They were a tribe out of time, living with no fuel but the turf and speaking an old, pure form of Irish that had died away elsewhere. But the people of the Great Blasket have nearly all died away themselves, now.
Micheal O’Cearna is the last islandman, the last man to have lived and worked on the island in its prime, when around 150 people worked, farmed and fished on that sea-blown slope. Their homes were drystone houses, huddled together on the side of a hill less than a mile wide. The tail of the hill stretched out for more than three miles behind them, into the west.
Their fun came from dancing to a fiddle and listening to expert storytellers, some of whose tales had been passed down for generations.
The language and culture of the island, and the wild beauty of the place, began to attract visitors in the early 1900s. Among them was the playwright John Millington Synge, who wrote ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ after being rather taken with a Blasket girl. Micheal O’Cearna was born in 1920, and grew up familiar with the summer visitors, some of whom helped the islanders turn their tales into books. The best of these is a beautiful memoir by Tomas O’Crohan called ‘The Islandman’, published in an English translation in 1934.
The worst is perhaps ‘Peig’, a heavily sanitised version of the tales Peig Sayers dictated to her son, which turned a salty, witty, wise woman into a pious misery-guts. It was inflicted on generations of Irish schoolchildren, who shudder at her name, even now.
The second best Blasket book is ‘Twenty Years A-Growing’ by Maurice O’Sullivan, which was published with a foreword by EM Forster and became fashionable in Britain and America in the Thirties.
These books were central to the Gaelic language revival, and the Blasket community was seized upon by some as symbolic of what Eamon De Valera, the future national leader, would one day call “the ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of”.
But even as the community became famous, so it began to die. The fishing stocks were decimated by foreign trawlers, the supply of turf dwindled. The visitors brought their own tales of the outside world, and the best and the brightest of the young islanders left. As life grew harder, it became important for their families that they should go, and send back money – a story repeated often in the many immigrant communities of Britain and America.
Mike Carney left for the mainland in 1937, when he was just 17. “The day I left the island, my father gave me the last five shillings he had in his pocket, and he said: ‘Mike, I hate to see you going, but we gotta have a beginning. Someone’s got to leave.’”
His voice falters as he remembers. Being within sight of the island is bringing back memories of the worst of days, which were to come. “The death of my brother Sean was the back-breaker for the island. That brought about the way the island is today, empty.”