Great Blasket Island & Blasket Islands Facts - the Blaskets - An Blascaod Mór agus na Blascaodaí
Red deer on Inisvickalaun
Irish mountain hare on Great Blasket Island
A brief overview of Great Blasket Island and other (6) Blasket Islands ( Blaskets), Co. Kerry, Ireland
The Blasket Islands - na Blascaodaí - are the most westerly group of islands in Ireland and mainland continental Europe, which is the reason why the phrase "next parish America" is often used about the Dún Chaoin / Blasket Islands area. In fact St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada is the same latitude as the Blaskets and as the world knows, the first Atlantic underwater telegraph cable went from 12 miles south of the Blaskets - Valentia Island - 2,300 miles across the Atlantic to a place called Heart's Content, Newfoundland in 1858 relaying in morse the first official memorable words "Glory to God in the highest; on earth peace, good will towards men". [The unofficial first words previously relayed in morse when the cable was first tested were "The old lady has landed"]. But ever year Atlantic puffins - Fratercula arctica - still fly all the way across the Atlantic from the east coast of Canada to breed on Skellig Michael, Puffin Island and the outer Blasket islands of Inishvickillaun and Inish na Bró so there is still a living and vibrant connection between the two continents.
The Blasket Islands archpelago comprises seven main islands and approx. 363 islets, rocks and reefs. each of course with their own names and histories. The Blasket Islands in order of size are Great Blasket Island; Inishvickillaun; Inish Tuaisceart (The Northern Island commonly referred to as The Dead Man or the The Sleeping Giant because of its shape); Inish na Bró with the famous Cathedral Rocks on its east side; Tiaracht (The Western Island, with the most westerly lighthouse in Europe and the steepest funicular rail-track in Europe); Beginish and Oileán na n-óg ( the Island of the Young meaning the Island of the Sídh, who are "forever young" or the Island of the Faeries).
The Great Blasket Island - An Blascaod Mór - the Most Famous of the Seven Blasket Islands
The Great Blasket Island - An Blascaod Mór- is perhaps the most famous of the seven Blasket islands because of the rich literary heritage left by its native island writers and other visitors and for the renowned poetic richness of the Irish language spoken by its former inhabitants and their musical and storytelling skills. The island once had a thriving community of up to 176 souls in 1916 but gradual emigration ( to Springfield, Holyoke and Hungry Hill in Massachusetts, America where they formed their own Gaelic community), an ageing population and lack of a nurse, priest, doctor or teacher led to the remaining population sending a telegram to then Taoiseach Eamon De Valera in 1947 with the message "Storm bound, distress, send food, nothing to eat" asking to be resettled on the manland, which happened in 1953. Since then the Island has been more or less deserted apart from summer use of some of the buildings by lobster fishermen (myself included), shepherds ( there are over 1,000 acres on the Great Blasket and the mutton raised on the natural herb and floral-rich pasture which is generously sprinkled with Atlantic sea-salt spray is renowned) and relatives of the former inhabitants who have maitained some of the houses in the village.
There is an Upper Village - Barr a'Bhaile - and a Lower Village - Bun a'Bhaile - and some of the houses in the Upper Village now operate as a hostel and tearooms during the summer months when visitors can go the the Island from departure points in Ventry, Dún Chaoin and Dingle during the period April 1st to September 30th. Landings are always subject to suitable weather and sea conditions, which can change suddenly in the Blasket Sound depending on the strong tidal conditions and wind strength and direction. Also landing is by tender from a moored vessel as the slipway on the Great Blasket is the same as when Peig Sayers lived there, which lends a certain authenticity to the whole experience.
Apart from its cultural and historical significance which makes the Great Blasket island a must see tourist destination, the beauty of the Great Blasket Island itself is overpowering, a visit to the old deserted village poignant and nostalgic and a walk around the hill breath taking and inspiring.
The main claim to fame of the Great Blasket is the rich literary heritage left by its former inhabitants and cultural visitors who were often people of a linguistic or anthropological background. The Blasket library comprises well in excess of fifty books and is itself now the subject of various acedemic studies and publications and new books on the Blaskets appear on an annual basis. Appreciation of these books is always of course subjective but a brief introduction to the library would be:
Twenty Years a Growing [Fíche Blian ag Fás] by Maurice o Sullivan - a wonderful short book about a young boy growing up on the Blaskets and leaving there for the Big World - An Domhan Mór -at the age of 23. An absolute gem of a book.
The Islandman [ An t-Oileánach] by Tomás ó Criomhthain - an old man reflects on his life and times fishing from a canoe (naomhóg) around the Blaskets. It reflects a way of life long disappeared from Ireland and the richness of the life lived by this small community with their own customs, Dáil ( "parliament" ) and King - an interesting mixture.
Reflections of an Old Woman [Peig] by Peig Sayers - Peig reflects on her life as a woman on the Great Blasket Island including all its hardships, joys and sorrows.
The Western Island by Robin Flower - an informative book on the lifestyle, customs and traditions of the islanders written by an outsider with a deep sympathyy for the uniquue lifestyle lived by the islanders. Robin Flower (an Englishman) was affectionately known as "Blaithín" meaning "little flower" by the islanders with whom he lived and about whom he wrote.
Notable Marine, Terrestrial and Avian Fauna of the Blasket Islands Archipelago
The Blasket Islands are astonishingly rich in wildlife, especially avian and marine, and in some ways they can be seen as the Galapagos Islands of Europe. Internationally important species and numbers of birds breed here including but not limited to the iconic and comical looking puffins which are always a favourite with visitors and breed on the outer islands only and can be seen on a marine tour of the outer islands from Ventry Harbour www.marinetours.ie The biggest population of European storm petrels - Hydrobates pelagicus - in the world breed in the crumbling old dry stone walls of the pre-monastic settlement on Inish Tuaisceart beside St. Brendan's oratory. The islands are also an internationally important breeding ground for the rare Manx shearwater - Puffinus puffinus - which comes all the way from the coasts of Uruguay and Brazil in South America to breed on the Blaskets annually. Other seabirds regularly seen on a marine tour of the islands are gannets (from small Skellig), kittiwakes, common and black guillemots, razorbills, fulmar petrels, cormorants and shags and all the various gulls. On the island itself the rare chough - Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocoras - can be seen with its distinctive scarlet red beak and legs contrasting with its overall black plumage. Also there are often ravens to be seen along the cliffs and a pair of peregrine falcons call a stone-age earthen and stone fort (Dún) midway up the island their home.
There is also now a large population of Irish moutain hares - Lepus timidus hibernicus - on Great Blasket Island which have almost displaced the rabbits (originally introduced to Ireland by the Normans in the 12th century) and they were introduced some years ago, anecdotally, from wild stock from Valentia Island. Irish mountain hares famously survived in Ireland throughout the ice age, or may have returned shortly after the ice sheet retreated, along with some other notables like the Irish stoat and closely followed by the Irish long-tailed field mouse [who was / is (?) present on the Blasket and is present on Skellig Michael] whose existence on the mainland is now being challenged by the combined introduction of the bank vole (from German cargo delivered to Limerick docks in the 1920's during construction of the Ardnacrusha hydro-electric power station on the river Shannon) and the recent invasion of greater white-toothed shrew. Luckily neither of these introduced species are present on the Blasket or Skellig. It is a tough world out there for our native flora and fauna whose very existence is threathened by invading and competing new species in an ecosystem meltdown.
There are in excess of 150 native Irish red deer - Cervus elaphus - on Inishvickillaun, introduced there by the owner and former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey in 1980 from one stag and three hinds from Killarney National Park introduced to the island by helicopter (unlike the hares which were brought by boat!). They are now vitally important for the purity of the native stock as there is evidence that the native Irish red deer in Killarney National Park may now be interbreeding with the Sika deer. The native Irish red deer in Killarney are in Ireland since the last ice age about 28,000 years ago and possibly also before the country was covered in ice when the now extinct Giant Irish elk - Megaloceros giganteus - also roamed the land with them. Although some recent DNA studies of the red deer population appear to indicate that the red deer did not return naturally after the retreat of the ice sheets but were reintroduced by Neolithic [New Stone Age} farmers about 6,000 years ago.
The seas around the Blasket Islands are also teeming with interesting marine fauna including mega fauna like basking sharks who feed at the surface for short periods on the early season plankton blooms; humpback whales and fin whales cruise by outside the islands sometimes staying for months at a time feeding on sand eels and sprat as they build up their fat reserves prior to their migration further south to the breeding grounds; their smaller relatives the Minke whales are also present inshore for most of the summer period as well as common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and the rare silvery white Risso's dolphins. Grey seals come from far and wide to haul out on the White Strand (An Trá Bán) on the Great Blasket and have their pups on Beginish in October. They can number up to 2,000 animals hauled out on the Trá Bán during the winter time.
MODERN FACILITIES FOR THE VISITOR ON GREAT BLASKET ISLAND
As well as a visit to the Skelligs, visitors to Kerry should not miss the unique experience that is the Blasket Islands. Facilities on the Island are improving all the time and OPW guides from the Heritage Centre in Dún Chaoin give (free) daily guided tours of the old village on the Island when enough people from the various ferries are gathered, usually at 12 o'clock and 2 o'clock. You can have a cup of tea / coffee and a scone in the tearooms at the top of the village and for 2019 season the toilets there will be open to visitors. After that you can walk on the lovely beach that is the White Strand and swim in the pristine clear waters or take a loop walk around the Island which takes approx. one and a half hours. Two of the old houses in the village have been restored by the OPW including the house of Tomás ó Criomhthain author of The Islandman.
You can do a marine tour of the outer islands on a separate trip or combine an island landing (3 hrs.) and a marine tour (4 hrs.) of the other islands in an All Day Tour with www.marinetours.ie departing from Ventry Harbour - Ceann Trá - the place where the legendary Fionn Mac Cumhaill famously fought Dáire Donn, the "King of the World", for a year and a day on the mile long beach there in the Irish mythological Battle of Ceann Trá known as "Cath Fionn Trá."
Either way if weather and sea conditions are suitable you should not miss this wonderland of nature and culture that is the Blasket Islands archipelago, just across the Bay from that other magical destination in Kerry that is Skellig Michael - both jewels in the crown of the Kingdom of Kerry.
Mick Sheeran Blasket Islands Eco Marine Tours