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Carolyn See…Robert Kanigel tells a fascinating piece of history you probably won't read anywhere else…[a] lovely book.
—The Washington Post
“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
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
1 The West  1
2 The Fine Flower of Their Speech  28
3 Brian's Chair  50
4 Nice Boy with a Camera  67
5 Inishvickillaun  93
6 The Last Quiet Time  111
7 Gorky's Peasants  129
8 Interminable Procession  144
9 Working at Irish  153
10 Visitors, Strangers, Tourists, Friends  180
11 A Green Irish Thread  202
12 No Herb or Remedy  212
13 The Bottom of the Garden  229
14 A Dream of Youth 242
Selected Bibliography 293
Selected Bibliograpy in Irish 307
Posted February 20, 2012
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.
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Posted July 18, 2013
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!!!!!!!!
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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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