Sunday, March 25, 2012

Great Blasket by Robert Kanigel

Especially after it was abandoned and reduced to ruins, it would be easy to imagine that the Blasket community had been around since antiquity, or at least since the Middle Ages, or at any rate was steeped in ageless tradition. But the settlement of the Blaskets was recent enough, the generations going back to the early settlers few enough that creation myths of a sort around this or that aspect of village life sometimes took hold. One of these concerned music.

The way Sean O Criomhthain like to tell the story later, an islander, Mike, one day crossed the sound, hoodwinked a Dingle man into letting him take a fiddle he didn’t pay for, brought it back to the island, and learned to play it. “That was the first fiddle of their own which the islanders had.” They called it a sliver, for its shape. Ultimately, Mike left for America, but not before two other islanders learned to play the fiddle and saved up to but their own. Soon “all the lads of the island were becoming interested in the fiddle and some of them set about making one.” For string, the used fish-net cord; if the instrument showed special promise, they’d contrive to get proper strings for it. “Within a few years there was a sliver in every house in the village…[and not] a boy or girl on the island who couldn’t knock some smattering of music out of it.”

Following the fiddle onto the island was the melodeon, or “box”, a small accordion introduced early in the twentieth century and catching on quickly. At the height of the melodeon craze, nightly dances sometimes kept young people up almost till morning. “They had little else to do during the day,” Sean seemed to grumble, “except to bring a couple of loads of turf from the hill and dress themselves up for the night.” Some fine evenings, they’d bring a visiting box-player over to the Spur at Seal Cove, near the northern tip of the island. Out of sight of the village itself, it was large enough and level enough to accommodate two dance sets at once and, said Sean, “many other activities if you wished!”

In the village itself, it was often at Peig Sayer’s house where the furniture would be cleared for the evening’s dance. “The room would be lit by a turf fire and an oil lamp, and a tiny red lamp before the holy picture,” remembered Robin Flower’s daughter Sile, a teenager at the time, who visited the island during some of the same years as George Thomson. The room was full to bursting, the boys “crouching on their haunches,” ready to jump up and ask a girl to dance before the music started. “And then it was very, very lively dancing, reels and sets.” At evening’s end, in the blackness of the night, they’d wend their way home. “The boys were dying to get a kiss from us. We thought this was terrific at age fourteen or fifteen,” she remembered. “Finally we arrived home, and this howling mob of boys would be outside the window, waving through the window and blowing kisses at us.”

It was impossible not to be moved by weeks or months spent in a setting so alive, in the shelter of the darkness, to the lilt of song, the whine of the fiddle, the drone of the melodeon, the play of dancing feet, the abandoned pulse of young bodies. No visitor was immune to it. “The sharp sound of their heed irons are still ringing in my ears,” wrote Marstrander of the dancers. Synge wrote of four Blasket couples dancing a polka:

The women, as usual, were in their naked feet, and wherever there was a figure for women only there was a curious hush and patter of bare feet, till the heavy pounding and shuffling of the men’s boots broke in again. The whirl of the music and dancing in this little kitchen stirred me with an extraordinary effect. The kindliness and merry-making of these islanders, who, one knows, are full of riot and severity and daring, has a quality and attractiveness that is absent altogether from the life of towns.

Robin Flower capture the dancing in verse:

‘Rise up now, Shane,’ said a voice, and another:
‘Kate, stand out on the floor’; the girls to the men
Cried challenge on challenge; a lilt in the corner rose
And climbed and wavered and fell, and springing again
Called to the heavy feet of the en; the girls wild-eyed,
Their bare feet beating the measure, their loose hair flying…

Now, the island, one needs reminding about now, was not some easy-living tropical paradise. It was a hard and unforgiving place, difficult to wrest a living from. Clinging to its precipitous cliffs, rowing and sailing overs its roiling waters, you couldn’t long forget the essential seriousness of life. Marriage mattered; so did birth, so did death, and not much else. The islanders, many said, possessed dignity and poise, heroic grace. Many of them tapped a deep religiosity. Given then pleas to Jesus and Mary marking everyday Blasket speech, it would be possible to imagine the island pious or prudish. And many islanders did hold firmly to the tenets of their faith and conform to every standard of decorum between the sexes.

All this was true.

But it was also true that the Great Blasket was an island. And islands ae famously places of freedom and abandon, of rules relaxed, of stricture and release held in balance. The idea in Synge’s Playboy of the Western World – a man kills his father and is hailed for his manly daring – was hatched on an island, in Aran. The Blaskets inspired him in another idea, for a play set on an “island with a population of wreckers, smugglers, poteen makers…startled by the arrival of a stranger.” No priest inhabited the island; one was rowed in for the Stations, to take confessions and say Mass at the school, but that was just once a year. Otherwise, the church, its institutions and representatives, could seem far distant indeed. “While life was reasonably good there was little talk of priests or ministers,” recalled Sean O Criomhthain. “The ordinary person doesn’t spend his life talking about religion.” The great litanies of ought-and-should could seem remote, mainland verities not so much rejected as forgotten or ignored.

Sometime before George Thomson came to the island, an English translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron, his collection of lubricious tales of love and sensuality set in medieval Florence, found its way to the island; George once saw a tattered copy of it in Maurice’s house. Using Irish names and place names, Micheal O Guiheen would translate several of Boccaccio’s stories into Irish, leaving scholars to debate just how much, or how little, he’d cleaned them up. Delving into the story, folklorist Bo Almqvist concluded that O Guiheen, very simply, was no prude, that the appeal of Boccaccio’s stories for him and other islanders lay in their similarity to Irish folktales that could be “every bit as earthy and bawdy as any Boccaccian tale.”

“On our way back to the village,” wrote Synge of what he observed following an evening’s dancing,

The young girls ran wild in the twilight, flying and shrieking over the grass, or rushing up behind the young men and throwing them over, if they were able, by a sudden jerk or trip. The men in turn caught them by one hand, and spun them around and round four or five times, and then let them go, hen the whirled down the grassy slopes for many yards.

Marstander, likewise, recounted the flirtatious horseplay that sometimes accompanied these evening dances.

The girls are shouting at the men. Earg ,earg, stand up, and dance, but they are standing seriously and carelessly, as if they didn’t hear anything. Then the girls shower them with jokes and sarcasms, threats and rude stories. They shall be teased to dance, just as the heroes of old are geared for battle with abuse from a friend. No method is forbidden. No secret is taboo. ‘Get up Sean, or I will tell them who put her white arms around your neck yesterday, get up Sean.’ Sean got up very fast, blushing…

It was a small island, but it wasn’t as if you couldn’t slip away – you could. The village itself might seem claustrophobic, a few minutes’ walk from one end to the other. But its few houses were really just a speck of urban adornment to an otherwise wild countryside of pasturage, mountain, bog and cliff; it could be two hours over the back of the island to Ceann Dub or Black Head, at the island’s far southwestern tip. To any red-blooded island boy or girl, there were plenty of less traveled areas to get away to. Close by was the White Strand, with rock-sheltered corners lying behind the cliffs, invisible to the prying eyes of the village. Or else a couple “might hop in over a fence or up the hill a bit,” remembered Sean O Criomhthain of his youth. “They’d go someplace where people didn’t usually go.” The island was too small, making it hard to find such a spot? “Not at all. It was easy to find a place there if you wanted to.” Young men he termed “the real experts…brought the girls up the hill.”

Among the reminiscences delivered in George Thomson’s memory at the time of his death was one from Padraig O Fiannachta, a Roman Catholic priest reared in West Kerry who’d befriended him. “ I am certain that dear George is dancing steps in Paradise with the people of the Island now,” he wrote “and that he has the sets better than he had them long ago.” He probably was not a gifted dancer, though “he couldn’t have been as unmusical as he seemed,” suggested daughter Margaret years later, perhaps influenced by standards set by her mother, a musician. But on the island, raw energy trumped any natural want of ability. Sometimes George, Maurice, and one or two other men could be seen dancing on the beach, pipes hanging from their mouths all the v while. One old islander, Sean O Guithin, remembered George with his jacket off, stripped to his shirt. Oh, he said “he could step it out with the best.”

Sometimes, on moonlit nights, the young people would drift from the village en masse, cut across the northeast face of the island, beside the fields about the White Strand, to Speir Cuas na Ron, Seal Cove, the brink of which fell precipitously to the surf crashing up against the rocky cove below. As he remembers those nights of dancing there now, George sits propped upon one elbow, his other hand idly fingering a workman’s cap by his side, an errant wisp of hair slipping across his forehead…and then, from the wizened old face, a secret smile breaks free.

“I suppose he had a few girls on the island?” one of his old friends asked.

“Oh, he did indeed!” says he. “There was one girl in particular…”

From the moment he stepped on to the island, George had been a hit, falling in easily with his age-mates. If at age twenty he showed even a dash of the sincerity and intelligence his friends unfailingly remarked on, he could hardly have failed to excite interest. He was handsome and, in his way, exotic, certainly in those years before the island saw so many visitors from beyond Ireland. It’s not surprising that Mary Kearney would have been drawn to him.

What happened between her and George in whispered conversations on the White Strand, or on the paths along the back of the island, or while dancing at Peig’s or above the Gravel Strand, or in chance looks or tender moments amid the crowded company of others, is lost to us. “I remember the times on the Blasket Islands very well” was all Mary would say years later, on a tape she knew he’s hear. “We had a great time, George.”

Certainly they spent plenty of time together. He met her family, her sisters and brothers, sometimes played chess with them. He must have learned early on that Mary’s father, in his early forties at the time, was something of a celebrity. Back in 1909, he’d jumped into the water and help saved Tomas O Criomhthian’s daughter Cait at the time of the Eveleen Nichols drowning. He had a bronze metal to show for it, from the Royal Home Society, patronized by the King of England himself, “for having saved a life from drowning.” He wasn’t shy about wearing it. Mary’s father must have seemed to George no idle, clever talker, like some of the effete boys and men he knew at King’s College, but an authentic Irish hero.

George was not by nature carefree. His idea of a good time at age twelves was setting up a lending library and in later years he took nothing so seriously as, by his lights, setting the world aright. In family photos he always looks about the same – placid, earnest, his even features rarely corrupted by a smile, his great thatch of straight hair flopping down over his forehead. On one photo about three years before he went to the Blaskets, younger brother Hugh has a winsome look to him, whereas George is all sharp, straight lines; as well as you can tell from an old studio portrait, he seemed closed. He certainly was good-looking, but in a way more befitting an older man than the seventeen-year-old school boy he was at the time.

It is unlikely, then, that, before reaching the Great Blasket ( on an academic project to learn Irish), George was ever much the life of the party; or that the mischievousness, the sheer antic frivolity, of young Maurice O Sullivan could have seemed to him anything but a welcome counterpoint to the stresses of school; or that the convulsive, spirited laugh of Mary Kearney – his “black-haired Deirdre laughing in the breeze”? – could have seemed to him anything but captivating.

“I’d say he was in love with her,” said one of the old islanders. “He was very fond of her. He’d’ve married her if she would have him.

Would he? Would he really?

Through some mysterious alchemy of love, a summer flirtation ha bubbled up into a full-blown crisis – for George, certainly, and perhaps for Mary as well.

At one point, Mary’s brother Sean reported, George approached their father, who did nothing to scuttle the match. “Well,” Sean has his father saying, “its not me that will marry you…If you like her, and if she likes you, you can’t be kept apart, and I suppose it’s a mortal sin to keep two people who are in love apart.”

But even if George was smitten, and her father willing, Mary herself may have never given herself over to the idea. The island was the only world she’s ever known. He was from a faraway place she could scarcely imagine – perhaps not someone, ironically, to take seriously. Her faith, meanwhile, she took very seriously, and George’s religion, or lack of it, erected a formidable bar. At some point, or perhaps several –the chronology is muddled - George told her just how he felt. Either she rebuffed him altogether, or simply explained to him she could never marry a non-Catholic. Probably on one of his visits to the island -1926 is as good a guess as any – George, lost and lovestruck, and looked into converting.

“I remember him coming to our house in An Cill. He wanted advice from my Uncle Padraig, as to whether he should convert to Catholicism. The girl wouldn’t marry him unless he became a Catholic.”

The speaker was Maire Mhac an tSaoi - Mary McEntee – one of Ireland’s most distinguished poets and writers. An Cill was the house her uncle had built in Dun Chaoin – on the mainland, within sight of the Blaskets – in 1925. Her uncle was one of the leading intellectual lights of Ireland, Monsignor Padraig de Brun, otherwise known as Paddy Browne. He had built An Cill, his niece explained, as refuge, balm for the grief he’d experienced in Dublin with the 1916 Rising and the execution of a friend, Sean MacDermott, one of its leaders.

In Dun Chaoin, with its few score houses scattered across the landscape, everyone knew everyone; George would have certainly known of Father de Brun. With his dark hair, deep hooded eyes, and rich baritone voice, the irrepressible de Brun would come to be seen as a “maverick…altogether uninhibited and mischievous, caring not a fig for theological caution, impish and mischievous in his humor,”: fond even of off-color limericks,. But that was later. More recently, he had been reproved for his open support of the republican cause by his superiors at the seminary.

He was no average country priest, yet he was a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. Just what did young George expect of him? How did he frame his request? With what hesitancy or conviction did he, at twenty-two or twenty-three, assert his love for the island girl and seek an opinion, a ruling, a morel of advice, that might leave her his>

This is how Maire Mhac an tSaoi told it in her old age:

My uncle Padraig advised him not to convert simply in order to marry her. He was an atheist. If he couldn’t say with honesty that he was no longer an atheist it would only be a cause of sorrow for both of them. The marriage would be based on a lie and nothing good would come of it.

George did not convert.

At some point, Mary left the island, to take a position as servant to a doctor outside Dublin.

At first, George’s time on the island with Mary, Maurice, and the others must have been just so much raw undigested experience; he, barely in his twenties, was still raw, awash in the alien sounds of a new language, trying to make sense of so much else that seemed exciting, novel, and strange. In the end, though, his Blasket summers changed his mental make-up. They influenced his scholarship. They tinted his writing; they gave him a stock of raw material that would find its way into his stories, poems, and translations. They would shape his values and help make him the man he was to become.

One day many years later, while visiting China, rereading Tess of the D’Urbervilles a few pages at a time each evening, he felt an acute and sudden tug of awareness. He’s been reading chapter 25, in which Angel Clare reflects on his time at Talbothay’s Dairy in Wessex, where he’d met and fallen in love with Tess. Angel came to the diary, Hardy wrote, sure his brief stay would be ‘the merest episode in his life, soon passed through and early forgotten,” an interlude during which to reflect on the great world and its work. But, quite the contrary, it was the great world on which he soured, “dissolved into an uninteresting outer dumb-show; while here, in this apparently dim and un-impassioned place, novelty had volcanically started up, as it had never, for him, started up elsewhere…It was amazing, indeed, to find how great a matter the life of the obscure diary had become to him.”

There in China, George was just two pages into the chapter when “it struck me suddenly,” as he wrote in a letter home, “that Angel Clatre, who came to Talbothay to study farming and found something unexpected, was not unlike me, who went to Blasket Island to study the Irish language and found there something unexpected.

“But there, I am slipping into daydreams again, and it’s bedtime.”

On An Irish Island by Robert Kanigel; Alfred A. Knopf, N.Y. 2012


  1. Numbers matter, It’s not enough to coolly report that many Irish immigrated to Australia, Canada, and America. It may be truer to say that, from before the Famine to the time of George Thomson’s visit to Blasket, most Irish immigrated. A letter to the editor of The Irish Statesman in 1927 asked readers inexplicably left unmoved by emigration whether they had ‘ever travelled through the empty lands, empty now even of bullocks? To any sane person a perusal of the last census is terrifying; the evidence afforded to the eyes of a deserted countryside and a swelling group of dingy, decaying towns filled with beggars is overwhelming.’

  2. George had never been to America, through all his life never would go, and, according to his daughter Margaret, developed no little antipathy for it. Even by 1926, America had become a symbol to him of all that was too rich, frenetic, and cruel in modern life. Nor was he alone in seeing its vaunted opportunity, its Hollywood glitter, its cars and skyscrapers, as just a cover for a place that ate up immigrants and consumed their souls, its stopwatch-clicking efficiency experts and gang bosses squeezing the life out of them…’it’s a corner of hell where the condemned are forced to go without sleep or rest in their struggle to make a living.’ In America, the good, gentle virtues of rural Ireland stood no chance.