Minds of iso­lated is­lan­ders

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - BOOKS - JP O’ MAL­LEY

that were manda­tory across on the main­land.

Fer­riter at­tempts to de­con­struct an ap­par­ent para­dox con­tained within the com­plex story of Ire­land off­shore is­lands. On the one hand, the sim­ple, ru­ral life is­lan­ders seem­ingly epit­o­mised was one that dis­played just the kind of traits that Ir­ish na­tion­al­ists were des­per­ately pro­mot­ing as an ide­ol­ogy in the early years of the Ir­ish State: a deep com­mit­ment to com­mu­ni­tar­ian val­ues, agrar­ian self suf­fi­ciency, and, for the most part, a dog­matic at­tach­ment to pious Catholi­cism too.

And yet, mainly for rea­sons re­lat­ing to eco­nomic hard­ship, the is­lan­ders’ nar­ra­tive is pre­dom­i­nantly a down­ward spi­ral. In 1841, Fer­riter notes, there were 34,219 peo­ple liv­ing on 211 off­shore is­lands. By 2016 that num­ber had dwin­dled to 8,756. Like the broader nar­ra­tive of Ir­ish his­tory over the last 150 years, the is­land story is one of em­i­gra­tion.

Fer­riter soberly re­minds us that many is­lan­ders were more likely to be fa­mil­iar with de­tails of the trans­port sys­tems they help to build in Lon­don and Bos­ton, than the an­cient songs and sto­ries from their lo­cal com­mu­nity.

Prej­u­dices of pa­tro­n­is­ing out­side writ­ers not­with­stand­ing, culture is still the most ob­vi­ous place to look for an­swers when seek­ing to un­der­stand the is­land mind: if in­deed it is pos­si­ble to be­lieve in such a con­cept.

There is cer­tainly a long list of films, books, paint­ings, po­ems and plays to choose from to ex­plore this; with Fer­riter ded­i­cat­ing two fas­ci­nat­ing chap­ters, cit­ing var­i­ous ex­am­ples from th­ese cul­tural gems along the way.

The high­lights in­clude Emily Law­less’s 1892 ro­man­tic tragic novel Gra­nia, which raised some in­ter­est­ing ideas at the time re­gard­ing the sta­tus women liv­ing on is­lands coveted in com­par­i­son to their main­land coun­ter­parts. Then there is the books the is­lan­ders wrote them­selves.

The Blas­ket Is­land canon de­liv­ers the two most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ples: Peig Say­ers’s, 1936 me­moir, Peig, and To­mas O’cro­han’s 1929 me­moir, The Is­land­man. Robert Fla­herty’s doc­u­men­tary, Man of Aran, it’s worth not­ing, won Best Film at the Venice film fes­ti­val in 1935.

The cul­tural, so­ci­o­log­i­cal and an­thro­po­log­i­cal ev­i­dence Fer­riter metic­u­lously sifts through here shows us that is­land na­tives, his­tor­i­cally at least, did have their var­i­ous cus­toms, tra­di­tions and be­liefs: whether that was how they played the fid­dle; smoked to­bacco; ap­proached the con­cept of death at a wake; or spoke about mys­ti­cal el­e­ments like storms and the ocean, with a pa­gan-like su­per­sti­tion.

Fer­riter avoids sin­gle def­i­ni­tions, broad brush­strokes and hy­per­bole. Pri­mar­ily be­cause he is a his­to­rian who al­ways favours fact, sources and ev­i­dence, over sub­jec­tive opin­ion; and the great ar­ray of archival ma­te­rial he brings to the sur­face here is a good tes­ta­ment to his ded­i­cated ap­proach to re­search.

This enor­mous at­ten­tion to de­tail, how­ever, be­comes a lit­tle over­bear­ing at times. A 50-page chap­ter ded­i­cated to is­land priests, for in­stance, is tough go­ing: feel­ing like an un­com­fort­able mix be­tween aca­demic ob­ses­sion and a bad Fa­ther Ted par­ody.

Still, if this is the book’s sin­gle ma­jor flaw, it’s one that can be for­given, as else­where it’s packed with in­trigu­ing anal­y­sis and his­tor­i­cal de­tail.

Fa­ther Frank Browne il­lus­tra­tion for the WB Yeats Po­etry book ‘A Lost City of the Bog’, Oughter, Co Of­faly (1929)

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.