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Off The Irish Coast
By Maurice Brick
Copyright 2001 Maurice Brick

 An essay about the Blasket Island, off the coast of Ireland, and of its stories, including one about a man and his unshakeable faith.

Just off the coast of the Dinale Peninsula in Southwest Ireland is an island known as the Blasket Island. Down through the years, its population never exceeded 150 and yet, in the early part of the 20th century three of its inhabitants wrote books in Gaelic, which was their only language, that have been translated into other languages worldwide. But in the early thirties and forties the population of the island was decimated by immigration, leaving but the elderly and the very young in its wake. That meant that the island became more isolated as the young strong men who would venture forth in boats to the mainland in rough seas were no longer there.
Then, on or about 1950 or '51, a young man, not yet 20, fell ill and the roaring angry seas between the island and the mainland were so fearsome that a Doctor could not come to the island and the young man died. This created a great deal of anger within the island population and also around the whole country of Ireland. Why, in an age when automobiles were raising road dust and electricity was lighting up houses and even stables and cow shelters - a young man - a flower, lay withered. The Irish government was embarrassed and acted quickly. Then...
The Irish government initiated a program that provided housing on the mainland for all that were left on the island. The island people were not very happy with the idea at the time, but the Irish government was not going to be embarrassed again. So, preparations were swiftly made for the exodus of 1953.
I remember the day. I was eleven years old and I was filled with anticipation because one of the island families, an elderly couple, was to settle in my village of GortaDubha. And that's how I met Pats Tom Kearney and his wife Nelly Terry.
I fell in love with the two of them as soon as I met them. Pats was seventy then and he had a drooping gray moustache and heavy eyes which gave him a sad appearance. Nelly, his wife was tall with great bearing and she went about with an air that suggested "nothing of this world was worth worrying about". I remember once, when I was ill, she came to the house to see me. She reached out with her hand to touch me and her eyes motioned to me that I didn't have to worry. I knew I was on my way to being well again.
Pats was a prolific story teller or, as we referred to him in Gaelic, a seanachat. Every evening after the household chores were done and the Rosary recited, my friends and I raced to Pats' house and listened for hours to his stories. Some were of the old Irish mythology types that told of great heroes such as Cuchulain also known as Setanta and Fionn McCumhail and his comrades Oisin, Conan Maoc, and Diarmuid and his beloved Grainne. They were men who fought ferocious battles for seven days and seven nights and left plains in place of mountains and built ramparts the size of oceans to protect Eire, Ireland from her enemies.
And then there were the stories that Pats referred to as "within memory". That meant he knew the people in the story or knew of them, or heard the story from someone close to the happening. He told them in a more deliberate style whereas, those of the mythological heroes were told in a rather lighthearted tone.
The stories of the Blasket Island were somber. They lived through very hard times and the livelihood of the whole population depended a great deal on access to the sea. Fish was the main sustenance of the people. They had little gardens of vegetables and some potatoes. But if bad weather prevented or curtailed the harvest from the sea, bellies were lean and the pangs of hunger rang out with the rhythm of the waves.
But the island people had one great ally in the face of hardship and that was faith. They had incredible faith in God and that faith rarely got a rest. Many of Pats' stories recounted epic tests of faith and one still stands out for me as a wonderful example of one man's triumph over adversity.
Pats knew Tomas well. They were both seafaring, using the Atlantic Ocean as a means for feeding their families. They both had several sons and daughters which meant that free time was a scarce commodity., One day Tomas' son and a few of his friends decided to scale the cliffs in search of seagulls' nests for, at a certain time of year, seagulls' eggs were a much sought after delicacy. Tomas' son lost his footing when he kicked into a narrow crevice and fell several hundred feet on the rocks below. Tomas was out fishing that day and the news of his son's death was what greeted him as he and his fellow crew members disembarked from their naomhog - a canoe type boat that fits four.
At the time, the island men were removing slivers of his son's body from the rocks to enable them to have a wake and a funeral. Tomas and his crew set off for the mainland immediately to obtain a casket and other necessary items that were traditional on such occasions. The women assembled what they could of the body and the wake was held. The burial followed on the mainland. Pats described it as an eerie scene. Naomhogs, canoes from the island, about twenty with their black felt skins were joined by thirty from the mainland. The lead Naomhog with the island's best oarsmen and the dull wooden casket carved its own path through the waves. There were women in each naomhog and their cries arose like a keening that sounded like the wind on a stormy night going through the caves and coves of the rocky, craggy shore.
When the day was done, they all returned to the island and mourned their loss. But on the next day, it was a sunny day, Tomas had turf (peat) on the mountain and he ventured up the steep pathway as it was a good day to set about saving it for winter fires. Pats met him on the way and he said to Pats, "it was God's will I lost my son. He needed him too and that's good enough for me. Now, I must go and save the turf for winter."