4. The Last Islandman

He was only half joking. The tension was broken when Mike, then president of the club, said: “This is is Cole. He spends so much time in Ireland, they’re thinking of making him a citizen.”

It wasn’t true, but it worked. The peace process was in its early days, but it was supported by many of the people in the bar. They asked why the hell an Englishman was writing a book about the Blaskets? “Oh,” I said, trying to keep things light, “It’s all because of love …”

A teenage holiday romance, to be precise. She broke my heart and vanished from my life, but that glorious summer west of Dingle in the Eighties left me with a passion for the landscape, the music and the people.

Living in London, I nurtured the idea of the west of Ireland as a place of refuge, an adopted spiritual home to which I could return why life got too much. It did, a decade later, and so I ran back – only to realise, within moments of stepping off the bus, that it was all a myth of my own making.

This was not my home, as I remembered it. The girl was long gone (having run off suddenly to America as it later turned out, to escape a chaotic life).

Feeling rootless and unsure of myself, I wandered to the headland at the end of the peninsula and stared across at the empty island. I had read about the people who lived there, and the way they were forced to leave. I felt a connection to them. It was tenuous, to say the least, but it did make me want to find out more.

There was a heritage centre on the mainland at Dunquin, which told their story beautifully. The manager Micheal De Mordha introduced me, generously, to most of the islanders who were left alive.

A magazine article became, in time, a book called ‘Hungry for Home’, tracing their journey from the edge of Ireland to a suburb of Springfield called Hungry Hill … which was where I met Mike Carney.

He was in his Seventies then, living in semi-retirement with his graceful wife Maureen after raising four children. Mike was an activist, who had taught Irish, coached Gaelic football, revived the social club and campaigned from afar for the Irish government to take control of the Great Blasket, which it now has.

Two years ago, to his enormous pride, the National University of Ireland made him an honorary doctor of Celtic Literature. The new Dr Mike – as he likes to be called – accepted the honour on behalf of all the islanders.

All the others I interview for my book are dead now. There are eight or nine more who were born on the island, but most of them were children when it was evacuated. Dr Mike sees himself as representing them all, and has written a book he calls “the last island memoir”.

“They were all saintly people,” he says, straining credulity, because we both know that was not always true. I could challenge him about the rough justice sometimes practised in that tiny, tight community, or tease him about the interesting sex lives of some of the young islanders, but he wouldn’t admit anything.

Presenting the people of the Great Blasket in the best possible light has become his mission in life, the thing that keeps him going, since Maureen died after 62 years of marriage. “She got a bad dose of cancer in the brain.”

And in any case it is time for Dr Mike to put a lifejacket over his tweed jacket and cap, and try to get back to the island one last time. Even if it means risking his life. His son and daughters are here, and two of his grandsons. He can’t back out now, even if the low clouds and the heavy rain really frighten him. “Is this possible? I don’t know. All I can do is try.”

Chapter Five – Saying Goodbye