Blasket Islands (Co. Kerry)
The Blasket Islands / Na Blascaoidí are a beautiful and atmospheric archipelago off the end of the Dingle Peninsula. Some can be reached by speedboat from the Marina at An Daingean / Dingle and by passenger ferries from the harbour at Dun Chaoin / Dunquin, where an hour or two in the Blasket Heritage Centre in is also highly recommended.
The etymology of Na Blascaoidí is uncertain: the word is thought by some to come from the Norse word “brasker“, meaning “a sharp reef / dangerous place”.
Blasket Islands history
The Blasket Islands and mainland were united geographically until a few million years ago.Saint Brendan is said to have founded an early Christian monastic community on one of the islands. Historians believe monks inhabited the Blaskets in the C5th and C6th and that the Vikings used them as jumping-off points for raiding the Irish mainland in the C9th and C10th.
The whole group of Islands was long referred to as Ferriter’s Islands, as they were leased from the end of the C13th by the Ferriter family from the Earls of Desmond, and after the failure of the Desmond Rebellions from Sir Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork. The last of the Ferriters to control the Blaskets was the poet and rebel chieftain, Captain Piaras Feirtéar, who was hanged at Cnocán na gCaorach in Killarney in 1653, after he and his followers were defeated at Ross Castle in the nearby Lake of Killarney.
One of the earliest known written records of the Blasket Islands was recently discovered in an archive in Samancas, Spain. The ship’s captain who left the document, dated 1597, referred to the islands as Las Yslas de Blasques and also stated that the inhabitants spoke fluent Spanish. He may have had an encounter with shipwreck survivors or deserters from the 1588 Spanish Armada, contemporary records of which also refer to the islands by various names.
The islands long supported a small Irish-speaking community. Each family had a cow, a few sheep, and a vegetable plot / potato ridge. They cut their peat from the high ground, got their water from springs and harvested fish from the sea. Because they were not entirely dependent upon the potato, they survived the Great Famine relatively unscathed. As late as the mid-C20th there was no priest, pub, doctor, telephone or electricity.
Although illiterate, the islanders retained strong oral traditions of story-telling and songs. Because of their isolation, the language they used was regarded as being of great age and purity, and became the subject of much anthropological and linguistic study around the turn of the C20th, when curious researchers began visiting.
Eamonn DeValera admired the islanders’ Spartan lifestyle, and is said to have had them in mind as a model for his vision of the Irish Republic. However, harsh weather and changes in fishing practices forced the last residents to abandon the Blaskets in 1953.
Blasket Islands map. Locally, the Great Blasket was called simply The Island, or more formally, the Western (or Great) Island, and the others as the Lesser Blaskets.
Several islanders were encouraged to write or dictate memories and stories of the islands’ traditions and way of life, including Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Muiris Ó Súilleabháin and Peig Sayers, (whose tales of hardship, woe and misfortune were long used in Irish Gaelic classes throughout the country, turning thousands of pupils, including this writer, off the old language for years). The great English-born Celticist and translator Robin Flower also wrote about his experiences living locally. Reflecting a lost lifestyle, these accounts of a proud people have been translated into many languages.
Now uninhabited apart from rabbits, birds and a few holiday houses, the islands receive numerous day trippers and occasional campers, including birdwatchers, kayakers and divers. Many visitors come armed with copies of / books about the islanders’ literary works and reverently visit the ruined remains of their authors’ homes. None come away untouched by the haunting tranquillity of these tiny scraps of land on the edge of the northern Atlantic.
Blasket Islands Books etc.
An tOileánach (1929) / The Islandman by Tomás O’Criomhtháin
Fiche Blíain ag Fás (1933) / Twenty Years A-Growing by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin / Maurice O’Sullivan.
Peig (1936) and Machnamh Seanamhná (1939) / An Old Woman’s Reflections by Peig Sayers
The Western Island (1944) by Robin Flower
Muini – The Blasket Nurse by Leslie Matson
A Pity Youth does not Last by Micheál O’Guiheen
Island Home – The Blasket Heritage by George Thomson
Blasket Memories edited by Pádraig Tyers
Hungry for Home by Cole Morton
The Blaskets, People and Literature (1987) by Muiris Mac Conghail
The Blasket Islands – Next Parish America by Joan & Ray Stagles
The Blasket Island Guide (2011) – Ray Stagles & Sue Redican
On an Irish Island (2012) by Robert Kanigal
TV Films about the islands include Blasket Roots: American Dreams (1997) and The Voice of Generations: The Story of Peig Sayers (1998)
Click here to read an insightful critique of An tOileánach by Professor Declan Kiberd.