Minds of isolated islanders
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)