“I don’t know if I will be able to make it,” says Mike Carney, looking out across a wild stretch of water to the place where he was born 92 years ago. “I would like to put my feet down there one more time, but I wonder, is it possible?”
Frankly, it seems crazy to try. The Great Blasket is a remote island, empty and inaccessible for most of the year. We are in the far west of Ireland and the weather is turning bad, making the ground treacherous underfoot. Dr Carney walks with a shuffle and wears a brace for his back. He is standing on a headland, leaning on a stick, looking out at the Blasket Sound. Under those waves there are many wrecks.
To get to the island the old man will have to negotiate a wet quayside, a rubber dinghy, a sharp climb up into a converted fishing boat, an hour’s journey by sea, buffeted by the Atlantic waves, the dinghy again and then the derelict island slipway, slick with seaweed, leading to a steep rock path as slippery as ice.
And yet he says: “I am Micheal O Cearna, the son of a Blasket island fisherman. I am a determined man. I have the determination within me to do this.”
He has come a long way already to reach this point in the summer of 2013; more than three thousand miles from his retirement home in Massachusetts, and then down the coast from Shannon Airport to the far tip of the Dingle Peninsula, a finger of land that points back west.
“I can’t get the island out of my mind,” says Dr Carney, with the strong accent of a man who grew up speaking only Gaelic and who has never let the language go. He listens to Radio na Gaeltacht on line and watches a webcam focused on the island that he still calls home, even after all this time.
“I dream about the island at night. I dream about the way it was when we were young.”
Such dreams of home are powerful. So many of us long for the place where we laughed and played with childhood friends and life was easier, simpler. Better. One of my neighbours dreams of the Welsh valleys, another of the hills of Kashmir, a third of Jamaican sunshine. The world is full of exiles, although few of them ever make it home.
Mike Carney’s brother Paddy was like that. We met a decade or so ago, at the hospital where he was being treated in Massachusetts. Paddy said he would get back to the island one day, when he was better. We both knew it wasn’t going to happen, and so it proved. Paddy died soon afterwards. In any case, he knew – as Mike does now – that his home was no longer the same.
The Great Blasket was abandoned in 1953, as the result of a tragedy that broke the hearts of the Carney family and their fellow islanders. Nobody has lived there for six decades. The houses are ruins. So what is calling Mike Carney now? What is it that makes this 92-year-old willing to risk his life to get back to the island?