Blasket cases – An Irishman’s Diary on the national talent for stoicism in the face of misfortune
Like all Flannoraks, I look forward to An Béal Bocht’s imminent TV debut, via TG4, on Christmas Day
An Béal Bocht debut: TG4, on Christmas Day
One of the most famous passages from Heinrich Böll’s Irisches Tagebuch (Irish Journal), mentioned here yesterday in connection with the writer’s centenary, was his contrast between German and Irish attitudes to misfortune.
“When something happens to you in Germany, ” he wrote, “when you miss a train, break a leg, go bankrupt, we say: it couldn’t have been any worse; whatever happens is always the worst”.
In Ireland, it was the opposite: “What happens [there] is never the worst,” claimed Böll. “On the contrary, what’s worse never happens: if your revered and beloved grandmother dies, your revered and beloved grandfather might have died too; if the farm burns down but the chickens are saved, the chickens might have been burned up too, and if they do burn up – well, what’s worse is that you might have died yourself, and that didn’t happen.”
This talent for stoicism seems to have deserted us since the 1950s, when he first visited and wrote the book. But allowing for poetic licence, Böll’s observation probably was true of the Ireland he experienced. Indeed, cheerful fatalism in the face of disaster had been the keynote of a native literary classic a decade earlier: Myles Na gGopaleen’s An Béal Bocht.
Okay, that was a spoof, aimed at the Blasket Islands school of literature, then in full session. Or to be more accurate, it was a satire on some of the school’s readership, which tended to lionise the Gaelic authenticity of the islanders, but from a safe distance (usually Dublin).
Also, by the end of The Poor Mouth, even the natives of Corkadoragha are running out of stoicism: as the endless rain, hunger, and general oppression of life prove just a bit too authentic to endure.
If you haven’t read it, it’s not much of a plot-spoiler to say that the book concludes with an emotional first meeting between the protagonist and his father. The latter has just been released from prison, while the former is going in, for 29 years, on a false murder charge.
But even then, the editor of the hero’s memoirs finds some truly-Gaelic consolation on his behalf. In a preface, written on “The Day of Want 1941”, he records: “It is a cause of jubilation that the author, Bonaparte O’Coonassa, is still alive today, safe in jail and free from the miseries of life.”
I’m not sure Böll ever read that particular example of the trait he admired. Myles is not one of the Irish writers he mentions as influences: although Brian O’Nolan’s other alter ego Flann O’Brien was among the authors translated by Böll’s wife Annemarie (interestingly, she also did Tomás Ó Criomhtháin’s An tOileánach: the model for An Béal Bocht).
In any case, it is another cause of jubilation that, 76 years after The Day of Want, a film version of An Béal Bocht has finally appeared. True, it’s only an animated short. But its Derry-based company has already picked up several awards for it on the festival circuit, including one that makes it eligible for the Oscars.
So like all Flannoraks, I look forward to its imminent TV debut, via TG4, on Christmas Day.
In the meantime, I don’t recall any mention of Christmas in The Poor Mouth – and tidings of comfort and joy would have been extraneous to the plot. But I’m reminded of a fascinating story about one of the last Christmases on the actual Blaskets, as told in a memoir a few years ago by Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin.
It happened in 1948, when Ó Catháin was 18 months old and the only child left there. Two journalists arrived on Christmas Eve, and stayed for three days, researching an article that would be syndicated internationally under a headline about the “loneliest boy in the world”.
Sixty-five years later, Ó Catháin also used that as the title of his memoir.
But as he recalled then, he hadn’t been lonely at all in 1948. Not knowing any different, he didn’t notice the lack of other children: he thought the adult islanders were the same age, or as ageless, as him.
Their days as Blasket residents were nonetheless numbered, by bad weather, lack of services, and general isolation. The islands were finally abandoned in 1954. In the meantime, however, the newspaper feature had acted like the ultimate Santa letter.
It went around the world. And however belatedly, toys and other presents came flooding back. So did curious tourists, and even an offer of adoption from America, although since one of the things the Blasket boy didn’t lack was a full set of parents, this was politely declined.