Two books, chance finds among a pile of old editions from the Oxford University Press on a table outside a second-hand bookshop in Launceston last week, and I'd only gone there because the wool shop was closed for lunch. But these have kept me surprisingly engrossed in recent days. It was the cover that caught my eye, Island Cross-Talk - Pages from a diary by Tomas O'Crohan (first published in English in 1986, but available in Irish in 1928) and there underneath An Old Woman's Reflections by Peig Sayers (first published in English in 1962.)
I think we had a conversation in comments about islands when I wrote recently about David Vann's new book Caribou Island and though I know I live on a big one, I'm wondering does anyone out there live on a small island?
It's the ultimate dream sometimes, isn't it ...the times we say, even living where we do, let's just head for an island somewhere and leave it all behind. 'It' generally being the news or work or the latest bit of hassle that may be in progress, but of course once there I feel sure there would be a great deal I'd miss even with broadband... because I couldn't even manage without that for a start. But I'm always fascinated by tales of islands that are evacuated and left uninhabited.
As a child I can clearly recall the 1961 news reports about the evacuation of Tristan de Cunha after the volcanic eruption and on looking it up I see the entire population came to live in Surrey where we were living at the time, so perhaps it felt more immediate. And then there are all the highly emotive accounts of the last people leaving Hirta in the St Kilda archipelago off the Western Isles in 1930, and those pictures of the solemn faces and the barefooted men, so when I read that Island Cross-Talk was about the lives of the Blasket Islanders whose island was 'abandoned to the seagulls and the silence' in 1953 I thought this one might be interesting.
First things first, where on earth are the Blasket Islands? Sadly I hadn't a clue.
About three miles off the coast of County Kerry on the west of Ireland is the answer to that. Europe's most westerly islands, next stop the USA and apparently many of the descendants of island residents now live in Springfield, Massachussets; the US migration partly responsible for dwindling numbers and an unsustainable life on Great Blasket.
I can't quite imagine what it must be like to have to leave an island that has been your home all your life and head off to live in the midst of the civilisation that you have only heard about third hand, from those who have reason to make the trip to the mainland, but this was the case for many of the Irish-speaking Blasket islanders. It is the life on the island that Tomas O'Crohan has recorded... little cameos of daily occurrences, conversations that reflect the trials and tribulations of island life in the time immediately after the First World War and the resilience required to live there, and little did I realise quite how fascinating this book would prove to be.
I have also been dipping into A Story as Sharp as a Knife by Robert Bringhurst, the book that came highly recommended by Erica Wagner during her dovegreyreader asks... posts a while ago. It is an account of the native American oral literature of the islanders of Haida Gwaii, one hundred miles off the Alaskan coast and suddenly I sensed real similarities with the Blasket Islanders who were themselves also the subject of much linguistic and anthropological study.
In Haida Gwaii
'Shellfish are there for the taking twice each day when the tide recedes - and salmon, halibut, cod, herring...sealion, seal and other species pass like an edible calendar along the open coast and through the maze of inshore waters.'
and the rich tradition of art and oral literature
'is also rooted in the constant presence of the sea. Manna only rarely falls from the heavens; it emerges daily from the waves.'
Life on Great Blasket looks quite idyllic on a calm summer's day, but it is also about that edible calendar and about survival and that means food and weather, with either often the main topic of the day. How the potato crop is faring, the economy of the sheep ... you can eat it and wear it, then there's the fish catch and the price it's fetching, or perhaps some seals to hunt, the storms that are coming or the prohibitive price of salt to preserve the food. Then there are the women's lives, spent cooking and washing and keeping the children in check and what about health? Toothache is high on everyone's agenda, who can imagine the bliss of having a tooth pulled (and by all accounts a chunk of jawbone with it) after a year of consistent and unremitting pain.
But there's humour here too...the Hoax about Widows has the island's pensioners in a real flap as they are told tongue-in-cheek in the 'news from the boats' that four thousand war widows are to be deposited in Ireland and the pensioners will have to marry them and will be paid half a crown a week for their trouble.
'I'd rather see them in Hell than marry any old article across from England. By Our Lady, if they were from Ireland itself I might have some feeling for them, 'declares Padraig.
'If you refuse the widow, you'll lose the pension.'
'Then let me lose it! I'd prefer beggary and to be contented, ' says Padraig.
Now you'd be right in thinking this all seems of little interest, perhaps even a bit mundane, but there is something strangely alluring about Tomas O'Crohan's take on a life that we may call simplistic, but which to the islanders was their all. This is about survival in the face of real hardship with a rhythm to the writing too, a gentle rise and fall almost tidal in its feel, and of course this is in translation from the Irish so I can only imagine that the lilt of this, spoken in the original, must have been like music.
I have the second book to read now, An Old Woman's Reflections, and Peig Sayers oral storytelling (could a surname ever seem more right? ) which kept alive the myths, legends and history of this small fishing community,and all from memory. From Peig Sayers, 'the Queen of Gaelic story-tellers' one collector obtained 375 tales, of which forty were long folk tales ...once a story-teller heard a story it was never forgotten.
The Gaelic storytellers are the caretakers of a peasant tradition, the carriers of an oral culture, that once covered the Atlantic fringe of Europe. They belong to antiquity, to a Europe that had no books, no radio, no cinema or television, a Europe whose only entertainment was the parish lore or the winter-night's tale told by a passing traveller...Unlettered but not unlearned, they are the inheritors of a considerable art'
More about Peig when I've met her.