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On an Irish Island tells the remarkable story of a remote outpost nearly untouched by time in the first half of the twentieth century, and of the adventurous men and women who visited and were inspired by it.
In a love letter to a vanished way of life, Robert Kanigel brings to life this wildly beautiful island, notable for the vivid communal life of its residents and the unadulterated Irish they spoke well into the twentieth century. With the Irish language rapidly disappearing, Great Blasket became a magnet for scholars, linguists, and writers during the Gaelic renaissance. As we follow these visitors—among them John Millington Synge, author of The Playboy of the Western World—we are captivated both by the tiny group of islanders who kept an entire country’s past alive and by their complex relationships with those who brought the island’s story to the larger world.
“Wonderfully vivid . . . A remote setting, a handful of young visitors, a collection of colorful locals, an ancient language and a story that spans half a century: These are but a few of the elements that make Robert Kanigel’s On an Irish Island an exuberant and delightful book. . . . It can be read as an erudite primer to the [literary] works of the islanders; as a beautifully assured ensemble biography; and as a large-scale portrait of a remarkable time in the history of the Great Blasket and the wider world. Yet it is, above all, a compelling tale of ordinary—and often enviable—lives in an extraordinary setting.”—Karin Altenberg, The Wall Street Journal
“Deliciously hones in on the ‘singularly severe glory’ of the Blasket Islands off the west coast of county Kerry.”—Katharine Whittemore, The Boston Globe
“Tells a fascinating piece of history . . . [Nowadays], what’s gone is the whole concept of village life, without television, iPads or Beyonce. There’s no point in posing questions about where such a life went, or whether we can get it back. But now, at least, we’ve got this lovely book.” —Carolyn See, The Washington Post
“It is the interaction of the natives and the visitors that fascinates Kanigel, and he tells the story of the community’s last decades through the succession of visitors, beginning with the playwright John Millington Synge. . . Affection for the place and its culture is something Kanigel first admires and then comes to share, and he makes his reader envy those tough, resourceful islanders.” —Malcolm Jones, The Daily Beast
“Kanigel avoids pushing any thesis about the advantages of premodern life, and instead points out the glories of the island and its inhabitants.”—Rachel Nolan, San Francisco Chronicle
“Robert Kanigel has written a tender paean to a lost world that called him out of his own time. On a bleak, treeless island, he unearths a buried linguistic treasure.” —Dava Sobel, author of Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter
“A mesmerizing interplay of lives and socio-historical contexts. . . . The portraits in this book are classic Kanigel: lively, sympathetic and thoroughly engaging. Yet what makes the narrative so affecting is the loss that permeates the text. As cultures like those on Great Blasket continue to be destroyed by the march of progress, so too are our connections to a simpler, more personally fulfilling way of living.” —Kirkus Reviews, (starred)
“[An] impressively researched , greatly inviting history of the curious-minded men and women who, in the early twentieth century, came from mainland Ireland and elsewhere to reside on the Great Blasket for a while, to absorb the slower way of Irish customs before the advent of electricity and other aspects of fast-paced contemporary life.” —Brad Hooper, Booklist