Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Edge of Europe: A Day in the Blasket Islands, County Kerry, Ireland

We arrive at Ventry Pier, Co. Kerry, on an overcast and breezy September morning with a distinct autumnal chill in the air. We are about to embark on a trip to three of the hauntingly beautiful Blaskets, an archipelago in the far western reaches of Europe. Inis na Bró and Inis Tuaisceart are seldom visited; the famous An Blascoad Mór is the best known of the three. This island, the abandoned home-place of several acclaimed Gaelic writers, a place replete with history and memory, was perceived as untainted by modernisation and Anglicisation. Like an exotic flower, it inevitably attracted swarms of linguists and anthropologists, and, as in all ‘end of the world places’, those who eventually make peace with themselves when there is nowhere left to run. An Blascoad Mór, a place where the prosaic and the profound gently collide.

The glassy light of the rising sun streams down in great shafts from behind a bank of cloud, framing the dusky grey silhouettes of the Reeks and illuminating the foaming crests of waves. Our boat, the Blasket Princess, pitches and rolls her way through the swell towards Inis na Bró, the little dinghy that will transport us to each island bobbing behind in the foaming wake, attached as an infant on an umbilical cord. We pass through the narrow sound between Inis na Bró and Inishvickillane, once the holiday home of the late and controversial Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey. Our boat feels very small beneath the formidable buttresses of Cathedral Rocks, a tightly clustered mass of teeth-like pinnacles with mysterious cleft-like sea caves. It looks impossible to land on Inis na Bró, but it is through one of these half hidden clefts that we are transported ashore.


With barely enough room for our dinghy, we pitch and roll over sucking petrol blue waters through a dank sea cave encrusted with barnacles, muscles and limpets, to pass into a secret cove like something straight out of a James Bond movie. Here it is surprisingly calm and every ripple on the patterned sands of the crystal clear deep water are etched in intricate detail. Pale pink sea urchins with delicate tentacles wave in the slight swell, startled fish flee to avoid the shadow of the dinghy and salmon-coloured star fish stud the sandy bottom.

A clamber over boulders and a steep scramble up a richly vegetated and slippery cliff face brings us onto the cliff top. Here, the undisturbed vegetation is an ankle breaking psychedelic spongy mat of lurid green cushions of sea pinks and moss interspersed with mustard yellow flowers and bright pink heather and undermined by the countless burrows of Manx Shearwater and Atlantic Puffins that have now migrated far out to sea. Care is needed to negotiate this treacherous terrain and progress to the summit is slow. Once conquered, the true majesty of ‘The Kingdom’ lies before us: myriad islands and spiny rocks float amid sea and sky; an impossibly rugged and ragged coastline stretches before us and, in the far distance, the inky blue peaks of the Reeks, huge patches of sunlight turning the rolling sea below to liquid mercury.

The keyhole carefully re-negotiated and safely aboard the Blasket Princess, we set course for Inis Tuaisceart past the pyramidal hulk of An Tearacht, which rises from the Atlantic like a broken canine tooth, decayed and holed in its centre by the action of the relentless ocean. A thin thread of whitewashed buildings above treacherous vertical cliffs ringed by foaming rocks and a seething ocean betray signs of past human habitation in connection with its lighthouse.

Landing on Inis Tuaisceart is challenging, the swell isn’t large, but the sea sucking greedily at a series of slippery slabs makes jumping ashore tricky. We time our leaps well and arrive on shore with dry feet. A short scramble up the cliffs to a sheep fold and we are on our way to the summit, past the shattered stone walls of settlements, St Brendan’s Oratory and the ghostly ridges of lazy beds. If those mute stones could only speak, what stories they would tell of life in this remotest corner of Europe! Of a woman whose husband, a shepherd, died during a ferocious storm that lasted many days, and she, alone and too weak to lift his bloated, rotting corpse, was forced to hack it to pieces and carry it out of their cottage, limb by limb.

Uninhabited now, the island harbours a large colony of Storm Petrels and is the summer breeding ground of Atlantic Puffin and Manx Shearwater whose malodorous carcasses litter the ground, the remains of a savage summer-feast by Great Black-Headed Gulls that do not leave our shores, but circle nosily in the salt laden air, eyeing all. The island seems to have been upended; a steep grassy slope leads to vertiginous sea cliffs on the north western side, the sea so far below, the waves crashing onto the rocks are silent. The words of playwright, J.M. Synge, who wrote about the utter desolation that was everywhere mixed in with the supreme beauty of this part of Ireland enter my mind. There is indeed something almost appalling in the loneliness of this place.

Back on the boat we head for An Blascoad Mór, rising from the depth of the ocean like the top of a drowned mountain. The stone shells of rustic cottages dotting the landscape drift into view as we approach. The haunting cadence of Gaelic seems to be whispered in the very wind, fragments of poems, prose and plaintive songs that tell of the ebb and flow of life here, of the wakes and the weddings of those who doggedly coaxed a living by farming and fishing on this island. The literary legacy all too often recounts and seems to dwell on the misery of life on the island and the death, misfortunes and countless calamities that befell its inhabitants. For although the island is only three miles from the mainland, during Atlantic storms you might as well be hundreds of miles away, as it is often impossible to see the mainland let alone negotiate the narrow but treacherous sound, the currents of which have upended many a nayvogue and sent its occupants to a watery grave. The boat speeds on towards a small pier past An Traigh Bhan, a strand of pearl white sand bathed by turquoise waters favoured by grey seals. Above the beach lie the stone walled fields once fertilised by seaweed to grow potatoes and oats that kept the famine from these shores. Pleasure boats to the island now disgorge hordes of curious day-trippers seeking the mystique of a ‘place outside of time’, and the tell tale whitewashed and restored cottages betray the presence of holiday homes.


Above the old village, abandoned since the last islander closed his door in 1953, two tracks on opposite sides of the island circle Tur Comhartha, joining at the saddle below Slievedonagh. The south track has impressive views of the ragged coastline of the mainland and, on the horizon, Skellig Michael bursting through the ocean like a grey spear tip. Atop Slievedonagh the track narrows as it traverses the spine of the island, slopes blushed pink with heather. An Cro Mór now comes into view. One last push uphill and the summit is surmounted. This is the point where Europe ends and before lies the mighty Atlantic, restless, relentless. And somewhere over the horizon is North America. Atop this peak, the eyes of countless islanders surely stared out across the watery void to dream of new beginnings…

The evening crowns the day as the Blasket Princess slips quietly away from the island leaving the lonely stone cottages once more to the gulls. Tired from the day’s exertions, I soon succumb to the gentle rolling of the boat as she rides the waves towards Ventry, landscape and seascape bathed in the warm apricot glow of the sinking sun. As I begin to daydream, drifting in and out of consciousness, on the wind, I swear I hear a whisper from across the void of time: ‘there will not be those like us again’.

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