The Future of the Great Blasket Island

Three miles out to sea, stark against the western horizon, storm clouds are swirling above the Great Blasket.  The future of this unique island, renowned for its desolate beauty, its crumbling ruins and its cultural legacy, is under threat.

After years of agitation, litigation, and endless negotiations, the Irish government declared last July its intention to purchase the island - the ?rst step towards the island being declared a national heritage site and perhaps a UNESCO world heritage site. They also published their proposed management plan.

The initial reaction to the plan was overwhelmingly positive. "I was thrilled that my childhood home, a place of such cultural importance, was going to be conserved for the future," says former island dweller Niamh Uí Laoithe. 

"Everyone was delighted," she continues.  "After years of talks, the complex jigsaw of landowners' rights, tourism interests and management issues was finally fitting together."

In the intervening months, much has happened to sour this optimism. Piece by piece, the jigsaw is falling apart. "Landowners are refusing to sell," says Peter Callery, the majority landowner on the island. "Ferry boat owners are up in arms.  And the government is being swayed by all the vested interests.  No progress has been made and the island's future is in serious doubt."

The Great Blasket Island comprises just over 1,000 acres. Why is it attracting so much attention? Why are so many people interested in its future?

The answer lies in the past. Niamh Uí Laoithe, Nell Uí Shé, another ex-islander,  and Mícheál de Mórdha, director of the Great Blasket Heritage Centre, recount the island's long history.

The island ?rst came to prominence early in the twentieth century when academics became interested in the life of its community. "It was a place outside of time," explains Mícheál.  "The islanders' way of life had remained unchanged for generations.  Raising their own food, gathering seaweed to fertilize the land and ?shing the seas - they shared their labor and its rewards."

Niamh adds that exposure to the modern world began to erode this way of life. "It happened slowly at first," she says, "but soon it was irreversible. Cash replaced bartering.  Fishing declined. And then the young and the strong began to emigrate."

Encouraged by the visiting academics, some older people on the island wrote their memoirs.  This literary legacy offers a rare insight into the social customs of a pre-modern society.

"One day, there will be none left on the Blasket of all I have mentioned in this book and none to remember them," writes Tomás " Criomhthain in his memoir, The Islandman. "I am thankful to God who has given me the chance to preserve from forgetfulness those days I have seen with my own eyes...When I am gone, men will know what life was like in my time and the neighbors that lived with me."

Niamh is Tomás' granddaughter. Both she and Nell are proud of their heritage. "Our close-knit community was unlike any other," says Nell. "We looked after each other.  Life was hard but it was good."

The changing times forced Nell and Niamh to leave their island home.  Nell left in the 1930s in search of a job on the mainland; Niamh and her family in the 1940s after the school closed. "It broke our hearts but there was nothing there for us anymore," says Niamh.

The Great Blasket Island was dying.  Its death knell was struck in 1953 when a storm isolated the islanders for many days.  Running out of food, they sent an emergency telegram to the Taoiseach ...amonn de Valera appealing for help. He came to their aid but also decided that it was too dangerous to allow people to continue living on the island.  Under his orders, the last of the islanders left the Great Blasket on the 17th of November, 1953.

The book of the island was closed; its final chapter written. "Or so we thought," says Mícheál. "In reality, it was a whole new beginning."

After the evacuation, life on the island took on a new guise.  Freed from human intervention, nature blossomed - animals roamed, bird colonies thrived and flowers bloomed.

"Nature has truly taken over," says Eamonn de Buitléar, an environmental ?lmmaker who has been visiting the island since the 1960s. 

"Grey seals on the beach and Manx shearwaters, storm petrels, choughs, puffins and other wonderful colonies of birds in the skies; the island is paradise for nature-lovers like me."

Artists are inspired by the island's dramatic scenery and the ghostly nature of its abandoned buildings. Maria Simonds-Gooding, a well-known graphic artist, first visited in 1964 and was captivated.  She describes it vividly: "I recognized instantly that it was the place for me. The Great Blasket has a haunting beauty and a special energy that hasn't been corroded by time".

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