Sunday, 4 August 2013

Another time, another place.

Fiche Blian ag Fás. 

Muiris O’Suilleabháin. An Sagart, An Daingean, 2002. an Ceathrú Eagrán.

This review was written on 20th April 2010

Doctors are familiar with the patient who comes into the surgery with some complaint or other and then adds in a gloomy resigned way “I’m afraid I’m getting old.”  In responding to this remark I used to say that it is surely better than the alternative.  My meaning could take a moment or two to register but the patient would frequently cast off some of the gloom and look a little brighter about things.

I am reminded of the not uncommon gloomy preoccupation with ageing when I read Maurice O’Sullivan’s Twenty Years a’ Growing, the English translation of his Fiche Blian Ag Fás, his description of life on the Blasket Islands off the coast of Kerry in the early part of the 20th century.  During one of his many conversations with a grandson who called his grandfather Daddo, the old man said 

"Did you ever hear how the life of a man is divided?

Twenty years a growing, twenty years in blossom,
Twenty years a stopping, twenty years declining.
Look now, I have sayings you have never heard!”

‘’And in which twenty are you now?” said O’Sullivan.  And grandfather replied “in the last twenty and it is to God I am thankful for his gifts.”

As I get older and occasionally think of my vanishing youth, I am comforted by Daddo’s prayer of thanks.  As I get older too I am learning that one can improve with age and that many of the physical and cerebral disabilities associated in the popular mind with late middle age are the products of disuse and neglect rather than the products of ageing.  Use your mind and use your body and if you do so prudently you have no need to fear these later years.

This book was conceived by Muiris O’Suilleabháin between 1929 and 1932 after some encouragement from some of his friends. He lived in Conamara at this time. He had joined the Civic Guards and lived his entire professional life in the Conamara Gaelteacht because, one assumes, of his knowledge of the Irish language. It was customary in the Guards that no officer was appointed to his own part of the country. O’Súilleabháin, born in the Great Blasket Island, was induced to write about his young life the Blaskets and Dingle.

An tOileánach by Tomás O’Criomhthain was published in 1929 and Peig had been published by Peig Sayers is 1936. They formed the trio of authors in Irish from the Blaskets which made that island so famous afterwards. I cannot remember if I had read any of these books before but I was fortunate to have the fourth edition of the Fiche Blain ag Fás in my library. During the last few years I have made a more serious effort to become an Irish speaker again after my fifty years of neglect of the language following my departure from school. I dealt with my attitude to the language and my father and my family’s background to the language on pages 216-218 in my autobiography published in 2010.

The Irish spoken in the Blaskets was almost a patois in the sense that it had words and expressions which differed widely from the Irish which we were brought up with in Dublin and indeed from the rich Munster Irish which we knew so well in Corcha Dheana during our summer holidays in Ballyferriter and Baile Mór during the late 1920s and the 1930s. The Blasket form of Iriish is well noted in the text of O’Súilleabháin’s book. It left me (and even in Tomas de Bhaildriethe’s Irish-English dictionary) at a loss as to some of its words and phrases, My reading in Irish was slow and tedious at first but my comprehension improved as I progressed although I was still left with having to guess  some phrases of his text.

The author was the last and fifth member of a family in the island whose mother died shortly after his birth. He was fostered to Dingle for his first ten or eleven years and only then returned to the island to his father and grandfather and his four siblings. He had no Irish until he returned to his family but he soon learned to become part of its tight community.

In his book he has left a warm, sentimental and sometimes sad memoir of the community, its tightly connected people and the ambience of its natural features of sky, sea, landscape, the grandeur of Dingle Bay, the Kerry coast, the distant Skelligs and mountains as far as the McGillicuddy Reeks.  It became increasingly apparent as one reads his account that, over the years from 1912 after O’Súilleabháin’s return to the island to his departure to the mainland in 1927, there was a slow but inexorable departure of the young people, mostly to America and to Springfield and Boston, to join their families there.

The young were largely influenced to migrate to America by the encouragement and financial support of their American siblings and also by the globalisation changes taking place in modern society. Fiche Blian ag Fás is tinged in all its pages with the sadness of a dying community which was unique in our country.

Getting ready to launch the Naomhóg
The author conveys a close and isolated community on the island, the simplicity of their lives, the close relationship between all generations and the vagaries of the weather. They were close to nature with their donkeys, sheep, goats and rabbits on land and the dominant part played in their lives by fishing and by the ocean wildlife, including the masses of seals (Rón) on the rocks and beaches, the whales (Míol) and the ever-present birdlife nesting on the cliffs and on every nook and cranny not too accessible to humanity. Fishing formed a dominant part in their livelihood and it was conducted in the Naomhóg, a canvas covered and latticed currach which was unique to the Kerry coast. Fish was plentiful, except during prolonged stormy weather, not infrequent in the West coast of Ireland. However, the fish was preserved in barrels full of salt in some households. The naomhóg was a safe boat, even in rough weather, in expert and experienced hands.  My own experience as a child when returning from the Blaskets late in the evening in very rough weather was terrifying as the boat mounted the huge waves only to be immediately followed by a precipitous fall into an abyss of wild confusion. All this was part of the daily lives of the fishermen who became powerful oarsmen and were only rarely assisted in quieter seas by a sail.

Music, singing and dancing were some of the pastimes of the younger people with the older parents and grandparents always in close attendance and full of talk and gossip... the fireside was the centre of the house and was the natural place of repose of the older people, all of whom appeared to be sucking at their pipes or dudeens. Tobacco appeared to be one of the few imports from the main land and was always greatly valued by the older Blasket community.

There is a touching piece about O’Súilleabháin and his first love, Mairéad. Of a sudden he falls in love with her but he was loath to show his feelings. However, after a few impersonal encounters, he heard her say casually to him the word cuid and this was to bring the two together for the rest of his stay in the Blaskets.  Cuid was the Irish for my dear and would be used among lovers. It was a passionate relationship within the strict mores of the Island at the time. Yet, once he left the island to join the Civic Guards in 1927 when he was about 24 years of age there is no mention of her nor does he in his autobiography mention anything about his personal affairs afterwards, including his marital and family status. He was the last of his siblings to leave the island for the mainland and for the future.  

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