THE BLASKET ISLANDS:
In the 1920s and 1930s the Blasket Island writers produced books which are deemed classics in the world of literature. They wrote of Island people living on the very edge of Europe, and brought to life the topography, life and times of their Island. They wrote all of their stories in the Irish language.
Sadly, the Blasket Island community declined as a result of the persistent emigration of its young people, until eventually the Island was abandoned in 1953 when only 22 inhabitants remained.
The Great Blasket Island remains uninhabited today, but visitors can travel by ferry over to this remote and wildly beautiful place and spend several hours or all day marvelling at its natural beauty and what remains of years of human endeavour.
The Blasket Centre in Dún Chaoin celebrates the story of the Blasket Islanders, the unique literary achievements of the island writers and their native language, culture and tradition.
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Dingle Bay Charters
Blasket Island Ferry
Take a fast (40 Minute) ferry from Dingle Marina to the Great Blasket Island.
Watch out for Fungie the dolphin at the entrance to Dingle Harbour, then sit back and soak in the scenery as you round Slea Head and approach the Blasket Island.
The island evacuated in 1953, was home to many famous Irish writers including Peig Sayers.
Walk the 1100 acres of unspoilt largely mountainous terrain, relax on the beautiful beach or explore the abandoned village and the fascinating cultural and literary history of the island.
Dingle Bay Charters
The Marina, Dingle, Co. Kerry
Phone +353 (0)66 915 1344
Mobile +353 (0)87 672 6100
Blasket Island Eco Marine Tour
Whale watching and bird watching in Dingle Bay
We offer an Eco Marine Adventure Tour, departing from the pier in Ventry village. There will be a morning tour at 10am (approx 2.5hrs) and an afternoon tour leaving at 1pm (approx 3.5 hrs).
This boat trip brings you on an unforgettable tour around the Blasket Island Archipelago with its remote islands. You have the possibility of catching glimpses of whales and dolphins, basking sharks and seals as well as observing our abundant marine bird life, comprising puffins, gannets, kittiwakes, fulmars, choughs and many more.
Blasket Island Eco Marine Tours
Phone +353 (0)86 335 3805, (0)87 231 6131
e-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
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THE NAME / Ainm
The Blaskets are and have always been an intrinsic part of the parish of Dún Chaoin. Even the most casual of observers will notice that the Islands and mainland were once one, perhaps a few million years ago; the experts confirm this impression.
Locally, the Great Blasket was called simply the Island, or more formally, the Western (or Great) Island. The Blasket Islanders themselves referred to the other Islands as the Lesser Blaskets. In the past the whole group of Islands was referred to as Ferriter's Islands. From the end of the 13th Century the Ferriter family leased the Islands from the Earls of Desmond, and from Sir Richard Boyle after the dispossession of the Desmond Geraldines at the end of the 16th Century. They retained a castle there, at Rinn an Chaisleáin (Castle Point) in the lower village. There are no physical remains of that castle because the stones were carried off to build the Protestant soup-school in 1840. The same school was closed down in 1852 after the ravages of the Great Famine.
The last of the Ferriters to control the Blaskets was the poet and rebel chieftain, Captain Piaras Feirtéar. He was hanged at Cnocán na gCaorach in Killarney in 1653, after he and his followers were defeated at Ross Castle nearby.Tearaght Island
Photo taken by John Eagle
The word "Blasket" itself is a mystery. No one knows when or who first gave it that name. In the 14th and 15th Centuries the names "brasch", "brascher" and "blaset" are recorded on contemporary Italian maps; in 1589 a variant form of these names, "Blasket Isles", appears for the first time. Blascaod/Blasket has all the characteristics and resonances of a foreign borrowing. Robin Flower has suggested that it originates from the Norse word "brasker", meaning "a dangerous place."
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FLORA & FAUNA
Míolra agus Fásra
The Great Blasket is coated on top with a covering of furze, whins and heather, with peat (or bog or turf) beneath much of it. Turf, at a depth of one sod below the stripped surface, was usually cut with a spade.
The soil around the village is sandy, about 60 acres of it arable land; a little valley or cleft runs through the village to the sea, and ivy, holly and goat willow grow there, twisted and weathered by storms. Osiers fit for basketmaking do not grow there, and as a consequence the Islanders had to travel to the mainland, sometimes as far east as Abhainn an Scáil (Annascaul) and Ínse (Inch), to get a supply in season for making their lobster pots.
The Blasket is, and always was, teeming with rabbits. Yet it is a miracle of sorts that none of the following species is recorded on the Island: the weasel, frog, or hare; neither was the fox or the rat, the hedgehog, badger or newt. The long-tailed field mouse and the pygmy shrew were the commonest of all species on the Island.
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Seabirds which never frequented the coast of the mainland were abundant there, and they are still to be found, though not in such numbers since their food supply decreased. These include the storm petrel (breeding in thousands in the island wilderness), guillemots, puffins, razorbills, the Manx shearwater, and the black guillemot. Their fledglings provided many a juicy mouthful for the Islanders when hunger stalked the countryside. Together with the nestlings of the gannet from the Sceilg, these kept the hunger from the door.
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According to Charles Smith, author of "The Ancient and the Present State of the County of Kerry (1756)", the Great Blasket was uninhabited prior to about 1710, except for monks in ancient times. A recently-discovered document, however, records people living there in 1597. (A ship's captain left the document which was found in an archive in Samancas, Spain. He calls the Islands "Yslas de Blasques" and would have us believe that the inhabitants were all fluent Spanish speakers!) The very fact that the Ferriters controlled these Islands as far back as the 13th Century, and maintained their own castle there, is a clear indication that they were inhabited at an early stage.
According to popular tradition, the first people to live on the Blaskets herded animals, grew crops and hunted. That folk memory must extend a long way back, because the seine boat changed their way of life completely when it made its appearance for the first time on the Blaskets at the beginning of the 19th Century or shortly before. Until then they fished only from the rocks with hand lines. The seine boat gave them the means to take to fishing as a way of life, and they gave up tillage almost completely apart from potatoes, a little oats and some vegetables.
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Lion na nDaoine
The number of people living on the Island has ebbed and flowed. There was a population of about 150 living there in 1840, but after the Great Famine that had decreased to 100. The population is said to have reached its peak in 1916, at 176. From then on it was in decline until 1953/54 when the Blasket was abandoned.
The population of the Island grew with the influx of tenants evicted from their holdings by Lord Ventry during the first half of the 19th Century. It is certain that the Criomhthain and Duinnshléibhe families from Márthainn and Baile na Rátha on the mainland settled on the Blasket during that period. Many others followed the same path, because the way of life there was better than what they had to endure on the mainland. Nevertheless, Island life was a constant hardship and struggle a three-mile crossing to the mainland, followed by a five-mile walk by road for a priest, or a twelve-mile walk to reach a doctor.
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THE WAY OF LIFE
Mar a Mhaireadar
The Islanders survived mainly on fishing, a few ridges of potatoes, and a patch of oats or rye. Some of them had a cow or two; others who had none would depend on a drop of milk from the neighbour who had. The land was poor and sandy around the houses and their own plots were scattered here and there. A year's supply of manure would not go far on the smallest of holdings, and the dung had to be supplemented by material from the beach mussel shells and seaweed; sometimes even the soot from the chimney was spread as fertilizer. Seaweed was plentiful on their own shores but they had to cross over to nearby Beiginis to gather mussels.
The mountain was held in common by all the Islanders, with turbary rights and a right to hunt rabbits. There was an unwritten rule in force regarding the grazing of sheep: 25 sheep for each grazing cow, and the man who did not have a cow was not allowed to graze sheep on the mountain. Nobody now remembers pigs being reared on the Island, although there were pigs kept during the 19th Century. Nobody remembers any horses there either; but it appears they once did have horses drawing wooden ploughs.
Donkeys males only took the place of the horse; they had no use for females because the land was so steep and precipitous that they would have driven each other over the cliff when in season. The donkey carried turf in panniers from the mountain, and sand and seaweed from the strand. The donkey was never harnessed for ploughing on the Island.
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The years 1878-79 witnessed successive failures of the potato crop; blight destroyed the Islanders' crop as effectively as it did on the mainland, and in 1879 the Government of the day, having learned the lessons of the Great Famine, helped relieve the situation by providing yellow meal to those in need. That year became known on the Island as the Year of the Free Cornmeal.
Shortly afterwards they got another gift from God in the guise of the Champion seed potato. At the time, the Earl of Cork was the landlord of the Islands (and much of the mainland as well) until the Congested Districts Board purchased them in 1907. The Earl supplied Champion and Black seed potatoes free to all his tenants in 1880.
Potatoes were planted in ridges. Each sod was turned and each furrow dug with the spade. It was backbreaking work, though the ground itself crumbled easily beneath the spade. From St. Brigid's Day (the 1st of February) onwards, the cutting edge of the spade would be sharpened in preparation.
From 1905, when visitors began regularly to stay on the Island, some extra vegetables carrots, onions, lettuce, turnips and the like were grown by the households in which they lodged.
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The early inhabitants of the Island were not fishermen. Fish was in great abundance at that time, however, and they satisfied their needs with fish caught on hand lines from the rocks. With the introduction of the seine boat they were able to undertake fishing as a livelihood.
Horse-mackeral was their main catch until the 1870s when it was displaced by pilchard. Then came their great sea harvest, the big Spring mackeral.
Around that time the changeover occurred from the seine boat to the "naomhóg", or canoe. In "An tOileánach" "The Islandman" Tomás Ó Criomhthain states that the first naomhóg was brought to the Island by two Islanders who purchased it while under the influence of drink in Dingle!
The naomhóg was an easier craft to handle and to manoeuvre than the seine-boat. A three-man crew could manage it at their ease whereas the seine boat took a crew of eight and also required a back-up boat, called a "foilár", perhaps from the English "follower". It was a cumbersome, awkward craft to beach. The naomhóg was much handier and more manageable in many ways. It could take a sail when the wind was right; it was easier to turn and manoeuvre; and, when needed, it could be taken closer to the rocks. It also widened the range of work and variety of catches. Henceforth, they could trawl their lines, set trammel-nets and troll for pollock. The naomhóg's only major drawback was that it was difficult to transport an animal in it.
They caught all their large coarse fish with trawl lines ling, halibut, cod, large halibut, eel, dog-fish, etc. Wrasse, red sea bream, and the like were fished with trammel-nets.
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A CHANGE IN THE WAY OF LIFE
Another major change in their way of life at this time was the discovery that other species of fish never before fished by the Islanders lobsters and crayfish were also of value. They were absolutely bemused when they saw a naomhóg from Dingle fishing lobster and crayfish with pots near the Island. They quickly learned how it was done, and were shown how to make the pots by two Englishmen Parsons and Nicholson, who were fishing lobster and crayfish with fishermen from the Iveragh Peninsula. Before long the Islanders were as skilled as any at lobster fishing.
For many years Dingle was the only market for their lobster. That was until the Frenchman Pierre Trehiou came to the area with his large storage ship in the 1920s. He bought the lobster directly from the Islanders. The French vessel had a huge storage tank midship with an iron-mesh net at the bottom, leaving it open to the sea; hundreds of lobsters swam in the tank snapping at one another and feeding from the strips of hanging bacon.
The Frenchman and the Islanders got on very well together, and as their relationship grew the Islanders learned to count in French, as well as learning a few French phrases. They had an agreement to exchange goods and got nets, tobacco, wine, rum, or anything else they needed on credit; those items to be debited to their account against the next haul of lobsters.
But the big change came with the early 1930s. The Island community began to decline and the young people were loath to marry. Only two couples married there between then and the time of its abandonment, with most making off for America where so many of their kin had preceded them. In some cases entire households left in the 1940s and settled on the mainland. Their courage had deserted them a long time before the year of the great exodus in 1953; they felt the boat sinking under them.
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The maximum number of houses on the Island, at its peak, was 30. In 1909 the Congested Districts Board built five two-storey houses at the top of the village, looking down on the rest of the houses, but totally out of character with them. The older houses faced either north or south (except for one of later vintage) with the uppermost gable (the hearth wall) bedded into the hillside for shelter.
All the houses had a large kitchen, with enough room to dance a set or to wake a corpse, an adjoining "lower room", and in some cases an "upper room" behind the hearth wall. The kitchen had to be large enough to accommodate animals at night or during bad weather. There was a loft above the lower room in some houses a makeshift bed was placed there and a narrow loft above the fire for storing nets, fishing lines, trawl lines and other goods.
The houses on the Island usually had one door only, unlike mainland houses which had two doors at the front and back, one kept open and the other closed. Tomás Ó Criomhthain's house was the exception in this case; he built the house himself, in imitation of the mainland style presumably. Some writers have stated that the Island houses were once thatched with straw. This cannot be so, for they rarely had sufficient straw; and long, strong straw is necessary for thatching a roof. In the 19th Century the houses were usually roofed with rushes. The naomhóg, which has a tarred felt covering, gave them another idea. Felt was an ideal roofing material and in most cases it replaced the rush thatch in both houses and outhouses. (The five two-storey houses built by the Congested Districts Board had slate roofs, and Peig Sayers lived in one of these.) The walls were built of stone and mortar, with earth floors inside; a couple of flat flagstones in front of the fire comprised the fireplace. The earth floors were constantly damp and to keep them dry they spread sand from the beach on them a couple of times a day.
The Islanders had their own methods for smoking and homecuring food; they hung cured fish above the mantlepiece to dry, and bacon which was smoked.
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