Memories of a lost culture

I've just finished reading Twenty Years A-Growing by Maurice O'Sullivan (Muiris Ó Súilleabháin) (OUP 1953 reissued 2000).  It is the moving autobiography, translated delightfully form the Irish by Moya Davies and George Thomson, of Maurice who was born on the island of the Great Blasket off the Atlantic Coast of Ireland in 1904. This and a handful of other books written by or for members of the Blasket Island community have become a permanent testament to a traditional way of life that vanished in 1953 when the decision was made to abandon the settlement and move to the mainland.


The island group, six in all, are off the western end of the Dingle peninsular. The inhabitants were often cut off by the elements and relied on the wild rabbits, sea-birds and their eggs for food, as vividly described in O'Sullivan's book. He himself had an unusual childhood for an islander; his mother having died when he was a baby, he was brought up in Dingle and until he was seven spoke only English. In 1911 he family came to take him back to the Blasket islands and Maurice relates in amusing details all the exploits and adventures he and others got up to. His knowledge of English was clearly an advantage to him and enabled him to travel further and communicate more widely than others of his community.


As well as the remarkable literary heritage triggered by the interest of anthropologists and linguists at the end of the 19th century who realised that the Blasket islanders way of life was one that could hardly survive much longer, there is now a large museum on the mainland overlooking the islands where those touring the Dingle peninsular can get a taste of this remote outcrop of civilisation. The islands are still owned by members of the community but there are no permanent residents.


It is difficult to describe the impact of the book without the wonderful Irish idioms and turns of phrase that have been conveyed in the translation. The book narrates the first twenty years of Sullivan's life and concludes with his journey to Dublin where he intends to sign up for military service. He skilfully conveys his astonishment as an islander arriving in a large city for the first time.


We reached  O'Connell Bridge and got out. Trams and motors roaring and grating, newspaper-sellers at every corner shouting at the height of their heads, hundreds of people passing this way and that without stopping, and every one of them, men and women, handsomely got up.


The trouble now was to cross the street. A man would make the attempt, then another, an eye up and an eye down, a step forward and a step back, until they would reach the other side.


'Oh Lord, George, this is worse than to be back off the quay of the Blasket waiting for a calm moment to run in.'


He laughed. 'Here is a calm moment now,' he said suddenly. Off we went in a flutter, George gripping my arm; now forwards, now backwards, until we landed on the opposite side.