Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The music of what happens

The next parish over the hill is Dunquin, generally counted the westernmost point of Europe. From the precipitous seacliffs one looks out over three miles of black water to the Blasket islands, one of which, the Great Blasket, was until the middle of the last century home to a remarkable community of resilient people, a few dozen families, clustered in a tiny village hanging on a slope above the crashing waves. They spoke an Irish so pure and uncorrupted by English that it attracted a succession of international scholars in search of the Celtic past.

The scholars in turn encouraged the islanders to record their stories and experience, and from that tiny village came classic works by Tomas O Criomhthain, Peig Sayers, and Maurice O'Sullivan, all of which remain in print in numerous translations. The number of books by or about the islanders continues to grow, now consisting of a substantial library. The latest is Robert Kanigel's On an Irish Island, which tells in sweeping detail the story of the islanders and the scholars.

Kanigel promises to tell us "what we've left behind and at what cost."

Which prompted me right there on page 8 to wonder just what the Blasket islanders had that I would want.

The poet John Millington Synge, who visited the island in 1905, asked himself the same question. "They have an island, and I have an inkpot," he wrote, somewhat wistfully.

The island is admittedly a spectacular place to visit, especially on a bright day. But, lordy, it must have been a hellish place to live through the long dark winter when the island might be cut off from the mainland for weeks by the weather. I'd take Synge's inkpot any day.

If I had to choose the single most important thing the islanders left behind when the last inhabitants were moved to the mainland in the 1950s, it would be the remnants of the distinctively Irish pagan Christianity that I wrote about in Climbing Brandon, a faith lived close to nature that flourished in the early years of the Irish Christian era, grounded in the annual and diurnal cycles of the sun, the rhythms of sexuality and procreation, life, death, wind, rock, wave, moon and stars. There was no priest on the island, and no church or chapel. The tether with Rome was loose and nature dominant.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, the grim hand of the institutional Church was doing its best to bend the Irish to a jansenistic yoke that deemed every bright pleasure this side of the grave suspect and sinful.