We were in the town of Tralee, in County Kerry in the west of Ireland. It was a carnival town on a Saturday afternoon, with throngs of shopping families, and loudspeakers screaming of bargains for sale.
I was getting cranky. I'm an island fanatic, based on the "grass is greener" theory of many a city dweller, I suppose, and here we were with two days left in Ireland, and only one western isle to our credit. We had made it to stony Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, but bad weather, labor disputes, and nonsailing on Sunday had thwarted our efforts to get to the smaller Inishmaan and Inisheer, with their lingering old-Irish ways of living.
It was time to check our map and -- giving up on islands -- we quarreled amiably over whether to head for the famous Ring of Kerry to the south or trust the native opinion in favor of the Dingle Peninsular, directly west from Tralee. The decision was simple: We found some islands. At the end of the Dingle Peninsula, sticking into the Atlantic like a long fingernail, is the Great Blasket Island, the map showing it surrounded by reefs, rocks, and smaller islands.
The Dingle Peninsula, a solid finger of land pointing almost due west out of County Kerry, Ireland's southernmost county, ends in windswept sandstone cliffs. The relief road built during the Great Famine of the 1840s turns the corner of the peninsula at Slea Head, to join the old mountain pass road from Ventry at the village of Dunquin.
The little valley at Dunquin sits between towering Mt. Eagle, at 1,696 feet, and its neighbor, Cruach Marhin, at 1331 feet. As you face the sea at Dunquin you see the Blasket Islands, the largest being the Great Blasket. the only one ever settled to any extent, the Great Blasket is surrounded by six other islands , all too small or too rugged for residence.
Just beyond the islands, the Tearaght, a pyramidal rock of only 47 acres, rising 602 feet out of the sea, looms as the last of Ireland -- and Europe -- to the west.
Dunquin village is a quiet place -- a few lonely houses, a tiny "phost" office, and the Dunquin Pottery, a modern shop and restaurant that sells wheat or sand-colored pottery of "Irish ingredients," Irish (Gaelic)-English dictionaries, and tickets for the fetty to the Great Blasket. For $:2.50 each (about $5), we bought our tickets and headed for the water.
The tiny harbor, the Great blasket's inadequate link to the mainland, hides behind a spit of rock, its ramp ending in a rocky path to the top of a low cliff. No children scamper about awaiting the boats of tempting visitors to cottages for the night. No donkeys or traps await passengers.
The Great Blasket is an abandoned island, a somber, treeless mass of land three miles by one, its spine buckling upward to 937 feet. Situated on the edge of one of Ireland's gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) districts, the Great Blasket was once a self-contained community, its 150 people occupying a cluster of felt or thatchroofed stone cottages beneath sheltered banks above the harbor. today, the white lime has peeled from the outer walls, grass and wildflowers bloom beside crumbling hearths, and the beamed roofs have tumbled in.
The village is not the only ruin on the island. At 765 feet, high above the village and its narrow beach, the White Strand, is the "French" tower, built to watch for an invasion by Napoleon, and, half the length of the island, is the dun, a mysterious semicircular fortress built with its back to the cliffs.
On the north side of the island, where the cliffs absorb the unimpeded impact of the Atlantic OCean, is Pierce's Cave, where legendary Pierce Ferriter reportedly hid from Cromwell's troops.
Up the hill and to the right above the oldstyle cottages are stark, plain houses of cement and slate, strangely aloof from the earth and brazenly exposed to the fierce winds. Sturdier than their downhill counterparts, they were built by the Congested district Board early in the century, to replace run-down or uninhabitable older cottages. They are empty.
Great Blasket was never an easy place to live, often isolated from the mainland by dangerous seas and violent storms, with a harbour suitable for little more than the curraghs. Its population was further decreased by emigration. By 1954 the last residents were taken off the island for good.
In April of each year an English couple, Roger and Lesley Hambrook, with their ruddy- cheeked little boy, come to the Great blasket and open up one of the "new" cottages as a guesthouse. In a second cottage nearby, the Hambrooks set up a kitchen and serve soup, quiche, homemade bread, oatmeal biscuits (cookies), shortbread, poundcake, and apple pie.
We followed one of the narrow pathways that cut across the steep southern slope toward the Atlantic cliffs, climbing to the rocky point by Shingle Strand, where the foot and a half of pathway drops sharply to the sea on either side. From here one can see tiny Yellow Island, with its squawking gulls and orange-billed oyster catchers. Beyond is Carraig Fhada, a narrow rock opposite reefs, by which desperate crews brought ships of the Armada, seeking shelter and safety. In the end, two ships struck rocks in Blasket Sound and 1,000 men drowned.
On the afternoon, with only darting rabbits and shrieking birds to disturb the quiet and fog drifting ever closer to the bottom of the island, the past spoke vividly. The gulls complained like rooks in a ruined abbey.
"They say there's bread and work for all,/And the sun shines always there . . .," wrote Helen Blackwood more than a century ago.
"But I'll not forget old Ireland,/Were it fifty times as fair."