Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Ireland: Islands lost in time

A chance stop by a museum on the Dingle Peninsula leads Greg Dixon to visit a remote scrap of history at the edge of the Atlantic.

Blasket Island's steep green hills are now home to only the rabbits and sheep. Photo / Greg Dixon
Blasket Island's steep green hills are now home to only the rabbits and sheep. Photo / Greg Dixon

The island of lost souls lay across quiet waters. After a week of skies blacker than Guinness and squalls as angry as a drunk, the wide Atlantic seemed almost asleep as the tiny ferry chugged out into Blasket Sound.

The west of Ireland is a place of fierce, fighting weather, even in June. And this, the uttermost tip of Europe, is surely one of its most battered and beaten places. But not today. If I'd had to zip my jacket against the nip in the air, there were limitless views to be had under a wide, lucent blue sky. It was, I thought, a fine piece of Irish luck.

To the left of the ferry lay Com Dhineol, the very tip of Dingle peninsula, diving into the deep Atlantic like a breaching emerald whale. To the right, the flat green of tiny Beiginis island guarded the sound's northern entrance. Ahead, like some mighty ancient barrow, was my destination: An Blascaod Mor - Great Blasket Island or, to those who once lived there, simply "the Island".

As the boat drew nearer I could clearly make out the Island's village, its two dozen or so cottages, most ruined by time and climate, lying low on the hill, its long fallow fields still visible above the white sands of White Strand, a small crescent beach just to the north of the village. Lying unseen behind the village hill, the island snaked gently into the Atlantic, its narrow ridgeline peaking at Cro, 300 metres above sea level, before disappearing into the sea at Canduff, the island's westernmost point.

I had not expected to be headed there. Leaving the village of Dingle, a tiny, paragon of picture book Irishness, before nine that morning I'd planned to spend the day taking the long way to Killarney by driving the Dingle peninsula's coastal road. This narrow, 50km circular route must be among the most dramatic drives in the world, with views to the equally rugged Kerry peninsula to the south, cottages and fields formed by time-worn stone walls, ancient forts and castles, and lofty green hills ending in stony cliffs falling toward the breakers.

In any part of Ireland you're never very far away from history, sometimes fraught, sometimes fought, more often both. And on the peninsula road, you can journey back hundreds or thousands of years into the fraught and fought just by stopping the car.

Less than half an hour out of Dingle I'd come across a sign advertising an Iron Age fort built 500 years before the birth of Christ. So of course I stopped and wandered - at the cost of a few euros - among the ramparts and stones of An Dun Beag, the remains of a small but impressive promontory stronghold built on the very edge of a very high cliff.

Back in the car and less than a minute up the road from An Dun Beag, I saw a sign advertising one of the increasingly rare (I'd read) "famine" cottages left in rural Ireland. So of course I stopped and wandered - at the cost of a few euros more - around a tiny rural farmhouse built in the 1840s and now containing a few life-sized mannequins of starving, 19th century rural types looking suitably rural and starved.

Back in the car and less than five minutes up the road, I saw another sign for beehive forts ... but this time I drove on. Stopping the car to see every sight on the Dingle peninsula, I'd quickly gathered, would be a steady, regular impediment to my plans. And so I almost missed one of the west of Ireland's most unexpected stories.

"Basket Centre," said my travel guide for the peninsula, when I read it before leaving Dingle. Basket Centre? Why in the hell, I wondered grumpily, would anyone want to see a whole bunch of baskets?

But after rounding Slea Head to traverse the peninsula's head, I pulled the car over in the little village of Dun Chaoin (or Dunquin) to wait for the enormous and ever-present tourist buses to move on up the road - and to read my travel guide again.

"Blasket Centre," it now read. Not Basket, you idiot, Blasket. Hmm. I drove on a little, pulled into its entrance way and look at its sign. "Ionad an Bhlascaoid Mhoir", it read, The Blasket Centre. So of course, with my plans again in jeopardy, I stopped and wandered in to discover a history not of wars or famines but of fishing and solitude, of family and tragedy, of hard lives and soft words.

Opened in 1994, but looking like it was built last year, the centre is a very clever little museum. Entering a foyer dominated by a large, glass wall artwork, the visitor is led down a central passage toward a large picture window via small galleries on the right and left which, with smooth economy and something like tenderness, open up a lost world.

The Blasket islands - of which there are six - have been has occupied for, well no one quite knows for how long. There are certainly ruins of buildings perhaps as old as the Iron Age at the west end of Great Blasket, the largest by far of the group. They are dun, or forts, that were perhaps used by the Vikings, and there is suggestion that the Spanish took on water from the main island during the failed invasion of Britain by the Armada in 1588.

But this small group islands, and its tiny community of Irish speakers, fisher folk and farmers, seems to have rarely bothered chroniclers, historians or writers until 19th and 20th centuries.

And there were few enough islanders to have troubled the authorities. During the 19th century there were just six family names featured in the baptismal register. In 1841 those families had 28 households and numbered 153 people. The famine nearly halved the population but, in the half century up to the beginning of World War I, the population recovered to peak close to 200 people. It would be the islanders' last gasp.

In the end the Blaskets' story, like so many Irish stories, is one of decline and flight. The Islanders had probably been emigrating to the mainland and to America since the post-famine years. But between the wars, the population went into sharp decline and the last family was evacuated from the Blaskets to the mainland in 1953 leaving the stone cottages to the elements and the island's steep green hills to the rabbits and sheep.

And there it might be, just another poignant but gloomy Irish story, but for a brief but extraordinary flowering. As the centre's storyboards and its short film tell it, in the decades after the turn of the 20th century the Island drew a few, hardy and generous English scholars to study its ways and the Islanders' pure Irish language.

These visitors found not only a unique, discreet community, but a fine group of storytellers with inimitable yarns to tell.

After the Englishmen's encouragement to write down their stories, there would a short literary blossoming among a few of the islanders, including Peig Sayers, Tomas O'Crohan and Maurice O'Sullivan, in the last decades before the Island was forsaken. Indeed, in the space of six year, these three would publish books that would tell their's and their island's story with such dry Irish wit and native wisdom that Oxford University Press still publishes them to this day.

As I reached end of the Blasket Centre's central passage, I realised how clever was its picture window. After an hour of wandering among a lost people on what might have been a fabled island, I stood at the window and looked out into the bright daylight. There, under light blue and amid deep green, was the island, not much more than 2km from where I stood.

As I left the museum - stopping at its bookshop to buy O'Crohan's The Islander as I went - I knew what I must do next, whatever my plans. I must see this place for myself.

The inflatable's motor buzzed like a swarm of angry bees as the ferryman wedged his craft against the edge of the concrete landing ramp. The few us aboard leapt off quickly before the gentle swell pushed the inflatable upwards then downwards and made our getting ashore a wet as well as slightly hairy affair.

The ferry from Dunquin took less than half hour to navigate Blasket Sound and only 10 minutes more to deposit us by inflatable onshore at the base of a short, steep track leading to the village. The timetable for the home trip was a bit vague - "we'll be back around 4pm" - but I would have an hour and half at least to wander An Blascaod Mor.

There is little enough to see, in a way. If I gone there with nothing more in my head than its name, I might have thought it a village of the damned. Certainly the shattered cottages looked like broken teeth in a green gums.

After wandering from ruin to ruin and discovering some rubbish in one and the rotting corpse of lamb in another, I climbed the hill as far my puff would take me, caught sight of Red Ridge, the Island's long narrow spin, and then sat above the village and looked at all the Islanders, for centuries, had called home. There were few echoes of their lives, just the green of the Island, the ruins, the wind and the sea. But I was glad to have made the trip and to have discovered this place and its people. I opened O'Crohan's The Islander.

At the very end of the last chapter I found this: "One day there will be none left in the Blasket at all ... and none to remember them. I am thankful to God, who has given me the chance to preserve from forgetfulness those days that I have seen with my own eyes ...

Since the first fire was kindled in this island none has written of his life and his world. I am proud to set down my story and the story of my neighbours ..."

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific has return economy class Earlybird fares from Auckland to Dublin on sale from tomorrow, starting from $2276 plus $138 tax, available for departures from January 1 to June 30 and September 1 to November 30 2012. These special Earlybird fares must be purchased by December 19. Cathay Pacific offers daily connections to Dublin via London, Paris, Amsterdam or Frankfurt. Talk to your bonded travel agent.

Further information: See blasketislands.ie and discoverireland.co.nz

Greg Dixon travelled to Ireland with help from Tourism Ireland and Cathay Pacific.

- NZ Herald

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