Authors: Anita Fennelly
Sue Redican, weaver and island matriarch
I kept low on my hands and knees as the gale whipped over the cliff. To my left, the pyramid-shaped island of An Téaracht came in view. In seconds, a grey squall of horizontal rain swept over it and it disappeared from view again. I crouched down in the remains of what looked like a beehive hut. My ears were ringing from the noise of the wind. From there, I contemplated the southern slopes, a continuum of rises and falls, full of turf banks and littered with every make and shape of rock. Sue had also said that Gleann na Péiste overlooked a horseshoe-shaped cove, Cladach na gCapall. I looked in desperation. The whole cliff line was indented with bites. I chose a rock that stood defiant and taller than the rest, and made that my target.
As I went over the top of the fort, the wind whipped around me from all sides and the rain was like shrapnel in my face. I focused on the rock and walked, the slope pulling me down faster than I could manage. I sank knee-deep in heather and fell into rabbit holes. As I looked back up the slope into the wind, the path home seemed an impossible distance away. I was covered in brown bog-water up to my thighs. The rock I reached looked no different from the others: the eroded lunar landscape of the clifftop was littered with them. I wandered around this natural Stonehenge. Several times the gale blew me over. I sheltered behind a rock, ate half my scone and conducted a serious inquiry as to what I was doing there: the answer was that Páidí Dunleavy had dragged me there and Páidí Dunleavy I was going to find!
Looking for one particular rock amongst three miles of rock was proving to be a ridiculous task. The bank that Sue had mentioned turned out to be just as elusive. Both the bank and the path that Páidí Dunleavy had trod were well obscured by years of growth.
I began to follow the coastline westwards, keeping as far back from the edge as possible. Suddenly, I could see the outline of the cliff gathered in under the slopes, like a skirt revealing a sparkling blue petticoat. A hundred and fifty metres below me lay the horseshoe-shaped bay with a lush balcony tucked into the slopes high above the cliffs: I had found Gleann na Péiste. Creeping buttercups and lush ferns thrived in this south-facing garden, a haven of peace and greenery, in contrast to the wind-burnt heather and bracken not far away.
I dropped my backpack and wandered around as far as I could on the old cart path, looking for the stone. There was none – it was by far the lushest part of the island I had seen yet. When I returned to my bag, two rabbits were having a good snoop. ‘Do you mind?’ Neither of them seemed particularly bothered until I picked up my bag and they lolloped off, eyeing me from a convenient burrow. I peeled a banana and sat back against the warm rock face, relishing the peace and shelter from the wind.
I thought about Páidí Dunleavy and the hundreds of islanders who had hauled turf along the path in Gleann na Péiste over the years. ‘Life is tough but you get on with it.’ Basking in the sunshine, I watched gulls rise on elevators of air. I sang for myself and my new-found freedom, for the gulls, for the rabbits, for Páidí Dunleavy. I had not found the stone, but I was as contented as if I had. I hauled myself up, scattering my rabbit audience in all directions. As I bent down to retrieve my bag, I suddenly spotted it: ‘Páidí Dunleavy.’
The name was followed by a carved series of dates ranging from the 1960s to the early 1990s. Although speckled with lichen, the deep cuts in the rock ensured that Páidí’s name remained for posterity. Ironically, as soon as I had given up the search, it was Páidí’s rock I had sat back on. He would have had a good laugh about that. It was a flat wall of rock. Through the orange and black lichen stains, the names of dozens of Blasket Islanders announced themselves. On the bottom right of the rock face was the name of Páidí Dunleavy. After that there was nowhere else to write. It was as if Páidí had finished the page.
walked the ridge tiles of the world every day. On my right the island tumbled down into the muffled roar. On my left, the cliffs disappeared into a sea of shimmering Chinese silk, stretching as far as the pyramid-shaped Skelligs on the southern horizon. I followed the spine of the island, up to the fort, down along the saddle, up and over An Cró, then descending the Red Ridge (Drom Rua Chráilí) to the most westerly tip known as Black Head (An Ceann Dubh). There was nothing between there and the next parish of America except three thousand miles of Atlantic Ocean and the uninhabited islands of Inis na Bró, An Téaracht and Inis Mhic Uibhleain.
I settled down among the crumpled ruins of a beehive hut, out of the rush of the wind, training the binoculars on some passing gannets. The birds’ vast wingspans sliced through the air. Strange that they never landed on the Great Blasket Island. Already they were miles from their huge colony on the Skelligs.
In the background was Inis Mhic Uibhleain, owned by former Taoiseach Charles Haughey. I had never seen anybody on it until that day. A lone figure walked from the house up to the jagged heights in the centre of the island. Like the monastic ruins in the centre of the island, the stone house blended into the landscape. The figure, too, merged in with the landscape, discernible only through its movement. Once up against the skyline, its silhouette merged with the standing stones and was gone. I wondered what kind of man would retreat to the uninhabited harshness of that barren landscape.
The Red Ridge on the Great Blasket Island
As I ambled back to the village, I wondered if people speculated about the type of woman it was who would choose to live alone in a leaking cowshed on the Great Blasket Island. Whatever our respective reasons, I felt an affinity with that lone figure on the hill.
It was evening before I got back to the village. Sue had left a note under a stone by the door. ‘
is on the radio at 7 p.m. Come down!’ I could hardly believe that it was Thursday again. A whole week had passed since the day I had found Páidí’s rock. I ate dinner and headed down the path. Tom MacSweeney’s weekly greeting ‘to this island nation’ had never seemed so relevant. Thanks to the north wind and no ferries, our island nation still consisted of two inhabitants, Sue and me. I ran the last few steps and leaped up onto the bank outside her door. Immediately, I heard voices coming from inside. I was stunned. My first instinct was to turn around and get away, but it was too late: Sue had spotted me.
When I entered, three men greeted me in Irish. I smiled nervously but could not say a word. As the conversation proceeded, my lack of comprehension was painfully obvious. Tactfully, they switched to English. ‘And what country are you from?’ asked one of the men. For the first time in my life I felt utterly ashamed of my lack of Irish. I couldn’t string together even a simple sentence.
It turned out that each of the three men owned sheep on the island. Although their families had abandoned the island more then a half a century before, they continued to return every year, just like their grandfathers and fathers had done, to rear sheep for sale in the market in Dingle. They also grazed eighty sheep on Inis Tuaisceart. I had read about the difficulties of landing and scaling the cliffs on Inis Tuaisceart, so I could not imagine how eighty sheep would be hauled up onto the island. I wanted to ask them how they managed it, but couldn’t. Acutely aware of having interrupted the flow of their Irish conversation and feeling even more awkward, I seized my opportunity to say goodnight as Sue began to serve up dinner. On the way back home, I had to walk around several large fish boxes piled high with sleeping bags, a stove, gas, sliced bread, batteries, cans of beer and shears. As I looked at the stuff piled high, I wondered anxiously if I was living in the place where the men usually stayed.
Next morning, the startling sound of barking dogs and the shouting of urgent commands filled the hut. Unlike me, even the dogs understood Irish. I sat up and peered out of my tiny window as an orderly procession of sheep shuffled along the lower path through the ruins. Two young dogs wheeled around them in wide circles, panting and barking. An old dog worried the heels of the last sheep and, with the slightest dip to right or left, he directed the flock into a wooden pen above the beach.
That evening as I rounded An Gob on my way home, I was greeted by the bawling of sheep. The pen below was a heaving mass of wool. Two of the men were hammering stakes into the ground. The smell of wood smoke from Sue’s chimney carried on the wind: she had lit the fire early. Seeing the men busy at work, I cut straight down the hillside to her house. One of the sheepdogs lay outside her door, its head resting on the worn step. He barely glanced at me, exhausted after his day’s labours. I patted his tired head and stepped into the dimly lit interior. ‘Just in time,’ Sue announced. When the darkness took shape, Sue stood, filling the steaming teapot on the gas stove. The table was laden with wooden bowls, platters and candleholders. By the fire sat one of the sheep men. As he looked up, I was struck by the startling blue of his eyes.
‘I’m sorry, Sue – I didn’t realise you had company. Just called to tell you I saw the falcons again.’
‘Sit down. Páid and I are just about to have tea. You’re always in a terrible hurry. Mind you, you’ve slowed down a bit, but you’ve still a way to go.’ I sat down and smiled. I didn’t know quite how to react to that statement. As I looked at the fire to hide my embarrassment, I thought how right she was. Páid said nothing, and just looked at the fire too as Sue settled the teapot and three mugs on the hearth. ‘So where did you spot them, Anita?’
‘I was up in the fort, leaning against the bank, when one of them came sailing overhead. It passed over westwards, then began hovering over a spot about fifty yards away. It stayed in the same spot for at least ten minutes, then suddenly folded in its wings and plummeted like a stone. I could hear it cry once or twice and then the second one joined it.’
‘It must have killed a rabbit. It’s only recently that they’ve come back to the island. They were nearly extinct all over the country because of DDT. It used to make the eggshells soft and so the chicks died,’ Sue explained.
‘I see them when I’m lifting pots off the Lóchar Rocks.’ It was the first time Páid had spoken. He had a very attractive, gentle voice. Immediately, I recalled the small boat I had seen at the Lóchar Rocks, thrashing violently in the waves, 300 metres below the fort, three days previously. In it had been a lone fisherman in yellow oilskins. I had not been able to take my eyes off the toy vessel and the tiny man throwing lobster pots over the side. My imagination had played out the disaster. I would be the only witness. It would take me at least half an hour to get back around to Sue’s to radio for help. Then the lifeboat from Valentia would take, what? Another two hours? He would be dashed to pieces on the rocks. I had given myself palpitations imagining every possible scenario. I could not believe that he would go out in a tiny boat when even the ferries were not running. Mind you, the three of them had crossed into the island when no other boats dared. ‘I think I saw you lifting pots at the Lóchar Rocks on Tuesday’ was all I dared to contribute from the extensive search-and-rescue plan that was replaying in my head.
‘That you did’, he replied and we both continued to stare at the fire.
Sue poured the tea. ‘Páid does woodcarving in the winter and I sell his work here in on the island.’
When the conversation turned to wood, Páid became animated, showing us unusual grains and telling us how to distinguish the different woods. We took it in turns to stroke the grain of ash, cherry, oak and sycamore. Soon, the floor was covered with as much wood as wool. Sue poured more tea. ‘Is it time to make tea for Páid yet, do you think?’ she asked.
‘It is, he should be up shortly,’ Páid said.
‘Sorry, I thought that your name was Páid,’ I said.
‘It is, but the other man is Páid too.’
Sue came to the rescue and explained. ‘We call the other man Páidí. Páidí Kearney.’
Just then Páidí Kearney came in the door, followed by his old sheepdog. Páid pushed him a small milking stool with his foot and said something in Irish. Páidí Kearney then looked at me and smiled. ‘All good I hope.’
‘No, no we weren’t talking
you,’ I hastened to add. ‘I was just trying to get your names right.’
‘Oh sure now, you have me disappointed.’ I was still very anxious with people in general, but a lot less so with the people of the island. Páidí Kearney put me at my ease immediately.
‘Have you any connections with the island?’ I asked him.
‘My people come from the Great Blasket Island. My uncle was Seán Kearney and he lived and died in the Kearney family home, just below the schoolhouse. It was because of his death that everyone finally abandoned the island.’ Before he could explain any more, the third man, Donncha, arrived in. I began to make my exit.
‘And why does the whole island population leave when I come in?’ he asked loudly as he blocked the doorway. What followed was the third degree: my name, where I came from and what I was doing staying in on the island alone.