Dáithí de Mórdha works as an archivist at Ireland’s Great Blasket Centre, and has studied the literary heritage, language and culture of the island. He developed the Centre’s photographic archive as an integral part of the social and cultural record of the lives of the islanders. A contributor to documentary films on the heritage of West Kerry, he completed an M.Phil at the Dept. of Folklore & Ethnology, UCC. Daithi is also co-editor of the recent book “The Great Blasket – A Photographic Portrait.”
The Great Blasket Centre located in Dún Chaoin, on the tip of the Dingle Peninsula, at the halfway point of the Slea Head Drive. The Centre is an interpretative centre and museum detailing the unique community who once lived on the Great Blasket Island. The Centre details their lives as subsistence fishermen and farmers, their traditional way of life and also the extraordinary amount of literature which the islanders produced.
The Centre also includes displays on the flora and fauna of the islands and surrounding sea. The building overlooks the panorama of the Great Blasket and its family of surrounding islands.
Daithi gave me a tour of the Blasket Centre and an education on what life was like for its residents and those who emigrated from the island. He offers some fascinating insights into a slice of Irish culture and history and what it means to be part of a landscape—as well as to need to leave it behind.
Meg: Can you describe the location/terrain of the Blasket Islands and their relationship to the broader area?
Daithi: The Blaskets are a group of islands situated on the west coast of Ireland, at the tip of the Dingle Peninsula in Co. Kerry. They range in size from less than an acre to the 1000 acres of the largest one, the Great Blasket. They also vary in terrain – Beiginis, a small island, is flat and barely rises 20ft above sea level, Tiaracht is pyramidal, while the Great Blasket is a mountain in the middle of the sea which rises to 960ft.
The islands are only 1 kilometre from the mainland, but the Blasket Sound between them and Dún Chaoin is one of the most treacherous streches of water in Ireland. It is often the case that the island is cut off from the mainland, even with modern boats and helicopters, for weeks due to adverse weather conditions.
The islands were inhabited from the early Christian period. Archaeological sites which date from this period are to be found on five of the islands, and extensive monastic settlements on two (or possibly three). The largest and only continuously inhabited island was home to a community which reached a population of 200 in the early 20th Century, and was inhabited for a period of some 500 years until evacuated by the government in 1953, due to a severe decline in numbers due to the effects of emigration.
Meg: When we met, you spoke about the history of difficult relations between Ireland’s north and south, and how pre-dating those “Troubles,” there was a rift between the east and west. Can you explain that?
Daithi:The island of Ireland is currently divided by a border between the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland and the 6 Ulster counties of Northern Ireland which is a part of the United Kingdom. During the late 19th / early 20th Century, as movement to gain independence from the UK gain momentum in Ireland, many in these 6 counties, especially those of a British identity, wanted to remain part of the UK. The eventual 1922 settlement between the UK and Ireland establish a 6 county state in Ulster which remained part of the UK. Currently there in a near 50/50 split in these 6 counties between those who wish to retain the status quo and those who wish to re-unify with the rest of the island.
Culturally, I think that in the 19th and 20th Centuries the wider split, perceived or otherwise, was between the east of the island and the west, between the predominantly English speaking, urban, East and the Irish=speaking, rural, and Gaelic west. Different mode of life, customs, culture etc. were found on opposite sides of the island.
Meg: You touched on the medicinal folk traditions of the Islands, such as the various uses for seaweed. Can you elaborate on the residents’ knowledge of the characteristics of the natural world?
Daithi: The rural people of Ireland, not just the island, had a deep understanding of the natural world and how best to utilize the various resources at their disposal. For example, they had particular uses for different types of seaweed; types like dulse, pepper dulse and carrageen were used in cooking, while other types were used as fertilizer for their crops. Mussels, which we associate with gourmet food nowadays, were also used as fertilizer.
Medicine was a mix of natural material and supernatural and/or spells and prayers. For example, they used ash as splints for broken bones, and ash has been proven to have high levels of substances which induce healing. They had charms, such as The Blood Charm, which was supposed to stop bleeding. One of the Blasket authors details having a seal-bite treated by attaching a lump of seal-flesh to the wound. I would be a bit doubtful of the medicinal quality of the latter treatment!
Meg: You mentioned that because of the distance to the mainland, and the fact there was not a resident priest on the Island, the Catholic religion that was practiced was infused with folk mythology. Could you share some thoughts on this?
Daithi: Irish rural Catholicism was, and still is to a certain extent, a fusion of pre-Christian beliefs and Christian teachings. For example, trips to holy wells and other sites such as mountains, were a major part of the religious calendar for Irish people, especially in rural areas. Many Irish religious sites were built on or near places of pagan importance, so the two were mixed. Another feature of folk belief in Ireland was the belief in things or behaviour which brought about good or bad luck. For example, the sight of a red-haired woman was a sign of terrible luck for fishermen, and many would not venture out if they saw a redhead on their way to the pier. Having a haircut on a Monday, or working late on a Saturday, was also thought to bring about bad luck.
Having said that, the priest wielded almost total control and dominance over the lay people. The priest was seen as nearly a demi-God, and was more of an authority than any landlord or state employee. Music and Dance were seen by many priests as occasions of sin, and they would oftentimes break up dances and céilís. There was a famous piper in West Kerry, Tomás Ó Cinnéide, whose pipes were smashed up by the local parish priest, and he was so incensed that he converted to the Church of Ireland.
The islanders were very Christian in their beliefs, but the fact that there was no priest watching over them 24/7 meant that they were a small bit more relaxed in their approach to the strictest rules of the Church.
Meg: The Island has a great literary tradition…can you explain the background to this, and why this legacy is so extraordinary?
Daithi: At the turn of the 20th century there was a revival in interest and study of the Irish language. Scholars from Ireland, the UK, Europe and Scandinavia began venturing to the most remote, Irish-speaking communities to study the living language. Many went to the Blasket, and encouraged the people to begin writing accounts of their lives. In the 1920s and 1930s the Blasket Island writers produced books which are deemed classics in the world of literature. They wrote of Island people living on the very edge of Europe, and brought to life the topography, life and times of their Island. They wrote all of their stories in the Irish language. The term ‘peasant literature’ is sometimes used for this type of literature, but I find that disparaging; I think the Irish term ‘Litríocht na nDaoine’ (The People’s Literature) is better.