Sean O’Cearna came in from the fields on Christmas Eve in 1947 and collapsed without a sound. He was 24-years-old, a fit young man who worked hard alongside his elderly father. His sudden sickness came as a shock.
The radio telephone on the island was broken, as usual, and the storm outside in the dark was too fierce for anyone to cross the Sound in search of help. Sean was nursed by his sister, but he could not be saved. He died in early January, as a result of meningitis.
Four fishermen volunteered to row across the Sound between storms, to send word of Sean’s death and bring back a coffin, because the islanders would only bury their dead in consecrated ground on the mainland. They took a huge risk. It was a great act of heroism, inspired by raging grief and a sense of helplessness. If the youngest and strongest could be cut down like this, what future could the island have?
They made it to the nearest mainland village, but could not get back. “I got a telegram then to come home from Dublin at once,” says Mike, who persuaded a lifeboat crew to take him in to the island with the coffin and fetch back the body of his brother. “My father, poor man, was heartbroken. He said, ‘Mike if you can do anything, get us out of here.’”
Mike was working as a barman in Davy Byrne’s, the pub made famous by James Joyce in ‘Ulysses’, where he learned how to argue by watching of the greats of Irish literature and politics. A telegram was sent to the Irish leader Eamon De Valera in April 1947 saying: “Stormbound distress nothing to eat send food = Blaskets”.
Supplies were sent, and De Valera visited the island himself that summer, but did nothing more. It took until November 1953 for the last 21 people living on the Great Blasket to be evacuated to the mainland, where they were given plots of land and the chance to start again.
By that time, Mike Carney and most of his siblings were in America, where something remarkable had happened. Over the course of generations, the entire youth of the island had migrated to live in the same few streets of a landlocked town called Springfield.
“It was like the island had been picked up and carried over the ocean to Hungry Hill,” says Mike Carney. “You could walk through the Hill in the Fifties and hear only pure Blasket Irish being spoken.”
That was where we first met, 15 years ago, in a social club called the John Boyle O’Reilly, named after a Fenian writer. When I walked in I saw men wearing IRA pin badges. When I spoke, the room fell silent.
“Hey Englishman, remember that night I introduced you to people at the club?” he says, laughing. “I thought some of those guys would shoot me, and you!”