THE journalist Fintan O’Toole described Ireland’s offshore islands as “a place outside history, a strange margin”. Diarmaid Ferriter’s remarkable book explores that ambivalent and liminal status.
Prized as the epitome of Gaelic, Irish-speaking nationhood, the islands also suffered official neglect. They are loved for their spectacular natural beauty. But, as a former Blasket Islands resident, Michael Carney, said, “You can’t eat the view.” The challenges of living there — poor land, dreadful weather, ferocious seas — have defeated many. Peig Sayers epitomises the remarkable literary tradition of the Blasket Islands off the south-west coast. She referred to her island home simply as “this dreadful rock”.
It should have been otherwise. Ferriter records the sad figures. In 1841, there were 211 inhabited islands with a combined population of 38,000. By 2011, it was 64 inhabited islands with a population of 8500. By contrast, Scotland has a thriving island population of 103,700 scattered across 93 islands.
The story of official neglect underlies the challenges that the islanders faced. Ironically, government policy under the Congested Districts Board, which was wound up in 1923, was more effective than the efforts of the new Irish Free State.
This is a meticulously researched and comprehensive history of an aspect of Irish life which has been both neglected and romanticised.
There were dreadful losses. In the Cleggan disaster of 1927, near the island of Inishbofin, 44 fishermen lost their lives, leaving 174 dependants behind them. In 1935, 19 died off Arranmore in Co. Donegal. Paedar O’Donnell blamed official neglect, saying that “the world has spelled out one of its crimes in corpses.” It is not surprising that superstitious islanders dipped a statue, known as the Namhóg, in the ocean to bring calm.
Most of the islands were Irish-speaking. But Fr Killeen of the Aran Islands, one of a remarkable group of priests who served these communities, said that the policy seems to be to “speak Irish and starve”.
While formidable challenges remain — not least the unwillingness of young women to marry and settle on the islands — there are signs of hope. No longer is there talk of evacuation of islands. The EU has offered hope to even the most peripheral regions.
Ferriter’s book shines a light on an aspect of Irish life which has been sadly neglected. But a brighter future beckons.
The Rt Revd David Chillingworth is a former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.
On the Edge: Ireland’s off-shore islands: A modern history
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