The Heritage Service offers a guide to the Centre that includes an overview of the 1993 building project, the distinctive literary circumstance, people and products of the islands, island life and the eventual decline of Blasket culture, and project art works –in both English and Irish.
Following is information from the guide:
The Great Blasket Island, lying 5 km off of the West Kerry Coast, was inhabited continuously for at least three hundred year until finally abandoned in 1953. Because of its isolated location, the Blasket islanders retained their own culture and tradition, at the heart of which lay their continuing use of the native language of Irish. The Centre tells their story and celebrates their unique literary achievements.
The Great Blasket Centre, is the result of a partnership between the Blasket Foundation, a local organisation, and the Irish government. It is now managed by Dúchas – the Heritage Service of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands.
In the early years of the 20th century scholars visited the great Blasket to learn Irish and to collect folklore. They encouraged the islanders to write their life stories in their native tongue, and the books they wrote give a unique insight into the hardship of Island life. The three best known Island books are – An tOileánach (The Islandman) by Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Peig by Peig Sayers and Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty Years A-Growing) by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin.
Tomás Ó Criomhthain
Born on the Great Blasket in 1855, Tomás spent his whole life fishing and farming. He had learned to read and write in English at school, but it was only in his fourties that he learned to write in Irish, enabling him to describe his life in his own language.
An tOileánach (The Islandman) by Tomás Ó Criomhthain, translated from the Irish by Robin Flower. Published in Oxford by Oxford University Press, 1951, reissue 2000 (and previously in Dublin by Talbot Press, 1929, and in London by Chatto & Windus, 1937).
Peig was born on the mainland in Dunquin in 1873 and married and islander when she was 18. She became a masterful storyteller and of all the island writers Peig resorts most often to traditional tales to illustrate her own observations. She never learned to read and write in Irish and it was her son Mícheál who wrote down her stories from her oral account. She died in 1958.
Peig: The Autobiography of Peig Sayers of the Great Blasket Island. translated from the Irish by Bryan MacMahon. Published in Dublin by Talbot Press, 1974 (and previously in 1936).
Muiris Ó Súilleabháin
Muiris was born on the Great Blasket in 1904. The English scholar George Thomson, who visited the island for the first time in 1923, encouraged Muiris to write. His book Twenty Years A-Growing describes his early life on the island. Muiris left the island to join the Gardaí and was tragically drowned in 1950 at the early age of 46.
Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty Years A-Growing) by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, rendered from the original Irish by Moya LLewelyn Davies and Geirge Thomson. Published in Oxford by Oxford University Press, 1953, reissue, 2000 (and previously in Harmondsworth by Penguin in 1938, and in London by Chatto & Windus, 1933).
At one stage there were nearly 200 inhabitants on the Great Blasket. They lived a harsh life with few facilities. There was no shop, doctor or priest on the island so they had to make the hazardous journey to the mainland to avail of those services. For a time there was a primary school, but it was often difficult to get teachers to stay on the Blasket. The priamry school closed in 1941 when only six pupils remained on the roll. As the island had no secondary school most island children completed their education by the age of twelve or thirteen.
Mackerel and pollack were the main fish eaten. The Islanders preferred their fish boiled. Salted fish was the staple diet in the winter months. They also had potatoes, mutton, homemade bread, eggs and milk, but would have eaten meat only at certain times of the year.
Like many of the communities on the mainland, emigration stole the young islanders away to America, leaving only the old and the infirm. The Irish government, after considering pleas from the islanders, decided that the Island should be abandoned and 17 November 1953 was set as the official evacuation date. The last family left the following year. The Government provided the remaining Island families with a house and a few acres of land on the mainland in Dunquin, where very few of the islanders and their descendants remain today.
As part of the overall architectural design, art works have been incorporated as integral elements of the building and exhibition. These include The Journey the glasswork window at the Reception area, designed by Róisín de Buitléar and executed by Kawala’s Glass Studios. It is probably the largest secular glasswork in Ireland. The life-size stone sculpture outside the building of the Islandman was designed by Michael Quane, while Cathy Carmen’s Women at the Well bronze work is art of the Island Exhibition. There are plaster casting by Brian King on the right hand wall of Slí an Bhlascaoid, the long corridor. Barbara Lavery designed and executed The Place of Loneliness. Patricia McKenna designed the woven piece.
From the back cover of The Islandman – Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s sole purpose in writing The Islandman was, in his own words, ‘to set down the character of the people about me so that some record of us might live after us, for the like of us will never be again.’ He was born on the Great Blasket Island in 1856 and died there in 1937, a great master in his native Irish, which he taught to scholars who came to see him from many countries.
He shared to the full the dangerous life of a primitive community, often stormbound, going hungry when the fish or the crops failed, living well when the storm drove a wrecked cargo up on the strand, and was a highly respected figure on the Island. However he possessed a shrewd and humorous detachment from the whirlwind of everyday crisis which enabled him to observe and describe his world. His book was published in Gaelic, and subsequently in English, translated by Robin Flower, during his lifetime, and is an absorbing narrative of this life, written by one who had known no other.
From the back cover of Twenty Years A-Growing – Muiris Ó Súilleabháin was born in 1904 on a remote island off the Atlantic coast of Ireland – the Great Blasket. In this classic book (here translated from the Irish) he tells the story of his youth, and a way of life which belongs to the past. He wrote for his own pleasure and for the entertainment of his friends, without any thought of a wider public, in a style derived from folk-tales which he heard from his grandfather and sharpened with his own lively imagination.
“If the read laughs at the schoolmistress and the matrons, and is moved by the dream of the butterfly inside the horses’ skull – then he is assured of amusement and emotion to come. He is ready to go to Ventry Races, and to make the great journey from Dingle East… to steal out on Hallowe’en and catch thrushes above waves of the living and the dead, and see the Land of the Young in the west… This book is unique… for here is the egg of a sea-bird – lovely, perfect, and laid this very morning.”
– E.M. Forster
From the Wikipedia discussion on Peig – Peig depicts the declining years of a traditional, Irish-speaking way of life characterised by poverty, devout Catholicism, and folk memory of the Famine and the Penal Laws. The often bleak tone of the book is established from its opening words:
“I am an old woman now, with one foot in the grave and the other on its edge. I have experienced much ease and much hardship from the day I was born until this very day. Had I known in advance half, or even one-third, of what the future had in store for me, my heart wouldn’t have been as gay or as courageous it was in the beginning of my days.“
The book was for a long time required reading in secondary schools in Ireland. As a book with arguably sombre themes (its latter half cataloging a string of family misfortunes), its presence on the Irish syllabus was criticised for some years. From 1960 the Irish population was urbanizing, a process that led to the “Celtic Tiger” economy in the 1990s, and Peig’s tales of woe in rural surroundings confirmed to many students that Irish was a language of poverty and misery, while English was considered the language of science and commerce.
It led, for example, to this comment from Senator John Minihan in the Irish Senate in 2006 when discussing improvements to the curriculum:
“No matter what our personal view of the book might be, there is a sense that one has only to mention the name Peig Sayers to a certain age group and one will see a dramatic rolling of the eyes, or worse.”
— Seanad Éireann, Volume 183, 5 April 2006