Tears and Spray
Islands, it seems, hold a fascination for many of us. Whether it’s the idea of remoteness, a world with clear and visible boundaries, or the drama of conflict when small groups live close together in small spaces, many folk are drawn towards island life or, at least, the images it conjures up. In addition, if the island’s history includes evacuation of its residents – voluntarily or otherwise, then the fascination is cranked up by historical interest, curiosity, and, if we’re honest, sentimentality.
Two such locations would be The Blaskets, a group of islands of Slea Head on the western extremity of County Kerry in Ireland, and St Kilda, that remote group over 40 miles out in the Atlantic, beyond Benbecula and the Outer Hebrides. A comparison of these sites is interesting, not least because of the mixture of similarities and contradictions that they share.
Both were depeopled, at the request of their dwindling populations, after serious illness drew attention to their perilous situation. St Kilda’s people left in 1930 and the Great Blasket’s village emptied in 1953. Both of them received the mixed blessings of increased attention from the outside world around the turn of the last century: this brought increased wealth, relative as it was, to these island peoples, but also an exposure to wider possibilities than their restricted and traditional lifestyles; in St Kilda’s case, these early tourists also brought illnesses like influenza from which they had no immunity, and, I suppose, the equivalent devastation visited on the Blaskets by those who landed on its difficult slipway could be termed The Dance called America. You might say both these islands ‘died’ from the provision, eventually, of alternatives.
However, other than in their continuing hold on mainlanders’ imaginations, these islands were dissimilar in many ways. Exposed out in the Atlantic, 40 miles or so further than even the Outer Hebrides, part of St Kilda’s unique appeal is its very remoteness. It could, and did, remain cut off from any outside contact for months on end, as is reflected in their famous ‘mail boats’, the small blocks of wood the islanders launched to carry, hopefully to the mainland, the message that they desperately needed food
Great Blasket, on the other hand, lies little more than a mile of the coast of Kerry. The Atlantic here is certainly wild and the people were often cut off for weeks at a time, yet they still had the comfort of lights on the mainland, the knowledge they were not alone, which in itself must have permitted a different mindset than that which must have, at times, made St Kilda a depressive place. Indeed, the islanders, or at least the men, would generally row across to Dunquin for weekly Mass and the islanders traded at the markets in the town of Dingle. A number, including one of their most famous inhabitants, Peig Sayers, married into the island, thus alleviating at least some of the social claustrophobia engendered by St Kilda’s inter-marrying.
Both groups of islands benefited from literary endeavour, but whilst the Blasket Islanders themselves produced much of the writing about their homeplace, it was outsiders who tended to chronicle St Kilda’s life and ‘death’ in word and picture.
Finally, by way of comparison, their fates since depopulation have been dissimilar: in St Kilda’s case, less than thirty years after the people left, the British Ministry of Defence established, on Hirta, the main island, a tracking station for the Benbecula Missile Firing Range. So, in under a generation, human habitation was reestabished – albeit represented by forces personnel with their NAAFI and social club in prefabricated buildings. Inevitably, this changed the nature of the island, though the Army and the National Trust seem to have worked closely in the interests of the island’s environment – now classed as a World Heritage site. The year round presence of the forces enabled the National Trust, who had ownership of the islands, to work on preserving some of the original village and other sites in the islands, as well as safeguarding the bird and animal life. Nowadays, the village streets echo in the summertime to the sound of Trust volunteers renovating the houses, many of which are now roofed and habitable. Defence spending cuts regularly threaten this helpful coalition of interests and there’s little doubt that St Kilda would change yet again were the MoD, currently represented by civilian workers, were to close the base and move out.
Great Blasket’s story since 1953 is different. A number who left the island emigrated to the USA, mostly to Springfield, Massachusetts – but others moved a shorter distance, across the sound to Dunquin, where they lived in houses provided by the Irish Government, in sight of their old homes. Not unnaturally, these islanders regularly returned to their homeplace. After all, they still owned their homes and the land and most families retained their sheep on the commonage. The men would go across each summer and work with the sheep, as they had always done, sleeping in their own houses, maintaining them as best they could.
Clearly, though, age and the years progress and fewer and fewer islanders continue this tradition. The availability of inflatables with outboard motors, rather than the traditional canoe-like namhogs, means the need for overnight stays, and the risk of an extended residence due to weather conditions, is no longer a consideration. On the mainland, nearly 60 years on, those last islanders are still in sight of Great Blasket, but now rather in Dunquin cemetery rather than in their rather characterless government cottages.
For a time in the 70s and 80s, there was a hostel and cafe on the island, encouraging some campers to stay a few days. Eventually, though, this fell foul of health and safety regulations and, apart from Sue Redican, an English weaver, who has summered on the island for the past twenty years or so, the island became largely uninhabited again, save for the boatloads of daytripper tourists who continued to fall in love with the island, its haunting village, the green fields and the beautiful White Strand. (which features in the header to this blog)
Meanwhile, the houses gradually deteriorated, roofs went, sheep colonised, walls fell in, often only the hearth and chimney remained, ironically, identifiable. And here we come to a major difference between St Kilda and the Blaskets. The Marquis of Bute sold St Kilda to the National Trust in 1957. The Trust have been able to make decisions on preservation and development as sole owners of the site, always allowing for heritage and wildlife concerns. The Blaskets, meanwhile, were still owned by those who had left and their descendants. Even in the 70s and 80s, I remember seeing teenagers in Dunquin pointing across the sound at identifying ‘their’ house. Some of the families still travelled over fairly regularly, and mourned what they had lost, whilst others were unmoved by the past, and in thrall to a sound which turned out to be the early roar of the Celtic Tiger. Strangely, then, Great Blasket, its village slowly lowering itself into the earth, was, in a real sense, more ‘alive’ than the better preserved village on Hirta, whose houses may have had roofs, but whose original inhabitants were long gone and had no continuing association with the island.
Because the Blaskets were in private hands, the land in commonage, a bewildering criss cross of co-ownership and traditional rights, there was no plan for its care. It was, to all intents and purposes, in the same situation as thousands of cottages and villages abandoned all over Scotland and Ireland in the past 200 years: the people left, the house fell down, and the area moved on. Except, of course, this was The Blaskets and these beautiful islands became a kind of repository of ‘what we used to be like’ for people all over Ireland, many of whom had grown up in east coast cities, never spoke Irish and had no clear idea of what island life had actually been like. It was a bit like Tesco shoppers bemoaning the demise of the corner grocery shop: well meaning, genuinely felt, but not very rooted in reality.
Then, an enterprising businessman started approaching Blasket landowners and buying up houses and plots. In Krugers pub in Dunquin, in Paudie O Se’s in Ventry and in the many bars of Dingle, the rumours grew about ‘what this fellah is up to’. Belatedly, the Government was persuaded to take an interest and there emerged a rather unseemly rolling about on the ground between politicians, businessmen and heritage protectors, all of whom convinced they knew what was the best way forward for the Blaskets. As you would expect, the government eventually won control of the islands and proposed national park status, and, as you would also expect, the plans they announced were underfunded, unclear, and quickly hailed as unsuitable and inappropriate by island lovers. As of now, it looks like the dangerous, lovable and downright peculiar slipway will be replaced by a more user friendly amenity and, when I was there last summer, the Office of Public Works builders were working away at a new hostel/cafe that will meet all European Union requirements but will also change the familiar village scene for ever.
Meanwhile, on the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of St Kilda, an historian who knows some of the relatives of those who left Hirta on 29th August 1930, claimed they would like to go back, and wondered out loud if the time had come to ‘re-settle’ St Kilda. This suggestion was met with range of emotions – from romantic joy to cynical ridicule. However, it does raise the question of the future of islands such as St Kilda and the Blaskets, and, in that connection, I have been careful to use the word ‘death’, in relation to their evacuations, in inverted commas. Because, the rather uncomfortable truth is that we write and talk quite a lot of nonsense about such places; we confuse a sentimental longing for imagined past simplicity with the realities of harsh, limited and monotonous life. We try not to remember that, when these island peoples were offered a choice, the majority decided they wanted something different, something bigger and something more like what we, or at least our antecedents, had. This is not to devalue the lives that were led or the beauty of the localities, but rather a cry to be clear about what we are really looking for when we visit St Kilda or Great Blasket. I think what we are looking for is easy to define, but I believe it is not attainable, and never was.
I have never been to St Kilda, but I have visited the Blaskets several times and am very familiar with Corca Dhuibhne, the Dingle Penninsula, which I consider one of the most beautiful places on earth. I cannot deny that, when I have negotiated the steep slope down to the tiny Dunquin Harbour and am on board the boat to the Blaskets, going in to the island as they used to call it, my heart sings. Stepping on to the slipway brings even more excitement and climbing up the still clear paths above the well to a vantage point above the village brings a quickened pulse which is not all to do with the physical effort involved. Sitting on my favourite rock on an tra ban – the white strand – is as close to perfect happiness as I could find alone, and the melancholy induced by a walk through the ruined houses of the upper and lower village is as powerful a sensation as any drug might provide.
Do I wish the houses were all complete, maybe even lived in? I suppose in some ways I do – but I would be wanting to see Peig Sayers, Tomás Ó Criomhthain and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin; I would be identifying the King’s House and the school. In other words, I want to go back to the island I have read about; a street with modern Irish families, complete with ipods, computers and flat screen tvs would not be attractive, yet anything else would make the island a folk park, or a museum piece. In addition, all the houses we can identify from An tOileánach, Tomas Ó Criomhthain’s classic of island life, were lived in by different folk before and after; we base our knowledge on a snapshot – and a sepia production at that. We know, too, that, virtually all the houses left in 1953 were less than 60 years old. Their building in the 1890s would have been greeted as desecration by some, no doubt, as would the changing of the landscape afforded by the construction of the Congested Houses Scheme buildings, facing, rather than end on to, the sea, around the same time.
There is maybe a place for a ‘walk through Blasket village experience’ so the people of today could envisage the past – but it’s not on the original site. There may be a valid view that the houses should be at least stabilised, the decay stopped, maybe a couple of houses roofed, so future generations can use their imaginations to hear the voices of children running to the strand or the women gathered at the well. But what we have to recognise is that these islands are not ‘dead’. It’s gross arrogance to claim that the absence of people equates with death. The islands are alive as ever with seabirds and wildlife – even more so in the general absence of human predators. An island’s life is constantly developing and, for both St Kilda and the Blaskets, the time when that cycle included human habitation appears to be over. So be it. They were a remarkable people in many ways and they deserve to be remembered fondly – but also realistically – not frozen in some kind of historical aspic.
Could the islands be repeopled? The important questions are who by and why? I think I would rather the Great Blasket remain as it is than be covered by weekend bungalow residences – but to build any other kind of habitation, like, for instance a Blasket village house, would be pure pastiche and an insult to the memory of the islanders. It seems impossible that people could ever attempt to live a self sufficient life on these islands, as their ancestors did, and so what would be the point?
When discussing the evacuations there is always the line: if they’d just waited another few years, they would have been fine. It’s certainly true that the mobile phone and the helicopter would have made life tenable on the Blaskets at least – but it would have ended their traditional way of life just as sharply as did their evacuation.
Life moves on, and sometimes that means life moves away from the islands. The Irish Government now owns 80% of the Blasket property and will no doubt take considered decisions as to the best way to preserve the Blasket Heritage. For sure, the many people who love those islands will be keeping a close eye on developments.
However, that 80% figure is important – because it leaves 20%. The Tourist Centre on the Great Blasket will open shortly, and three of the seven guides will be descended from islanders, and, walking down to the strand last summer, we noticed work going on in one of the houses at the bottom of the village. It was just above an inlet called Rinn an Chaisleain (Castle Point). Approaching, we met a man of retirement age and a 12 year old boy, his grandson. They were painstakingly refurbishing the house, inside and out, a job the man had pursued for the last few summers. It was his family’s house and he was determined his grandson should have it as a holiday home, so he could live where his great great grandparents had, at least for part of the year.
That seems to me a perfect way forward. The island was a place where people lived their lives – ordinary to them, fascinating to us. If their descendants, owners still of the land and property, have plans to use their houses, develop their homeplace, that seems absolutely normal. For the rest, we must urge the government bodies to retain what they can of the memories but let the island keep on growing – in its own direction.
An tOileánach did not claim to be special. He wrote: Má bhí beirt dob fhearr ná mé bhí triúr mheasa….
(If there were two better than me, there were three worse….) but, though he died more than a decade before the evacuation, he understood the island, its life and its future, when he finished his book: mar ná beidh ár leithéidí arís ann. (For our like will not be there again)
The stones will talk, however they are piled!
http://cfoleyblaskets.blogspot.com/ – a blog from some islanders in Springfield Mass.
Hungry for Home – Cole Moreton, Currach Press
A Dark day on the Blaskets – Micheal O Dubhshlaine, Brandon / Mount Eagle Publications Ltd;
Blasket Spirit – Anita Fennelly, Collins Press