Interpreting Traditional Island Way of Life at the Great Blasket Islands Centre
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Dáithí de Mórdha is an Irish ethnographer and co-editor of the book “The Great Blasket – A Photographic Portrait.” Currently a broadcaster with RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta, a national radio station in Ireland broadcasting in Irish, Dáithí worked as an archivist at Ireland’s Great Blasket Centre for 16 years, where he studied the literary heritage, language and culture of the island. He developed the Centre’s photographic archive as an integral part of the social and cultural record of the lives of the islanders. A contributor to documentary films on the heritage of West Kerry, he completed an M.Phil at the Dept. of Folklore & Ethnology, UCC, and is now pursuing a PhD with the Dept. of Ethnology, University College Cork.
The Great Blasket Centre is located in Dún Chaoin, on the tip of the Dingle Peninsula, at the halfway point of Slea Head Drive. The Centre interprets the traditional way of life of the unique community who once lived on Great Blasket Island, and the extraordinary amount of literature which the islanders produced, and includes displays on the flora and fauna of the islands and surrounding sea. The building overlooks the panorama of the Great Blasket and its family of surrounding islands.
Daithi gave me a tour of the Blasket Centre and an education on what life was like for its residents and those who emigrated from the island. He offers some fascinating insights into a slice of Irish culture and history and what it means to be part of a landscape—as well as to need to leave it behind.
Meg: Can you describe the location of the Great Blasket Islands and their relationship to the broader area?
Daithi: The Great Blasket Islands are a group of islands situated on the west coast of Ireland, at the tip of the Dingle Peninsula in County. Kerry. They range in size from less than an acre to the 1,000 acres of the largest one, the Great Blasket. They also vary in terrain: Beiginis, a small island, is flat and barely rises 20 feet above sea level; Tiaracht is pyramidal; while the Great Blasket is a mountain in the middle of the sea which rises to 960 feet.
The islands are only one kilometer from the mainland, but the Blasket Sound between them and Dún Chaoin is one of the most treacherous streches of water in Ireland. It is often the case that the island is cut off from the mainland, even with modern boats and helicopters, for weeks due to adverse weather conditions.
The islands were inhabited from the early Christian period. Archaeological sites which date from this period are to be found on five of the islands, and there were extensive monastic settlements on two, and possibly three. The largest and only continuously inhabited island was home to a community which reached a population of 200 in the early 20th century, and was inhabited for a period of some 500 years until evacuated by the government in 1953, due to a severe decline in numbers because of emigration.
Meg: When we met, you spoke about the history of difficult relations between Ireland’s north and south, and how pre-dating those “Troubles,” there was a rift between the east and west. Can you explain that?
Daithi: The island of Ireland is currently divided by a border between the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland and the six Ulster counties of Northern Ireland which is a part of the United Kingdom. During the late 19th-early 20th Century, as movement to for independence from the UK gained momentum in Ireland, many in these six counties, especially those of a British identity, wanted to remain part of the UK. The eventual 1922 settlement between the UK and Ireland establish a six-county state in Ulster which remained part of the UK. Currently there in a near 50/50 split in these six counties between those who wish to retain the status quo and those who wish to re-unify with the rest of the island.
Culturally, I think that in the 19th and 20th centuries the wider split, perceived or otherwise, was between the east of the island and the west, between the predominantly English speaking, urban, East and the Irish-speaking, rural, and Gaelic west. Different mode of life, customs, culture etc. were found on opposite sides of the island.
Ireland’s Rural Life: Folk Wisdom, Catholic-Pagan Fusion, People’s Literature & a King
Meg: You touched on the medicinal folk traditions of the Blasket Islands, such as the various uses for seaweed. Can you elaborate on the residents’ knowledge of the characteristics of the natural world?
Daithi: The rural people of Ireland, not just the island, had a deep understanding of the natural world and how best to utilize the various resources at their disposal. For example, they had particular uses for different types of seaweed; types like dulse, pepper dulse and carrageen were used in cooking, while other types were used as fertilizer for their crops. Mussels, which we associate with gourmet food nowadays, were also used as fertilizer.
Medicine was a mix of natural material and supernatural and spells and prayers. For example, they used ash as splints for broken bones, and ash has been proven to have high levels of substances which induce healing. They had charms, such as the Blood Charm, which was supposed to stop bleeding. One of the Blasket authors details having a seal-bite treated by attaching a lump of seal-flesh to the wound. I would be a bit doubtful of the medicinal quality of the latter treatment!
Meg: You mentioned that because of the distance to the mainland, and the fact there was not a resident priest on the Island, the Catholic religion that was practiced was infused with folk mythology. Could you share some thoughts on this?
Daithi: Irish rural Catholicism was, and still is to a certain extent, a fusion of pre-Christian beliefs and Christian teachings. For example, trips to holy wells and other sites such as mountains, were a major part of the religious calendar for Irish people, especially in rural areas. Many Irish religious sites were built on or near places of pagan importance, so the two were mixed. Another feature of folk belief in Ireland was the belief in things or behavior which brought about good or bad luck. For example, the sight of a red-haired woman was a sign of terrible luck for fishermen, and many would not venture out if they saw a redhead on their way to the pier. Having a haircut on a Monday, or working late on a Saturday, was also thought to bring about bad luck.
Having said that, the priest wielded almost total control and dominance over the lay people. The priest was seen as nearly a demi-God, and was more of an authority than any landlord or state employee. Music and dance were seen by many priests as occasions of sin, and they would oftentimes break up dances and céilís. There was a famous piper in West Kerry, Tomás Ó Cinnéide, whose pipes were smashed up by the local parish priest, and he was so incensed that he converted to the Church of Ireland.
The islanders were very Christian in their beliefs, but the fact that there was no priest watching over them 24/7 meant that they were a bit more relaxed in their approach to the strictest rules of the Church.
Meg: The Island has a great literary tradition…can you explain the background to this, and why this legacy is so extraordinary?
Daithi: At the turn of the 20th century there was a revival in interest and study of the Irish language. Scholars from Ireland, the UK, Europe and Scandinavia began venturing to the most remote, Irish-speaking communities to study the living language. Many went to the Blasket, and encouraged the people to begin writing accounts of their lives. In the 1920s and 1930s the Blasket Island writers produced books which are deemed classics in the world of literature. They wrote of Island people living on the very edge of Europe, and brought to life the topography, life and times of their Island. They wrote all of their stories in the Irish language. The term ‘peasant literature’ is sometimes used for this type of literature, but I find that disparaging; I think the Irish term ‘Litríocht na nDaoine’ (the People’s Literature) is better.
Divided Language & Customs Split East & West of Ireland
Meg: Can you describe traditional Island dress?
Daithi: Traditional Island dress was the same as on the nearby mainland. The most notable features would be the fact that young boys wore frocks called ‘cótaí cabhlaigh’ until the age of around eight or nine, instead of trousers. There was several reasons for this; one was that in our folk beliefs it was thought that ‘the good people’ (the fairies) would abduct young, healthy male children and replace them with sickly changelings. This was one of the ways that un-diagnosed childhood illness was explained, and led people to dress the male children like females. A more practical reason was that it was easier and cheaper to have homemade frocks rather than trousers.
Married women wore a black cross-over shawl while single women would not. Thus a married woman can be easily identified in photos. Men would rarely be seen without headgear. Cloth caps were more or less universally worn by men of all ages from the 1950s; before that the cap was a young man’s choice while the older men wore broad black hats. Growing up I always associated the caps with old men, but it was the fashionable thing for the ‘cool’ young people to wear when those same old men were young!
Meg: I understand that there was a “king” of the island.
Daithi: Many Island and coastal communities had a nominated king, but in many cases it was a nickname rather that a hereditary title. The last Blasket king was Pats Mhicí Ó Catháin. Currently some of our islands still have kings, the most famous being Patsy Dan Mac Ruairí, king of Tory Island in Donegal. They were usually no better off financially than other islanders.
One of the original kings was purely the largest landowner so that’s how he got the name. Pats Mhicí, the last king, was outgoing, chatty, had an opinion on local events, was loyal to the community’s best interests, and a character. Also, many of the visitors lodged in his house so he had a certain status because of this.
Great Blasketer Islanders & Their Relationship with the Land
Meg: The Centre’s film on the Island’s history said that residents had a name for every field and every cove. I found that very moving, that it spoke to the love and deep relationship to the land.
Daithi: The majority of the islanders who didn’t emigrate rarely ventured more than 20 kilometers from the island. Therefore their worldview was based on that which was familiar to them. We, as citizen of the global village, can name cities, mountain rivers etc from all over the world; we might visit some of them or watch TV programs about them. The islanders had a name for every feature of their islands because the islands were their whole world. Also as fishermen and farmers they needed to be very specific as to where things were located. Many of the place-names were practical (An Ghort Fhada, the long field, for example), but others had more deep meanings, like An Leaca Dubhach, (the sorrowful slope), so-named because of a fishing tragedy which left 18 widows as a result of so many men being drowned.
Meg: You made the observation that it was possible to tell the health of a community by how many boats they had.
Daithi: People who don’t live by the sea can see the water as a boundary which stops you from doing something. For coastal people, the sea is a highway. For the Blasket Islanders, they were only a few days old the first time they traveled by boat, to come to the mainland for baptism. Even the most simple things required sea travel – shopping, church, hospital & doctor visits, even going to dances or football matches. They were also buried on the mainland. Thus the sea was central to every aspect of their lives.
Fish was their staple diet, especially mackerel, wrasse, pollock, conger eels and ling. They rarely ate shellfish, rather using crabmeat as bait to catch other types–the exact opposite of what we do today! They followed the tides and the shoals, so oftentimes they would not sleep during the night. Like I mentioned earlier, certain things were a sign of terrible luck for fishermen, like mentioning a priest or a hare in a boat. Fishing was also the only industry on the island, as the men would sell whatever surplus catch that they would have. Many of them attributed the decline in the island to the appearance on the coast of large fishing trawlers, which impacted the market price of fish.
Up until the end of the 19th century the islanders hunted seals and porpoises for their meat, oils, and skins. This, however, went out of fashion for some unknown reason.
Meg: Can you give an example of how the landscape influenced people?
Daithi: When I was growing up in Dún Chaoin, two island brothers, Seáinín and Peaidí Mhicil, lived right next to the school. I remember them walking to the post office every week, and they would walk single file with maybe 10 ft between them, one in front of the other. I always thought that this was strange, but the tracks on the island are so narrow that one can only walk single file on them. The people were so used to this that even when they got to the mainland, or the wide streets of Springfield, they continued to walk single file. Or so the story goes!
Meg: Can you explain for readers about the relocation–when and why it occurred and how the Islanders felt about it?
Daithi: The island was officially evacuated by the state on November 17, 1953. The main reason for the evacuation was emigration; from a peak of 176 in 1916, the numbers fell to just 21 in 1953. Generations of young people left, leaving the majority of the island’s population as either old couples or middle-aged bachelors. There were only two weddings on the island between 1930 and 1953. If you take away the young people from a community, you take away the future, and without new children being born, the island was doomed.
Other factors included the closing of the island school in 1941, again due to a lack of schoolchildren, the lack of facilities such as a shop or church, and the death during the winter of 1947 of a young man, Seáinín Ó Cearna, of meningitis, without the aid of a doctor or priest due to severe weather conditions. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the island; the people asked the government for help, and after a lengthy period of investigation, they decided to give the islanders new farms and homes on the nearby mainland. The islanders, by this stage, wanted to leave; many of them were afraid of meeting the same fate as Seáinín.
Meg: The Springfield/Holyoke area of Massachusetts, where my family is from, was the primary destination for emigrants from the Blasket Islands. Can you describe what inspired those waves of immigration?
Daithi: A young woman on the island had a choice to make when she reached 17-18 years of age. She could either stay on the island, hope for a marriage, struggle with housework, farm work, raising children etc, or emigrate. There was no other employment on the island. The women were especially envious of the lives their aunts, sisters and friends were living in the US, with nice shop-bought clothing, steady employment, cars and houses, running water etc. Only good news stories were sent home – those who found themselves in bad times didn’t write home, so it was easy for the young women to picture a better life in the US.
An Irish comedian once said that other nations invade, while the Irish infest! We tend to follow each other, settle in the same neighborhoods in the same countries. In the 1920-30s the trend was to go to the U.S. In the 1950s, the majority went to the UK, and after that there was a fairly even split between the US and UK. Nowadays, people are emigrating to Australia, the UK and Canada, again following the work. The economic effect of this was not as severely felt as the emotional effect: most emigrants sent home money to their parents and the letter and parcel from America was keenly awaited. But the emotional effect was massive; the vast majority of emigrants up until the 1950s rarely returned home, even for a visit. Emigration was like death – you were not likely to see that particular relation again. A case in point from my own family: my grandfather had a brother whom he never met, because his eldest brother had emigrated before my grandfather was born and never came home.
Meg: You spoke to me of being “lucky to work two fields away from where you live.” Can you tell us a little about your own relationship to the area?
Daithi: For many years, I lived very close to where I worked, a few hundred meters from the sea, and within a mile of where I was raised. I think that you have to travel to appreciate where you come from, and that is what I did. ‘The savage loves his native shore’ as the poet said. I have been interested in my people’s culture, history and language from a young age and studied Irish and History for my degree and later obtained a Master’s degree in Folklore and Ethnology.
If you think of heritage in the broadest sense, that which you inherit from your family and community, it is a foundation for your own personality, traits and understanding. It can be the blueprint on which you can base your own individual identity later on. You can embrace your heritage, or take the aspects of heritage you are most interested in and tweak it to your own personality, or you can shun your heritage altogether if you prefer, but the foundation is always there.
Meg: Can you summarize the mission and history of the Blasket Centre and why the effort has been made to preserve this facet of Irish life?
Daithi: The Centre was built in 1993 to honor, remember and celebrate the heritage of the Blasket Island and wider area. The mission is simple; to present various aspects of our culture, be it literature, language, music, song, built heritage, natural heritage, or material heritage, to the wider world. Heritage and culture are living things; so instead of just having artefacts in glass boxes, we try to give visitors a feeling of immersion in culture.
The reason we have such a Centre is that the Blasket can be taken as a microcosm of Irish life in general, and also that the literary output from the island is fairly unique.
For more info on the Great Blasket Centre, visit the Heritage Ireland website!