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  • Written by Robert Kanigel
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The Lost World of the Great Blasket

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List Price: $11.99


On Sale: February 07, 2012
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-307-95748-1
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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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.


Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition


Before George Thomson, of course, others had crossed thethree miles of Blasket Sound that separated the Great Blasket from themainland, or had explored the smaller rocky islands, mostly uninhabited, thatwere its neighbors, the so-called Lesser Blaskets. They recorded birdsightings. They took geological samples. Most never said much about their visits-or, left unaccountably unmoved by the awful splendor of the islands,perhaps had nothing much to say in the first place. Revenue agents of the Englishking occasionally appeared; at least once, the story goes, islanders peltedthem from the overhanging cliffs with rocks, chasing them back to their boats.Protestant missionaries visited, too, determined to turn islanders away from dark Papist ignorance.  

In 1843, Mrs. D. P. Thomson, wife of a Protestant clericon the mainland (and unrelated to George Thomson), visited the Great Blasket.It was difficult even to get onto the island, she wrote in a book published afew years later, since one must "take advantage of the swell of the waveand leap on the rocks" from the shifting, unsteady platform of the boat.Once on land, she "was more affected than I have the power to describe, bywitnessing human nature reduced to the savage state it is among theseislanders, within almost ear-shot of religious light and civilization."Mrs. Thomson told of local women and children crowded into the school room,"chewing seaweed incessantly," who pressed lengths of it "into their mouths with their thumbs in a most savage manner, and spat aboutunceremoniously at will; they touched my dress, turned me round and round tolook at every separate article, laughed with admiration at my shoes and gloves,kissed and stroked my old silk gown." After submitting to this inspection,she proceeded to speak to them of Jesus Christ.  

In 1892, Jeremiah Curtin arrived on the island. AnAmerican from Milwaukee, Harvard-trained, Curtin was a linguist visiting WestKerry in search of folklore. New Year's Day found him in Tralee. He took thetrain to Dingle, came around through Ventry and the neighboring villages,visited Ballyferriter, and finally was rowed out to the Great Blasket. There hefound "perhaps 20 straw-thatched cabins, the thatch held in place by anetwork of straw ropes fastened down with stones." Piles of manure stoodin front of each, cattle being kept in them at night. Curtin was in search ofGaelic myths he'd been assured he'd be able to gather like flowers from afield. But the pickings were slim: "I care more about getting the price ofa bottle of whiskey than about old stories," one man told him. Curtin soonleft, gleaning for his trouble only a photo or two of the thatched-roof villagehe had too briefly visited.  

The first to see the island with new eyes and tell theworld about it was John Millington Synge. This preternaturally giftedplaywright, this quiet brooding literary force, discovered on the island in1905 something of the luminous spirit later visitors would find as well. He wasthirty-four at the time and had less than four years to live. But in his shortlife, he'd already gained stature as a notable figure of the literary revivalthen washing over Ireland. Three of his plays had been produced by the AbbeyTheatre in Dublin or its predecessor companies. In the time he had left hewould write another, The Playboy of the Western World, swollen with such lusciouslanguage that, by one estimation, it added up to "the most fertile andvigorous poetic dialogue written for the stage since Shakespeare." Itsincidents, characters, and speech were rooted in the spoken Irish Synge heardon his visits to Ireland's west, including the Blasket. Gone, from hisrendering of the island, was the ugly primitivism marking earlier accounts. Hefound instead among the peasants there an abiding grace and dignity.  

Those earlier visitors had come to the island luggingheavy loads of cultural baggage . . . and so did Synge. For, by the time of hisvisit in 1905, the Blaskets weren't just islands in the farthest westernreaches of Ireland. They were The West, which had come to stand for thedeepest, purest wells of Irish nationhood.

In those days Ireland, or Eire,didn't exist as an independent state; Ireland was British. To anyself-respecting Irishman of republican sympathies, of course, Ireland was neverBritish, merely occupied by them. Still, for seven hundred years Ireland had beenvariously invaded, conquered, and colonized by England, and for centuries England'sreigning monarch reigned over Ireland as well. Since the capitulation followingthe Battles of the Boyne and Aughrim in 1690 and 1691, feeling against the Englishran deep. The Catholic-Protestant divide that had split Europe since theReformation played out in Ireland, too. Catholics were barred from voting,serving in the Irish parliament, or sometimes even practicing their religion.Protestant landlords owned most of the land, evicting impoverished Catholictenants at their whim. The murderous Famine of the 1840s, though set off bycrop failure, had been exacerbated by English indifference. Periodically,resistance to British rule took violent form, but more often it was purelypolitical, as in the nineteenth-century struggle for "home rule,"Charles Stewart Parnell's Irish Parliamentary Party, and various republican brotherhoods and kindred nationalist groups.   In the closing years of the nineteenth century, fresh interestin the Irish language further confounded Ireland's tortured relationship with England.Late in the same year as Jeremiah Curtin's visit to the Blaskets, on November25, 1892, Douglas Hyde went before the newly formed Irish National LiterarySociety in Dublin and delivered a lecture that one critic, Declan Kiberd, wouldcall "Ireland's declaration of cultural independence." It bore thetitle "The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland."  

A thirty-two-year-old linguist, son of a Church ofIreland rector, Hyde had grown up hearing old people in his native CountyRoscommon speaking Irish, and through them glimpsed a rich Gaelic culture he'dnever encountered among his own family and their friends. That Ireland, hedeclared now, was dying. Ireland's problems lay in its rejection of all thingsGaelic, and its embrace-sometimes willing, sometimes forced-of everything English.In Anglicizing themselves, he declared, the Irish "have thrown away with alight heart the best claim which we have upon the world's recognition of us asa separate nationality." It was, he asserted, "our Gaelic past which,though the Irish race does not recognize it just at present, is really at thebottom of the Irish heart."  

The Ireland of the seventh century, he reminded hislisteners, was "then the school of Europe and the torch of learning";the Dark Ages had been brightened by the wit and intellect of Irish monks,bards, and scholars. But over the past century, Ireland had become cut off fromits roots. Irish had fallen into disuse. O'Mulligans had taken English nameslike Baldwin, O'Hennesys were now Harringtons, Eibhlins were Ellens. Pipers andfiddlers were disappearing. The harp, long a symbol of Ireland, was becomingextinct. Irish jerseys had given way to shoddy cast-off clothes from Manchesterand London.  

Needed was, for example, to "set our faces againstthis aping of English dress, and encourage our women to spin and our men towear comfortable frieze suits of their own wool, free from shoddy andhumbug." Irish autonomy demanded sweeping de-Anglicization. "We muststrive to cultivate," declared Hyde, "everything that is most racial,most smacking of the soil, most Gaelic, most Irish, because . . . this islandis and will ever remain Celtic at the core."   The following year, Hyde helped establish the GaelicLeague, which for the next two decades would champion a revival of Irishculture and language. Forget politics, Hyde as much as said; the core of Irishidentity lay in the Irish language. "My own ambition," he would writelater, was "language as a neutral ground upon which all Irishmen mightmeet." Through the last years of the nineteenth century and first decadeof the twentieth, the League's influence spread. "Whatever it was tenyears ago," a Dublin professor wrote in 1907 of Gaelic, "it is verymuch alive now. . . . You see Gaelic inscriptions over the shops, Gaelic on thestreet labels, Gaelic in advertisements, a Gaelic column in newspapers. . . . The Gaelic League is everywhere." Irish youth might not much care for Frenchor German, but during these years they did for Gaelic, for Irish: "Theywant to learn Irish, as they want no other language on earth." And whenleaders of the language movement looked around Ireland for exemplars of allthat was Irish at its purest and best, they looked fixedly west.   Think of Ireland as two hundred miles across and threehundred miles north-to-south and you won't be far wrong. Across this breadth,however, its population is, and was, distributed unequally. Its two largestcities, Belfast and Dublin, both lay off inlets to the Irish Sea and facedeast, to Scotland and England. The weight of its bigger, stronger Englishneighbor was felt unevenly across the country, too. The English first invadedin the twelfth century, expanding and colonizing from east to west, bringingwith them English place-names, English families, English castles. After theReformation, Protestantism made its strongest inroads in the east, encroachingbut feebly in the west.

The English language, meanwhile, squeezed out Irish until, by the 1850s, little of the native language could be heard outside partsof Counties Donegal, Mayo, Galway, and Kerry, all in the west.   So by the time our story begins in the early years of thetwentieth century, "Ireland" meant, roughly speaking, twoIrelands-split not along the familiar divide of Northern Ireland and the southof recent political history, but along an east-west axis. The east was overwhelmingly English-speaking, included substantial Protestant minorities,and boasted big cities that looked like those of England and Scotland, with alltheir coal dust, clamor, and corruption. The poor, rural, mostly Roman Catholicwest, with its Irish-speaking enclaves, was typically seen as a throwback to asimpler, purer past that elsewhere in Ireland had been overrun by the noisy andthe new.  

Here, though, could be found the precious seed that oneday might be planted in an Irish political soil more hospitable to its growth.To Irish nationalists, historian Kevin Whelan would observe, the rural west was"the authentic Ireland, a materialization of an unsullied primordialpast," the Irish-speaking Aran or Blasket islander its exemplar. Toanother scholar, Kevin Martin, the western islands were "part of the creationmyth" of a new Ireland aborning.   And this was The West that, with its distinctivedialects, drew John Millington Synge.  

Born in 1871, Synge had come out of the DublinAscendancy; that is, his family was long and deeply Irish, butProtestant-landed gentry from Wicklow on his father's side. The son of abarrister, he'd studied languages at Trinity College, Dublin, at the timevirtually reserved for Protestants. Settling on becoming a musician, he livedin Germany, Italy, and France. In Paris, at the Sorbonne, he came under theinfluence of one of Europe's foremost Celtic scholars, H. d'Arbois deJubainville, who nurtured in him a love of Irish. Also in Paris, he met WilliamButler Yeats, already a major literary figure, who recognized his talents and,in the familiar story, bestowed on him among the most famous hard nubs ofliterary advice ever offered and accepted. "Go to the Aran Islands,"he told Synge. "Live there as if you were one of the people themselves;express a life that has never found expression."  

Before Synge went to the Blaskets, then, he went to Aran, three remote islands in Galway Bay, across from the mainland wilderness ofConnemara. He made his first trip there in 1898, being rowed out the first timein a curragh. "It gave me a moment of exquisite satisfaction," hewrote later, "to find myself moving away from civilisation in this rudecanvas canoe of a model that has served primitive races since men first went tosea." Between then and 1902, he returned to Aran four times, for four anda half months all told, his mastery of Irish improving with each visit.   Synge was a swarthy, thick-necked man with a great shockof dark hair and a bushy mustache, and had all the hallmarks of healthy, virilemanhood to him. But in fact he was sick much of his life-with asthma in hisyouth and then Hodgkin's disease, which began to afflict him in his latetwenties and would kill him before he turned forty. He was, though, anenergetic walker, tramping across the hills and down the dusty roads. He'd goup and talk to anybody he happened to meet. Yet he was essentially shy, hisseeming gregariousness more spur to the stories and speech of others than signof any great need to speak himself. As every portrait of him somehow suggests,his was a silent absorbing presence. To the Aran Islanders, one critic noted, Synge was "so strange and silent that no one actually knew him." Hisgift was to listen through those deep moody eyes, and transmute the language offisherman and peasant, weaver and tramp, into art. First, in 1903, came In theShadow of the Glen, a grim one-act comedy in which an old peasant feigns deathto test his wife's fidelity. Then Riders to the Sea, a one-act tragedyexhibiting, by one estimation, "an almost Aeschylean starkness and grandeur."  

Synge's accounts of his Aran visits had not yet beenpublished when, early in the new century, he was drawn to another Irish-speaking enclave in the west. Separated from one another by broad rangesof English-speaking Ireland, the last remaining Irish-speaking areas, each moreand more unto itself, had split into distinctive dialects. There was DonegalIrish to the north. And Connemara Irish, which is what the Aran Islandersspoke, down the coast. And Munster Irish in the southwest, which includedCounty Kerry. The differences were notable. Most spoken Irish, for example,stressed first syllables; Munster sometimes shifted emphasis to the last. Words known in Ulster were unknown elsewhere. The country's zealous language enthusiasts exhorted Irish-learners to explore them all.  

Synge felt the tug. His brother Robert had recommended aKerry family with whom he could stay, with whom he might unearth a new bountyof Irish stories and Irish expression. During parts of four summers Synge wouldvisit Kerry; these yielded dialogue, plot material, and idiosyncrasies oflanguage that would inform his later work. And on one of these trips, in July 1905, he wrote to Willie Long of Ballyferriter, County Kerry, at the western tip of the Dingle Peninsula, seeking a place more pristinely Irish yet. 

 If there was anything like a local aristocracy in this far-off, underpopulated little town, Long-well off, loquacious, a bit ofbluster to him-was it. He was a forty-six-year-old father of four sons and twodaughters, a well-connected merchant, innkeeper, and schoolteacher. Local ordinance apparently barred teachers from keeping inns. So, to get around it, the low-ceilinged, two-story little place on the main street of Ballyferriterover which he presided bore the name of his brother instead.
Robert Kanigel

About Robert Kanigel

Robert Kanigel - On an Irish Island

Photo © Michael Lionstar

ROBERT KANIGEL is the author of six previous books. He has been the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship and the Grady-Stack Award for science writing. His book The Man Who Knew Infinity was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Harvard Magazine, and Psychology Today. He lives in Baltimore.


“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, The 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

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