A storyteller speaks of Irish island life

Island Cross-Talk, by Tom'as O'Crohan. New York: Oxford University Press. 192 pp. $21.95, $7.95 paper. No doubt a good thing is worth waiting for, but nearly 60 years for the first English translation of this Irish classic seems a bit much!

Originally published in 1928, Tom'as O'Crohan's ``Island Cross-Talk'' was the first fruit of a remarkable literary flowering from the Great Blasket Island off the southwestern coast of Ireland. Later texts from the island would include O'Crohan's ``The Islandman''; Peig Sayers's ``Peig'' and ``An Old Woman's Reflections''; and, perhaps best known of all, Maurice O'Sullivan's ``Twenty Years A-Growing.''

A telling blend of lyricism, humor, and philosophy, ``Island Cross-Talk'' easily holds its own with any of these masterpieces.

Subtitled ``Pages from a Diary,'' the book is a selection from a journal that the author kept from 1918 to 1922. ``Diary'' is a misleading term, however, for the storytelling instinct at the heart of the Irish oral tradition guides this diarist's pen, shaping his observations on his neighbors, the weather, and all aspects of island life into miniature tableaus, each with an integrity, and often a moral, of its own.

The talk set down by O'Crohan is wonderful: as fresh and immediate as we might expect from a raconteur whom the islanders dubbed ``the Master,'' and who himself only learned to write late in life. ``Cross-Talk'' is argumentation, a favorite pastime of the Blasket villagers, who invoke the Deity as readily in imprecation as in supplication. By the end of the book, we come to know the various island personalities much as we do the characters in a novel.

Economy, the management of resources which so preoccupied Thoreau in ``Walden,'' is likewise a prevailing theme here. Subsistence farming and fishing, subject to an often treacherous climate and the vagaries of the marketplace, provide a scanty livelihood to the islanders, whose resourcefulness seems unbounded.

From O'Crohan we learn how rabbit, shellfish, and gulls' eggs supplement a basic diet of fish and potatoes; how mussels and seaweed are used for fertilizer, furze for fuel, and seal blubber for lamp oil. ``Fire, food, and clothes are the three needs that bring all drudgery,'' observes the author, who would surely marvel at all that our consumer society now regards as necessities.

If hunger is a sometime reality for the 150 islanders of O'Crohan's day, the spiritual dimension to island life appears anything but impoverished. A keen fascination with all natural phenomena, together with a profound religious faith, serve to leaven the struggle for survival.

Described in the introduction as a fisherman, O'Crohan is at heart a poet, whose sense of wonder at his daily world makes him seem far younger than a man in his 60s. ``The sun was high when I wandered out,'' he tells us. ``The way the day had cleared would make you reflect that it was not the end of the world yet, maybe.'' Yet the tragic element of Irish island life, which gave Sygne his theme in ``Riders to the Sea,'' is also in evidence: a son of Peig Sayers falls to his death from the cliffs, as had a son of O'Crohan 30 years before.

The cover photography of a deserted island cottage sadly suggests the fate of the author's beloved Blasket, which was abandoned by the last of the islanders in 1953. ``The like of us will never be again,'' wrote O'Crohan, offering us yet another reason to treasure this book.

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