Oct/Nov 2009 Travel

Blasket Islands

by Joe Kovacs

Photo by Joe Kovacs

A corpse has been floating in the Atlantic Ocean for centuries at the very least. Maybe longer. He stubbornly refuses to get pushed around by the fierce waves battering him about. He doesn't bob, drift, turn or roll over; he just kind of hangs out, peering contemplatively up at the sky. Coming to see him was the height of my trip to Ireland.

I first saw the island known as An Fear Marbh, or the Dead Man, when my bus turned a corner on Slea Head Drive and brought me within sight of the Atlantic Ocean and the little town of Dunquin, the western tip of the Dingle Peninsula. An Fear Marbh is the northernmost of the Blasket Islands, a series of isles rising unexpectedly from the gray, wild sea three miles west of the peninsula. Its real name is Inis Tuaisceart, but since those Irish just can't stop imagining things, since it actually looks like a long face staring up, the island got a new name. Of course the Dead Man has company: the pyramid-shaped rock of Tiaracht, the largest island of An Blascaod Mor, also known as the Great Blasket, Inis Mhic Uileain (an Irish saint's name), and numerous groupie isles, less distinguished by far, congregated among what appears to be a giant, flooded quarry. As the sun dipped, the eastern humps of the islands grew black in shadows, creating a panorama that film directors would kill for.

The story of the Blasket Islands is the tale of a lost civilization. Dating back eight centuries from the middle of the 1900s, generations of hard, earthy Irish of a type rarely seen anymore wrested an improbable life from the earth, grazing sheep and cattle on the high, windy cliffs, harvesting potatoes and vegetables, and hunting rabbits and seabirds. Inhabitants of the sea as well, they fished out of crude, wooden boats, ensnaring lobsters for markets on the peninsula. An isolated and marginal community by any measure, the island saw a population surge in the 1800s as poor Irish tenants, evicted from their homes by wealthy landowners, sought haven where they would not be harassed. Increasingly, though, brutal weather conditions made all but the Great Blasket uninhabitable. Around the turn of the 20th century, a younger generation of islanders began expressing weariness at the hard, isolated lifestyle—whispers of emerging, new industries, technologies and the modern age had no doubt even made their way here—and soon locals were leaving in droves for America and mainland Europe. A lighthouse perched on the cliffs of Tiaracht might have offered their last glimpse of home as their ships forged westward, taking them toward as yet unknown lives. The simple lifestyle of the islanders suffered the blow of a dwindling population that never recovered. The final residents were evacuated in 1953.

Dunquin is a small fishing town nestled between the slopes of Eagle Mountain and Dingle Bay. Tourists can get irritated, even furious, and usually lost thanks to the mostly Irish language street signs, which are ostensibly meant to make traveling around the peninsula easy. The western part of Ireland noticeably (and somewhat proudly) lags behind its eastern counterpart when it comes to modernity. One traveler I met at the local youth hostel told me about driving for hours after leaving Tralee, expecting that it would only be a short jaunt down to the bay. I had smartly avoided such nonsense by relying on the good sense of a local bus driver. But I had another transportation issue to contend with, which was, namely, whether the ferry would be leaving Dunquin for the Great Blasket Island the next morning. I wasn't very optimistic. In Leaving the Blaskets, traveler Cole Merton bemoans the countless days he spent wandering around town, waiting in frustration for the winds to die and the waves to calm so he could get where he wanted to go.

When I stepped off the bus in town, the evening was more than blustery, with the triangular waves of the ocean getting pushed gray and choppy from wild gusts. I went to bed anxiously a little later, the window panes rattling in their frames and me wondering whether this trip west would turn into a royal bust. Even the next morning, as sleepy-eyed I hurried down to the pier, the wind kicked up, making me utter foul things under my breath. Those curses soon turned to prayers of thankfulness, though, as down by the water I saw people boarding. The ferry was about to leave.

It took an extra burst of speed, but I arrived at the pier on time, and then a careful balancing act, an unceremonious flailing about of arms, and some shaky footwork got me over the low, rocking stern, where I crashed more than sat onto a bench against the side of the boat. It was really just a small trawler—it amused me to think of how the townspeople referred to this as a ferry—and I pulled up the collar of my pullover against the briny spray. Seated across from me were about a dozen students from the University of Cork who were on a cultural heritage excursion. They explained they would only be allowed to speak Irish once they reached the island. "English is dull," they said. "Where someone says in English, 'I miss you', we Irish say, Brea-inn two u-am which means 'I feel you apart from me.' And your 'goodbye' is Gia Ditch, 'May God go with you.'" They weren't antagonistic about it—my accent was unmistakably American, so they knew who they were talking to—they were just giggly and excited. When one extemporaneously began reciting Yeats' "The Stolen Child," I was happy to listen.

Soon the "ferry" tore off form the pier and into the bay, and I drifted from the conversation. I cupped my hands to my ears and shrugged at the students to explain my inability to hear them over the thundering engine. But the truth was that the lurching of our small vessel over the water greatly unsettled my stomach, and I was afraid of what might come out of my mouth if I opened it again. I gripped both sides of my seat, hung on, and did what I could to enjoy myself. Aside from the bumps, it was actually a great ride. The air was cool, razor-sharp, and electrifying, made my eyes water, and pushed locks of scraggly hair down into my face, drawing me out of a pre-dawn stupor the way no cup of coffee had ever done before. For the next 20 minutes, I watched the Great Blasket draw near, growing immensely against a frame of pewter sky. The island slumbered there like a huge creature.

This was the end of my time in Ireland. It had been two weeks of partying in Dublin, hiking the Slieve Bloom Mountains of County Laoise, and listening to live music in Cashel. The Blaskets were my final moment of arrival. As the boat charged ahead, powered by modern engineering, foam crashed against the prow, sending up white plumes of water. It was a violent journey. I wondered at the old islanders who would have traveled between the mainland and back in rickety wooden boats to retrieve a doctor who could treat illness, food to eat, or other essential supplies. Could they have afforded to wait if the wind had been intense? If nature was red in tooth and claw, surely the islanders must have been, too.

Off to the north were Tiaracht and An Fear Marbh. No boat visits the Dead Man these days; underwater rocks stand ready to knock a hull to splinters and send its human cargo down to Davy Jones' locker. How had anyone ever lived in such a hard-seeming place?

The Great Blasket stretches three miles from east to west and is a mile long. Crossing the bay, every shore appears to rise straight up in a towering ring of turf-topped cliffs with no landing point visible. But as we tacked south, the trawler cut its engine several hundred yards from one cliff and the crew dropped a small motorized raft into the water. I gathered my bag, stood and jumped down into the raft with five university students. The second group would follow after us, I was told, though I still didn't quite know where we were going. In fact, as we zipped off toward the pounding surf, I grew more uncertain. But then we passed a jutting peninsula and there, hidden in a cleft and camouflaged by the tall rocks, was a sandy strand protected from the roughest of the waves. It was there that we landed. The strand was long, thin, and topped by a number of camping tents. Later I found out the old islanders had used the strand to shear sheep. There were random assortments of stones which had long ago been assembled as holding pens.

Hopping ashore, I tightened my boot laces, adjusted the shoulder straps of my Camelpak, rolled a bandanna across my forehead, and confronted a long, steep climb. We had to wait another ten minutes for the second group from the trawler to arrive, and when they finally alighted, we all headed up. The cliff-side steps were crudely cut and slippery. Despite the grip of my soles, I still nearly lost my footing once or twice, and should I have been leaning this way rather than that, I could have possibly gone plunging back down. I concentrated on just lifting one foot and putting it down in front of the other, over and over, without looking back to get perspective on my progress. But at a certain point, when the wind started roaring again and sunlight came dappling the stones around me, I realized our group had ascended past the level of the long jutting cliff that formed the outer rim of the cleft into which our raft had entered.

I eventually reached the top with my lungs burning and my legs heavy as sandbags and unwilling to even bend so that I could sit. We truly were at a dizzying height above the bay. Though the wind was ferocious, I tore off my pullover and experienced a chill from the play of air against my sweat-soaked tee shirt. But the endorphins flooding my system nearly made me break out in laughter. Down below, the wave crests no longer threatened. Far to the west, the Dingle Peninsula bent in a haze of sunlight, like an uncharted land. It must have been an easy illusion (and perhaps a pleasing one) for islanders to think they were the only people in the world. Above, a path wound toward the islanders' main village, and I followed it, stepping nimbly around the dried excreta of sheep that continue to flock in great numbers on the slopes.

The turf-layered slopes were dotted with various ancient stone-and-mortar cottages, the rushes from their roofs long since dispersed by the elements. It was a ghost town like no other. Ivy, holly and goat willow trailed in twisted configurations on the ground. Most of the cottages had been built pressed back against the hills to provide natural shelter. When they lived there, islanders combated the damp earthen floors by spreading beach sand. Though the cottages were now gutted, most had had large, warm kitchens to shelter animals from storms.

Walking among the numerous cottages, I tried to imagine the scope of the little community—there were never much more than 100 islanders at a time—and then followed the path around toward the northern side of the island. Moments later, my legs, which had not fully recovered from the arduous hike up, were screaming yet again. The hills didn't look steeply graded, but I suspected that the tilted lay of the Great Blasket offered some deceiving angles. The strength of the hard-working islanders must have been tremendous. But for my efforts, I soon caught sight of An Fear Marbh. Now less than a mile away, the island's proximity made it seem less like a face gazing up from the water. Even if no one visited the Dead Man these days, it was obviously still popular with seabirds, which flocked, screeched, rose, and landed among the stones like citizens chattering away at a town hall meeting.

Back on the Great Blasket, I moved on, attempting not to trip over or step on any of the rabbits hopping across the path. I'd never seen so many bunnies in my life! On the turf overhead was a random series of stone walls, and I turned to my new friend to ask her about it. Ever since the trawler, I'd been flirting with one of the university students—what traveler can stop himself upon meeting an attractive local?—and she'd reciprocated by moving back and forth between myself and her group, which had gone up ahead. She didn't seem to mind speaking in English despite the pact with her friends. I asked about the walls, and she said the islanders had used them to protect the rich soil which was used as fertilizer back in the village. After digging it up, the islanders piled the soil behind the walls to prevent the blowing wind from scattering it. The islanders would then retrieve donkeys and use panniers to transport the soil back to the village. I noticed no earthy smell, which suggested the soil must have been hard-packed under the turf; I began to appreciate how the islanders must have labored to access the natural resources that made life possible.

I asked how the islanders could work on such steep land. There didn't seem to be anything approaching an even surface around, and a single misstep could send someone tumbling down a hill and over the cliffs. My friend shrugged that she didn't know, but when I later researched the matter, I found that there was actually more than one such recorded fatal accident. According to historical documents about the islanders, such occurrences were accepted as part of life on the Blaskets. Death was never more than a footstep or two away.

The trail, which was cut into the side of one of the magnificent hills, went around rather than up to the summit of the Great Blasket. It was hypnotizing to meditate on the broad ocean and scattered islands. A solitary Rousseau, I lingered over the impressions of the view, of the Dead Man and the pinnacle of Tiaracht. I was interrupted several times, however, by several thick and thuggish-looking hikers passing by, staggering toward the western end of the island under the weight of backpacks, tents, jugs of water. For such visitors, intent on the physical, the trail was only a means to an end, the way forward. It was disappointing to consider how a now-extinct community of marginalized Irish laborers should have their land trampled on by those who could have pitched their tents anywhere.

The summit of the Great Blasket is marked by a stone platform and is two miles past the village. As I walked over to the cliff edge to crouch down, mop my sweaty brow, and catch my breath, my friend came over and explained how the islanders used to stare the way I was doing now and say, "Next province: New York." The next piece of land west of the island was America, three thousand miles across the ocean. She repeated the phrase in Irish, but I foolishly didn't write it down and forgot it shortly thereafter. It had been a good jaunt, and I leaned back against an old sheep-shearing pit to relax. Some large-billed puffins lit on the ground nearby and, heedless of basic courtesy, blinked and stared at me.

Soon, it was time to return to the ferry, and I started down the path again, wondering about the unrelenting lifestyle of the islanders and why they'd struggled for so long without abandoning their homes. Working it out in my mind, I failed to notice a phalanx of low clouds sweeping across from the north. Only when they rolled over the Dead Man and cut off the sun did I realize how fast they were moving, and then, suddenly, the world was gone. I stopped walking in the mist as a magnificent chill shook me to the core. Sweat tingled on my forehead. An imaginative spirit listening hard might have just discerned, above the crack of the breakers on the rocks far below, the voices of the villagers calling back and forth to each other in the ancient island tongue. The story of a lost civilization ultimately gives rise to ghosts and to insistent tales that nothing is lost. Nothing ever really disappears.

In the years just before a government-enforced evacuation—treacherous weather conditions often made it impossible to deliver emergency supplies to the Blaskets—the islanders, produced a variety of well-received paintings, literary work, and other art in epic proportions. It amazed me how such a rugged people dominated by the cycles of the earth and casually given to the vicissitudes of life and death could have the aesthetic sensibility for such endeavors. Then again, the battle for self-preservation that had informed their entire way of life could only have found final expression in art, and the islanders must have known their time was coming. Peig Sayers' Tales of an Island Woman eventually became part of the national reading curriculum in Ireland, and along with Tomas O'Crohan's The Islandman and Maurice O'Sullivan's Twenty Years A'Growin, the Great Blasket culture now remains alive even though those who once experienced it are gone.

The clouds dispersed, and I headed down the path, understanding how even in a remote European island culture so different from my own, it was possible to recognize the savage beating of a human heart calling out its own name.


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