On an Irish Island

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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 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 ...
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2012 Hard cover First edition. First printing with 1 in number line. New in new dust jacket. Signed by author. Flat SIGNED by Kanigel on full title page. New with slight ripple ... and crease to dj as received from publisher. Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 336 p. Audience: General/trade. Read more Show Less

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On an Irish Island

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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
The Barnes & Noble Review

Shortly after the turn of the last century, a handful of scholars started making pilgrimage to Great Blasket Island, a storm-wracked lament of granite, bog, and pasture about three miles out into the Atlantic off the west coast of Ireland, home to some 150 souls and a lovely strain of the Irish tongue. The scholars, linguists from the mainland and from the Continent, came for the language but soon found themselves beguiled by the people and their island life.

There followed for thirty years a fruitful exchange between the residents and the scholars, which Robert Kanigel artfully and empathetically chronicles in On an Irish Island. And the coming of the scholars was none too soon, for though existence on Blasket had always been a fugitive state, life on the island was flickering, prey to a careening modernity and its economic tides, its wars and allurements. The scholars were among the last to partake of the islanders' fundamental engagement with their circumstance — the pacing of life at its sweetest, they often felt, and the world at its best, if colored by "the beauty that inheres in all precarious and dying things."

Kanigel animates both the people and the place. The village on Blasket reveals itself as a huddle of two dozen stone houses, a density of almost urban feel, with no plumbing, no shops, no priests. There is the bustle of the day, with "children, women, and men setting out in the boats, hunting rabbits, cooking, cutting peat, tending to animals, talking a stream of Irish among themselves." At night — anytime, really — there was storytelling, dancing reels and sets to the melodeon and fiddle, singing, and canoodling — "the great litanies of the ought-and-should could seem remote, mainland verities not so much rejected as forgotten or ignored."

It was that stream of Irish that induced the likes of John Millington Synge, Carl Marstrander, Robin Flower, Brian Kelly, Marie-Louise Sjoestedt, and George Thomson — the hub of the story, along with island writers Maurice O'Sullivan and Tomás Ó Criomhthain — to make what was still in the early 1900s some hard travel to a distant place, there to bathe in the folktales told by the islanders, the mysteries of the language's "infixed pronouns, the vagaries of the copula, vocalic changes," and good old common speech, with its foaming crests of rhetoric that so moved Thomson.

In passages that have a wonderful, ecstatic quality, Kanigel traces Thomson's notion that Homer had come alive on Great Blasket. Their everyday language was poetic and vigorous, rhythmical and alliterative. In their communal life was the same collective intelligence and popular spirit that billowed forth in the Homeric epics through "the language of the people," an eloquence without "single authorship?but work of the highest order that profited from the shaping influences of the many."

For all the music Synge, Thomson, and company piped in praise of Blasket language and life, they were as transient as the Blasketers would ultimately prove. In their wake came a flurry of notoriety, fueled by Ó Criomhthain's gritty and O'Sullivan's high-hearted island memoirs, but it too flickered, no match for the throttle of modernity. Today, Great Blasket remains an unsullied, hauntingly beautiful place — only now there are no people.

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.

Reviewer: Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307269591
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/7/2012
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.54 (w) x 9.72 (h) x 1.26 (d)

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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Table of Contents

Prologue 3

1 The West [1905] 1

2 The Fine Flower of Their Speech [1907] 28

3 Brian's Chair [1917] 50

4 Nice Boy with a Camera [1923] 67

5 Inishvickillaun [1926] 93

6 The Last Quiet Time [1929] 111

7 Gorky's Peasants [1929] 129

8 Interminable Procession [1929] 144

9 Working at Irish [1932] 153

10 Visitors, Strangers, Tourists, Friends [1937] 180

11 A Green Irish Thread [1940] 202

12 No Herb or Remedy [1946] 212

13 The Bottom of the Garden [1950] 229

14 A Dream of Youth 242

Acknowledgements 257

Notes 261

Selected Bibliography 293

Selected Bibliograpy in Irish 307

Index 309

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • 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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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2013

    well as any science/math guy knows, the manipulation of a define

    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!!!!!!!!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted May 29, 2012

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    Posted February 24, 2013

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    Posted March 25, 2012

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