Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Choosing

The Great Blasket Island lies just off the end of the Dingle Peninsula in western Ireland. For generations it was home to a few dozen families who lived in a huddled village of rude stone houses, out of the wind. During the first half of the last century, that little community may have been unique in all of the world. It produced three books in Irish that became world classics, translated into many languages, and published in English by Oxford University Press: The Islandman by Tomas O'Crohan, An Old Woman's Reflections by Peig Sayers, and Twenty Years A'growing by Maurice O'Sullivan. And more. The list of books that came out of the island, or were inspired by it, is as long as your arm.

And there they are today, those few huddled houses, now in ruins, visible across the Blasket Sound from the Blasket Interpretative Centre, a handsome museum dedicated to celebrating the life of the islanders and their descendants, now scattered around the world, most to central Massachusetts.

I was out there yesterday with Tom and Jodi to see a retrospective exhibit of the works of the artist Maria Simonds-Gooding, who lives nearby and whose work is a kind of spiritual continuation of the Blasket literary heritage. We wandered again through the permanent exhibits, and I was struck as usual by the beauty of the instruments crafted by the islanders to support their simple lives. Baskets for turf and fish. Rakes for seaweed. Spades for cutting turf. Sickles for the harvest. A long pole with a noose for retrieving sheep from cliff ledges. Spindles, carders and looms for the wool. And, of course, the amazing curragh, the all-purpose boat made of thin laths covered with tarred canvas.

Did I say "simple lives"? Hardly simple. Rich is more like it. Rich in poetry and song. In charity among neighbors. In natural beauty. In the satisfaction of a life wrested from adversity with the products of one's own hands. A barefoot life, almost Neolithic, and doomed in the face of "progress." In the 1950s the few remaining islanders were removed to the mainland by the government. Today their beautiful implements of wood and wool and wicker are on display for the likes of me and mine, who arrive by automobile, with fancy cameras, and take a meal in the café whose ingredients may have come from Chile or China by air express and a bottle of Fiji water to wash it down.

In the closing chapters of Twenty Years A-growing, young Maurice O'Sullivan prepares to leave the Blasket to make his way in the world. His options? America or Dublin, both of which seem about equally distant. He writes:
I looked west at the edge of the sky where America should be lying, and I skipped back on the paths of thought. It seemed to me now that the New Island [America] was before me with its fine streets and great high houses, some of them so tall that they scratched the sky; gold and silver out on the ditches and nothing to do but to gather it. I see the boys and girls who were once my companions walking the street, laughing brightly and well contented. I see my brother Shaun and my sisters Maura and Eileen walking along with them and they talking together of me. The tears were rising in my eyes but I did not shed them. As the old saying goes, "bitter the tears that fall but more bitter the tears that fall not."
Maurice's friend George chides him:
If you want the history of America look at the Yank who comes home; think of his appearance. Not a drop of blood in his body but he has left it beyond. Look at the girl who goes over with her fine comely face! When she comes home she is pale and the skin is furrowed on her brow. If you noticed that, Maurice, you would never go to that place.