On an Irish Island

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.