Ireland Revisited, Part 6

On the Famine Trail in Search of Ancestral Roots

June 11 - 26, 1997

 

By Lewis and Betty Nolan

 

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Part 1: Memphis to Dublin

Part 7:  Cork, Kinsale

Part 2: Carlow, Site of Nolan Homelands

Part 8:  Dingle Golf Links

Part 3: Kilkenny, Waterford, Crystal Plant

Part 9:  Dingle's Famine Cemetery

Part 4: Youghal, Dingle Town

Part 10: Ballinasloe, County Galway

Part 5: Dingle Peninsula

Part 11: Strokestown Famine Museum

Part 6: Great Blasket Island

Part 12: Donegal

Photo Album Index

Part 13: Drive in Northern Ireland

 

Tuesday, June 17, 1997 - Great Blasket Island - Lewis

            After another fine breakfast of Irish bacon and toast (we passed as usual on the offered blood sausage, fried eggs, cereal and broiled tomato) at our inn near Dingle, we set off for the nearby Blasket Islands. We first stopped at a museum a few miles up the Slea Head coast at Dunquin to learn a bit about the fascinating history of what was once a self-sustaining, island community on Great Blasket.

            Overlooking the islands from the mainland is the exquisite Blasket Islands Museum and Heritage Centre, as modern as anything in the Smithsonian complex in Washington. Taking our time to savor the museum's displays, I was struck by the
Betty overlooks Great Blasket Island
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
incredible toughness of the Blasket Islanders and the harshness of their lives that few today would or could endure. Residents had no services or conveniences. No electricity. No running water. A visit to the doctor or priest had to await good weather for the hard row across three or four miles of often-angry Atlantic Ocean. Two of the Spanish Armada ships were broken into splinters by the storm-tossed water here in 1588.

            A collection of 1950s-and-before photos in the museum showed little evidence of joy or mirth among the island residents, even in its relative heyday. Their faces were pinched and weathered. Their clothes were shabby. Their surroundings were bleak.

In some ways, naive people who probably wouldn't trade a week of modern comforts for even a day of island privation now sometimes glamorize that life. The tightly knit community was isolated from mainland ways and conveniences. Its people, too, suffered greatly during the Great Famine and many residents died of starvation. Long before what was left of the population of Great Blasket decamped the island in 1953, the number of its Gaelic-speaking natives peaked at 160 during the early part of the 20th Century. In the ensuing decades, the population gradually declined as young people answered the mainland's siren calls of opportunity and easier living.

            First the island church closed. Evidently the mainland priest had tired of being rowed across the water for occasional services. Then the tiny island school closed; the few remaining children were boarded on the mainland so they could be educated. Eventually, even islanders were buried on the mainland. In 1953, one islander died for lack of medical attention when bad weather closed off transport to the mainland. The 22 remaining residents of Great Blasket Island decided to pack it in. They were evacuated to government-provided homes at Dunquin a few miles away.

            Ironically, locals told me that only four of the last residents of Great Blasket still live in Ireland. The remainder had either died or had emigrated, with the greatest number settling in Springfield, Mass. How little the world is: One of my ancestors, Obadiah Miller of England, was among the founders of Springfield in the mid1600s. And here I was in the Blasket Island Heritage Centre, watching some of the former islanders mug the camera from their homes in Springfield. The family circle turns and turns, sometimes inward.

            Great Blasket, the largest of the islands, is about two-thirds of a mile across and three miles long, with the side facing the mainland arching up like a huge salad plate turned at a 30-degree angle. It has a primitive, rugged beauty, with grass growing in different shades of dark green between large patches of dark-colored rock. The island is surrounded by clear, blue water, with rolling waves breaking to seaward against jagged black rocks and occasional strips of coarse, yellow sand. Waist-high rock walls reach across and criss-cross the island to the spine of its peak a quarter of a mile or so above the sea.

            A nearby island has the perfect form of a laid-out corpse, on a huge scale. Aptly, it is called "The Corpse" by area residents. Tourism promoters prefer the name "Sleeping Monk." Several herds of sheep are ferried out to the islands for summer grazing.

            A few sturdy people spend their summers on the steep and rocky slopes of Great Blasket, reveling in the quiet beauty. Primitive campsites are available for the occasional backpackers. For the summer residents, the ferryboat provides a quick escape to the conveniences of the modern world. There is no dock on the island so visitors must climb aboard an inflatable, Zodiac-style boat to be transported the final 50 or so yards to the rocky shore. A certain amount of agility is necessary; persons with physical handicaps would have a tough time climbing in and out of the rubber boat.

We struck up a conversation with an attractive, young Irish woman who was working on Great Blasket. She was a schoolteacher during the winter and managed the island's tourist "cafe" in the summer. She said that life in most of Ireland - and not just on Great Blasket - had been hard for most people until fairly recently. The young woman had once worked for a year as a nanny in San Francisco for a physician's family. Such work offers a means of cheap travel to the U.S. that attracts many college-age lasses. We were told that Irish nannies are much in demand by the New York and Hollywood set because of their moral values, cleanliness and strong work ethic. We surmised that the fact that their appearance is generally more "wholesome" than "sexy" might add to their appeal to wealthy Americans.

            Several seasonal residents and visitors camp out in the abandoned Great Blasket village facing the mainland. One  was a crafts lady, who lived in an ancient, two-room cottage made of rocks. The several dozen, hut-like, rock homes have been fairly well preserved, but most are
Betty amid Great Blasket ruins
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
missing the wood-and-thatch roofs. There are no conveniences - not even port-a-potties. Meals are cooked on butane camp stoves. Supplies come in on the boat that brings tourists several times a day. Great Blasket was established as a National Historic Park in 1989. The government plans to improve access and eventually restore the key houses. It was abundantly clear that much remains to be done.

            We visited with an interesting but strange young woman from New Zealand, who wore a diamond stud in one of her nostrils. She was living on the island in a stone hut, with her Irish fisherman-husband. They were making their living by catching and selling lobster, crab and fish. She seemed educated and had ridden the passenger ferry across with us, after parking a BMW.   

            Upon our return to the mainland and trek up the cliff on a steep, winding pathway, we drove 15 or so hairy kilometers up the coast on a goat path of a road that hugs the Slea Head cliffs. It was so narrow that even small cars often had to back up to the occasional wide spot to allow others to get by. The Slea Head Drive gives the daring motorist views of wild beauty where steep cliffs drop down to exploding Atlantic breakers. We drove on to Ventry, home of Paidgh O'se's Pub (pronounced Paw-dee Oh-shay). Paidgh was a great Irish footballer for some years and is still looked upon as a national treasure, sort of an Irish version of Mickey Mantle. I happened to see him quoted in the Irish Times on a story about soccer rules.

            Paidgh's Pub is decorated in the spirit, but not expense, of an American sports bar, with many photos of its proprietor and patrons. Among them are the country singer Dolly Parton and the actor Tom Cruise, who was on location nearby several years ago for the filming of the movie, "Far and Away." I enjoyed a glass of Murphy's Stout there, a peaty beer that I couldn't distinguish from the much-exported Guinness, even though I was assured that some natives find that Murphy's has a richer taste.

            Seeing a crude, hand-painted sign advertising "Beehive Huts" alongside the Slea Head road, we stopped and learned Christian monks built these ancient stone structures in the 12th Century. They are so named because they really do look like giant beehives. They were made of stone, carefully placed to form circular buildings not much larger than modern camp tents. The huts are intact and haven't changed in over 800 years. Several are sited on the property of the Houlihan family, which for centuries has owned the steeply sloping ground that falls down the Slea Head mountain to the sea. Mrs. Mara Houlihan, a widow who appeared to be in her 70s, said her late husband's family had owned the land ever since memory started. The first floor of her two-story, stone and concrete house is 400 years old. A Houlihan had capped the top of one of the beehive huts with concrete and used it for farm storage.

            One of the opening scenes of "Far and Away," the burial scene, was filmed on the Houlihan property and Mrs. Houlihan served as an extra. She told us how nice Tom Cruise was to her; it was a treat watching the movie again when we returned home and seeing her and other weathered and wrinkled, Irish extras looking perfect for the parts.

            Dinner that evening was at Tigh Pegh (place of Peg) in Ballyferriter, a pub-restaurant where we had a surprisingly good meal consisting of burgers and Dingle Shrimp salads, with the obligatory Guinness for me (trim Betty has no taste for American beer, much less the beer of the bogs). Pegh spent her life on Great Blasket and a translation of her Gaelic account of life on the island has been printed and reprinted many times. After dinner I noted the following reflections in my own account of our visit to the island and related activities:

            * An 11-year-old boy on the island, brother of the aforementioned teacher selling sandwiches, was wearing an official National Basketball Association tee shirt, emblazoned Phoenix Suns. When I asked him whether he liked Charles Barkley, he corrected me to say that the standout player had changed teams, going to Houston. The American sports culture is truly worldwide and perhaps more of a global unifier of peoples than we might realize.

            * Riding on the ferryboat out to Great Blasket was a man who appeared to be about 22 years old and who was carrying a backpack. He said he worked in Dingle Town and was going to camp out on the island "to get away from the city." All things are relative, I suppose.

            * The English are great tourists, maybe the best in the world. We keep bumping into them, wherever we go, no matter how remote the spot. We visited with a nice, settled couple from Liverpool, England, who now live in Ballinasloe (how small the world is) and who were also staying at the Wine Rock while on holiday. We also met and chatted with another English couple, also from Liverpool, with whom we shared restaurant information; Brits on vacation seem to be much more approachable than those we encountered in London on our last trip. Their vehicle was a Winnebago and my thought was that driving it on the narrow roads of Ireland would have been more adventure than I'd ever want.

 

Tuesday, June 17, 1997 - Great Blasket Island, Betty -

            The day looks like it will be beautiful, an almost clear, sunny day. We plan to go to the Great Blasket Island after breakfast. We drove through Ballyferriter toward Slea Head to catch the ferry to the island. First, we stopped at the Great Blasket Heritage Centre to read and see a little about people who once lived on the Blaskets - isolated from the mainland and the village of Dunquin, about three miles out I believe. The last people left the island in the early 1950s. It was terrible in the winter - dark, fog, gales. It was said that one might stay locked in their stone cottage for a week or more at a time because it was so stormy outside.

            There was no church on the island. Every so often the priest might row out to the island for Mass. There were no motorboats, so rowing a boat built of a wooden frame and covered with animal hides, or tarred canvas, was the only way to get from the island to the mainland. The people who lived on Great Blasket chose to do so. When a young man died because they were not able to get a doctor to the island to treat him, the last people who lived there were evacuated to the mainland. There are several people who once lived on the island now living in Springfield, Mass.

            In order to visit the island, we had driven to a scenic point on the mainland to catch the ferry, which runs hourly. There is plenty of time to walk down the steep, concrete incline from the high cliffs above to catch the boat. Buzz had left the binoculars in the car; I walked back up the incline to retrieve them. Climbing up was worse than going down. Lobster fisherman had built a crude shack on the concrete pier at the base of the cliff. The same fishermen seemed to run the ferry service. The views of the cliffs and islands from the boat were magnificent. They hadn't told us we would have to get on a wave-tossed, rubber launch to get the final few yards from the ferryboat to the mainland. We managed, but I'm not sure how safe it would be to change boats in rough weather.

            The hill from the launch debarkation point has no steps. So we had to scramble up a somewhat slippery hill to get to the ruins where the island people once lived. I don't know if construction of steps and a safety rail would be allowed, but I suspect the authorities were too lazy to build some steps and install railing to make it easier for tourists to get on the island after paying their hard-earned money to ride the ferry. I wouldn't recommend a visit to the island to people with weak limbs or brittle bones.

            There were a few people on the island who operated a snack shop plus a lady from Dunquin who spins yarn as well as crochets and knits the hand-dyed and spun yarn. She spends the summer there. A young teacher and her brother, who spend their summers making sandwiches for visiting tourists, go back to Dunquin daily on the last ferry, which departs at 5:30 p.m.

            What a hard life the Irish Blasket Island people had. All life in Ireland was hard at that time. I suppose they chose to stay on the island because they felt secure there.

            There was another lady, from New Zealand, who lives on the island in the summer. She was strange. She catches crab and lobster, which she sells to commercial buyers. Her husband is also a fisherman. We didn't see him, but she rode the ferry to the mainland when we left at 3:30 p.m. She had a fairly new looking car parked near ours in a rough parking area on top of the mainland cliff overlooking the ferry boarding area. We assumed that she just leaves the car there for days at a time when she is on the island. We noticed that her tiny cottage on the island had some simple provisions in it and that she padlocked the door when she left to catch the ferry. I think anyone who chooses to stay on an island with no electricity, running water, telephones or bathrooms would have to be a bit strange in 1997.

            After returning to the mainland from Great Blasket Island, we drove up the coast to see the view of Slea Head cliffs. We continued around to Ventry and stopped at
Lewis with Mara O'Houlihan
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
the pub where Tom Cruise came when filming "Far and Away" at Dunquin. The pub is owned by a famous, former Gaelic football star - maybe the Joe Namath of Southwestern Ireland. Even Dolly Parton has sung in the pub. We purchased a postcard showing some of the famous and not famous pub visitors.

            We proceeded to return to the Wine Strand via the same narrow, windy but scenic road we had driven out on. We stopped to see the ancient, stone beehive huts that were inhabited by monks hundreds of years ago. An old Irish farmwoman came out and collected two Pounds from us. I think she was just making a quick quid since the huts appeared to be a part of the national historic monuments. She said the lower part of her farmhouse was built 400 years ago, with the upper part and three windows added 80 years ago. She could have been just "B.S.'ing" us, or "spoofing," as the Irish call it. The view of the ocean from her land was outstanding. A sheep was on her porch and if it had wanted to could have gone inside through the open front door. The beehive huts were small and made of stone, with only one opening at the top for smoke to come out. Each had a small, short door opening with several having a small window slit. I assume one monk occupied each small hut. How claustrophobic! At least for me it would be.

            We arrived back at Ballyferriter late in the day but still in full daylight and had a hamburger and chips (French fries) for dinner. The food was good, but Tigh Peig's Pub was not our idea of a place to really enjoy a meal. It seemed dirty, grimy and too cramped. Buzz had on his new wool, hunter green sweater he had purchased at the golf club.  The older waitress quite proudly said her husband was the greens keeper there. It sounded as if that was a job of prestige.

            Photographs taken today included shots at Great Blasket Centre at Dunquin, Great Blasket Island, Ventry, Slea Head and of the Beehive Huts just above one of the locations where "Far and Away" was filmed.

 

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