The Great Blasket Island, Storytelling, and the Environment

Mount Eagle seen from Dunmore Head. © Matthias Egeler

By Matthias Egeler and Anna Pilz

We are standing on the headland of Dunmore Head on the western edge of Dingle Peninsula, on the western edge of Ireland, on the western edge of Europe. One moment, the slope is speckled with light, the next it is in the shadow of a heavy rain cloud. Then the winds push away the rain leaving behind a sparkling rainbow that disappears after five minutes. Repeat. We turn the collars of our coats up, but the winds coming in from the Atlantic find a way through everything, and so does the rain that comes and goes every couple of minutes. Above us rises Mount Eagle, and to our west a small group of islands form the last tiny patches of land before the vastness of the ocean. Uninhabited since the 1950s, the Blasket Islands are the home of sea birds, sheep, and flocks of tourists with a taste for the literary history of the Gaelic language.

Ever optimistic, we drive on to nearby Dunquin Pier, where the ferries leave to the Great Blasket­—or An Blascaod Mór in the original Gaelic­­­­—which is the main island of the group. The access road to the slipway has to corkscrew around a wall of rock that juts out of the cliff face, almost completely doubling in on itself before, down by the water, it turns back out again towards the pier and the ocean. When we reach the pier, there are no sailings. The sea is too high for boats to cross to the Great Blasket on that day.

The access road to Dunquin Pier with the Great Blasket in the distance. © Matthias Egeler

Being cut off from the mainland by some three miles of tempestuous sea, sometimes for weeks at a time, was a common experience for the Great Blasket community. Sustainable island life was challenged further by the precarious economy of the local fishing trade. The daily catch was brought to the mainland and sold in the Dingle peninsula’s merchant town. Here fish prices fluctuated and even a good catch could turn out to be worthless. On one bitterly remembered occasion in 1921, the island’s fleet of small open fishing boats made a phenomenal catch. Yet as the islander Tomás O’Crohan noted in his Island Cross-Talk: Pages from a Blasket Island Diary: “[n]ot a single sixpence reached the Island out of that day’s fishing, although every currach there was loaded to the gunwhale.” For when the fishermen reached the mainland, they found that the day’s value of fish would not even cover the cost of transport to Dingle. At the same time, the islanders could not afford the shopkeepers’ price for salt. Unable to either sell or preserve their catch, they threw the dead fish back into the sea, and not many kind words were said about the merchants of Dingle [1].

The rise of deep-sea trawlers in the twentieth century gave the local fishing trade and community its finishing blow. These new trawlers not only emptied the sea; their industrial efficiency made it impossible for local fishermen to compete in their small, traditionally made wooden currachs [2]. The photograph, taken by the Irish Literary Revivalist John Millington Synge in 1905 during his visit to the Great Blasket, shows a group of island men mending or building one of these light boats made from tarred canvas over a framework of wooden struts. Two young boys take part in the activity, likely to learn a craft that was passed on from generation to generation [3]. At the time the photograph was taken, there were still some 150 inhabitants on the Great Blasket, but numbers dropped sharply over the course of the first half of the century. In 1953, the Irish government resettled the last remaining islanders to the mainland [4]. Today, all but a handful of the old houses are in ruins.

John Millington Synge’s photograph of men working on a currach on the Great Blasket Island, Papers of John Millington Synge © The Board of Trinity College Dublin. Republished here with permission.

Industrial overfishing resulted not only in damage to the marine ecosystem and the collapse of the traditional fishing community but also in the loss of a coastal vernacular and culture of storytelling. In early twentieth-century Ireland, the Great Blasket was one of the most prominent refugia of the Gaelic language. Prominent Gaelic scholars such as Yorkshire-born Robin Flower and the Norwegian Carl Marstrander flocked to the Great Blasket to learn Irish, to record the islanders’ stories, and to encourage their local teachers to write books of their own. This encouragement bore rich fruit and, from the 1920s onwards, several islanders wrote a whole little library of books about their lives. Starting with Tomás O’Crohan’s Island Cross-Talk (1928) (Allagar na hInise in the original Irish), these books made the Blasket community probably one of the best-documented small-island communities of their time.

Micheál O’Guiheen, son of the ‘queen of Gaelic storytelling’ Peig Sayers, belonged to the last generation of islanders to live on the Great Blasket [5]. Nicknamed ‘The Poet,’ his lyrical stanzas express his love for the Great Blasket and its nature, describing the beauty of marine life while at the same time lamenting the end of the island’s fishing culture. In his autobiography, A Pity Youth Does not Last, penned shortly before he and his mother moved to the mainland in 1942, Micheál tells both the story of the extinction of a way of life and of the degradation of its natural environment. Repeatedly, his literary eye gravitates towards Sliabh an Iolair, ‘Mount Eagle,’ the coastal mountain that directly faces the Great Blasket.

Micheál, as a young boy, was curious about the mountain’s name and retells the story behind the place name as he learned it from his mother. “That mountain,” Peig told him, “was full of eagles in my young days, though there isn’t one of them left now. There is a great lake on top of it and there used to be an eagle’s nest in the cliff above the lake. But it is a long time now since there was an eagle’s nest there.” [6] The “last one” [7] was caught by a woman from Ventry, which lies about halfway to Dingle, the local trading center further east on the peninsula whose merchants were notorious among the islanders for their rapacity [8]. The Ventry woman caught the eagle when it was washing itself in the lake; creeping up on the bird, she used her shawl as a fowling net. “When she twisted the shawl round him, the eagle drove his claw into the palm of her hand and out through the other side.” [9] Unable to free herself from the eagle’s grip, she had to walk to Dingle with the eagle’s talons through her hand. There, the local doctor had to intervene and, Peig told her son, “I think he had to cut the eagle’s claw to loosen its grip.” [10] The doctor bought the eagle from the woman, and she used the money for the fare home. The last eagle of Mount Eagle was thus sold to one of the highest-ranking members of society in Dingle town. The tale does not tell why the woman sought to catch the bird in the first place, or what the man wanted the eagle for [11].

Featuring early on in Micheál’s autobiography, not much is made of this little story of a local extinction. At first, it appears to be just part of an archive of stories that Gaelic storytelling culture tells us in relation to the origins of place names. But later in his narration, Micheál returns to the view towards Mount Eagle. In a chapter tellingly entitled ‘I’m thinking sadly about the Life that is gone,’ he reminisces about mornings of summers past, when “the yellow, golden sun would rise up from the shoulder of the mountain,” when both mountain and sea “would be the colour of gold with the brightness of the weather. The fish would be coming in on the quay and shoaling outside in the mouth of the strand and in Yellow Island Shore.” [12]

Significantly, Micheál’s preceding paragraph draws attention to the dramatic shift that occurred over the course of his lifetime on the Great Blasket: “I remember when this place was at its height and the fishing good but, God help us, that day is past and things have changed.” He bemoans that the island people have “neither spirit nor drive,” “no inclination for fishing either, even if the fish were there.” At the time of writing, he notes that the “old custom is at an end and I’m afraid that living on the Island is at an end too.” [13] In his subsequent melancholic view towards Mount Eagle, Micheál seems to embed a narrative of degradation and extinction that is both environmental and cultural. When he looked towards Mount Eagle as a child at the hand of his mother Peig, he imagined her tale of the end of the last eagle; and looking at the mountain as a grown man who was soon to depart the Great Blasket, he saw the absence of the shoals of fish and the disappearance of a way of life by the sea.

The connection between language, landscape, place names, storytelling, and lived experience was a central part of island life and Gaelic-speaking coastal cultures. We are currently witnessing a resurgence of interest and initiatives in collecting present-day Gaelic coastal stories and vocabularies, like Manchán Magan’s Sea Tamagotchi in Ireland or the project The Coast that Shaped the World in Scotland. The little library of Great Blasket books, which reflects the perspective of the members of a resilient but ultimately vanishing community on their own lives and the environment in which these lives unfolded, has long been a classic of Irish, and especially of Gaelic literature. Micheál’s stories document a vernacular view of the concerns of small island communities. Maybe it is time that such writing from the farthest western edge of Ireland (and of Europe) also drew the attention of ecocritics and scholars in the environmental humanities more broadly, reflecting as it does an island life whose disappearance illustrates the interlinked fragility of vernacular storytelling, human life, and the environment.


Matthias Egeler wishes to acknowledge funding from the Heisenberg-Programme of the German Research Association, and Anna Pilz wishes to acknowledge funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 890850.


Recommended reading about the Great Blasket Island

Seán O’Crohan, A Day in Our Life. Translated from the Irish by Tim Enright (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Tomás O’Crohan, Island Cross-Talk. Pages from a Blasket Island Diary. Translated from the Irish by Tim Enright (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

Tomás O’Crohan, The Islandman. Translated from the Irish by Robin Flower (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 (orig. ed. 1937)).

Micheál O’Guiheen, A Pity Youth Does not Last. Reminiscences of the Last of the Great Blasket Island’s Poets and Storytellers. Translated from the Irish by Tim Enright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).

Maurice O’Sullivan, Twenty Years A-Growing. Rendered from the original Irish with a Preface by Moya Llewelyn Davies and George Thomson, with an Introductory Note by E. M. Forster (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1953 (first paperback edition 1983, reissue 2000)).

Peig Sayers, Peig. The Autobiography of Peig Sayers of the Great Blasket Island. Translated into English by Bryan MacMahon. Illustrations by Catriona O’Connor (Dublin: Talbot Press, 1974).

Peig Sayers, An Old Woman’s Reflections. Translated from the Irish by Séamus Ennis and introduced by W. R. Rodgers (Oxford – New York: Oxford University Press, 1962 (first paperback edition 1978)).

Robin Flower, The Western Island, or The Great Blasket. With illustrations by Ida M. Flower (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1944 (reprint 1966)).


References

[1] Tomás O’Crohan, Island Cross-Talk. Pages from a Blasket Island Diary. Translated from the Irish by Tim Enright (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 148.

[2] Tim Enright, “Introduction,” in Micheál O’Guiheen, A Pity Youth Does not Last. Reminiscences of the Last of the Great Blasket Island’s Poets and Storytellers. Translated from the Irish by Tim Enright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), xiii–xxi (xiv–xv).

[3] For more on boat culture in the West of Ireland, in particular Connemara, and its implications for our understanding of people, language, landscape, and environment see David Gange’s talk “People of Small Boats.”

[4] See Patricia Lysaght, “Paradise Lost? Leaving the Great Blasket,” Béaloideas 74 (2006): 155–206.

[5] In March 2021, TG4 aired a new documentary titled ‘Peig’ by Sinéad Ní Uallacháin.

[6] Micheál O’Guiheen, A Pity Youth Does not Last. Reminiscences of the Last of the Great Blasket Island’s Poets and Storytellers. Translated from the Irish by Tim Enright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 22.

[7] Micheál O’Guiheen, A Pity Youth Does not Last, 23.

[8] Tomás O’Crohan, Island Cross-Talk, 108, 148, 160.

[9] Micheál O’Guiheen, A Pity Youth Does not Last, 23.

[10] Micheál O’Guiheen, A Pity Youth Does not Last, 23.

[11] Micheál O’Guiheen, A Pity Youth Does not Last, 22–23. Irish and Scottish place names that refer to eagles have also been made the basis of ecological research. See Richard J. Evans, Lorcán O’Toole, and D. Philip Whitfield, “The History of Eagles in Britain and Ireland: An Ecological Review of Placename and Documentary Evidence from the last 1500 years,” Bird Study 59:3 (2012): 335–349, DOI: 10.1080/00063657.2012.683388. On the recent re-introduction of eagles in Ireland, see here.

[12] Micheál O’Guiheen, A Pity Youth Does not Last, 82.

[13] Micheál O’Guiheen, A Pity Youth Does not Last, 82–83.


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