#6: A WORLD YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW EXISTED. The Blasket Islands, a tiny
grouping only a few square miles off the west Irish coast of the Dingle Peninsula, produced, between 1929 and 1953, two generations of memoirs that must be some sort of record for literary production per square foot. These include The Islandman, by Tomas O’Crohan, the first and most famous of the Blasket memoirs, and a later book, Island Cross Talk; An Old Woman's Reflections and Peig, by Peig Sayers; A Pity Youth Does Not Last, by Peig’s poet-son Micheal O’Guiheen; Letters from the Great Blasket, by Eibhlis Ni Shuilleabhain; and Robin Flower’s affecting historical account, The Western Island. Of all of them my favorite is Maurice O’Sullivan’s Twenty Year A-Growing; O’Sullivan has the natural blood of storytelling in him, and the peculiar sweet intimacy of his language brings you further into the bare, rapt life of the islands than you could hope. The book is still in print from Oxford, and one feels about it as E.M. Forster wrote in his preface: “Here is the egg of a sea-bird—lovely, perfect, and laid this very morning.”
In 1969, belatedly translated in 1992, came the epilogue to the Blasket biographies, A Day in Our Life, by Sean O’Crohan, who was son to Tomas O’Crohan and husband to Eibhlis Ni Shuilleabhain. It is the story of the dispersed island community, and in anecdote, style and pungent humor the worthy equal of its predecessors—indeed, in its delight in any show of explosive temper one sees the source of the wild humor so often remarked on in Synge.
A splendid recent addition to the Blasket library is On an Irish Island, by Robert Kanigel (Knopf, 2012), which recounts not just the life of the islands and its writers but of the students, scholars and translators of Irish who fell under the spell of the place and carried the news of it to the world outside. It has the appeal of a group of people who regarded each other with respect and love, and of re-encountering names—Kuno Meyer, Marie-Louise Sjoestedt, George Thomson—familiar to any student of Irish lore. “Nineteen twenty-three was barely yesterday, a lot like today,” Kanigel begins, but he knows too how distant the world of the Blaskets truly was—and makes us understand the people who were so in hopes of evoking it before it passed.