THE BLASKET ISLANDS PART 2 Historical Information
This article and its accompanying photographs are taken from the booklet "Na Blascaodaí / The Blaskets", written by Pádraig Ua Maoileoin, who was born in Dunquin in 1913. He is known for his work in Irish lexicography and his poetry and novels have won him several awards, including the Oireachtas prize in 1982 for his novel Ó Thuaidh! The copyright is held by the Government of Ireland, and the booklet is published by the Stationary Office. The material is used with the permission of Ionad an Bhlascaoid Mhóir / The Blasket Centre, Dún Chaoin, Co. Chiarraí.
FURNITURE / Troscáin
Simple and basic are the two words which best describe their house furnishings. A wooden bed or two with side-rails; in some houses an iron bed as well, perhaps; a press or trunk, brought from America or thrown up by the sea, stood between the beds and was used for storing bedding or other clothes; and finally, a chamber-pot was strategically positioned between the two beds! Blankets were made from their own sheep's wool, and a handmade patchwork quilt on top of those; sheets were made from flour sacks, and underneath mattresses stuffed with goose down that were so comfortable you would sink into them up to your oxters.
A dresser on one side and a cupboard on the other made a partition between the lower room and the kitchen, with an opening between both as a door. A strong sturdy table, and in former times a small table or kneading-trough, as well as sugawn (straw rope) chairs all these they made themselves, often with driftwood. A wooden couch stood against the sidewall, and items such as sheep shears, shoes and blackening were stored underneath; and a hen coop, perhaps, below that again. In some houses a settle-bed took the place of the couch which, when opened out, would make a bed at night for two or three persons.
The first pot-oven brought onto the Island was that used by the "soup school" at the time of the Great Famine. Island writers record that before long three pot-ovens were in use, and finally every house had one. All of their baking and roasting was done in the pot-oven. Besides the pot-oven, each house had an iron pot and skillet in which food was boiled potatoes, fish and meat and clothes soaked before washing.
FOOD & SUSTENANCE /Bia agus Beatha
When the potato failed during the Famine, the Islanders suffered as badly as any community on the mainland. Unlike most mainland communities, however, they depended less on the land for sustenance and managed better. As a consequence, some mainland families fled to the Island at this time and settled there.
There was no shop on the Island. They had therefore to go to the mainland for flour and any other household goods. Bread, homebaked of course, gradually replaced the potato as the mainstay of their diet. The owner of a cow had a source of butter, as well as buttermilk on churning day. Hand-churning was the method used for making butter. They are unlikely ever to have used a churn since they did not produce cream in sufficient quantities to warrant its use. They drank skimmed milk apart from the jug of fresh milk kept aside for tea purposes. Thick sour milk was a favourite drink, or a mixture of milk and water to slake the thirst on a fine day while working in the field.
SHEEP / Caoirigh
There was a saying on the Island about sheep: "a sheep to sell, a sheep to shear, and a sheep to eat." Sheep were an important indicator of a man's wealth. Twice a year each household killed a sheep and cured a portion of it. The women were experts at stuffing some of the sheeps' intestines.
The Blasket sheep had a great reputation for their flavour and Dingle women would invariably ask their butcher if he had Blasket mutton. No doubt some butchers would falsely claim that the mutton they had for sale originated on the Blaskets!
MEALS / Béilí
In the 19th Century the Islanders ate two meals a day, morning and evening. Both meals consisted of potatoes and fish, with a bowl of sour milk if you were lucky. The advent of tea affected their eating habits. It was first washed ashore in a sturdy tea-chest (not the only chest of tea that fortune sent their way) and, as Tomás Ó Criomhthain writes, they did not know what to do with it. Eventually someone drank it, and that was that. A new era had dawned and soon the whole Island was drinking tea. Now it was tea and bread in the morning and again late in the afternoon; potatoes at midday and again at night. Until 1953 when the Island was abandoned they had four meals a day.
FISH / Iasc
They preferred to boil all fish, except for mackeral and breem which were usually roasted on the tongs. There was no mention of salmon, or demand for it, at that stage, and they did not value it. It was usually thrown back into the sea or cut up for lobster bait! They had a great liking for roasted seal meat because of its richness many preferred it to pork.
They preserved the sealskin and used it as a floor mat. Oil was extracted from the liver of the seal, and this was used widely for healing wounds and other injuries.
DELICACIES / Sólaistí
Shellfish, such as limpets and periwinkles, were another great favourite. Dulse, sea lettuce and pepper dulse, and certain other varieties of seaweed especially sea belt and murlins were eaten. If they were hungry enough they would eat the limpets and periwinkles raw. They were not very fond of lobster as food, but they would eat the lobster roe from their fists while fishing. Crab was the most prized of all, especially the red crab, not boiled but roasted in hot ashes. Some hardy individuals would eat raw crab straight from the sea.
One of the favourite delicacies was a mountain rabbit caught with a snare or hunted with ferrets; other favourites were seabirds the storm petrel, the puffin, the razorbill or the young of the gannets from the Skeiligs all roasted in the pot-oven or on the tongs in the heart of the fire. Gull's eggs were eaten in season as well.
DRINK / Deoch
As regards drink, they had to rely for most of their lives on clear cool water. They had little experience of alcoholic drink apart from what little the Frenchman would give them in part-exchange for their lobster and crayfish, or the infrequent barrel of wine and spirits washed ashore from the sea. Otherwise they might take a drink while spending an idle day in Dingle having sold fish or the like, or during a wedding in Ballyferriter, or at a wake or funeral on the Island. A small amount of alcohol was enough to make them merry.
FIRE AND LIGHT / Tine agus Solas
They burned scraws, or top-sods of turf, when the season's supply of black turf was exhausted. Stumps of heather or charred stalks of heather were used to boost the dying embers, especially after a wet year when the turf was soggy. It was the women who mostly brought home the turf with the donkeys and panniers, and it was also they who carried the bundles of giant heather on their backs. Pieces of driftwood were also burned in the fire, wood which was not suitable for carpentry or any other practical purpose.
LAMPS / Lampaí
Until the end of the 19th Century they had a cresset, called a "slige", for light. It was a metal vessel in the shape of a shell. Formerly the scallop shell was used for the same purpose, which would explain the origin of the word "slige". It was filled with fish oil or extract; a peeled rush was immersed in the vessel with the tip, which was lit, jutting out over the edge of the vessel. Though not very effective, this was for many years their sole source of artificial light.
After that came the paraffin lamp, a tin lamp in the shape of a can, and a pipe on the outside with a wick up through the middle soaked in paraffin that was their light source up to modern times. The paraffin lamp with glass globe was introduced late, and this was used on the Island and the mainland until the advent of electricity. Electricity never reached the Great Blasket.
SOCIAL ACTIVITIES & RECREATION
Comhluadar agus Caitheamh Aimsire
The village itself was divided into two sections: the lower village and the upper village. There was always a slight edge to the competition between them. They always said that life was nobler in the lower village, and there was some truth in that. Tomás Ó Criomhthain and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin lived there, as did Peig Sayers when she married. (In due course Peig moved to one of the new houses in the upper village.) Both Island poets, Seán Ó Duinnshléibhe and Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (Muiris Ó Súilleabháin's great-grandfather), lived in the lower village. The best musicians and singers lived there: the Súilleabháin family, the Dálaigh family, and the Catháin family. In these noble pursuits the lower orders, so to speak, had the upper hand on their neighbours above!
Even so, the upper village had its own distinctiveness. Pádraig Ó Catháin, the King, lived there. When the famous visitors started to arrive they stayed in the upper village Synge, Marstrander, Flower, and many others. "Where does that leave all your noble ways now," they would say. "Haven't we got our own poet now, Mícheál, Peig's son".
No mere jibes, but vigorous keen competition to be found in any place which is truly alive.
The "Dáil" or Assembly, as they called Tomás Ó Cearnaigh, the "Yank's" house, was in the upper village. It was there people gathered every night to discuss events, while the young people teased each other. When they had visitors all the fun, dancing, music and singing was in the new houses. Most importantly, the well was in the upper village. The women congregated there during the day, some fetching water, some washing clothes, and others simply talking and gossiping.
On summer evenings they would go back to the top of Tráigh Ghearaí, and dance sets to lilted tunes, and return again to one of the houses in the upper village to round off the merriment. Their lives would change dramatically when the last of the visitors left at the end of summer and the long dark nights set in. Life closed in around them and from then on it was a dreary, depressing time, that is unless you were satisfied with the company of storytellers and their Fenian tales.
MUSIC AND SONG / Ceol is Amhráin
While the mainland depended on the Jews harp or melodeon, they had the fiddle on the Island, and a unique style of playing. It was a soft gentle style that would waken the dead from the grave with its serenity and tenderness. It had an otherworld quality. The Súilleabháin, Catháin and Dálaigh families were the fiddlers. Some musicians managed to craft their own fiddles.
They had a great abundance of songs: Raghadsa is mo Cheaití ag Válcaeireacht (I Will Go Strolling with my Katy), Bá na Scaelaga (Skelligs Bay), Réchnoc Mná Duibhe (The Dark Woman's Smooth Hills), Cailín Deas Crúite na mBó (The Pretty Milkmaid), Beauty Deas an Oileáin (The Fine Beauty of the Island), and the many other songs composed by Seán Ó Duinnshléibhe. They had many more songs, too numerous to mention, and no shortage of singers either. Tomás Ó Criomhthain sang Caisleán Uí Néill, a much-loved song, at his own wedding. They liked to dance a set, or perhaps an eight-hand or four-hand reel, but only a few of the Islanders maintained the tradition of dancing solo.
Seánín Mhicil Ó Súilleabháin
Spinning, knitting and patching were the main night-time occupations of the women. Young women would have other matters on their mind, no doubt, sporting and playing in the "Dáil", or discreetly courting elsewhere. Nature takes its own course! Men who did not feel like going to the "Dáil" visited other houses where they occupied themselves in discussion and heated debate.
VISITORS AND THEIR INFLUENCE
Cuairteoirí agus a dTionchar
The Islanders had little welcome for visitors until the beginning of the 20th Century. The memory of bailiffs and land agents was still vivid, and the harassment they suffered when the landlords sought rent was still ingrained. It was not at all surprising, therefore, that they would feel unwelcoming when the first famous visitor, J. M. Synge, arrived on the Island in 1905, although we have no other evidence for that except their own displeasure at his account of the visit afterwards which angered a few of them, especially in the King's home where he had stayed and which he never visited again.
The Norwegian Carl Marstrander was the next famous person to visit there in 1907. They called him "The Viking", apparently with affection, because from the first day he set foot on the Island he worked and laboured both on sea and land with them as one of their own. An Old Irish scholar and a linguist, he went to the Blasket to learn Modern Irish. Marstrander the Viking also stayed in the King's house and he was introduced to Tomás Ó Criomhthain within a short time. Tomás was the "professor" henceforth and Marstrander the pupil.
In many ways, Marstrander was an heroic figure, especially in his physical vigour and mental energy, and because of the way he fitted in with the Islanders he gave them a new perspective on life and instilled in them an esteem for their own culture. It could be said that it was he who kindled the living flame in them. But he left, and afterwards was appointed to teach Old Irish in the School of Celtic Studies in Dublin, where a young scholar from the British Museum came to read Old Irish under his tutelage. That scholar was Robin Flower, and before long the Viking had guided him towards the Blasket, and Tomás was recommended as his "professor". He arrived in 1910 and stayed in the King's house. Flower and Tomás worked diligently together and established a lasting rapport . The whole Island had great affection for Flower, and as a mark of this they called him "Bláithín" (Little Flower). It was "Bláithín, together with another two Englishmen, Seoirse Mac Tomáis, (George Thomson) the great Greek scholar, and Kenneth Jackson, the Celtic scholar, who roused the Blasket community to put pen to paper and write in their own language about their own lives and the people around them, instead of merely writing accounts and snippets of folklore for the publications, An Lóchrann and An Claidheamh Soluis.
The Irish scholar Máire Ní Chinnéide and the student Léan Ní Chonalláin approached Peig Sayers and persuaded her to write her autobiography for them, although it was Bláithín and Kenneth Jackson who first recognised her talent before that when recording Scéalta ón mBlascaod (Stories from the Blasket) from her. Peig's scribe was her son, Mícheál Ó Gaoithín, to whom she dictated her life story.
It was thanks to Seoirse Mac Tomáis that Muiris Ó Súilleabháin completed his autobiography, Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty Years A Growing). As it transpired, Muiris had only the one book in him; he wrote a second book about his life as a Garda in Connemara but it has not been published.
Of all these famous visitors to the Island, however, it was Brian Ó Ceallaigh from Killarney who reaped the greatest harvest there. "An Seabhac" (Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha) urged him to go there to improve his Irish, and gave him a letter of introduction to Tomás Ó Criomhthain. That was in 1917, and it did not take him long to discover the spark in Tomás, and in order to spur him to action he read some of Pierre Loti's and Maxim Gorky's work to him, as if to suggest that if their sort could write great literature about the simple lives of fishermen and peasants, surely Tomás could do likewise. That was how Tomás's diary Allagar na hInise and his autobiography An tOileánach (The Islandman) came to be written within the space of 10 years.
The first to put pen to paper was Tomás Ó Criomhthain. The Blasket books generated controversy and debate on the Island. Writers were accused of misrepresentation "that is not how it happened"; "all lies and invention". Much of this criticism was inspired by envy. Behold, however, the result of their collective efforts up to and including our own time. Other less important books were written by Tomás and Peig, and by two of their sons, Seán Ó Criomhthain and Mícheál Ó Gaoithín (Maidhc File). Since then other books have been written by islanders Seán Sheáin Í Chearnaigh, Máire Ní Ghuithín, Seán Faeilí Ó Catháin, and Seán Pheats Tom Ó Cearnaigh. They are all draining the last drop with melancholic longing for the past, while the Island where they were born and reared is now home to one-night strangers and stragglers gulls and ravens who merely pick the bones.