Great Blasket is a very beautiful Island which has been unhabited since 1953. It’s three miles from the mainland, a mountain rising up from the sea. There is one lovely sandy beach, about 60 acres of arable land in and close to the village; the rest is highland bog and rough grazing land.
There was once a vibrant, egalitarian community living there – up to 150 people at one time. A hardworking people who had little material wealth, but they had an enormous wealth of culture and noble values, manifesting in the richness of their language and storytelling. The island boasts several writers among its people, who wrote mainly about life on the island and about its characters, and that’s what makes this island different from other island communities.
Music, song and dance played a dynamic role in their lives, and the island enjoyed the talents of a number of fiddlers and singers who entertained at gatherings in the houses. Traditional set dancing was a popular feature of these social evenings. It was also common for groups to gather for debate and discussion, gleaning information from each other after mainland trips and especially from ‘The King’ (a community leader), who would read the newspapers and keep up with the news of the country and the rest of the world.
Several scholars visited the island in the early part of the 20th Century, being drawn by the language and culture: The playwright J.M. Synge, linguists like Carl Marstrander and Robin Flower, and many others such as George Thomson, the great Greek scholar, and Kenneth Jackson, the Celtic scholar were among the people that went to learn about the culture and the language.
The people mainly survived on fishing and most families also kept a cow, some sheep and hens. They grew potatoes and a few basic vegetables. Donkeys were also kept for carrying loads, like turf (peat) from the bog, or seaweed for fertiliser. To many of us now, their diet would seem somewhat exotic – aside from the usual potatoes and common vegetables with buttermilk or thick sour milk and fish – they ate rabbit, birds (puffin, razorbills or young gannets), gull’s eggs, limpets and periwinkles, various seaweeds, lobster roe (they did not like the lobster flesh), roasted red crab and roasted seal meat.
The decline of the fishing markets contributed largely to the process of emigration from the island. The young people left their island homes for a better life in America or the mainland. The vast majority of emigrants settled in Springfield MA. Their numbers declined until in 1953 there were only 22 people left on the island. They knew they had reached the end when a young man died of meningitis and because of a storm that lasted for about three weeks they were unable to get medical assistance for him. Following that they were also unable to bring his body to the burial ground on the mainland. The difficulty of bringing services to the island was no longer acceptable in the middle of the 20th century, when mainlanders appeared to have an easier life. So finally in 1953 they vacated the island.
It’s impossible to not feel some sense of sadness to see the ruins of what were once the precious homes of good people. In the much quoted words of island writer Tomás Ó Croimhthain “Our likes will never be seen here again”. It’s compelling to imagine how it must have been? How did it look then? How did it feel to live here? In what activities were they involved – men, women, children? How different were their lives from the mainland people of the time, and now? What did they think and feel about the island? Did they love the place? Did they appreciate the beauty of it? Were they proud? They could never have imagined how so many people today could be so very interested in the lives and characters of the island and their way of life.
Thousands of day trippers flock to the island every summer. none can fail to be touched by what they learn of the island, and all of them would be greatly impressed by the beauty of the island and the views from there.
Part Three to follow.
My paintings of Blasket Islands can be seen on my website:
More photos of the Blaskets can be seen on my website:
More information about the islands can also be gained from the following websites: