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Authors: Robert Kanigel

Tags: #Non-Fiction, #History

On an Irish Island

BOOK: On an Irish Island
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Faux Real

High Season

Vintage Reading

The One Best Way

The Man Who Knew Infinity

Apprentice to Genius


Copyright © 2012 Robert Kanigel

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada, Limited, Toronto.

Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

All permissions to reprint previously published material may be found immediately following the index.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Kanigel, Robert.
On an Irish island / by Robert Kanigel.—1st ed. p. cm.
“This is a Borzoi book”—T.p. verso.
eISBN: 978-0-307-95748-1 1.
Great Blasket Island (Ireland)—History. 2. Great Blasket Island (Ireland)—Biography. 3. Great Blasket Island (Ireland)—Description and travel. 4. Adventure and adventurers—Ireland—Great Blasket
Island—Biography. 5. Travelers—Ireland—Great Blasket Island—Biography. I. Title. DA990.B65K36 2012 941.96—dc23                                    2011028159

Jacket photograph:
Children by the Waves.
Unknown photographer. Courtesy of Ionad an Bhlascaoid/
The Blasket Centre Jacket design by Joe Montgomery


For Dottie, Peg, and Elaine
City Slicker Farm, 1959–1960


Nineteen twenty-three was barely yesterday, a lot like today. People lived in suburbs and commuted to work. They traveled by tram and subway. They drove automobiles. They went to the movies, subscribed to magazines, looked up in the sky to see airplanes. Vaccines, flush toilets, best-seller lists, billboards, cameras, and power lines were part of their lives. Their memories were fresh with visions of a war that killed with industrial efficiency. Picasso, Stravinsky, and Virginia Woolf had taught them to see through fractured lenses. Telegrams, telephones, newsreels, and radios had shrunk the world. If you were part of the great and growing middle class and lived in a place like Chicago or Berlin,
London or New York, life could be pretty fast. You had your ambitions, you wanted more, you lived a busy life.

In the spring of 1923,
George Thomson, a nineteen-year-old English boy, finished his first year
at King’s College, Cambridge. He’d grown up in a suburb of London. His father was a chartered accountant who hoped his son would follow in his footsteps. He was smart, had won a coveted scholarship to King’s, was destined for distinction. At the university, he was a student of the classics, and later, when he took its daunting Tripos exams, he’d earn first-class honors.

But had he been able to, George Thomson later said, he would have taken a different path. All through his last years of secondary school, while
Euripides and
Ovid and
Cicero, and then on into his first year at King’s, he had been distracted by the events of the world. During his first two years at
Dulwich College (a preparatory school), European armies still grappled along the blood-drenched Western Front. Yet it was not the Great War that compelled George’s adolescent attention, but events in
Ireland. Little rural Ireland, off the main stage of the world, had, beginning in 1916, endured seven years of rebellion and war—first against
England, then in a cruel
civil war that shed more Irish blood than had the British. It was Ireland, and all things Irish, that captivated young George Thomson.

Now, in August 1923, with the violence stilled at last, it could seem that the whole tortured recent history of Ireland had conspired to propel him across England, across the
Irish Sea, across the breadth of Ireland, to a tiny quay at the foot of a precipitous cliff on the
Dingle Peninsula. He was at the westernmost tip of Europe. He was in one of the wildest corners of Ireland, so forlorn, neglected, and poor that its people had been leaving it for America for almost a hundred years. George was bound for a tiny village perched on the eastern face of a great rock rising from the water three miles off the coast. Rowed by rough-hewn, wool-sweatered men across this unpredictable stretch of cold Atlantic to that tiny backward slip of an island, he would step from the modern world into what novelist
E. M. Forster would call, with only modest exaggeration, a “
neolithic civilization.” When he left the island six weeks later, he would be close to tears. The island would grip his imagination, grant him friendship and love that would overfill his life, forever alter his ideas about what life could be at its sweetest, and about how the world ought to be at its best.

Great Blasket island, or An Blascaod Mór, as it was rendered in Irish Gaelic, is the largest among a group of seven small islands just off the west coast of County
Kerry. For at least two centuries before Thomson’s coming, about 150 people lived there, in stone
houses dug into the slope of the hill facing the mainland. Virtually all were fishermen who, with their families, wrested precarious livelihoods from the sea that washed the island’s shores. They hunted rabbits, harvested oats and potatoes from mediocre soil. They had limited relations with towns on the mainland, which they rowed across open water in small boats to reach; evil
weather sometimes kept them on the island for weeks at a time. They had no electricity, no plumbing, no church, no priests, no police, no taverns, no shops. They
spoke Irish, though few could read or write it.
English was for most of them unintelligible.

One summer’s day in 1923, the way he told the story later, an islander,
Maurice O’Sullivan, was “
looking after a sheep on the hill-side, the sun yellowing in the west and a lark singing above.” On the path ahead he saw a man approach, someone in “knee-breeches and a shoulder-cloak, his head bare and a shock of dark brown hair gathered straight back on it. I was growing afraid. There was not his like in the Island.”

“God save you,” said the stranger, in English.

“God and Mary save you, noble person,” said O’Sullivan in the Gaelic ritual reply.

The young men sat down for a smoke. The visitor “tried to say something in Irish,” O’Sullivan recalled. He couldn’t, and tried again in English.

The Englishman was
George Thomson, and after six weeks with O’Sullivan, talking together as they tramped over the hills and across the beach, his Irish grew readier and more fluid. Year after year Thomson returned to the island, his friendship with O’Sullivan deepening. Bound for international distinction as a classical scholar, he would encourage O’Sullivan’s exuberant memoir of growing up on the Blaskets,
Fiche Blian ag Fás,
and help translate it into English as
Twenty Years A-Growing.

“There is no doubt but youth is a fine thing, though my own is not over yet and wisdom comes with age,” O’Sullivan begins the story of his life. It’s a high-stepping affair, brimming with energy, filled with youthful adventure, the inspiration for a film script
Dylan Thomas left unfinished at his death.
E. M. Forster wrote the introduction. It would be reviewed adoringly in Europe and America, appear in numerous translations, earn a permanent place in the Irish
literary tradition. For Thomson, the companionship he enjoyed with O’Sullivan and the other islanders with whom he played, worked, danced, and traded tales reached deep into him. He’d remember always the bleak beauty of the Blasket, its conviviality, the warmth of his relations with the villagers. His friendship with Maurice was the most important of his life.

Even in stripped-down form this makes for a nice story. Yet, astonishingly, it was not the first time, or the last, that it or something like it had been enacted on the Blaskets. Eighteen years before, in 1905, the playwright John Millington Synge, a key figure in the Irish literary revival and friend of the poet Yeats, visited the Great Blasket; the island touched him, too. Anyone who’d lived with Irish peasants, he wrote in the preface to his most famous play,
The Playboy of the Western World,
“will know that
the wildest sayings and ideas in this play are tame indeed” compared with those heard in the
Aran Islands, which he’d also visited, or on the Blaskets.

That’s how it was all through the first decades of the twentieth century: Thomson and Synge were just two in a line of scholars and writers who first came to the Blaskets to learn
spoken Irish, influenced
islanders to see themselves through new eyes, and helped spawn a remarkable literary flowering—a succession of books, originally in Irish, but later widely translated. First Tomás O’Crohan’s
The Islandman,
in all its dignity and grace. Then O’Sullivan’s joyful
Twenty Years A-Growing,
Peig Sayers’s bleak and wrenching
Though stylistically distinct, each told of a vulnerable, wave-lapped few square miles, breathing its own unlikely island air, aware of its historical fragility. “
I have done my best” wrote O’Crohan, “to set down the character of the people about me so that some record of us might live after us, for the like of us will never be again.”

With the success of these first books came other memoirs, collections of letters, works of history, linguistics, and folklore. All billowing up from a tiny, sea-bound community largely cut off from the twentieth century. “
If we put them all together, side by side,” George Thomson said years later, “we have a little library of fifteen or sixteen volumes, the
Blasket Library. And this is something unique. There’s no such collection in any other language, a collective portrait of a pre-capitalist village community, made by the villagers themselves, at the very moment of transition from speech to writing.” Several of the books achieved international renown. Many remain in print. One was required reading in the Irish national school system for three decades. Together, they represent a poor Irish-speaking peasantry, their hard lives close and cooperative, rich with story, song, and dance, cut off from the clamor of modern life—and, inevitably, reflecting back at us our own soft, technology-thick lives.

On an Irish Island
tells the story of George Thomson and the other scholarly visitors to the island in the years after 1905, their impact on the island and its literary legacy, and on the islanders to whom they grew so attached. It tells of a dying language and what hope of its revival meant to Ireland in the early twentieth century; of the Irish
oral tradition as it was lived on the Great Blasket and embodied in Ireland’s most famous storytellers, and in the lilting cadences of Irish and its stage-Irish imitators; of life on this stone outcropping in the Atlantic before it was abandoned, its residents dispersed to the mainland and to America, its life cut short by the irresistible forces of

BOOK: On an Irish Island
5.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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