Not long ago I reported on some ‘small road’ works close by our home in West Cork. Whenever we travel here in Ireland, we are on the lookout for ‘byways’ … very narrow routes, seldom used, but which often traverse the most scenic landscapes. For some – such as today’s example – you have to be fairly brave, and prepared to travel a long way in reverse if necessary!
We were coming back from a day out in Kenmare, aiming for our West Cork home. There’s a corner of the Beara Peninsula – within Kerry – that we had never explored before so we headed out to revisit the little church at Dawros, Tuosist parish. We have always been fascinated by the stone basin that is in the church grounds, mounted on crude pillars – I have seen it described as a ‘baptismal font’:
From the church we went north, over a mountain road which eventually connected to the main N71 towards West Cork, Glengariff, and home.
It looks straightforward enough on the Google map – and there are no turnings, so you can’t get lost! The winding route from Dawros to the N71 is about 10 kilometres. If you could go in a straight line it would be about half that distance! During our whole journey on that mountain road we didn’t see a single vehicle (but we can’t guarantee that would always be the case).
The early OS map (upper) and aerial view (lower) give an impression of the topography over part of the route. The field boundaries are fascinating – and obviously ancient: sweeping linear enclosures cascading down the slopes. From the early map we can see that the road we travelled (known in part as Gortnabinny Road – marked in green) did not actually reach the main Kenmare to Glengarriff road in those times. It presumably just served remote settlements and lonely holdings.
It couldn’t have been a better day for the drama of sunshine and clouds that outlined the valleys and hills. There is little sign, here, of a drought that is causing problems on farms and in town gardens. When distant views opened up, we were treated to some of the finest vistas in our counties.
Against the drama of the surrounding peaks we felt secure in our little vehicle which progressed steadily along the narrowest of boreens. Our only living companions in this place were sheep, easy to discern because of their brightly dyed coats.
While driving on roads such as this is a richly rewarding experience, you also need to get out and encounter the wildlife close-up.
We are always on the lookout for adventures, and we don’t have to be travelling far away from home in order to find them. In our experience, the ‘small roads of Ireland’ – wherever they are – can take us to unexplored territory.
The significant stone circle at Kenmare is an unusual monument in several respects. It is said to be the largest stone circle in the south west of Ireland, oval in shape and measuring 17.4 x 15.8m. It seems intact: I found no record of any intervention or ‘improvement’ to the circle, which consists of an oval ring of 15 stones with a central ‘boulder burial’. Although situated very close to the main streets of this Kerry town, it has often been described as ‘hard to find’. I can remedy that – here’s a present-day location map:
The site is just a few minutes’ walk from the centre of Kenmare and now has its own dedicated car park beside it. The circle is very ‘tidy’ and well looked after. A nominal entrance fee is requested, the funds being put towards the maintenance of the area.
While the circle is fairly well enclosed nowadays by a ring of tall trees, the vista would previously have been more open with extensive views. Quarrying has taken place in the vicinity in past years. Here is the historic 6″ OS map showing the site as it was around the late nineteenth century.
The archaeology.ie Historic Environment Viewer gives a brief, sober description of the site:
. . . In level pasture, on the SW outskirts of Kenmare town. A subcircular area (17m E-W; 15m N-S) is enclosed by fifteen stones (L 0.8-1.6m; T 0.2-0.7m; H 0.3-1.2m), two of which are prostrate. The axial stone is the lowest and is a regular flat-topped slab contrasting with most of the other stones, which with one or two exceptions, are of boulder type. A boulder-burial (KE093-032002-) occupies the centre of the stone circle. (Ó Nualláin 1984a, 26, no. 41) . . .
I was disappointed in my search for an antiquarian’s account of this circle: Ó Nualláin (quoted above) and others have included it in general lists of such monuments. I was hoping for some speculation on its significant size, and on the large central boulder, itself a slightly unusual feature within a stone circle.
. . . Boulder Burial – A large boulder or capstone of megalithic proportions, resting on a number of supporting stones, usually three or four in number, which, in most cases, do not form a recognisable chamber structure. Excavations suggest a Bronze Age date for this burial monument (c. 2400-500 BC) . . .
Archaeology.IE Monument Classification
Finola has pointed out, however, that there is no conclusive evidence for assuming that these ‘boulder burials’ are – well – principally burials.
. . . William O’Brien [Professor of Archaeology UCC] excavated three boulder burials in the late 1980s and found no evidence of burials. In his book, Iverni, he comments in an understated way, “The absence of human remains at Cooradarrigan and Ballycommane does pose some questions as to their use.” His findings dated the sites to the Middle Bronze Age, between 3000 and 3,500 years ago . . .
Finola Finlay, Roaringwater Journal
So, should we perhaps call them ‘elevated stones’? Visually, they are certainly always striking. This one at Kenmare is said to weigh around 7 tons. Bearing in mind the stones in this circle are likely to originate some few miles distant, we can imagine the efforts required to assemble them. O’Brien dates the boulder burials he studied to 1000 or 1500 BC. This would tie in with the general thinking that stone circles were Bronze Age also.
The two drawings above are from Jack Roberts. On his survey (top) I have superimposed an oval template which confirms the suggestion that the Kenmare ‘circle’ is egg-shaped. In the lower sketch view – probably dating from the 1980s – the stones appear to be out in the open, free from the present-day tree shielding.
While it is generally implied that all the stones in this monument were placed at the same time, there is always the possibility that there might have been an evolution in its construction. By that I mean that we could speculate that the ‘boulder burial’ stone was placed first and the circle came afterwards – perhaps to enhance its setting. Or vice versa.
This photograph clearly shows the recumbent stone. Many of the circles in south west Ireland are known as axial circles, where a ‘recumbent’ stone (seemingly placed on its long edge) may provide a horizon viewing point when observed from a ‘portal’ of two stones at the opposite side. The orientation axis created by this observation is usually from north east towards south west (as is the case here). Where a stone circle has a clear horizon (such as Drombeg, in West Cork) it has been noted that this alignment faces the setting sun at midsummer solstice.
As you can see from these close studies of some of the individual stones (above) there are quite significant differences in their shape and character within the circle. It has been suggested (elsewhere) that the shapes and the relative placing of the stones is significant. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ stones have been suggested – but this is yet more speculation.
As far as we can see there are no ancient markings on the stones at Kenmare (except for a possible single cup-mark on the upper surface of the boulder burial), but I am fascinated by the lichen shapes and textures on one particular stone (above). This is ‘nature’s art’, of course.
It’s impossible to ignore the two ‘fairy’ hawthorn trees that have been established within the vicinity of the stones. In my opinion it was an inspiration to exploit the idea of visitors purchasing ‘message cards’ from the site kiosk and writing down their own thoughts and personal wishes, which are then tied on to the branches. That’s Finola, above, being affected by the rainbow fairy vibes. She has written her own post today specifically on this aspect of the place. My favourite message is this one, below:
We are often invited to join our friends Amanda and Peter Clarke on their journeys of exploration into the wild places of West Cork and Kerry. We even stray over into Limerick on occasion! And it’s usually all to do with Holy Wells. Amanda has been writing about them for years, and you can find her accounts of them in Holy Wells of Cork & Kerry, here.
Recently we were at Loo Bridge, near Kilgarvan, Co Kerry. There’s a well there – Tobar na Naomh – All Saint’s Well, and there’s a lively account of it in the Dúchas Schools Folklore Collection. Evidently a ‘band of Saints’ travelling over the mountain to Gougane Barra stopped at this well for refreshment. One of them (St Finnbarr) left his spectacles behind and didn’t realise it until he was a long way up the steep path. Fortunately, there were so many of his companions that he was able to pass a message back down to those who were still starting off from the well and the spectacles were retrieved! But – because they were holy spectacles, they left their imprint on the rock at the well – forever. There it is in the picture above.
There are several crosses etched into the stones around this well by visitors. It’s wonderful to think of the continuity of those pilgrims seeking out the well and keeping its veneration alive – probably through countless generations.
Another well on our agenda involved us walking over a long, muddy trackway. We could see the prints of the feet of other travellers: the top pic looks like bear paws (although perhaps more likely to be badgers), whereas the cloven hoof above is either Satan or a deer. We met none of these on the path that led, eventually, towards the Wells of St Peter and St Paul.
St Peter’s well is clearly defined (above, with Amanda looking on). Beyond it is a weather-worn shrine with a Calvary depiction. It’s quite a surprise to find such a substantial life-sized scene in a remote wood.
A little way to the east of St Peter is St Paul (above). He looks down on his own well. Note the modern mugs, implying that the well is still in use.
Both St Peter and St Paul share their feast day on 29th June. This is the day when these wells should be visited.
The 6″ OS map, above, dates from the late 19th century. St Peter’s well is marked on it, while St Paul’s only gets mentioned as a spring. Not far to the south is a railway line: The Great Southern Railway: Headford Junction to Kenmare. This was opened in 1890 and closed in 1959. While the track itself is long gone, many features can be traced. We stopped at Loo Bridge where the old station remains, as does an adjacent steel river crossing.
I am always saddened to see abandoned railway lines: they could so easily have had a new lease of life in our present environmentally conscious world. Regardless of their potential functionality, ‘heritage railways’ are also highly popular tourist destinations. I’m afraid, however, that the work and costs now required to recover them is unlikely to be invested any time soon, unless there is a big change in attitude and priority.
Lost railways and fading wells: unlikely bedfellows for a day out in Kerry. But our travels are always fulfilling, and diversity is the essence. In Ireland we can never run out of places to visit, or matters to be researched and recorded. Join us again, on our next expedition!
The fine map, above, was drawn in 1375 and is attributed to Abraham Cresques (courtesy Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division). it is known generally as the Atlas Catalan. What interests us is that it depicts two islands off the west and south-west coasts of Ireland (see detail below): Hy-Brasil and Demar. These landfalls are shown on maps since then through the centuries, the last depiction being in 1865.
We look out to the hundred Carbery Islands in Roaringwater bay. The view (above) is always changing as sun, rain and wind stir up the surface of the sea and the sky and clouds create wonderful panoramas. But, generally, the view is predictable: we know that Horse island will be across from us, and Cape Clear will always be on the distant horizon, while the smaller islets break up the surface of the ocean in-between, and help calm down its wildness when the storms come.
But, suppose it wasn’t always predictable? What if those islands changed, moved around or appeared and disappeared? It seems that such things do happen, here in Ireland. At least, they do according to some of the recorded evidence. ‘Mythical Islands’ have been mentioned by mariners and storytellers through the centuries.
Our best source of information for Ireland’s ‘transcendent’ islands is our old friend Thomas Westropp (above, kitted out for an expedition) who was an archaeologist and folklorist living between 1860 and 1922. He was active in Counties Clare and Limerick and wrote a paper for The Royal Academy in 1912 – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic: Their History and Fable. This comprehensive paper includes a list of evanescent islands, a new map drawn by Westropp, and a summary of historic maps which have located them:
Westropp’s exploration of the subject is remarkably comprehensive. Here are some extracts:
. . . Bran son of Febal, sleeping near his fort, hears sweet music, and awakes to seize a magic apple branch. An unknown woman sings of “a glorious island round which sea-horses glisten – a fair course against the white swelling surge.” In it dwells no wailing, treachery, death, or sickness; it glows many-coloured in incomparable haze, with snowy cliff’s and strands of dragon-stones and crystals. She vanishes, and Bran, with twenty-seven followers, embarks. They meet the sea-god Mananann mac Lir in his chariot, visit Magh Mell, the Isle of Laughter, and the Isle of Women, whose queen draws Bran to it by a magic clue. Entranced by love, the visitors do not note the flight of time; in apparently undiminished youth and strength they return to Ireland; it is only when the first to step ashore falls to ashes, as if centuries dead, that they know the truth. The survivors tell their tale without landing, and sail out into the deep, never to be seen again . . .
Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912
. . . The Sunken Land. I found no name for this in north Mayo save when it was confused with Manister Ladra. Belief in it prevailed in north Erris and Tirawley from Dunminulla to Downpatrick. In 1839 it was said to extend from near Teelin to the Stags of Broadhaven and thence half way to America. A boatman knew a woman named Lavelle who saw from the shore (when gathering Carrigeen moss) a delightful country of hills and valleys, with sheep browsing on the slopes, cattle in green pastures, and clothes drying on the hedges. A Ballycastle boatman, a native of Co. Sligo, corroborated this, adding that he had seen it twice at intervals of seven years, and if he lived to see it a third time he would be able to disenchant it. He could talk of nothing else, became idle and useless, and died, worn out and miserable, on the very eve of the expected third appearance . . .
Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912
. . . Owen Gallagher, Lieutenant Henri’s servant, heard of one Biddy Took, who, when gathering dillish (seaweed), asked some passing boatmen to put her out to an islet and fetch her back on their return : amused by her talk they brought her fishing, and soon got a ” tremendous bite.” They landed a green, fishy-looking child, quite human in shape, and in their fright let him escape and dive. The man who hooked him died suddenly within a year. Gallagher also said that he had fired at and wounded a seal; soon after, when far out to sea in his currach, he got lost in a fog-bank and reached an unknown island. An old man, moaning, with one eye blinded, stood on the shore and proved to be the seal. With more than human forgiveness, he warned his enemy to fly from the land of the seal men, lest his (the seal’s) sons and friends should avenge the cruelty . . .
Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912
. . . The Aran people now believe that Brasil is seen only once in seven years. They call it the Great Land. In Clare, I have heard from several fishermen at Kilkee and elsewhere that they had seen it ; they also told legends of people lost when trying to reach it. I myself have seen the illusion some three times in my boyhood, and even made a rough coloured sketch after the last event, in the summer of 1872. It was a clear evening, with a fine golden sunset, when, just as the sun went down, a dark island suddenly appeared far out to sea, but not on the horizon. It had two hills, one wooded ; between these, from a low plain, rose towers and curls of smoke. My mother, brother, Ralph Hugh Westropp, and several friends saw it at the same time; one person cried that he could “see New York ” ! With such realistic appearance (and I have since seen apparent islands in 1887 in Clare, and in 1910 in Mayo), it is not wonderful that the belief should have been so strong, probably from the time when Neolithic man first looked across the Atlantic from our western coast. It coloured Irish thought ; stood for the pagan Elysium and the Christian Paradise of the Saints ; affected the early map-makers ; and sent Columbus over the trackless deep to see wonders greater than Maelduin and Brendan were fabled to have seen, till Antilha, Verde, and Brazil became replaced by real islands and countries ; and the birds, flowers, and fruit of the Imrama by those of the gorgeous forests of the Amazon in the real Brazil. ” Admiration is the first step leading up to knowledge, for he that wondereth shall reign.” . . .
Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912
Above is the view from our house – Nead an Iolair – a day or two ago, when a strong sea mist was coming across from the south-west, enveloping Cape Clear and making it float ethereally like one of the mythical islands. Other writers have tackled the subject of the vanishing lands, including Joseph Jacobs, who put together a collection of stories in 1919. The subject is ‘Wonder Voyages’, and the book (available online here) covers some of Ireland’s adventurers, including Máel Dúin – a predecessor of Brendan the Voyager.
Máel Dúin sets out ‘into the limitless ocean’, suggesting that ‘God will bring the boat where it needs to go’. He and his crew encounter a large number of strange islands, including:
The island of ants, from which the men flee because the ants’ intention is to eat their boat
The island of tame birds
The island of the horse-like beast who pelts the crew with the beach
The island of horses and demons
The island of salmon, where they find an empty house filled with a feast and they all eat, drink, and give thanks to Almighty God.
The island with the branch of an apple tree, where they are fed with apples for 40 nights
The island of the “Revolving Beast”, a creature that would shift its form by manipulating its bones, muscles, and loose skin; it casts stones at the escaping crew and one pierces the keel of the boat
The island where animals bite each other and blood is everywhere
The island of apples, pigs, and birds
The island with the great fort/pillars/cats where one of the foster brothers steals a necklet and is burned to ashes by the cat
The island of black and white sheep, where sheep change colours as they cross the fence; the crewmen do not go aboard this island for fear of changing colour
The island of the swineherd, which contained an acidic river and hornless oxen
The island of the ugly mill and miller, who was “wrinkled, rude, and bareheaded”
The island of lamenting men and wailing sorrows, where they had to retrieve a crewman who entered the island and became one of the lamenting men; they saved him by grabbing him while holding their breath
The island with maidens and intoxicating drink
The island with forts and the crystal bridge, where there is a maiden who is propositioned to sleep with Máel Dúin
The island of colourful birds singing like psalms
The island with the psalm-singing old man with noble monastic words
The island with the golden wall around it
The island of angry smiths
The crew voyaged on and came across a sea like a green crystal. Here, there were no monsters but only rocks. They continued on and came to a sea of clouds with underwater fortresses and monsters.
The island with a woman pelting them with nuts
The island with a river sky that was raining salmon
The island on a pedestal
The island with eternal youth/women (17 maidens)
The island with red fruits that were made as a sleeping elixir
The island with monks of Brendan Birr, where they were blessed
The island with eternal laughter, where they lost a crewman
It’s clear that, in the shared Irish psyche, we are aware of places that we can’t always see, or visit. it’s all part of a folk knowledge that’s largely hidden away, except in the memories of older generations, that relates to the sea, and the idea that there are races of people who live on ‘lost’ islands – or even in the sea. In some of the stories about the islands it is suggested that, when they vanish, it’s because they have submerged under the ocean – perhaps temporarily.
There’s a great collection of stories readily available in a series of podcasts known as Blúiríní Béaloidis / Folklore Fragments. Look out for the one titled Blúiríní Béaloidis 16 – Otherworld Islands In Folk Tradition. I have transcribed one of my favourite pieces from this podcast, and will finish this post with it. It summarises, very neatly, the tradition that other worlds are out there, and – at times – our world and theirs meet, providing solid evidence for there being human life under the sea! The tale was collected by Dr McCarthy of Kerry.
. . . People from Dingle Harbour used to sail to Kilrush in Limerick long ago. There was a boat leaving the harbour to Limerick one day with a load of salt. There were 8 men in the boat. They had prepared the boat. There was no quay in Dingle in those days, just a slipway. A fine, strapping young man approached them carrying a pot and a pot-hook, The pot-hook looked as if it had come straight from the forge. He addressed the boat’s captain. Are you going to Limerick, my good man? I am, said the captain, we are just about to leave. Would you mind terribly, said the young man, taking me some of the way? I don’t mind, said the captain, if you wish to come all of the way. He placed his pot and pot-hook in the boat, and got in himself. They rowed away and raised the sail at the mouth of the harbour. They were halfway when the man with the pot and pot-hook roused himself. I’ll be leaving you now, he said to the captain, and I’m very grateful to you. He took hold of his pot and his pot-hook and he leapt into the sea. They never saw him again . . .
There’s a rather nice postscript to this story:
. . . Some time later, a man with a line and hook was fishing in the sea in the same place, and a boiled potato came up on his hook . . .
We took a few steps over the border – from Cork County to Kerry Kingdom – to search out some vestiges of architecture which relate to the Orpen family, which claimed it could trace its history back to the sixth century. Probably the best-known member of that clan – certainly in Ireland – was William Orpen (1878 – 1931). Orpen was a ‘naturally talented painter’ who spent much of the First World War as an officially commissioned artist, producing strikingly graphic images of that depraved conflict, including the Battle of the Somme, from direct experience in the trenches.
Upper – Zonnebeke 1918, and lower – Self portrait 1917 by Orpen. William Orpen’s grandfather was Sir Richard Theodore Orpen (1788-1876), Born and brought up in Dublin, this Orpen married Elizabeth Stack in 1819 and they built a large mansion on the site of an earlier castle and medieval monastery beside the meeting of the rivers Obeg and Roughty, in the townland of Ardtully, Co Kerry. In Irish, the name is Ard Tuilithe, meaning ‘high flood’.
The Orpen’s Grand Design project consisted of a 27-roomed two-storey dwelling with a tower, in what can be loosely described as the ‘Baronial’ style. The house was the family’s residence throughout the rest of Sir Richard’s life, and was inherited by one of his sons, Right Reverend Dr Raymond D’Audemar Stack Orpen, who was the last to live there.
It’s useful to compare the first OS 6″ map (top) – which dates from around 1840, prior to the construction of the new house, which was completed in 1847 – with (lower) the OS 25″ version, dating to the late 1800s. the house is clear there, as is the bridge over the rivers, built by an earlier Orpen generation: it bears the date 1786.
That’s the 1847 Ardtully House, above, in its heyday. The illustration is from The County Seats of The Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland (published 1870). Here (below) is an aerial view of the dwelling within its immediate context. Below that is today’s view from the ‘Ardtully Old Bridge’.
The fine bridge once led to the Demesne; now it ignominiously ends in a field gate. The construction of it is worth a close look – there are some fascinating rocks and outcrops used in its foundation.
The house met its end in 1921 – a victim of IRA burnings. It stands, gaunt and crumbling: a symbol of a period in Irish history. It’s fully accessible, and the Kerry landscape is stunning on a wonderful sunny spring day. Well worth a visit.
The ‘Baronial’ style of architecture – sometimes called ‘Scottish Baronial’ is given short shrift by ‘The Irish Aesthete‘:
. . . Its architect unknown, the house is customarily summarised as being in the Scottish Baronial style but this seems more a flag of convenience than an accurate description. In truth Ardtully looks to have been a typically Victorian grab-bag of architectural elements, its most prominent feature being a castellated round tower and turret on the south-east corner. Looking towards the river Roughty, the entrance front features a porch topped by the Orpen coat of arms (now damaged), another attempt by Sir Richard to demonstrate his lineage. Inside the house looks to have contained the usual collection of reception and bedrooms ranged over two storeys, the roofline marked by a succession of stepped gables and dormers . . .
Certainly, the house in its present state doesn’t present much grace. The architectural style was fairly short-lived, and was said to have its origins in France, with references to the Gothic Revival and romanticism. There are further examples extant in Ireland: the nearest (probably) is Blarney House, Co Cork, altogether a more elaborate project, designed and built by Sir Thomas Lanyon of Belfast for the Colthurst family of Ardrum. Surviving today – close to the well-known Blarney Castle, it was also completed in the 1840s.
Great Blasket, one of the islands in the parish of Dún Chaoin (Dunquin) off the west coast of Kerry, was the home and life-blood of a tenacious population of Irish families for many hundred years. One of these families – the Ferriters – claim that they controlled the islands as far back as the 13th century and had established a castle there. Whoever lived there had to be tough: the terrain is wild and there is little shelter. Nevertheless, the islanders clung to their territory, and their numbers expanded in the early 19th century when Lord Ventry of Dingle evicted many of his tenants from their holdings and those who left found island life – hard though it was – preferable to persecution.
We are fortunate that, during the early twentieth century, Great Blasket was visited by curious tourists and anthropologists. Among them was Robin Flower, who became Deputy-Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum from 1929 to 1944. He had many credits to his name, including Member of the Royal Irish Academy, Doctor of Literature of the National University of Ireland and also of Dublin University. Flower became the historian of the Blaskets, which he ‘immortalised’ through his lectures and writings – and many visits. To the people of the Great Blasket he was playfully known as ‘Bláithin’ – Little Flower – which he considered a great honour. I will write more on Robin Flower in a future post, but concentrate here on some of the photographs of island life which were recorded by likeminded researchers in the first half of the twentieth century. After 1954 there was nothing to record: life on the island, three miles from the mainland and involving an often treacherous crossing, became untenable. The whole remaining population was evacuated in that year, leaving their cottages and settlements to the ruinous ravages of the wild Atlantic gales.
The header picture is a wonderful statement of youth and vigour: island children photographed outside their school in 1932 by Thomas Waddicor. I can’t find anything about this man, but a lot of his work appears in the Dúchas Photographic Collection which was established in the 1930s, so I am assuming he was an active collector and researcher himself. The second picture is by our old friend Tomás Ó Muircheartach, who also spent time on the Blaskets in the 1930s. You will find more about him here. It shows the Blasket men in their fishing curraughs below the craggy rocks of the island. The pic above is also by Muircheartach, and shows Cáit Ruiséal and Máire Ruiséal being interviewed by a follklore collector at their fireside in 1942. I am not sure where this interview took place.
This photograph is also by Thomas Waddicor and dates from 1932. The caption given in the Dúchas Photographic Collection is interesting, if not entirely enlightening: Man, Great Blasket Island: Buffer, note stuffed peaked cap – an island custom.
Another from Waddicor, also 1932: Cáit at the Well. I think what strikes me most of all is how real and alive these people are – they certainly don’t seem in any way downtrodden or in danger of extinction: perhaps it’s just because they are ‘posing’ for the camera. But it’s salutary to think that they were only on the island for another generation or so.
These two photographs (above) are also by Thomas Waddicor and also from 1932. The top one is the ‘Wife and child of Séan the King’, and the lower is ‘Children of Séan the King’. We have a bit of a conundrum here as the last ‘King’ of the Blasket Islands passed away in 1929 (according to this Irish Times article). As Waddicor left behind no photograph of the ‘King’ himself, we have to assume that the lady in the upper photograph was a widow.
More ‘family’ photographs: the upper of the three is titled ‘Eilis and Brighid’; the centre is just given as ‘Family’, while the lower is ‘Fiddler and Woman’. All are by Waddicor from 1932.
This wonderful lady is also anonymous: sadly we can only know her by the title – ‘Great Blasket Woman’. Again, Waddicor 1932 – and, once more, she seems so full of life!
This is a picture of the Great Blasket Island School. We have some further information: while the folklorists and recorders were visiting the island in 1932, the older schoolchildren decided to interview each other about local customs and lore to mimic the visitors!
Further unnamed portraits: upper ‘Two Women Great Blasket’ and lower ‘Two Women gathering Heather’. From the Waddicor collection, 1932.
We’ll finish off with a few classics. This is Tomas O Criomhthain and it’s a photo from Muircheartach. Better known to us as Tomas O’Crohan, author of the classic book about the Blaskets:
. . . Tomas O’Crohan was born on the Great Blasket Island in 1865 and died there in 1937, a great master of his native Irish. He shared to the full the perilous life of a primitive community, yet possessed a shrewd and humorous detachment that enabled him to observe and describe the world. His book is a valuable description of a new vanished way of life; his sole purpose in writing it was in his own words, ‘to set down the character of the people about me so that somerecord of us might live after us, for the like of us will never be again’ . . .
The Islandman Book Review
We can’t discuss the Blaskets without mentioning Peig. That’s her, above, with folklorist Kenneth Jackson, taken by Thomas Waddicor in 1932. Peig Sayers was by all accounts a formidable lady but was also described by folklorist Seán Ó Súilleabháin, archivist for the Irish Folklore Commission, as ‘one of the greatest woman storytellers of recent times’. Peig was born in 1873 and died in 1958. She therefore experienced the abandonment of the island, although she had moved away from it in 1942. She was also not born on the island, but in Dunquin, Kerry, She married Pádraig Ó Guithín, a native islander, in 1892 and had eleven children, six of whom survived into adulthood. Sayers is most famous for her autobiography Peig, but also for folklore and stories which have been collected from her.
Finally, this an image of the Loganim Achive entry for Great Blasket Island, written in 1954.
I am grateful to the National Folklore Collection UCD for the use of the Thomas Waddicor images. It’s an incredible resource: this is just a small selection of the hundreds of images which have been archived
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