June, 2009

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The Great Blasket

Wednesday, 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


Monday, 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