Great Blasket Island is the largest of a remote group of rugged and isolated islands off the coast of mainland County Kerry. It is famous as the home of a group of writers, who produced some classic pieces of literature in the 1920s and 1930s, written in the Irish language and expressive of a distinctly Irish outlook on life.
Perhaps the most famous was Tomas O’Crimhthain, author of An Oilcanach, or The Islandman, a story depicting the extremely difficult life of the island people. O’Crimhthain and the other writers learned to speak and write in the original Irish languages, and their aim was to preserve the numerous oral folk tales of the region in writing. They elevated language to a higher art form that transcendded the poverty and difficulties experienced while living on Great Blasket.
At its most highly populated, Great Blasket Island was occupied by about 150-200 people. Young people emigrated at a consistent rate over the years, and there were only 22 people living on the island when it was finally abandoned in 1953.
Today, visitors reach the island by ferry. It is considered the westernmost point of the continent of Europe, and scientists believe that at one point in time, millions of years ago, the island was actually attached to the mainland.
Great Blasket Island is part of Dun Chaoin parish. Dun Chaoin is the mainland harbor town closest to the island, made famous as the location where the movie Ryan’s Daughter was filmed by director David Lean in 1969. At the time, the locals decried the film for its commercialism, but it sparked a rise in tourism to the area that continues to until today.
The ferry ride to Great Blasket Island is an adventure in itself, sometimes as rough as the landscape of the island with its steep cliffs, rocky paths and deserted village. Great Blasket, along with its sister islands, the Lesser Blaskets, were formerly called the Ferriter Islands. They were leased by a family of the same name from the Earls of Desmond in the 13th century. Sir Richard Boyle became the Ferriter’s landlord late in the 16th century.
Ferriter Castle once stood at castlepoint, on the edge of the village, but its remains were dismantled and used in the construction of a Protestant school on the island in 1840. The same school was closed in 1852 due to the ravages of the Famine.
The origin of the name Blasket remains a mystery. Some suggest that it is a Norse word and means “dangerous place”, a fitting name considering the barren isolation of the island. Its current population, which is made up mostly of rabbits, mice and shrew, thrive mainly because of the absence of weasels and foxes. Other wildlife residents include rats, hedgehogs, frogs and badgers.
Great Blasket Island features a large and varied sea bird population, including storm petrel, guillemots, puffins, razorbills, and Manx shearwater. They feed and nest on an island surface of heather, whins and furze that covers the layer of rich peat below.
For centuries, the inhabitants of Great Blasket Island struggled to make a living, cutting turf, growing a small plot of potatoes, while keeping a cow and perhaps a few sheep. Fresh and salted fish was a large part of their diet, and many caught mackerel and lobsters to transport and sell on the mainland.
Blasket Island’s population increased somewhat when many victims of Lord Ventry’s evictions arrived. The maximum number of houses on the island at one time was 30, and the five two storey houses erected in 1909 at the top of the village by the government are visibly different from the rest. The classic island cottage was made up of a kitchen, lower room, and a loft, with a small loft above the fireplace for storage. It only had one door, whereas similar structures on the mainland had two.
The island inhabitants were so isolated that in order to reach a priest, doctor, or even the shops, they had to travel three miles by boat and then five miles over land to the town. Great Blasket Island remains isolated today; a visit there is like a trip back in time. There are no cars, phone lines, or televisions.
Natural beauty is in full bloom, however, in the form of an immaculate strand of white beach. Together with the wild sea and cliff scenery, visitors have good reason to say that the entire trip is well worth the effort.