I woke up during the night and listened for a while. A soft wailing emanated from the beach below the house. I leapt out of bed and grabbed my torch. Outside, I found my way round to the front of the house, where I watched the moving shadows on the beach in the moonlight. These nocturnal stirrings were not the movements of otherworldly spirits, but rather a colony of grey seals clustered together on Trá Bán, the beautiful sandy beach on Great Blasket island. This is the largest grey seal colony in Ireland, after the Inishkea islands in Mayo. Grey seals arrive here in late summer to breed , with some even staying throughout the winter. Back in the day, the islanders who lived here, would have listened to their gentle howling every night. As I sat and watched, I felt privileged to hear that haunting sound for just one brief moment.
Great Blasket island has featured in many a book and documentary. However, the island is probably best known for the 1936 autobiography of islander Peig Sayers, depicting the hardships of life on the island. She suffered great tragedy, losing three of her 11 children at birth, one at 18 to measles and another son fell off a cliff in a tragic accident. She wrote about the desolate loneliness when the islanders were cut off from the mainland for weeks at a time during winter storms. Her book was part of the Irish curriculum in schools around Ireland until the 1990’s and induced despair in many an Irish student, including myself, sending a shudder down the spine of many at the mention of her name even today. The islanders were evacuated from the Blaskets in 1953, when many were rehoused on the mainland while others emigrated to the US. I was staying in Peig’s cottage, now renovated and offered as unique accommodation on the island. If anyone had said to me back in school, that I would one day be sleeping alone in her house, I would have laughed. But yet here I was, in the last week of the season, with a new found interest in her story, one I wish I had paid more attention to at school.
The next day, I climbed up above the village, following a green path to the top. Of the six Blasket islands, only four were ever inhabited. There is evidence of early settlements on some of the islands and written recordings of populations thereafter, however, by 1911, Great Blasket island was the only inhabited island.
Beginis or Beginish island, a small flat island in the bay, dominated the view on the hike up the hill above the beach. Mostly used as a fattening island for sheep through the years, this island lacks any shelter from the strong Atlantic winds. Today the island is an important breeding ground for grey seals and arctic terns. Further up the hill, Inis Tuaisceart or Inishtookert, just west of Great Blasket island, came into view. It features in many a sunset picture from the mainland. The silhouette of the island against the golden backdrop, resembles that of a sleeping giant, hence its colloquial name, ‘an fear marbh’ (the dead man). Ancient ruins of a Christian settlement and oratory indicate early habitation, dating back over a thousand years. Dry stone walls also partition small swathes of land nearby. In 1835 one family lived alone on the island. No-one knows why they subjected themselves to such isolation, however, their tragic demise was well documented by geologist, George Du Noyer, who was working on the Geological survey of Ireland in 1849. The story of Tomás Ó Catháin, his wife Peig, and their son ended in awful tragedy during a bout of bad weather. The three lived inside a small stone hut or clochán. Tomás died during a storm and when the bad weather prevailed, Peig was unable to remove his corpse through the doorway in their small home. She was forced to dismember his body and remove him piece by piece. Once the storm died down, neighbouring islanders were finally able to reach Inis Tuaisceart with fresh supplies.
From the back of Great Blasket island, there are spectacular views across to the most westerly of the other three Blasket islands. On first sight, Inishtearaght or Tearaght appears as one small pyramidical rock, similar in stature to Skellig Michael but on a smaller scale. However, a second shorter peak sits directly behind, hidden from view. It is on this smaller peak that a lighthouse was built in 1870. The towering cliffs of both pinnacles are connected by a thick archway with a natural tunnel underneath the island. From 1881, lighthouse keepers were housed on the island until the light was automated in 1988. The rocky cliffs attract large numbers of manx shearwater, storm petrels and puffins. Islanders from Great Blasket used to come over and hunt the seabirds here. Not only were they a great source of protein, their feathers made ideal bedding material.
Inis Mhic Uileáin or Inishvickillane was inhabited at one time or other. A monastery was founded on the island around 700 AD including a small church, graveyard and clochán or beehive hut, the ruins of which can still be seen today. There is also evidence of an earlier promontory fort. One or two families were recorded as living here after the 19th century. In 1970, Inishvickillane was bought by former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, who built a holiday house on the island. One of his summer guests included former French president, Francois Mitterand. Haughey also introduced a herd of red deer to the island from the mainland. Pairs of antlers can still be sighted today, moving across the slopes of the island.
Inis na Bró or Inishnabro is separated from Inishvickillane by a narrow sound. Access to this smaller island is almost impossible due to the towering cliffs. On the north east point of the island, vertical layers of jagged rock rise from the water like majestic spires. Known as the cathedral rocks, this geological wonder has the appearance of a Gothic church. As the waves lap against these steep sandstone spires, one can almost imagine hearing faint organ music. There is evidence of one man living here during the 19th century, although records do not tell us much about his existence or why he chose to live in such an inhospitable place. Ruins of a large promontory fort also indicate earlier habitation, dating back to the Iron Age.
Later that evening, I returned to the cliffs above the beach and watched the seals. Most slept, invariably snorting and snoring. Others rolled in the sand and twisted their bodies to reach an area that needed scratching. Youngsters played and tussled with each other in awkward, lumbered movements. The adults shuffled about, their heavy frames slow and laboured. In the water, however, these large masses of blubber were like graceful athletes, darting at high speed and diving under the rolling surf. Dark shadows flitted about under the turquoise water as the sun fell below the horizon. Back in Peig’s house, I sat beside the log fire, tired after a day of hiking. With no electricity on the island, I was spending the evening by candlelight, just as the islanders had, albeit for the giant slab of chocolate I had brought with me. As I sat in the flickering light, I imagined the lives of the people who had passed through this very house, the stories told around the hearth and the dark winter nights in stormy weather. In the quiet, their spirits still lingered. Peig might have stressed me out at school but on this evening, I had nothing but admiration for her raising a family on this rugged and wild outpost. Maybe it’s time I read her book once more.