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2016-06-01 / Go Pink Boots

A Woman Is No Island

Jill Gleeson


There’s a little island just off Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula called the Great Blasket. For centuries, a tiny, particularly hardy strain of the Irish inhabited it, subsisting on whatever they could pull from the sea and cultivate on land. In the early decades of the 20th century, a few residents began to write tales of their lives there with a simple honesty and understated poetry that won the acclaim of the nation. But in the 1950s, the government evacuated the last of the islanders, who still lived without electricity or running water or a doctor any closer than the mainland, which involved a rough, sometimes perilous journey even in the comparatively calm seas of summer. No one has called the Great Blasket home since.

I’d read the books of some of the Blasket writers, people like Tomas O’Crohan, when I lived in Dingle Town a few years ago. They moved me immeasurably, these stories about hardscrabble life on the wind-scrubbed spit of earth I’d spotted rising pointy as a Gaelic chin out of the churning Atlantic. I became obsessed with putting my feet on the Great Blasket’s shores, but my sojourn in Ireland was spent from fall to spring; tourist boats don’t dare make the crossing in any but the warmest months. When I left Ireland, I vowed to return and visit this land, which had grown nearly mythic in my mind.

It took two years for me to get back to Dingle, but when I did I immediately booked passage with Blasket Island Ferries for myself and my boyfriend, Wayne. It was early June and the day was chill and wet when we set off with a handful of other travelers from the Dingle harbor. The wild, heaving sea kept us inside the cabin — the journey, which took almost an hour, was akin to riding a runaway roller coaster. I’d swallowed motion sickness tablets before we left land, but Wayne quickly took on a color reminiscent of celery soup.

Since there is no dock on the island, we transferred via a small rubber dingy, bouncing along on the water like a passel of intoxicated kangaroos. After a steep walk up a slick, rocky path, passing signs sternly warning of uneven ground and unstable buildings, we stood gazing up at the broken hills of the Great Blasket. They rose green and ethereal out of the shrouding mist, dotted here and there by the stone shells of a dozen or so structures. Wayne and I spread a blanket among these ruins, on a plateau overlooking the ocean. We sat quietly, chewing our sandwiches, ruminating over the vista and peering at the snails inching their way past us.

There was little to do on the island but wander it, following paths worn by grazing sheep, down to the cliffs tumbling carelessly toward the water. There, we spotted seals by the dozens at play; they seemed to peer at us with as much delight and curiosity as we peered at them. When we spoke, we did so with heads bent together, in hushed tones as if in a cathedral, dreaming aloud about what it might be like to live and write in this place, so perfect in its desolation. Would the ghost of O’Crohan knock on our door come the witching hour, eager to regale us with melancholy yarns of his long-ago life?

When the time came to leave, I did so wistfully. The landscape, treeless and silent save for the wind, was undeniably harsh. Even walking the heaving, humped ground was a struggle. But I’d loved this island long before I’d spotted it emerging on the horizon from the boat’s window. As we motored back to Dingle, I pondered the adage I’d grown with age to accept: With great expectation comes great disappointment. How wonderful it was to be reminded that once in a while reality really can live up to your dreams. •SCM

For more information about the Great Blasket Island, visit blasketislands.ie.

Jill Gleeson dares to venture outside of her comfort zone and learns a lesson every time. Follow her adventures on Twitter @gopinkboots.

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