The end of the islands

Why another book about a now deserted island off the south-west coast of Kerry whose surviving image for many readers will be…

Why another book about a now deserted island off the south-west coast of Kerry whose surviving image for many readers will be their long suffering of Peig in their disastrous voyage through the Irish course at secondary school? The community of the Great Blasket Island provided one of the pillar stones around which the State could have constructed a cultural and educational policy stemming the decline of the Irish language - at least - and, at most, maybe even expanding it. Such was the quality of the community language on the Great Blasket, and the calibre of its written literature, that had these two elements been transmitted to the people - and in a meaningful way - generations of students might have taken up the language as an important strand in the cultural fabric of the State.

The State opted instead for the harmless version of Peig's life as a primary text and allowed the Blasket community to die before its very eyes. This, in essence, is the story of Cole Moreton's book.

The striking montage on the cover captures the essence of the text - the gable of a deserted house on the Great Blasket Island, above the great photograph taken by Mc Monagle in November 1953 of the islanders and government officials on the day of the final evacuation of the Blaskets as the boat carrying them comes to port in Dingle. Two of the four other photographs in the book look like images from within the Jewish community in Warsaw before the final onslaught by the German Army.

Hungry for Home. Leaving the Blaskets: A Journey from the Edge of Ireland is the statement of the book's voyage. It could also be the title of a documentary film, and when I put the book down I wasn't sure whether I had seen the film or read the text; for the quality of its writing creates an essence which is both visual, oral and literary. Why is it that Englishmen express the nature of the Blasket culture in such a way that their contribution in glossing it almost parallels the great writings of Tomas O Criomhthain in An tOileanach and Allagar na hInise and Muiris O Suilleabhain in Fiche Blian ag Fas? Robin Flower of the British Museum, in The Western Island, and George Thomson in his Island Home, An Blascaod a Bhi, and The Blasket Homer gave of their lives to celebrate the Blaskets - and now comes Moreton with this extraordinary book. He has not written a recollection of the "snows of yester year" but something graver and cataclysmic: the tragic end of the Blasket world.

In a sense his book is about the murder of the Blaskets. I am reminded of the words spoken by General Wolfe of Quebec fame - and, as it happens, relative of Wolfe Tone - who, when asked in Canada about the best troops available, is reported to have said "The Highlanders. They are a hardy and intrepid race, and no great mischief if they fall." Wolfe had served as a young man with Cumberland at Culloden. Well, fall the Blasket Island community did, but only after delivering one of the most extraordinary literary legacies to us. This book shows how the State, and particularly de Valera, failed to hold on to the richness it had to offer.

Moreton's book centres on the death of one young man on the Great Blasket Island on January 10th 1947. Seainin Sheain Team O Cearna died of meningitis, and the impact of his death quenched what remained of the candle of island life. As the literary fame of the place grew, the population declined and the O Cearna death signalled the end. Moreton follows the dispersal of the remaining community to the mainland and far beyond - to Springfield, Massachusetts, where there are more Blasket islanders and people of island descent than there were on the Great Blasket itself.

The Great Blasket was stormbound when inin Seainin died. The radio telephone was broken. The islanders were faced with a dilemma - would they bury the young man on the island or bring him out to lie alongside his mother at Baile an Teampaill in Dun Chaoin in consecrated earth? Moreton puts the islanders' concern pithily: "for Seainin Team O Cearna to have been buried in a rough wooden box alongside infants and sailors on the island, without the benefits in eternity of a priest having said Mass for his soul, would have added shame to tragedy . . . "

AND so, against the advice of their elders, four of his friends took to the sea in a naomhog at the height of the storm to bring back a coffin from Dingle so that his remains might be moved to the mainland with dignity and buried there. "They row without words. Eight oars bite the waves together and pull hard. Each man hears the heavy breathing of the one behind him, the song of the wind and the waves, and the rhythmic clunk of oars rolling on their iron thole pins. Legs pushed out straight along the bottom of the shallow boat, they keep one frozen hand in front of the other . . . ".

It is difficult not to be impressed by such a heightened narrative and by such an epic final voyage to bury the dead. The text moves through narrative of this kind, where Moreton has recreated - successfully - scenes from island memory informed both by the collective memory of the people, and by a mastery of facts. The pace and style of the book changes from documentary to straightforward reporting of Moreton's visits to the surviving islanders at Dun Chaoin and Muirioch where Ceit, sister and "standalone mother" to her brothers, including Seainin, now lives widowed on the edge of Smerwick. The book recreates, too, the visit of Eamon de Valera as Taoiseach to the Blaskets following the death of Seain in Sheain Team O Cearna following the receipt of a telegram at his office on April 22nd, 1947 at 2.30 p.m. from An Blascaod Mor which read: "Stormbound. Distress. Send Food. Nothing to Eat. = Blaskets + ".

If Seainin died, his brother al lives, and Moreton follows his life from Dublin - where he was a member of the Gaelic League, a writer in Irish for The Irish Press and a barman at Davy Byrnes - to Springfield, where, like other islanders, Micheal Carney went to live. His two-tone Buick carries the registration plate BLASKT. It was he who, when the doctor mulled over what cause of death to put on his brother's death certificate, answered: "It was the Government. Write that down."

The whole interweaving of the details of the lives of all the O Cearna family, both in Kerry and Springfield, fuelled by detailed references to the culture and literature of the island, bring a very unitary text together, well bound by Moreton's writing style. He has clearly mastered all the literature of the islanders and the scholars who wrote about them. There are a few misprints, and some references which are not complete. Hopefully these will be corrected for the second edition.

I haven't been as touched by such a venture since first reading John Healy's Death of an Irish Town: Nobody Shouted Stop in this paper many years ago. George Thomson wrote, and Moreton uses the reference as a chapter heading, "A social system which could let such a culture die must be rotten in some way . . . " Amen. If the State couldn't do anything for the islanders when they were alive, perhaps it might protect the future use of the island - before it, too, slips off into the mists.

Muiris Mac Conghail, author of The Blaskets: A Kerry Island Library and director of the film Oilean Eile - Another Island, is currently preparing an edition of the correspondence between An Seabhac and George Thomson written in the years 1932/33 concerning Twenty Years A-Growing to be published in the autumn