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Great Blasket Island (County Kerry, Ireland)

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Country: Ireland

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      28.05.2010 22:09
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      A windswept remnant of an age past, sublimely scenic

      At the farthest western extremity of Ireland, the farthest western extremity of Europe, a gnarled ancient tendril of sandstone thrusts its defiant knuckle out into an unforgiving ocean. It's a land of dramatic contrasts: of staggering mountains and sublime beaches, of verdant farmland and tiny fishing ports both clinging to the links of land between the hills and the sea. A place steeped in history and pre-history, drenched in deep and deeper magic, and whose economy is worryingly dependant on one renegade dolphin.

      Welcome to the Dingle peninsula: one of the greatest cul-de-sacs on Earth.


      Westward Ho!
      ==========

      Most visitors start from Tralee, and its fleshpots (round here the Rose of Tralee festival and a big windmill are all you'd need to get St Brendan's Y-Fronts in a knot) are ideal contrast for what is to come. The drive west begins under the watchful turrets of the Slieve Mish mountains and the fabulous ancient hill fort of Caherconree, before the traveller can choose between the north and south coasts: both scenically splendid but with attendant risks: the north risks death on the narrow Conor Pass road, the south risks madness with the sight of the colour scheme of the Randy Leprechaun pub/hostel at Annascaul. But with a bit of luck and a following wind (which you'll never get: it's inevitably a westerly on Dingle) these hazards can be survived, and once the stupendous mountain massif of Brandon is behind you you'll arrive at the bustling port of Dingle town. You won't see it called that on any signposts, for this is An Daingean, and the hub of this avowedly Gaeltacht region. Gaeltacht is an Irish word meaning an Irish-speaking region, and the refusal of the road signs to feature any English equivalents is part of Irish government policy to attempt to preserve and restore the usage of the language.

      And from Dingle town onwards, this really does contribute to a sense of 'otherness'. Sheltered from the morning sun and the outside world by Brandon's overpowering bulk (on the one-in-a-million days when the mountain doesn't have a cloud riveted to its top), the far west of the peninsula is an extraordinary landscape, not so much suggestive of the past as utterly cemented in it. The road eking an existence around Slea Head is one of the most majestic in these isles, but it's the prehistory of the area that you remember: the tottering Iron Age fort of Dun Beag, the remarkable array of beehive huts dotting the slopes of Mount Eagle, and especially the timeless ancient stone church at Gallarus. This amazing peninsula finally gives out at Dunmore Head, the most westerly point of the Irish mainland, but as you look out to sea hereabouts you will notice a substantial chunk of land attended by a few less-substantial-but-still-jagged crumbs anchored a few miles beyond. Some say it resembles a church roof: I'm not Catholic so I think it looks like a haphazardly-carved half-melted bar of Toblerone. This is Great Blasket Island, a fabulous place for anyone who wants yet more from Dingle without going to the hassle of the oft-mentioned 'next parish', best described as 'America'.

      While tame of outline compared with the fairytale turrets of the Skelligs to the south, or even with its own satellite islands of Inishnabro, Inishvickillane and Inishtooskert (the latter looking like St Brendan comatose in the sea after a particularly fine night out), Great Blasket has a fine external countenance: stern yet beautiful. The island runs for four miles from the semi-yielding (landing spot, village, beach, less rocks than most places) north-east to the forbidding (cliffs, boiling ocean, death) south-west, never more than ¾ of a mile wide, the land quickly tapering up from the sea to a high, well-defined ridge with three obvious tops, the highest of which is the most southerly, Croaghmore. The south flank of the ridge tarries in a convex fashion before falling into the water, but the north/west aspect plummets almost a thousand feet from the summit straight to the depths, a tottering mass of rock and scree left behind when that side of the island broke off in a storm, probably. It seems a very harsh place to live.

      Which nobody does anymore. But they used to.


      'The island it is silent now, but the ghosts still haunt the waves...'
      ===============================================

      Nobody seems sure exactly from when the Blaskets were inhabited: according to one author the first dwellers settled in 1710, while the captain's log of a Spanish vessel records the islands being awash with Spanish speakers in 1597. Either of these may be true (although I'm not betting much on the latter), but chances are the monks got there first: they always did in the west of Ireland. Regardless, the community ebbed and flowed, living off (initially) the land and (latterly, predominantly) the sea from then until 1953 when the last 22 islanders were evacuated to the mainland. Rather than my continuing on in a flippant manner on this subject, you might want to read this, which spells out the history of the island with fewer Father Ted references:

      http://www.dingle-peninsula.ie/blaskets.html

      But the history of the Blaskets was a matter of record long before Tim Berners-Lee came along. For this remote little outpost was the site of a veritable explosion of native literature in the early part of the 20th Century, as various visiting scholars encouraged the Islanders to document the details of their punishing existence. And so it was that such authors as Tomás Ó Criomhthain ( The Islandman, 1937) and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin ( Twenty Years A-Growing, 1933) used the Irish language to tell their tales of fishing, of drinking sour milk and stuffing sheep's intestines, and of being unable to reach the mainland for weeks on end.Yet another figure is somehow synonymous with the writings of Great Blasket. And if you see a woman in traditional dress roaming the paths of the island or loitering by the side of the road near Dunquin on the mainland (where she was born, and from where you catch the ferry), a woman with the sort of wind-blasted face that resembles the leather on the back seat of a 1970s car that's been torched and thrown into a disused quarry, and she asks if you want to hear about the ghastly hardships the Islanders had to live through...it might be Peig Sayers, a lady who arguably did almost as much damage to the Irish rural way of life as the Great Potato Famine. Run.


      The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn
      ===================

      Peig Sayers lived from 1873 to 1958, and having been born on the mainland she moved to Great Blasket once she married an islander. She stayed there until the 1953 evacuation, and during her time on the island she was responsible for two books: a collection of folk tales (Sayers was greatly revered as a traditional story teller or seanchaí) entitled An Old Woman's Reflections and an autobiography, Peig. Ironically, given their places as cornerstones of Irish literature, Sayers was illiterate in the language, and both were dictated to others who then translated them. Maybe those translators did the lady a gross disservice, and maybe it's them that should shoulder the blame. Maybe the lady herself was actually a right barrel of laughs?

      Because for many years Peig was required reading in Irish secondary schools when teaching the language, and as such was in a position of enormous influence upon generations of Irish children. Those setting the curriculum weren't to know (although they were pig-headed in sticking with it), but its use backfired spectacularly. The veracity and passion of the writing cannot be doubted, but it's just too good at painting a picture of misery and sorrow: imagine the Monty Python 'Four Yorkshiremen' sketch played dead straight.

      'We were poor, but we were happy. Without the happiness. Repeat. Etc.'

      As a result, legions of children associated the Irish language with strife, anguish, depravation and terrible weather: a decent dose of Peig Sayers meant the city dwellers all stayed put, and a large swathe of the rural community thought 'feck this for a game of soldiers' and decided to join them.

      (I did once leaf through a translation of Peig in the duty free shop at Kerry Airport, just to see if its grim reputation was deserved. Maybe the dourness was leavened by a knockabout section describing Great Blasket's Chinatown area, or the hilarious time they entered A Song For Ireland? Alas, no. I quote:

      'I am an old woman now, with one foot in the grave and the other on its edge. I have experienced much ease and much hardship from the day I was born until this very day. Had I known in advance half, or even one-third, of what the future had in store for me, my heart wouldn't have been as gay or as courageous it was in the beginning of my days.'

      Thank Christ they never got electricity on Great Blasket...some poor sod might have become trapped in a lift with her. I went back to buying childish comedy presents for my loved ones...like you do).

      Anyway, let us arise and go now, and go to Great Blasket.


      An Acre (and a bit) of Grass
      ====================

      While it is possible to catch a boat from Dingle, my friend Dave and I chose to leave from the little pier at Dunquin. The Blasket Islands ferry is signposted from the 'main' (cough) road, and there is a fair amount of parking (although it'll be cluttered on a good day). A little wooden booth is adjacent, and we paid our 25 Euro each for a return trip. (See the website link at the end for the alternative 'eco-tour' that circles the island without landing on it. It'll also give you an idea of the intervals at which the ferry runs, although it would be comically foolish to consider it to constitute anything as concrete as 'a timetable'). From here a steep enclosed concrete path snaked its way down to sea level where we awaited the boat in the warm and languid late morning.

      After a minor disappointment with discovering the first (rather swish) motorboat that turned up was nothing to do with the ferry, it wasn't long before a slightly more barnacle-bottomed (but reassuringly sturdy, in a 'would meet with Chief Brody's approval in 'Jaws'' sort of way) vessel arrived to take us to the island. Twenty five or so of us were quickly aboard, and soon the good ship Oilean na n-Og (which translates as 'marooning Englishmen who make jokes about the potato famine since 1916', possibly) was on its way. The sea was calm and the crossing undramatic, so attention could be focussed on the stunning archipelago surrounding us. The trip takes twenty minutes, and soon we were all toting lifejackets and preparing to transfer to the motorised dinghy from which a landing is made. This was a slightly nervy process for me (climbing down a ladder, balancing on the edge before stepping in: 'I mean, I'm not as good a swimmer as I used to be...thanks to evolution') but I remained dry and the craft chugged into the tightly enclosed rocky cove (totally impossible for the Oilean na n-Og) before we were jumping out again onto the jetty. An inelegant clamber up an uneven ramp of slightly slippery waterwashed rock later (you may have gathered that this trip is sadly impractical for the infirm), and the relaxation of true terra firma was ours. The ramp quickly became a rough uphill track bending round to the right into the remains of the village: we didn't linger as a) there were loads of people about and b) we planned to explore it properly on the way back to the boat.

      Instead, we stayed on the old road up to the highest of the derelict houses as we set out on a round trip to the highest point of the island, Croaghmore. Soon the track abuts against the rearing nose of the island's spine and forks: we took the left around the southern flank of the ridge. Up till now the walking had been on stony paths, symptomatic of the island's solid skirting board of lava-formed rock, but now all was delightful springy turf that could be covered barefoot by anyone capable of recognising a sheep dropping when they see it. It's still steepish mind you, but the backwards view over the village and over to the mainland gives reasonable excuses to stop. And when the initial climb eases off at a right hand bend, the view in front makes you forget the oxygen debt anyway: the sea licks at the island shoreline stretching into the distance, and over the waves the bulky Iveragh peninsula stretches and strains for the gothic outlines of the Skelligs.

      (Assuming you can see anything, obviously).

      The path contours around the side of the first top on the ridge to the proceeding col, but we struck straight uphill on a thinner track to get the views on both sides as soon as we could. Looking down to the sea we could spy what we guessed was the eco-tour boat skimming along a few hundred yards out. Whilst we never sighted anything more than goats, sheep and seagulls from our assorted belvederes, the island's coastal fauna is justly revered: seals, dolphins, whales and sharks can be seen, and that's without touching upon the absolute army of sea birds. The flora is renowned too, but anyone who's seen my garden knows better than to trust any information I might impart on that subject.

      On reaching the ridge we realised that this was going to be a good day: the walk had been very pleasant up until now, but the onward mossy parapet was obviously a truly fabulous promenade. The gentlest of inclines led up to a ruined signal tower, a relic of the Napoleonic Wars, abandoned but intact until it lost an argument with a bolt of lightning about a hundred years later. This is the first of several military remnants to be seen: there aren't many places on Great Blasket that aren't superb vantage points.

      Now the ridge descended genially to the next col, where the two paths that left the fork above the village reunite at a spot christened by the villagers (with out-of-character levity) 'The Traffic Lights'. (It should be noted that simply making the circle formed by the two arms of the fork, preferably clockwise, is an easier but intensely rewarding alternative). Just as it was in days of yore, this seemed to be a place of congregation on our visit, so we 'crossed the road' and plodded on up the steeper rise to second of the three tops: Slievedonagh. Just below the summit to the right of the path is the formidable promontory fort of Doon: a retreat and sanctuary dating from the Iron Age. Lunch was taken atop one of the twin earth banks defending the landward side, whilst agreeing that anyone who got up the beetling 900ft sea cliff beyond probably deserved their conquest. It goes without saying that a degree of caution (especially with children) is prudent hereabouts.

      And that state of affairs stays in place from hereon in, as the descent from Slievedonagh and the ensuing climactic climb up to Croaghmore are accompanied by a gently descending meadow on the left, and a very impressive precipice on the right. That said, if you put aside the possibility of a heroically messy demise down these subtly monikered 'Fatal Cliffs' then the walking is easy and the outlook sublime. 250ft down and 300ft up led to the highest point: a place for contemplation, reverie and Pringles. To the north the ground collapsed completely down an awesome chasm straight to the water (Ireland does rather specialise in these colossal coastal declivities), to the south the gentler incline acted as a velvety foreground for the view of distant Iveragh, to the north-east the graceful wedge of the island was framed between the mainland heights of Cruach Mhartain and Mount Eagle, and finally to the south-west the land declined to meet the ocean: the two jagged outposts of Inishnabro and Inishvickillane (both of which are somehow wreathed in mist on an otherwise cloudless day: I bet King Kong lives there) were all that remained.

      One could continue onwards to the island's utmost tip: here, by the looks of things, you'd find more cliffs. Not so high as the Fatal ones, but probably still fatal. So most folk, muttering about discretion being the better part of valour and wanting to take no chances with the whole 'getting marooned' thing will turnabout and head for home. Back over Slievedonagh we went to The Traffic Lights, before bearing left and following the other arm of the old road back to the village. One is more likely to encounter all sorts of human life from hereon in, such as the gentleman in the Hull City football shirt and flip-flops carrying an Aldi shopping bag that we passed, but everyone seemed aware that Great Blasket is a place to be quiet and considerate for your fellow man: it's not an Irish-themed pub in Ibiza, that's for sure.

      The road was almost ludicrously easy going with its gentle-but-steady downhill gradient and cushioned turf. It passed over the top of another cliff (careful now) known as the Sorrowful Slope, where fourteen fishermen perished in the nineteenth century when an unexpected storm (a concept worth remembering once you're on the island) dashed their crafts onto the rocks below: apparently their womenfolk watched from the titular slope, supposedly helpless but more likely thinking 'this will make a cracking chapter in my book'. A final bend brought the village back into view ahead: below was White Strand, a quite bewitching little beach whose charms were eschewed because a) we're greedy and we like to have stuff like that to ourselves, and b) it wasn't getting us closer to the ferry. So, the village then.

      Dappled across the slope facing the mainland were the 20-30 houses that comprised all the human habitation on Blasket. Some of them were obviously kept well-maintained: presumably this included the hostel and café currently closed due to a land dispute involving the government and a private individual over ownership of the island (At least it looked closed, but the dispute was allegedly settled in 2007 so it might be as well to do your own research). Most of them were gaunt tangles of broken-down walls, collapsed roofs and creeping vegetation. But on this glorious late summer's day, no amount of wishing and dreaming could conjure up what I really wanted from the place.

      There most likely are times when the aura and elements that made Great Blasket such a tough place to live are still to be felt, when the wind battering the hell out of the disused buildings can tell you what forged this community and how it came to be so revered and documented. But not today: not on a day of shirt sleeves, sunglasses and 'do you want another Penguin Dave?' 'Don't mind if I do.' The island is beautiful and always will be, but today its failing (if indeed it is a failing) was that the beauty was too benign. There simply wasn't a Marmite tang to the village in conditions like this, and the chances were that on the more 'atmospheric' days the ferry won't run anyway: if the island could get cut off for long enough in 1947 for an emergency call to the Taoisaich Eamon de Valera to be made, they're unlikely to take any chances with a boatload of tourists. So we pottered, took a few photos, and decided we'd try to make the 3pm ferry.


      Boys from the County Hell
      ===================

      We arrived back at the landing cove at 2:45pm, just in time to see the 3pm ferry skipping across the waves in an 'already departed' fashion. This sort of thing happens in Ireland, so we settled down on the rocks to wait for the next one, satisfied that at least we'd be at the front of the queue and it was a nice spot to queue anyway. When the next boat did arrive (about an hour later) we discovered one remaining benefit to speaking Irish: you can walk to the front of that queue and nobody bats an eyelid, least of all the two slack-jawed English interlopers who couldn't help but admire their cheek.

      Once again nobody died in the dinghy-ladder-boat agenda, so full marks on the safety front. We even had another go at the dinghy when we reached Dunquin: presumably a falling tide had rendered the pier too dicey for the Oilean na n-Og to approach. Only reversing the steep path remained and the final critical decision of the day.

      'Shall we do the Heritage Centre, or that ice cream shop in Dingle?'

      'What would Peig Sayers have done?'

      'Right so. Ice cream it is then.'


      =====

      Nearest airport is Kerry, plentiful accommodation. Public transport slim to non-existant: you really need a car I'm afraid.

      The route we followed on the island is taken from Kerry Walks by Kevin Corcoran, available locally: I'll ignore his stats and say it's 5 miles with about 1400ft of ascent: to be leisurely, allow four hours. OSI Map 70 is a wise investment too.

      We used (we think: you never can tell in Ireland) the Blasket Islands Ferry. Details of their sailings can be found here: http://www.blasketislands.ie/

      The trip can also be made from Dingle. Slightly longer, slightly more expensive. You might see Fungi the Dolphin though. All sailings should be considered 'seasonal', and unless the weather is set fair and fabulous it's wise to check in advance.

      The Great Blasket Heritage centre is at the north end of Dunquin, and comes highly recommended by folk more determinedly cultural and less vulnerable to ice cream than Dave and me.

      Murphy's Ice Cream, Dingle: http://www.murphysicecream.ie/
      Nom nom nom...

      (Previously on Ciao: for the benefit of DooYooers, on my last visit the Dingle roadsigns had started to acquire Anglicised placenames as well as Irish ones...this may or may not continue to be the case).

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