On an Irish Island

On an Irish Island

3.6 5
by Robert Kanigel
     
 

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On an Irish Island is a love letter to a vanished way of life, in which Robert Kanigel, the highly praised author of The Man Who Knew Infinity and The One Best Way, tells the story of the Great Blasket, a wildly beautiful island off the west coast of Ireland, renowned during the early twentieth century for the rich communal life of its residents…  See more details below

Overview

On an Irish Island is a love letter to a vanished way of life, in which Robert Kanigel, the highly praised author of The Man Who Knew Infinity and The One Best Way, tells the story of the Great Blasket, a wildly beautiful island off the west coast of Ireland, renowned during the early twentieth century for the rich communal life of its residents and the unadulterated Irish they spoke. With the Irish language vanishing all through the rest of Ireland, the Great Blasket became a magnet for scholars and writers drawn there during the Gaelic renaissance—and the scene for a memorable clash of cultures between modern life and an older, sometimes sweeter world slipping away.
 
Kanigel introduces us to the playwright John Millington Synge, some of whose characters in The Playboy of the Western World, were inspired by his time on the island; Carl Marstrander, a Norwegian linguist who gave his place on Norway’s Olympic team for a summer on the Blasket; Marie-Louise Sjoestedt, a Celtic studies scholar fresh from the Sorbonne; and central to the story, George Thomson, a British classicist whose involvement with the island and its people we follow from his first visit as a twenty-year-old to the end of his life.
 
On the island, they met a colorful coterie of men and women with whom they formed lifelong and life-changing friendships. There’s Tomás O’Crohan, a stoic fisherman, one of the few islanders who could read and write Irish, who tutored many of the incomers in the language’s formidable intricacies and became the Blasket’s first published writer; Maurice O’Sullivan, a good-natured prankster and teller of stories, whose memoir, Twenty Years A-Growing, became an Irish classic; and Peig Sayers, whose endless repertoire of earthy tales left listeners spellbound.
 
As we get to know these men and women, we become immersed in the vivid culture of the islanders, their hard lives of fishing and farming matched by their love of singing, dancing, and talk. Yet, sadly, we watch them leave the island, the village becoming uninhabited by 1953. The story of the Great Blasket is one of struggle—between the call of modernity and the tug of Ireland’s ancient ways, between the promise of emigration and the peculiar warmth of island life amid its physical isolation. But ultimately it is a tribute to the strength and beauty of a people who, tucked away from the rest of civilization, kept alive a nation’s past, and to the newcomers and islanders alike who brought the island’s remarkable story to the larger world.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Wonderfully vivid . . . A remote setting, a handful of young visitors, a collection of colorful locals, an ancient language and a story that spans half a century:   These are but a few of the elements that make Robert Kanigel’s On an Irish Island an exuberant and delightful book. . . . It can be read as an erudite primer to the [literary] works of the islanders; as a beautifully assured ensemble biography; and as a large-scale portrait of a remarkable time in the history of the Great Blasket and the wider world.   Yet it is, above all, a compelling tale of ordinary—and often enviable—lives in an extraordinary setting.”—Karin Altenberg, The Wall Street Journal
 
“Deliciously hones in on the ‘singularly severe glory’ of the Blasket Islands off the west coast of county Kerry.”—Katharine Whittemore, The Boston Globe
 
“Tells a fascinating piece of history . . . [Nowadays], what’s gone is the whole concept of village life, without television, iPads or Beyonce.  There’s no point in posing questions about where such a life went, or whether we can get it back.  But now, at least, we’ve got this lovely book.”—Carolyn See, The Washington Post
 
“It is the interaction of the natives and the visitors that fascinates Kanigel, and he tells the story of the community’s last decades through the succession of visitors, beginning with the playwright John Millington Synge. . . Affection for the place and its culture is something Kanigel first admires and then comes to share, and he makes his reader envy those tough, resourceful islanders.”—Malcolm Jones, The Daily Beast
 
“Kanigel avoids pushing any thesis about the advantages of premodern life, and instead points out the glories of the island and its inhabitants.”—Rachel Nolan, The San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Robert Kanigel has written a tender paean to a lost world that called him out of his own time. On a bleak, treeless island, he unearths a buried linguistic treasure.” —Dava Sobel, author of Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter
 
“A mesmerizing interplay of lives and socio-historical contexts . . . The portraits in this book are classic Kanigel:  lively, sympathetic and thoroughly engaging.   Yet what makes the narrative so affecting is the loss that permeates the text.  As cultures like those on Great Blasket continue to be destroyed by the march of progress, so too are our connections to a simpler, more personally fulfilling way of living.” –Kirkus Reviews, (starred)
 
“[An] impressively researched , greatly inviting history of the curious-minded men and women who, in the early twentieth century, came from mainland Ireland and elsewhere to reside on the Great Blasket for a while, to absorb the slower way of Irish customs before the advent of electricity and other aspects of fast-paced contemporary life.”—Brad Hooper, Booklist
 
 
             
 
 

Library Journal
Kanigel (formerly science writing, MIT; The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan) aims to contextualize the early 20th-century literary and linguistic history of Great Blasket Island, located off the southwest coast of Ireland. He focuses primarily on such outsiders as playwright John Millington Synge, classicist George Thomson, poet Robin Flower, and Celtic studies scholar Marie-Louise Sjoestedt, all of whom came to Great Blasket during this time to live among the island's Irish-speaking community, which remained uniquely untouched by the outside world. Kanigel elaborates on the relationships between visitors to the island and the islanders themselves, considering the encouragement that Thomson, for example, gave locals to write their stories and publish them. The bulk of the book goes through the end of the 1930s, with slighter coverage of the decades thereafter. VERDICT Kanigel has written an accessible book, but his uncritical approach to his sources and a number of small but significant generalizations about Irish history of the period may frustrate the advanced student. Most suitable for those interested in memoirs, light history reading, and travel narratives.—Hanna Clutterbuck, Harvard Univ. Medical Sch. Lib., Boston
Kirkus Reviews
A richly detailed biographical study of a group of early-20th-century intellectuals whose shared love for a dying insular culture helped save it from extinction. Kanigel (Faux Real: Genuine Leather and Two Hundred Years of Inspired Fakes, 2007, etc.) displays his abundant erudition and narrative finesse in this story of how four European intellectuals--classicist George Thomson, British Museum curator Robin Flower and linguists Carl Marstrander and Marie-Louise Sjoestedt--found their lives forever changed by encounters with the people of Great Blasket Island, off the coast of Ireland. The four traveled to this remote island at different times and for different reasons. Thomson followed the suggestion of his friend and fellow Celtophile Flower and went to Blasket for the "Gaeltacht," the Irish culture which had already enchanted Flower. Marstrander, a Norwegian, sought to examine the linguistic links that bound the Vikings to the ancient Celts. The sophisticated Parisian Sjoestedt sought the opportunity to study one of the most complex linguistic systems in the world. Although the islanders lived in "primitive" conditions, all four visitors became enthralled by the rich island culture. Interwoven among these overlapping, sometimes intersecting biographies are other stories, including that of playwright John Millington Synge, who went to the island to learn spoken Irish; and those of the men and women the four scholars befriended, loved and inspired. Thanks to their influence, dialect-rich folktales and life histories that would otherwise have perished found their way into Irish literary history. The portraits in this book are classic Kanigel: lively, sympathetic and thoroughly engaging. Yet what makes the narrative so affecting is the loss that permeates the text. As cultures like those on Great Blasket continue to be destroyed by the march of progress, so too are our connections to a simpler, more personally fulfilling way of living. A mesmerizing interplay of lives and socio-historical contexts.
Carolyn See
…Robert Kanigel tells a fascinating piece of history you probably won't read anywhere else…[a] lovely book.
—The Washington Post

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307269591
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
02/07/2012
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
6.54(w) x 9.72(h) x 1.26(d)

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher

“Wonderfully vivid . . . A remote setting, a handful of young visitors, a collection of colorful locals, an ancient language and a story that spans half a century:   These are but a few of the elements that make Robert Kanigel’s On an Irish Island an exuberant and delightful book. . . . It can be read as an erudite primer to the [literary] works of the islanders; as a beautifully assured ensemble biography; and as a large-scale portrait of a remarkable time in the history of the Great Blasket and the wider world.   Yet it is, above all, a compelling tale of ordinary—and often enviable—lives in an extraordinary setting.”—Karin Altenberg, The Wall Street Journal
 
“Deliciously hones in on the ‘singularly severe glory’ of the Blasket Islands off the west coast of county Kerry.”—Katharine Whittemore, The Boston Globe
 
“Tells a fascinating piece of history . . . [Nowadays], what’s gone is the whole concept of village life, without television, iPads or Beyonce.  There’s no point in posing questions about where such a life went, or whether we can get it back.  But now, at least, we’ve got this lovely book.”—Carolyn See, The Washington Post
 
“It is the interaction of the natives and the visitors that fascinates Kanigel, and he tells the story of the community’s last decades through the succession of visitors, beginning with the playwright John Millington Synge. . . Affection for the place and its culture is something Kanigel first admires and then comes to share, and he makes his reader envy those tough, resourceful islanders.”—Malcolm Jones, The Daily Beast
 
“Kanigel avoids pushing any thesis about the advantages of premodern life, and instead points out the glories of the island and its inhabitants.”—Rachel Nolan, The San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Robert Kanigel has written a tender paean to a lost world that called him out of his own time. On a bleak, treeless island, he unearths a buried linguistic treasure.” —Dava Sobel, author of Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter
 
“A mesmerizing interplay of lives and socio-historical contexts . . . The portraits in this book are classic Kanigel:  lively, sympathetic and thoroughly engaging.   Yet what makes the narrative so affecting is the loss that permeates the text.  As cultures like those on Great Blasket continue to be destroyed by the march of progress, so too are our connections to a simpler, more personally fulfilling way of living.” –Kirkus Reviews,
 
“[An] impressively researched , greatly inviting history of the curious-minded men and women who, in the early twentieth century, came from mainland Ireland and elsewhere to reside on the Great Blasket for a while, to absorb the slower way of Irish customs before the advent of electricity and other aspects of fast-paced contemporary life.”—Brad Hooper, Booklist
 
 
             
 
 

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Meet the Author

ROBERT KANIGEL is the author of six previous books. He has been the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Grady-Stack Award for science writing. His book The Man Who Knew Infinity was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Harvard Magazine, and Psychology Today. He has just retired as Professor of Science Writing at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and now lives in Baltimore.

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On an Irish Island 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Ssmits More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
well as any science/math guy knows, the manipulation of a defined data set can be manipulated to give any result desired . Too bad this prof(?) has chosen to take some data collected about a wonderful community of people and manipulates it into a story worthy of any bookstore with a discount table of trash books that couldn't sell. from the start where this high and mighty scribe assumes that title should not include the word BLASKET because mere mortals would take it to be a book about baskets!!!!! And then to state that the people were not literate and without a church or bar (oh, don't forget the bar if this is about poor Irish Folk). And the worst suggestion of all is his half assed attempt at suggesting that the one big eason for going to Dublin was to have unplanned children. HEY PROF, I suggest you start hanging with the MIT math and science boys!!!!!!!!