling.”

With no electricity they relied on candles, head torches and gas. Showers were cold, and a careful eye had to be kept on the levels in the water tank, as water was a finite resource. A tiny wind turbine at the back of their cottage connected to car batteries provided enough power to charge one socket and one USB port.

“We had one smartphone, which is how I got bookings and emailed in the shopping list.”

A seal pup and its mother. Photograph: Lesley Kehoe
A Blasket seal pup and its mother. Photograph: Lesley Kehoe

Their shopping then came in on the boat the following morning. When the coverage went down, as it sometimes did, they sent out a handwritten list of groceries with the ferry.

“We brought a lot of books with us, and I thought we’d sit and read a lot,” she says, laughing. But the work kept them constantly busy, and in the summer evenings, instead of sitting inside reading, they went out for walks, and to watch the seals.

“Our best memory of the island is the same moment, repeated a lot: the sun setting or the moon rising over Iveragh. It was great for our relationship. We were a great team. Living and working together has made us better friends than we ever were.”

The ‘Sleeping Giant’ Blasket island. Photograph: Lesley Kehoe
The ‘Sleeping Giant’ Blasket island. Photograph: Lesley Kehoe

Kehoe had a Twitter account – @island_lesley – while on the island. She regularly posted snapshots and videos of their time there: the views of sunrise and sunset from their front door; the seal pups; storms; their stove fire burning; the Atlantic in all its many moods.

“I never intended it to be anything,” she says. “I had maybe 100 followers before I went. I started tweeting when I was out there: one nice thing a day. People started following me. It was like a break in people’s lives from Trump and Brexit.” In a couple of months she went from 100 followers to 9,000, with many people curious to have an insight into island life.

But it turned out that some of those followers had their own strong opinions about what they considered to be authentic island life: opinions that did not match the experiences that Kehoe was posting.

Towards the end of August Kehoe tweeted: “I’ll be taking a break from posting about our island experience for our last few months on the Great Blasket. I don’t know if it’s jealousy or just meanness, but I am fed up of the constant unkind messages and comments. So many have been so lovely, thank you for your kind words.”

The Trá Bán. Photograph: Lesley Kehoe
The Trá Bán. Photograph: Lesley Kehoe

What happened? “It crept in very suddenly,” she says. “People are very protective of the island life. People who were saying they knew more about the Great Blasket than us. Who were accusing us of commercialising it, saying that we were going to attract more tourists to the island and ruin it. Criticising us for not speaking Irish.

“We went there in a great head space, and the comments did have an impact on me. Being on the island was a perfect experience, and any kind of negativity was taking away from it.”

Towards the end of their stint she resumed posting, as she knew they were soon leaving.

Now that they are off the island, Kehoe is taking time to consider what she’ll do next. Would she and Bond consider another stint on the island in the future? “I’d never say never to doing it again, but it probably was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she says. “Life will probably take over in the meantime.”