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On an Irish Island

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  • Posted February 20, 2012

    The Story behind the Blasket literature

    I read "The Islandman" years ago when living in Ireland after visiting Slea Head on the Dingle peninsula and seeing the Blaskets across the sound; it's intriguing to imagine the tiny community on that desolate island, abandoned only in relatively recent times. The imagery of place and times conveyed by Tomas O Criomhthain is wonderous enough, but the language is what makes the book so marvelous. It has a luminosity and lyricism -- through Flower's superb translation from the Irish -- that is spellbinding. It must mirror the Irish for it has a rhythm and meter that is quite unlike English. The book conveys such close sense of the people and their lives in this remote place. "Island Cross-Talk", "Twenty Years a-Growing" and "Peig" should be read also as they likewise convey the rich texture of the Blaskets. Kanigel's book gives the story behind the genesis of this literature. He tells of the scholars (from Ireland, England, France and Norway) who spent time on the island, learning the (very difficult) language and absorbing the culture and ways of the islanders. The emerging commitment across Ireland in the early 20th century to preserve the language brought this attention to the Blaskets where perhaps the purest form of Irish was still in use, not yet overrun by English. What the scholars achieved through their relationships with O Criomhthain, O'Sullivan and Sayers was to encourage and facilitate the transition of the island's oral expression to written form. This was done through developing close relationships and deep friendships with the islanders that carried on for decades. You get the impression that this was much more than intellectual, scholarly work for these linguists; there was a loving regard for the people and deeply sincere respect for the island ways. Kanigel follows the lives of the islanders and scholars on and off the island and this gives satisfying insights into the worlds of both. If you haven't already read the Blasket literature, you will want to do so, preferably (at least one of the books) before Kanigel's book.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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