Ireland: the Blaskets

By Chris Deliso (2005 (Travel Intelligence)

Stretching beyond and forever is the cold Atlantic. The western sky also stretches wide, and in evening the sunset dissipates, seems to float, on vast thick clouds, inflated and tinged with purples and reds, like those regal jellyfish bobbing on the westward ocean. Standing atop the cliffs outside the town of Dingle, the salt air blows relentlessly up from the dark water below, sending a chill – is it of foreboding, or vitality, or just one wrought by the cold?

The geography I have been speaking of is laid out clearly on a faded and detailed nautical map, which decorates the wall of Dingle’s youth hostel. Situated in an old farmhouse, the hostel has its own itinerant magic. It’s home to a low-key collection of old fishermen and scalawags, seasoned men with scruff beards and cups of tea, huddling inside the warm wood hostel, smoking pipes by the fireplace, surveying the map or just sitting reflective and quiet with the dogs of the place.

If you look on one edge of the map, one small group of islands stands out – the Blaskets. They are tiny dots trailing off the coast, once part of the mainland – or perhaps just an afterthought of God. No ferry goes out there, though people lived on the Blaskets til only about 50 years ago. They have been reclaimed by the seals and migratory birds who first made them their home epochs ago.

From the cliffs past Dingle one can survey the Blaskets not too far-off. On my first and only visit to date, a cold (but clear) December evening. I remember those great purple clouds, full of foreboding, magic and the distant sea… and they seemed to swell up over the Blaskets, dark strung like black pearls, hovering in the uncertain glimmer between fading dusk and the darkness of night.

To get to the cliffs where I stood, we needed to take the mountainous road that traversed rocks, sheep and time itself. As we made the ascent curious piles of stones could be seen every so often in the hillside above. These rounded triangular formations, I was told, were the legacy of ancient religion- the so-called “beehive huts” of the medieval monks, the preservers of Celtic culture and (as the Irish will even tell you robustly over a pint of Guinness), even of Greek knowledge and all Western civilization too, for that matter.

Surely, it was the solitude of the place that entranced the monks, and enticed them to deliver their ascetic souls to a wild and certainly uninhabited corner of old Eire. Although there is now a road and people occasionally traverse it, something of that ancient spirit survives. It haunts every wind-battered tree and unruly rocky field, and resounds meditatively up from the bottom of the cliffs, where the waves break and crash in turns.

From there on, the road goes up and up, sinuous stretching around curves and delicately over cliff-edges. At one point in the road, a stream has decided to cross – heedless of the rest of us – and its trickle is cause for a laugh; what appears to be the road to nowhere seems to be washing away before one’s eyes.

Like with the beehive huts, those enigmatic works of some eremitic order, the Blaskets themselves seem wary of time and alone on the edge of the world. Indeed, the southwest coast of Ireland is as far west as one can get in Europe; beyond it lays the barren unknown ocean.

The Blaskets too were almost unknown to the mainlanders even as recently as 100 years ago. The few hardy souls who inhabited them followed a harsh existence that could only be shaped by the sea: gales, gusts and winter storms; the cold and interminable black rollers; the very real dangers that came with setting off after fish in rickety boats made unsafe by wear and weather.

In his memoir, The Islandman, Tomas O’Croaghan recalls the now lost existence of a Blasket fisherman in the 1880’s. In it, we learn of many odd features of island life: clubbing seals for meat and oil-burning blubber; childish games and tricks; and the first time tea was drunk (a wooden box had washed up on the shore after a storm). We learn of simple village weddings, religious festivals, and the excitement that even a simple trip to Dingle roused.

Mostly, however, we are struck by the utter isolation in which the hundred or so villagers lived. O’Croaghan’s work – first published in Gaelic – is infused with a quiet grace that illuminates the bygone spirit of the Blaskets, inhospitable islands almost bare of vegetation and lashed by the lunging sea. The simplicity of the language used is the most touching aspect, perhaps. It is the simple story of a simple man and the generations he knew, the measured observations experience provided him, and the rough ways of a people unchanged for centuries. But above all, the book has spirit. It captures the archetypal Ireland that the poetics and mystics have recorded from so long ago: the spiritual connection between humans and nature; the cyclical pattern of existence, expressed in rituals; and the soft tones of music in the warm interior of a village pub.

From the cliffs beyond Dingle, one contemplates all of this in silence before heading back to the town, down the same streaming road, and past the same enigmatic beehive huts. Back in the little town, the evening hums to life with the sounds of the pubs. It is time for the songs of old times to once again be coaxed out of the old instruments where they sleep, and then to seep into the dark-wood of the walls, the tables, the feet of dancers and ruffians alike, the pints of stout and the voices of those who accompany them, those who would be poets or brawlers or comrades-in-arms, saucy tarts or melancholics or even tellers of fabulous tall tales. In short, it is time for the old Ireland of imagination to somehow come alive, in all its facets and tones, here on the very edge of the world.