During a conversation with my mother-in-law, Catherine a few months ago, she mentioned a book I had long forgotten about called ‘Fiche Bliain ag Fás’.
Written in the Irish language by Maurice O’Sullivan in the 1930s, it recounts the author’s childhood on a remote island off the coast of County Kerry. It is written from the perspective of Maurice as a young boy.
It is considered by many to be a classic.
When I was about seven years of age, my father handed me a small A6-sized copy of the book - or rather the English translation, ‘Twenty Years a-Growing’. He had read it when he was a boy and hoped I would do the same. Much to my shame now, I passed up the opportunity. Between racing to the shop for football stickers, and challenging for the javelin world record on ‘Daley Thompson’s Decathlon’ on the Commodore 64, my time was precious. I cast it aside after a few pages.
Now, it was on my mind again, bringing with it feelings of guilt that had obviously being lying dormant for years, waiting for the right moment to strike. I decided to seek the book out. Could it still be in the house at home, I wondered? My father passed away two years ago, so he wasn’t around to ask, but after a search I eventually found the book hidden amongst hundreds of others in my father’s study.
Naturally, I did what I failed to do three decades ago and read the entire book. And naturally, it didn’t disappoint. My father was right to give it to me back then. It’s a pity I didn’t appreciate it at the time.
So, partly out of guilt, but mainly out of curiosity, I took the opportunity with my wife, Roz to visit The Great Blasket on a recent trip to Kerry. The Great Blasket is the largest of the six-strong island group, and it is where the majority of the book is based.
We did have another reason to visit the island, however. Eoin, my brother-in-law, has a very strong family connection to The Blaskets. His grandmother was born on the main island. Her name was Peig ‘Buffer’ Keane.
It would be impossible to avoid the Keane name if you decide to visit The Great Blasket, particularly if you take the ferry from Dunquin, which was the main point of access to the mainland for the people of the Blaskets. One night in August, 1976 a local man called Tomas Keane went out fishing in the Blasket Sound and never returned. Tomas was illiterate, but he could write his own name, so he had proudly signed it in large block capitals on the pier wall.
Although the Islands had been evacuated in 1953, Tomas was living on the Great Blasket when the tragedy happened. At that time, some people were considering going back to live on the island permanently. Tomas’s death put an end to that idea.
On the day we made the trip, we took the ferry from Dunquin. At low tide, the ferry itself moors about 50 yards out in the harbour. Passengers are brought from the pier to the boat by dinghy. Once we were all on board, we set off. The crossing took about 25 minutes. It was only after the crossing is made can one fully grasp how much of an ordeal it must have been to row from the island to Dunquin, or Dingle, and back again, as the islanders regularly had to do.
The photograph below was taken as we neared the island and it is the view that would have greeted the islanders as they made their way back home after a day’s fishing, or following a visit to the mainland.
Sadly, most of the houses on the island are now in ruins. It’s hard to imagine that the humbled and broken buildings now scattered across the hillside once stood proud and strong, providing shelter, warmth and protection to husbands, wives and their children, and a place for song, laughter and storytelling.
“The house put great wonder on me. I had never seen the like of it before. It was small and narrow, with a felt roof, the walls outside bright with lime, a fine glowing fire sending warmth into every corner, and four sugan chairs around the hearth. A dog was lying in the cinders. When I patted him with my hand he leapt up with a growl, drew his tail between his legs, and slunk away into the corner.” - Maurice O’Sullivan, ‘Twenty Years A’Growing’.
Thankfully, not all the houses on the island have fallen into disrepair. ‘The Congested Districts Board’ built five ‘new’ houses on a hill overlooking the main village in 1911. The author and storyteller, Peig Sayers moved into one of these homes the same year. In the house next door lived the Keane family, including Eoin’s grandmother, Peig. These two homes constitute the building on the left of the picture below.
The island holds myriad coves and inlets, but perhaps the most well known - and arguably the most beautiful - is the stunning ‘Tra Ban’, or White Strand, which is located just north of the village facing the mainland.
“The next day, a Sunday, was very fine, the sea calm, and not a sound to be heard but the murmur of the waves breaking on the White Strand and the footsteps of men walking down to the quay on their way to the mainland to mass.” - Maurice O’Sullivan, ‘Twenty Years A’Growing’
”Did you ever hear how the life of a man is divided? Twenty years a-growing, twenty years in blossom, twenty years a-stooping and twenty years declining.” - ‘Twenty Years A’Growing’.