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
- 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
- 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."