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The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS -

hat a strange place for any­one to call home,” re­marked Belfast woman No­rah Work­man of the Aran Is­lands in 1895. Our na­tion’s off­shore is­lands have long been shrouded in mys­tery and myth, their de­cline an emo­tive but lit­tle-un­der­stood sub­plot of our past. In this im­por­tant new his­tory, Diar­maid Fer­riter re­veals that while “there was no sin­gle is­land ex­pe­ri­ence”, their many sto­ries “mag­nify fun­da­men­tal themes” of mod­ern Ire­land, from lan­guage to reli­gion, state-build­ing to em­i­gra­tion. Things look dif­fer­ent from the edge.

Nowhere in the im­pov­er­ished fringes of Bri­tish Ire­land was as iso­lated as what a poor relief com­mit­tee called these “des­o­late pris­ons amidst the At­lantic”. The is­lands were, Ord­nance Sur­vey draughts­man Wil­liam Wake­man re­marked in 1839, “terra incog­nita”, and Fer­riter’s metic­u­lous re­search shows that they were wild places in all the senses of the word. When a Bri­tish gun­boat was sent to col­lect un­paid taxes on the Blas­kets, the is­landers stoned the craft and crew. Af­ter an in­dul­gent RIC man let an Inish­mur­ray woman keep her stash of poitín, she of­fered him a grate­ful taste in an egg-cup be­cause a rau­cous party had “smashed ev­ery ar­ti­cle of glass or crock­ery in the place”.

Fer­riter par­tic­u­larly high­lights the sto­ries of is­land priests, char­ac­ters rang­ing from tyrants to ex­iles to cru­saders. When Fr John Healy needed to reach a dy­ing man on Inish­mur­ray in the 1870s, he found the lo­cal fish­er­men too drunk to row, so he press­ganged some lo­cal women in­stead: “the first woman who leaves her place” he warned in the boat, “I’ll shoot her dead”. “Send us boats or send us coffins” pleaded Fr Michael O’Donoghue from Aran in the 1890s, while a dis­pute over power and land there led to an at­tempt to as­sas­si­nate the in­fa­mous Fr Far­ragher with a home­made bomb in 1908.

To the na­tion­al­ists of the Gaelic re­vival, the is­lands were the last well of a dy­ing cul­ture. “It is only in such places that one gets a glimpse of what Ire­land may be­come again,” waxed Michael Collins. From Pearse to de Valera, the men of the na­tional strug­gle flocked to the is­lands like pil­grims seek­ing sup from the Holy Grail. Eoin MacNeill pleaded with his com­rades not to ply “the na­tives” with drink to get them to speak Ir­ish or tell sto­ries. These were, one news­pa­per de­clared, “the last out­posts of the Gael, the bas­tions of Gaelic civil­i­sa­tion and the trea­sure house of our an­cient cul­ture”.

Artists too were fas­ci­nated by these un­sta­ble places as­saulted by crash­ing wind and lash­ing sea. EM Forster de­scribed the Blas­kets as a “Ne­olithic civil­i­sa­tion”, while Or­son Welles called Aran “the most prim­i­tive spot in Europe, where an in­tel­li­gent aris­to­cratic peo­ple live in ar­chaic sim­plic­ity, sur­pass­ing any­thing in Homer”. JM Synge – drawn, WB Yeats said, to “all that had edge” – found a world con­tin­u­ally pass­ing “be­tween the mis­ery of last night and the splen­dour of to­day”.

There was lit­tle splen­dour in poverty, but the work of the Con­gested Dis­tricts Board brought many im­prove­ments. In­de­pen­dence, how­ever, of­fered lit­tle: there was no sin­gle agency or depart­ment re­spon­si­ble for the is­lands so is­landers were, one com­plained in 1931, “re­ferred from Herod to Pi­late un­til we didn’t know where to go”. “The bald re­al­ity, and deep irony,” Fer­riter writes, “was that more was done for the is­lands un­der Bri­tish rule than was done in the early decades of na­tive rule”.

Is­landers re­ceived awards for pre­serv­ing a lan­guage whose de­cline the State failed to halt, but elec­tric­ity, har­bours, fer­ries, and bridges were less forth­com­ing. The 1925 Com­mis­sion on the Gaeltacht was shocked that the peo­ple of Ar­ran­more wanted ed­u­ca­tion in English. “Do they not re­alise,” asked the ex­as­per­ated chair­man, that “they have got some­thing which the rest of the coun­try has not got?” No, their priest Fr Dug­gan ex­plained: “Scot­land and Amer­ica are bet­ter to them than Ire­land”.

Tragedies roused pub­lic sym­pa­thy but lit­tle change. In 1927, 44 fish­er­men died in the seas off Cleg­gan due to an in­ad­e­quate weather warn­ing, dev­as­tat­ing is­land com­mu­ni­ties. In 1935, 19 is­landers died when a yawl car­ry­ing them home to Ar­ran­more struck a rock. “The world has spelled out its crimes in corpses” railed Peadar O’Don­nell. Two years later, 10 boys from Achill burned to death at Kirk­in­til­loch on what O’Don­nell called the “trek to the Scot­tish tat­tie field”, their uniden­ti­fi­able corpses found hud­dled to­gether in their bothy. Like so many mi­grants, Fer­riter com­ments, “they counted for lit­tle”.

Emer­ald-tinted glasses

Yet along­side of­fi­cial ne­glect, there was ground-break­ing folk­lore col­lec­tion, ac­claimed lit­er­a­ture, and schol­arly in­ter­est. Is­land con­ver­sa­tion was leg­endary, “its vi­tal­ity”, clas­si­cist George Thom­son wrote, “in­ex­haustible”, but Seán Ó Faoláin was scathing of the “lit­er­ary hirelings” and “pro­fes­sional Gaels” whose con­de­scen­sion erased is­land hu­man­ity; without emer­ald-tinted glasses there was lit­tle ro­man­tic about poverty and iso­la­tion.

Fer­riter’s the­matic struc­ture al­lows him to skil­fully pose big ques­tions with the small sto­ries of small places, but a shuf­fling of chap­ters would have shown the links he draws be­tween pol­i­tics and cul­ture even more clearly. While there are few in­ter­na­tional com­par­isons, his mas­tery of mod­ern Ire­land’s dy­nam­ics and ide­olo­gies lays bare the hypocrisy at the heart of the State’s “reser­va­tion” men­tal­ity to­wards peo­ple it of­ten por­trayed as “al­most alien”. “There is no wire­less on the is­land,” a civil ser­vant re­ported from the Great Blas­ket in 1947, “but from the point of view of Ir­ish, per­haps this is just as well”.

“The land is sick,” De­nis Cough­lan wrote in this news­pa­per of Cape Clear in 1968, “sick with the can­cer of in­dif­fer­ence and lack of cap­i­tal”. By then the Blas­ket (“this dread­ful rock”, Peig Say­ers called it) and many other is­lands had been evac­u­ated due to the dif­fi­cul­ties of sus­tain­ing med­i­cal care, the pull of mi­gra­tion, and es­pe­cially the flight of young women from iso­lated lit­tle king­doms with no op­por­tu­nity.

To­day, the is­lands are be­ing reimag­ined. Many are the pre­serve of week­enders, the Skel­ligs the icons of Star Wars, Aran home to lux­ury re­treats and ex­pen­sive knits. Fer­riter sees this di­ver­sity and rein­ven­tion as ev­i­dence that the is­lands may still have a fu­ture, one very dif­fer­ent to their past. What­ever their to­mor­rows, this pow­er­ful his­tory of the is­lands and their peo­ple con­firms the words of Tomás Ó Cri­omhthain’s in An tOileá­nach: Ní bheidh a lei­théidí arís ann.

Dr Christo­pher Kis­sane is a his­to­rian at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics and Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence

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