Ireland’s dramatic coasts and rugged mountains, its small villages and windswept islands, rich folklore and cosy islands have inspired countless writers.
Ireland has a long literary history, with the likes of Oscar Wilde, Seamus Heaney, W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Bram Stoker and many more dominating their respective genres.
The most literary islands of Ireland are surely the Blasket Islands. Clinging to the coast of Southwest Ireland in County Kerry, the Great Blaskets are known for its treasured writers.
The Blasket Islands are an archipelago of 6 windblown islands which cling to Slea Head at the edge of the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland’s westernmost point. Next stop, North America!
Sitting just two kilometres offshore, the Great Blasket is the largest of the islands, and the only island that was ever called home by a small community of people. In fact, up until their evacuation in 1953, the small village on the Great Blasket was Ireland’s most Western-most settlement.
Take a look at the map on the right to view the Blasket Islands.
At its peak, the Great Blasket was home to roughly 175 people, living in small whitewashed cottages from which they farmed what little land they had and fished the ocean depths around Slea Head and the Dingle Peninsula. The harsh sea conditions made boat crossings to the mainland difficult and gradually the islands youngest inhabitants began to emigrate as the community also had to compete with non-Irish trawlers fishing the surrounding waters. The ageing population unable to keep up with the disconnect, led to the settlements eventual decline in 1953.
By this time, the population had declined to a few dozen souls. During a particularly bad storm, one of the locals fell ill and were unable to reach the mainland by boat for emergency care and as a result, lost their life. In 1954, the decision was made to evacuate the island, with most islanders moving to Dunquin on the Dingle Peninsula, a stone’s throw from the Blaskets.
Today, the Blaskets are managed by the OPW, who have preserved a few of the cottages, including those of some of the local writers, such as Peig Sayers and Tomás Ó Criomthain.
For such a small community, the Blaskets have produced an impressive array of authors. As a dedicated Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) island, the islanders were one of the few holdouts who resisted the English language imposed on the Irish population by the English Crown and their settlers. Even today, many of the strongest Gaeltacht communities are islands – the Aran Islands of Galway and Cape Clear Island in West Cork, to name but two.
In such a close-knit island community, the art of the Seanchaí (a storyteller) were rightly passed from parent to child. People began recording the stories in the last century or so, up until then it had been an oral tradition. Recording of the stories became especially important as the island population dwindled and younger generations had little choice but to abandon their homes in favour of trans-Atlantic emigration.
Though not an islander himself, Irish playwright J.M. Synge famously spent a several months each summer in the Aran Islands, but he also visited the Blasket Islands for a short time seeking literary inspiration. A result of his time of the islands on the west coast of Ireland was his well-known classic play, The Playboy of the Western World, as well as some travel writings and memoirs.
Following the Famine, a movement came about in the late 19th Century and became known as the Gaelic Revival. This movement was a nationwide effort to reinstate the Irish language, culture and traditions after much suppression in the previous centuries by the English.
The Blaskets and it’s strong Gaelic heritage played a huge role in Ireland’s cultural revival, largely due to its bastion status of Irish literature written in the Irish language.
This small, but mighty, community has yielded a number of storytellers, telling their memoirs, telling sharing tales of yore and collecting folktales and mythologies, all in their native Irish language. The three authors highlighted below are the ones who are the best-known published authors, though the island was home to many more oral storytellers who passed down their tales through the generations.
Peig Sayers is likely the Blaskets most famous author. Born in 1873 in Dunquin on the Dingle mainland, Peig’s father was a storyteller and passed many of his stories onto her. At one point, she had hoped to go to America to join a friend but she did not manage to gather the fare. So, instead, she married an islander and moved to the Great Blasket.
Peig was illiterate – which may seem quite strange for someone remembered as an author. But being illiterate in Ireland at the time – particularly for Irish speakers – was not uncommon.
Peig’s memoirs were made possible as she dictated them to her son Mícheál who then transposed them into writing. This became her most well-known book, Peig – an autobiography recounting life on the Great Blasket. Throughout her life, she shared over 350 stories, myths, legends, folk tales,s which were further captured in 1935 by Seán Ó Súilleabháin of the Irish Folklore Commission.
Another notable book, Machnamh Seanmhná (An Old Woman’s Reflections), catalogues many of the folktales and local stories passed down on the Blaskets and the Dingle Peninsula. Her books are often taught on the school curriculum in Ireland.
Tomás O’Criomhthain (sometimes Anglicised to Thomas O’Crohan) – O’Criomhthain was another well-known Blasket Island author. His main literary work was his memoir, An t‑Oileánach (The Islandman) and Allagar na h‑Inise (Island Cross Talk). Today, considered a “classic” book of Irish language literature, The Islandman recounts island life from a male perspective, portraying a way of life that has largely disappeared.
A great diarist, O’Criomhthain had little interest in accumulating his life into a memoir for publication as he didn’t think the life of an ordinary fisherman would be of interest to readers. After much encouragement from his family and friends to share his story, he was proven wrong and his books attracted the attention of linguistic and anthology experts.
The Islandman recounts the life of a simple fisherman, fishing off the coasts of the island. He describes his simple thatched cottage with hens nesting on the roof, harvesting turf for the fires and potatoes for the supper, gathering seaweed for the fields and blubber for oil lamps. There is much childhood reminiscence of his time learning the traditions of the islands, hunting for wild rabbits, milking the cows, and collecting the tales and stories of the islanders.
Muiris O’Síilleabháin (sometimes Anglicised to Maurice O’Sullivan) is the Great Blasket’s third literary inhabitant. Like Sayers & O’Criomhthain, O’Súilleabháin is also known for writing a memoir. He was a nephew of Tomás O’Criomhthain and spent his early years in an orphanage on the mainland before returning to his birthplace on the islands.
O’Súilleabháin joined the Garda Siochána (Irish police force) and was stationed in an area of the Connemara Gaeltacht. It was during this time he wrote about his life on the islands in Fiche Blian ag Fás, or Twenty Years a-Growing in English, in 1933. As with his uncle, it took much persuasion from friends for him to put pen to paper.
Although he spent a considerable portion of his life on the mainland, he was known to has maintained the saying that he, “wasn’t an Irishman, but a Blasket Islander”.
Co Kerry is certainly one of Ireland’s most popular destinations, and Dingle town draws in its fair share of visitors, but very few take the opportunity to stray and visit the lesser travelled spots. Why not leave colourful town and explore the seldom seen Northern side of the Dingle Peninsula.
There are two ways to experience the Blasket Islands:
Hiking the Dingle Way takes in the whole peninsula. Climb Mt Brandon, a sacred summit famous for its association with St Brendan the Navigator (said to have sailed to the “Promised Land”), walk the Mahrees, Ireland’s longest beach, relax in a seaweed bath, visit ancient and early Christian archeology and stand at Ireland’s westernmost point. While much of the Dingle Way involves road walking, our version takes in the very best hiking on this amazing peninsula. You’ll get superb views of the Blaskets from Slea Head and a chance to learn about the islands at the Blaskets Heritage Interpretive Centre, even if you won’t visit the islands themselves.
For an easier and more coastal trip that takes in several of southwest Ireland’s peninsulas, opt for an-island hopping holiday, bouncing from one island to the next in Cork and Kerry. This trip starts at Cape Clear, a small island home to close-knit staunchly Irish-speaking community. It also takes in the famous Skellig Islands, a remote, jagged island pinnacle once home to monks and later, Star Wars Jedi as a location set for the recent films and finishes up at the Blasket Islands where travellers can hike the green hills down to the eerie abandoned village now home to little more than sheep and seabirds.
If you’d rather travel at your own pace, you might prefer a Self Drive trip along the west coast. Starting in the bleak mountains of Connemara, sweeping past the Cliffs of Moher, through the lunar-like landscapes of the Burren National Park, you’ll end in your trip down in Dingle. Here, the Blasket Islands feature as on your last days when you take a boat out to the Blasket Islands accompanied by a local wildlife expert who will help you to spot seals, dolphins, porpoises and various seabirds inhabiting the forgotten coastlines of these long-abandoned island shores.
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