Thursday, April 25, 2024

Governments buying Islands

Ireland: The greatness of Great Blasket Island

Great Blasket Island is the largest in a chain of grassy, green islands at the westernmost tip of Europe, off the picturesque coast of County Kerry, Ireland.  Michael de Mordha, who works for the government’s Office of Public Works Heritage Services, is the Director of the Great Blasket Centre. He talks to Antoinette about the island’s rich literary past and plans for its future.Great Blasket Island, County Kerry, Ireland

For an island of its size (6 km long and almost 1.6km at its widest point) and a population that never exceeded 200 people, it was home to three writers who produced some of Ireland’s most famous literature. Works including Tomas O’Crohan’s, The Islandman (Oxford 1951), Peig Sayers, Peig (Dublin 1974) and Maurice O’Sullivan’s, Twenty Years A-Growing (Oxford 1953) tell colourful stories of island cottage life, which are still taught to students in Ireland today, because of the richness of the Gaelic language.
Mr. de Mordha gives his thoughts as to why the islanders generated such good literature.
“It is very interesting when you think about why so much literature came from this small island. The isolated existence meant they spoke such a pure form of Gaelic. Scholars would go there to learn the language. They soon discovered that the locals were very good at telling stories, and encouraged them to write them down, which they did just as they were spoken”.Beautiful beaches
The island also attracted anthropologists, who went to study the traditions and way of life of such a small and isolated community.

Three-quarters of the island was acquired by the Irish state in 2009. “Our main aim is to conserve the village, freeze it in time, if you like. There are around 65 buildings that are quietly crumbling. At one time, there were around 30 families in the village. We’ve already had an architectural study done, but since the State bought the land, the financial crisis in Ireland has slowed things down. The good news is that we have recently received some funds to start the conservation work for several of the houses in July.”Island cottage
During the summer season, boat services run to the island. There are three embarkation points at Dunquin, Ventry and Dingle along the mainland coast. A guided tour service begun last year is very popular with tourists. “Many of the people who visit the island have read the books written there, so when they see a house and recognize it from a story it makes the experience that more meaningful”, Mr. de Mordha adds.

The island was inhabited for hundreds of years by about 150 people, but by the mid 1900’s, had dropped to around 20. The remaining residents were finally evacuated by the government in 1953 and resettled on the mainland, because they could no longer take care of themselves and were too far from vital services such as healthcare and shops.
The Blasket Centre was opened in August of 1993, 40 years after the island was abandoned. Located on the mainland in Dunquin at the tip of the Dingle Peninsula, three full-time staff and a team of 25, during the peak summer season, work to keep the memory of Great Blasket Island alive. The centre has a bookshop dedicated to the island culture and the classic works of its writers.Grassy green pastures
One of the oldest Great Blasket islanders, Michael Carey, who emigrated to Massachussets when he was 17, has worked his entire life to keep the memory of his beloved island alive, promoting the culture, teaching Gaelic courses and writing a Gaelic language column for The Irish Times. Though he has lived most of his life in the United States, he was involved in the centre’s creation and in 2009, aged 89, flew back to Ireland to accept an honorary doctorate of Celtic Studies from the University of Ireland, Maynooth, for which there was a celebration at the centre.

For more information about The Blasket Centre, see:

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