From glen to glen and down the mountain side

HUNGRY FOR HOME By Cole Moreton Viking 288 pp., $23.95

In a technical age throbbing with virtual experiences and second-hand opinions, some of us feel starved for trustworthy accounts of real experience. Cole Morton, the author of "Hungry for Home," is acutely aware of this, and especially of the value of intergenerational contacts.

He is captivated by an island community that spoke a pure form of Irish and gathered by turf fires to hear tales handed down from ancient times. Its members eked out an existence on the barren, wind-swept island of Great Blasket off the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, the most westerly point of Europe.

Through interviews with members of one family - the Cearnas (anglicized as Kearney) - he reconstructs the last phase of the great Irish diaspora, using historical documents, eye-witness accounts, the customs of the time, and an inevitable sliver of dramatic license.

The diaspora began in the 1840s with the potato famine, and has only finally been reversed by tourism in the west of Ireland.

From chapter to chapter, Morton alternates between third-person narration of daily life for the Kearneys and first-person accounts of his findings as a journalist. This is Morton's first book, and there's a breathless sense of adventure in his writing not unlike that of the young Gaelic-speaking lads who sailed the high seas in the hope of finding a better life in the New World.

But Morton leaves us in no doubt that as rooted as most of these exiles became in American culture, they never lost their sense of home. For example, when one of them appeared to deny his origins and was asked, "If you are not an Irishman, what are you?" the reply was swift, "I am a Blasket man, my boy!"

The book sizzles with this fierce pride in the island, despite the ferocious elements that fill the air with "terrible wailing." Interminable gales "scalp" the waves, spilling foam, and "gulls shriek as they tumble, caught between the spray, the rain and the low, dark clouds." Yet the short summer months offer "the kind of magic that only a person raised by the water's edge can understand, who spends his days looking out across it at the base of the sky."

The closing chapter in the long, sorrowful history of this last outpost of Gaelic culture began at Christmas 1946, when a young member of the Kearney family suddenly fell ill. There was no doctor, no policeman, not even a priest on the island to help. The only telephone was down. And the next day he died. With that, the community realized that their lives on Blasket were no longer tenable. They pleaded for evacuation, which finally took place in 1953.

The history of Great Blasket has been chronicled before, but not, I suspect, with the objectivity of this young Englishman, who writes for The Independent on Sunday. He embarks on an enthusiastic, relentless search for Kearney family survivors still living on the nearby mainland (within sight of Great Blasket), and across the Atlantic in New England. Their firsthand accounts of the asperity of life on the island are sometimes blunt, often poetic, always honest.

For me, a lover of Ireland and New England, what is irresistible is the unembarrassed enchantment of the writer as he flings himself into his serendipitous travels with one eye on the weather and the other on his reporter's notebook. He's not going to miss a birdcall or a single hurtling wave, and he will listen to Blasket tales beside anyone's turf fire "until the night begins to lift, and light falls in the scattered raindrops of dawn...."

*Kim Shippey is a former BBC radio reporter.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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