The Future of the Great Blasket Island
Plans to turn the Great Blasket Island, abandoned in 1953, into an historic heritage site have been dogged by controversy.
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."