The Great Blasket

Written by William Stites on June 3rd, 2009

The Great Blasket is an island located off the coast of south-western Ireland, it is 3.25 miles long and 1/4 mile wide. The terrain is mountainous and blanketed by grass. Presently, there are the remains of houses that had been lived in until the 1950’s. The Great Blasket was first inhabited in the iron age and early christian times. Up until 1756 there were sporadic inhabitants that eventually grew to in to a community of five or six families. There was an influx of families in 1800 because of the population growth and numerous evictions on the mainland of Ireland. By 1821 there were 128 people living on the island and by 1841 the population had grown to 143 people. However, there was a period of decline prior to 1851 because of the effects of the Great Famine, resulting in a population of 97 people. After this time of hardship, the population began to yet again increase and by 1881 there were 136 people living on the island. In spite of this progress, the houses were in poor conditions which caused an outbreak of typhoid in 1890 causing a decline in the population. In 1893 the island’s population augmented and continued to do so until 1911 when they reached their peak population of 160 people. This year marked the end of the island’s boom. In 1953 the island was abandoned by the 21 remaining people.

The modern settlement was centered initially on the lower half of the village and progressed uphill. Milk and milk products were a vital parts of the islands economy, while oats and potatoes were the main crops. Fish supplemented the peoples diets and saved the island from complete destruction during the famine.

Despite the small population, the islands’ inhabitants were prolific in creativity. There were poets, authors, songwriters, historians, and musicians. The first writer on the island was Thomas Ó Criomhthain. He lived from 1855 to 1937 and is considered the greatest of the island writers. His best known works are Allager na hlnise and An tOileánach. He said that he wrote to leave record, “of what life was like in my time and the neighbors that lived with me.” Muiris Ó Súilleabháin was another author from the Great Blasket who was inspired by Thomas Ó Criomhthain’s success to be a writer. His first book was Twenty Years a-Growing. It was a hit and as a result he took up writing full time. In 1950 he died at the age of 46 Muiris drowne while swimming in Galway.

Peig Sayers was a Blasket writer who lived from 1873-1958. Of the three most renowned writers, Sayers was the one with the most traditional view. She was educated in English and was unable to write in Irish, she therefore dictated her work. Peig’s books deal with the topic of upbringing on the mainland and marrying a Blasket man. The author uses stories o illustrate her observations. She wrote two volumes of an autobiography, Peig (1936) and An Old woman’s Reflections (1939) which have earned her immense prestige.

Eibhlís Ní Shúilleabháin was an author of a series of letters entitled Letters From The Great Blasket (1978). In the book she draws on a correspondence between herself and George Chambers, an english visitor of the island. The letters focus on early adult life on the island and her first decade on the mainland. She was married to Seán Ó Criemhthain who was also an author. He was the youngest son of Thomas Ó Criemhthain. He wrote books and essays for Irish journals. His writing was influenced by his father’s style. One of his books was Ládar Saol.

In Twenty Years a Growing, Muirisósuilleabhháin described his view of the island: “The Great Blasket was stretched out straight to the west over the sea like a big ship cleaving the waves either side of her. The white houses packed closely together with the smoke rising from them, and then the litle blaskets around it like a sow with her brook behind her.” I read this quote while in the Blasket Island Heritage Center before traveling out to the actual island. I was curious to see how my perception of the Great Blasket as a visitor compared to Muirisósuilleabhháin’s who lived there full time. As the boat neared its destination I realized that no matter whether you are a first time visitor or have lived on the island your entire life, the natural beauty of the sloped green pastures and blue water complimented by the small hint of civilization will never cease to amaze.

Written by Group C – Caroline, Leah, Lindsay, Jeremy, Mike, Dana & Miranda



Written by William Stites on June 1st, 2009

“A million a decade! – Of human wrecks corpses lying in fever sheds- corpses huddled on foundering decks, and shroudless dead on their rocky beds; nerve and muscle, and heart and brain, lost to Ireland – lost in vain.”

Inscribed in one of the entrance columns to Skibbereen Cemetery, this quote refers to the more than 9,000 famine victims buried in a plot that is not even half the size of a football field. This dehumanization commands the attention of us visitors, not only in it’s simplicity (a plot of grass), but also in it’s mystique, as we are forced to comprehend such loss. Remote and hidden, the cemetery is located on the side of a highway; not exactly a prime location to recognize one of the most important events in all of Irish history. It is evident that the people of this area do not wish to flaunt and expose what was such a painful part of their lives. In fact, until recently, the town chose to leave the site unmarked. However, upon our arrival this year, we were promptly greeted by a series of commemorative plaques and newly restored, or replaced, tomb stones.

While the cemetery serves as a mass grave for the lives that were lost during the famine, it previously served as, and is still serving as, a working cemetery. Over the years, family of famine victims who were buried in Skibbereen have been lain beside their loved ones as recently as 2009. We actually stumbled upon a hand made tombstone of a thirteen year old boy named PJ. It is made of concrete with beads embedded in the borders, and a decorative cross which was probably a family talisman, on the top. The script is clearly handwritten. Next to to it is a much more elegant and recent tombstone, which was obviously manufactured, and is black with printed white writing. This one recognizes the boy again and his family who died later. Both tombstones are surrounded by a curb that match the new tombstone.

Another tombstone that we noticed was one that covered three generations of a family, including six infant children. We also saw a memorial for Archbishop Dennis E. Hurley, whose parents lived in Skibbereen. The plaque on the memorial commemorated him for his promotion of justice and freedom and the abolition of apartheid in South Africa. Of course Skibbereen also meets the expectations of any normal cemetery; there are great amounts of holy water, flowers, crosses, pictures and cards.

Ultimately, the group is now able to put the famine into a better perspective. Standing before such sublimity made us realize that our friends and family could have been amongst those 9,000 unfortunate souls, and for most of the people in Ireland, they are.

Written by Group B – Shannon, Mike, Danielle, Jenny, Miriam, Chris & Dan


Cobh Heritage Center (Queenstown)

Written by William Stites on May 29th, 2009

The Cobh Heritage Centre in Cobh or formally known as Queenstown, is a museum that contains exhibits about Irish emigration to America, Canada, and Australia.

The first exhibit depicted a model of a ship that the Irish traveled on to America. The voyages were very uncomfortable because of bad food, seasickness, and close quarters. Because of the poor conditions and inadequate bathrooms, disease spread rapidly throughout the passengers on the ship. These ships were called coffin ships because many of the passengers arrived in America alive. The Irish were forced to emigrate to America because of the potato famine in Ireland. Starting in 1845, a new type of potato fungus infected 90% of the potato crop in Ireland. Since families had no food for the winter one of the options they had to travel to America to survive.

As well as traveling to America, many Irish emigrated to Australia. The Irish government sent prisoners to Australia as a form of punishment and between 1791 and 1853, 30,000 men and 9,000 women were deported to Australia for committing a crime. Onboard, the prisoners were chained to the ship so they could no escape. Passengers suffered from food shortages and overcrowding so disease spread quickly. Many criminals died on the voyages, but in the 1830’s the government increased regulations so the death rate fell to 1%. This system benefited the Irish and Australia government by reducing the number of criminals in Ireland, reducing the overcrowding of prison. Once the Irish prisoners finished their sentences, Australian farmers could use the Irish as cheap labor. In 1853, people began to criticize the system because it did not deter crime and the prisoners’ conditions were inhumane. By this time, Ireland had enough room in their prisons for the criminals and Australia did not want any more prisoners in the country and the farmers could meet labor demands. The last ship left Ireland for Australia in June of 1853.

After the famine, Queenstown adopted new responsibilties. It’s ports began to open their ports to steam ships. In 1859, the Inman and Cunard lines, two companies who built steamships, started to make regular visits to the Queenstown ports. They carried international mail to other countries and opened up their ships to emigrants and travelers. Eventually, the Inman outgrew the Cunard lines and became the company with the fastest ships. It abolished coffin ships by creating tighter regulations and creating different seating areas on ships. Tickets were different prices depending on their location. This was the beginning of class divisions on ships and it forced other shipping companies to improve their facilities.

Cork Harbor also became a key assembly point for troops at war. The United States used it in the America Revolution. During World War I in 1914-1918, the Allies kept destroyers, anti-submarine controls, seaplanes and convoys to Queenstown’s ports for supplies. They also used to for a safe harbor for their ships.

An interesting fact about Cobh Harbor is that it was the Titanic’s last stop before it sunk. It picked up 123 passengers and then proceeded to the Deepwater Quay to load mail onto the ship. Three days later, before the Titanic could reach land again, it sunk and the majority of its passengers died. For many, the Cobh Harbor symbolized freedom and a new beginning in America. The passengers who boarded the Titanic in Queenstown on April 11 had the same dream, but they would never arrive in America. It is ironic that what was supposed to be the safest ship was the demise to thousands of people.

Although a tragedy left from Cobh Harbor, the people in Queenstown were able to help the victims of another disaster. The Cunard Liner’s Lusitania, a ship that was traveling from New York to Liverpool, was struck by a torpedo from a German submarine U20 on May 7th 1915. The Lusitania torpedoed 25 miles West of Queenstown and sank in less than thirty minutes. While wireless operators called for rescue ships, many locals prepared clothes, food and shelter for the few survivors. The first class Queen’s Hotel provided shelter for the victims of the Lusitania. Unfortunately, many of the passengers who were rescued did not survive. Three days after the ship sunk, nearly 150 victims were buried in mass graves in an old church cemetery.

Written by Group A – Paige, Madeline, Maddy, Graham, Samantha, Barry


Derry City

Written by William Stites on May 26th, 2009

Today we visited the city of Derry, which has been inhabited by the Irish people since 546 AD. Derry means the land of the oaks; it’s name remained the same until 1597 when the Queen of England took over. Derry was desirable because of its ports. The London Company received permission from the Queen to inhabit the city and use its accessibility to the water. The Queen had the city’s title changed to Londonderry as a concession to the London Company and in order to make English occupation ubiquitous; however, this change has caused some confusion. Many Irish, for example Catholics (2/3 of Derry’s population) and citizens of the Irish Republic, never adopted the city’s new name, while the Protestants do address the city as Londonderry. As a result, maps and signs are inconsistent. In 2006 there was a courtcase to change the name of Derry from Londonderry back to Derry to eliminate confusion and hostility. Finally, when the jduge had to make a decision, he said that only british monarch had the right to change it back. Most recently, there is less tension between the Protestant and Catholic inhabitants of Derry; however we were shocked to still see a physical divide between the Catholic and Protestant sides of the city.

Pre, during, and post famine, Derry was one of two major ports of emigration. People came from all over Ireland in hopes of finding new opportunities overseas. At the ports in Derry there were delicing centers where each emigrant was medically examined before boarding the ship. The emigrants had to be checked to ensure that they were fit enough to make it through the brutal journey across the Atlantic. Even if people seemed healthy at the start of their journey many died along the way; because of this, these boats were known as “coffin ships.” Most of the ships that left the port at Derry were heading for Canada or Ellis Island.

We also learned that the unequal treatment between the Irish and the English spurred many to leave Ireland. When the English occupation began, the Queen ordered the construction of a wall around the circumference of the city. This wall physically highlighted the divide between the Irish and the British. While King James was leading England he tried to enter Londonderry but the walls were locked and the guards refused to let him in. These guards were known as the Apprentice Boys. Their famous line in response to King James’ assault was “no surrender” because they wanted to show the that they would not submit to a Catholic king. On the 105th day the “boom” was broken and the Siege of Derry ended. Subsequently, King James’ forces were defeated at the Battle of the Boyne. The Jacobite War and Seige of Derry set the stage for the division between the Catholics and Protestants for centuries to come in Ireland.

On January 30, 1972 a peaceful march was scheduled to protest the internment and discriminatory voting regulations, as well as make the case for Catholic civil rights. The government called this march illegal and brought in the British army to “control” the situation. However, instead of overseeing the march, the army opened fire on the peaceful protesters and killed 14 marchers when they fired 108 bullets in 22 minutes. This atrocity is called Bloody Sunday and is considered one of the most devastating events in Irish history. Most devastating is the fact that 6 of the 14 individuals killed were 17 years old. When statements about Bloody Sunday were issued to the general public around the world, the British government made it seem as if the marchers had weapons and were threatening the safety of others. It was only recently that the truth was uncovered about the lives of 14 innocent civilians taken that day.

While walking around Derry today we saw the murals and memorials that commemorate the Irish protestors who lost their lives on Bloody Sunday. The various murals touched upon key people during the movement such as Bernadette Devlin, a female civil rights activist known for her boisterous personality. Another mural was of a young girl asked to pick up some art for a still life painting for school, and instead, she tragically became the subject of a still life painting herself. She was innocently shot in the crossfire with two bullets in the back of her head and died instantly. The mural contains a rifle and a butterfly surrounding the girl. The butterfly used to be black and white and the rifle was whole and black as well. The artists returned recently to change the butterly to orange and purple to represent the hope of a vibrant future and the rifle broken, to show that violence is never the answer. Overall, this mural is a representation of a new life for the people of Northern Ireland and the promise of hope that one day the people will all be accepting of one another.

In 2006 there was a court case to change the name of Derry from Londonderry back to Derry to eliminate confusion and hostility. Finally, when the jduge had to make a decision, he said that only british monarch had the right to change it back. Most recently, there is less tension between the Protestant and Catholic inhabitants of Derry; however we were shocked to still see a physical divide between the Catholic and Protestant sides of the city. Our tour guide, Martin, expressed that the past 4 years have been the most peaceful that he has ever seen in Derry and hopes to see the wall come down so that the Catholics and Protestants can work towards equality. Martin is one of the most pro-active individuals involved in the conflict between the people in Derry. Due to his own personal experience, the tour was extremely interesting and engaging and we feel very privileged to have had the pleasure of meeting him.

Written by Group C – Caroline, Leah, Lindsay, Jeremy, Mike, Dana & Miranda


Ulster American Folk Park

Written by William Stites on May 24th, 2009

Irish emigration was born out of the Irish search for a better and more prosperous life.  Younger children wanted an individual lifestyle with material comfort, independent from their parents and away from landowners.  For others, emigration provided hope because of widespread financial difficulties. For example, when Ulster encountered a depression — certain industries declined, and the average Irishman’s farm size decreased– pre-famine emigration sped up as Irishmen envisioned a freer life in America.  Catholics and Presbyterians also sought out freedom to practice their religion without persecution.  In schools, children learned about Ireland, but were also informed about America (both its history and geography) as a dream.

Liverpool became the main port in the 1820’s due to its key role in trans-Atlantic trade. People who’d never previously left their hometown traveled to Liverpool and other ports. Once at the port towns, the travelers encountered difficulties.  At the ports, some of the ships were delayed and people were forced to become indentured servants under contracts to pay for their way.  “Coffin ships”–or “solitary floating prison[s]”, as Hugh Campbell termed them–were another obstacle for traveling.   A single disease (typhus, for example) on a ship could easily spread to all of the other passengers in the general vicinity. Cramped, dirty quarters, foul smells and constant boredom made the journey ever more unpleasant. And on some ships that carried livestock for trade purposes, cattle received shelter during rough storms while passengers did not. Passengers not only faced temporary physical hardships, though: they also dealt with the knowledge that they would never return home.

Emigration soon became more appealing with the invention of a steam boat.  The voyage was reduced from 5 to 6 weeks to 10 to 12 days with a wider range and higher quality of amenities available.  Some people who made their way to America were not very fortunate and remained impoverished. It was difficult for the majority of immigrants — who arrived in America without contacts or money — to succeed.  After coming to a strange land with new things never before encountered, these emigrants were forced to find a cheap and convenient place to live. Many Irish immigrants, lured to America by the promise of their own farmland, traveled to the west in Conestoga wagons where farmland was cheap and abundant. Irish immigrants forged diverse pathways, however–John Joseph Hughes became the first Archbishop of New York, while Hugh and Robert Campbell became entreprenuers who played a part in the Treaty of Laramie. Irish immigrants also distinguished themselves in the political arenas (most notably, in New York’s Tammany Hall).

One particularly successful family we learned of were the Mellons.  While the Mellons were finding success in Ireland, they wished to become landowners who did not have to pay rent.  Thomas Mellon veered from the traditional path of being a farmer and learned etiquette.  He became a lawyer, a judge, and eventually founded a small, but thriving bank.  The family made a living from farming and were able to build a two-story house when they came to America.

Written by Group B – Shannon, Mike, Danielle, Jenny, Miriam, Chris & Dan


Mahon House and Gardens

Written by William Stites on May 24th, 2009

The Mahon estate is a magnificent house that was inhabited by the Mahon family. Thomas Mahon, the first resident of the house, lived there in 1740, and Olive Mahon left the house in the 1980’s. Now, Jim Calory owns the estate and maintains the lavish garden and house. His family formed an interesting circle because during the famine, the Calory family worked for the Mahons. Because of economic problems, the Mahons evicted the Calorys, but 150 years later, Jim Calory (the great grandson) was wealthier than the Mahons and was able to buy the property.

An interesting fact about this museum is that nothing in the house has been replaced or refurnished so all of the original furniture and wallpaper is still there. There are two separate bedrooms because the men and women slept in different beds. Each bed is short because the Irish slept sitting up because it was easier to breathe in the humid air. The dining room has the original wooden table, and after dinner the women would withdraw to the drawing room and the men would stay around the table to smoke and drink. In the drawing room, the women sat around the fire. Like the garden, the drawing room has a false door to pretend that the house is bigger than it really is. The kitchen is a huge room that encompasses a large fireplace for cooking and many shelves to hold various ingredients and pots. On the second level of the kitchen, there is a balcony where the lady of the house would drop her menu down to the cooks. She also watched the servants work and passed orders to them while they cooked.

Surrounding the Mahon family estate lies sumptuous gardens, brimming with hedges and boxwoods, flowers and ponds. Symmetry, a main future of both the house and garden, is laden throughout the Mahon’s gated sanctuary. All objects in the garden that are used to maintain that symmetry, however, do not make the most perfect sense or serve little purpose beyond their balancing characteristics. Two examples of this in the garden are a house window, in addition to a door that leads to nothing, which both add further decoration to the garden, each mirroring an opening in the hedges and an entryway to the garden respectively. This large emphasis on symmetry is, perhaps, one of the most unique aspects of the garden.  The garden is also adorned with a rose garden, green houses, pergolas, stone and gravel walkways, a border garden that has its flowers arranged by color to create a rainbow effect, ponds and pathways formed by hedges.

The theme of symmetry provides tremendous insight into societal ideals of the Mahon family, as symmetry, or the appearance of complete balance depicts order, cleanliness and in a sense, perfection.  It is absolutely astounding as to how the Mahon’s were able to maintain such a luxurious and opulent garden, even during incredibly trying times, such as the Potato Famine. Despite the agricultural blight, the gardens were still well kept and preserved, with the flowers and plants thriving– something that unimaginable to see when one thinks about how gravely the gentry suffered during the potato blight. While not all of the vegetation was able to survive the Famine, it is clear that the Mahon’s did not struggle with providing themselves with crops during the Famine.

Upon visiting the Famine Museum next to the Mahon estate, it is shocking to see the juxtaposition of the estate when it is compared to the little villages on the estate that sprung up around it, and how the Mahons were able to maintain their lifestyle of opulence while the people residing and working on their own land were starving and dying due to lack of basic necessities and malnutrition. While the Mahon’s did experience some economic hardships, these struggles were easily solved by marrying-off a Mahon daughter to a son of a wealthy English family, the Pakenhams.

It is clear that the common man of Ireland, the farmer or anyone who was dependent on agriculture, was maltreated during the famine. Labeled as “bogtrotters” on account of their desperation for food and their eagerness to find food anywhere, the common Irish man was looked down upon by the Irish and English hierarchy and left to fend for themselves. This distinct rift between the classes only intensified the strife encountered due to the potato blight. It is interesting to see how the Irish potato famine compares to modern crises. In both cases, there were wealthy people who were able to maintain their lifestyle throughout the crisis, and there were lower class people who lost all aspects of their previous lives.

Written by Group A – Paige, Madeline, Maddy, Graham, Samantha, Barry


First LONG day of travel.

Written by William Stites on May 21st, 2009

Our first day of travel is about to come to a close. We have been in transit since 1:00p.m. on May 20th till now, May 21st at 5:37 p.m. (Irish time) and are just taking care of a few little odds and ends before we gather together for dinner.

So far things have gone very well. The trip to JFK went smoothly and the flight to Shannon airport went well. We had a short 45 minute delay, but it helped once we got to Ireland as we started our day here at about 7:00 a.m. Irish time.

We traveled to see the Cliffs of Moher as well and a number of other sightseeing stops until we finally made it to Galway where we will be spending the night.

While we have had spots of rain, the weather as a whole has been brilliant! The student have been excited and energized despite the number of hours we have been traveling.

Our driver, Rory O’Connor, has once again come through with a great coach equipped with tables that the students have taken to sitting around to play games as we drive the narrow Irish roads.

We have been able to keep in good communications through our Twitter posts and have just recently posted a gallery of images from our travels so far.

Look for more updates as we continue. Again, thanks to Rory, we have a broadband modem card that should provide us with Internet access from any locations, though we will be putting that to the test when we enter Northern Ireland (UK).

Keep checking back as we post more content here, to Twitter, Flickr and our YouTube channel.


Preparing for our trip, and a NEW Irish Studies Website

Written by William Stites on April 1st, 2009

As we enter the Spring and the month of May quickly approaches there is a growing sense of excitement for the upcoming trip.  Our Tuesday evening classes are buzzing with questions and excitement and chaperones and students are counting the days till we board the bus to JFK airport.

Class lessons continue on Irish history, The Famine, politics (both past and present) and emigration. Readings from the text(s), web sites, articles and letters help better inform students about where they will be working and studying, what they will be seeing and experiencing while travel through the Emerald Isle.

This year students will be using social media tools to tell the story of the Irish journey.  As they prepare for the trip, students are reviewing the web sites from previous years. This year, they will be applying lessons learned and using some exciting new tools to share their stories online in our revamped Irish Studies website.

wordpress_logoA WordPress weblog will be used as the foundation for the site. The blog will host posting from each of the areas of studies in which we will be working, along with posts from chaperones and students about the trip.

We will be using Twitter to “micro-blog” about the trip, providing short text message like updates. Followers will be able to visit the blog and view the posts on the site, view our Twitter page ( or “follow” our Twitter feed from their own Twitter application.

YouTube and Flickr with be used to share out videos and images with our audience. You will be able to visit the trip’s site to view these item or you can view our Youtube channel ( or our Flickr Photostream (

The changes to the format of the site are designed provide for more authentic authorship of the students work and to invite comments and dialog about their work. It provides a true opportunity to be “published” authors and contribute to the online Irish Studies knowledge base.

For more information and detail on our use of these social media tools and the change in format check out: and explore the pages and posts there.


STAY TUNED – Post(s) to come during trip.

Written by William Stites on March 31st, 2009

STAY TUNED – Post(s) to come during trip.