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Editorial / Periscope - Niall O'Dowd
Isle of Dreams
October 15, 2008
Periscope by Niall O'Dowd
DUNQUIN, Co. Kerry — Mike Kearney is 87 years old, yet looks 20 years younger. He lives in Springfield, Massa-chusetts nowadays, by all accounts an ordinary but yet extraordinary man.
Kearney is one of just two survivors of the people who once lived on the Blasket Island off the coast of West Kerry, a beautiful yet haunted place that has inspired great poetry, prose and recollection.
Three great books have come from the island — Twenty Years a Growing, my favorite, by Maurice O’Sullivan, The Islandman by Tomas O Criothain, and Peig by Peig Sayers.
All chronicle a life and time long ago, now lost forever, but they recount the extraordinary hardships, triumphs and daily lives of an island people who will never be seen again.
Since about the mid-1950s the island has been abandoned. Now when you go there you see the bare ruined choirs where once a village stood.
It is an eerie feeling to walk among the ruins, especially for me as some relatives of my father lived there. He was born just 12 miles away on the mainland but kept a special place in his heart for the Great Blasket Island and its people as so many of the West Kerry natives did.
Down on the beach or the Tra Ban (white strand) as they call it, the waves lap upon the lonesome strand where once the kids of the village played football and frolicked all day. The water is clear deep blue, unpolluted and perfect in this remote outpost in Western Europe.
To travel to the Blaskets is to step back in time to a world still dimly understood. The island people who lived there never numbered more than a few hundred, yet their way of life was a stark reminder of how much our ancestors in Ireland suffered and endured through such hard times as we could ever imagine.
Life was often brutal, short and cold on the Blaskets. The frequent storms cut them off from the mainland at Dunquin for weeks on end at times.
The Blasket Sound, which runs between the island and the mainland, was among the most treacherous stretches of water in Europe.
They had their share of terrible tragedies, men lost at sea, women who died in childbirth because no doctor could come over from the mainland, weeks when after someone died they could not be buried because of storm tossed seas that kept the simple currach boats from bringing the body to Dunquin for burial.
But there was also great life and laughter, story telling that traced back centuries, and the creation of unique bonds between an isolated people that somehow made a living from the stony soil.
On the mainland, directly across from the island is the Blasket Island Heritage Center, a magnificent building which houses the history of the island and the extraordinary island people who dwelt there.
I was privileged to open their annual conference last weekend on a different Blasket Island theme. This year that theme was emigration, and they
came from New York, Springfield, Melbourne and London to spend a weekend recalling the island and its people.
Thanks in large part to a wonderful American scholar called Tom Biuso, now sadly deceased, the American trek of the island people is well documented.
Most who left ended up in Massachusetts around the towns of Springfield and Holyoke where West Kerry people tended to congregate. Mike Kearney is among the last of the hardy breed who came off the island to seek a new life elsewhere.
When he entered the lecture hall at the Blasket Center the applause was long and loud. Through him the connection to the magical island to the west was still tangible and real. Earlier that night a mist and fog had hung over the island, while elsewhere the sky was clear.
It reminded me of Hy Brasil, that magical and mythical island of Celtic lore where happiness and peace can be found.
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