Posted by: judithcoe | February 7, 2011

Meeting Martin Kearney

In October of 2006, the second month into my Fulbright year in Ireland, my sister Joni and her husband Dave came to visit me. We spent a few days exploring together and learning more about the Dingle Peninsula, the village (or parish) of Dún Chaoin (Dunquin), and the Blasket Islands. At the end of one spectacular day, we stopped in at Lord Baker’s Restaurant in Dingle for dinner. I noticed some framed newspaper articles on the wall near our table, and I went to investigate. I started reading about two brothers, Martin Kearney (Máirtin Ó Cearna, born in 1923) and Mike Carney (Mícheál Ó Cearna, born in 1920) who had been born on the Great Blasket Island and immigrated to the Hungry Hill area of Springfield, Massachusetts. I read a second framed article about their older sister, Céit Ó Cearna (Kate, born in 1918), who had helped raise her younger brothers and sister when their mother, Neilí Ní Dhálaigh, died at the age of 35.


Brothers Martin Kearney and Mike Carney (photo taken in Dingle, by J. Coe, 2006)

Sister Kate Kearney (photo taken in Dingle, 2006)

I recognized those names and faces.

During the summer of 2000, I took my first trip to Ireland, to attend BLAS, a 2-week International Summer School of Irish Traditional Music and Dance in the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick. More about that amazing connection in a later post; the experiences I had there, and the wonderful people I met and worked with, helped to shape and focus the future of my subsequent study of and passionate interest in Irish traditional and contemporary history and culture. My interest in the Dingle Peninsula and Dunquin had been ignited during my teenage years, and after my course at UL was finished, I rented a car and drove to the Dingle Peninsula, where I stayed for 3 weeks. It was a trip I had dreamed of since I was a young girl, and it was a transformative, life-changing experience.

I learned about and visited the Blasket Centre (Ionad an Bhlascaoid Mhóir) many times over the course of that first 3-week visit, and I fell in love with the place – the stories of the islanders’ difficult, primitive and dangerous existence on the Blaskets, the immigration of some of them to America, the amazing multimedia exhibits capturing a way of life, freezing moments in time and lining out a distinctive history and culture, the scholars and writers who came to visit, a rich oral tradition of story-telling, folktales, poetry and a vanished literary tradition – and the stunningly gorgeous land- and seascapes that are a deeply influential aspect of all of these things. I learned much about the Blasket Islands and the people who lived there, and came home knowing that, one day, I would go find a way to go back and stay for a substantive amount of time.

In the Centre, in a small exhibit room at the end of the long corridor that looks out to the islands, I first encountered and now remembered seeing the faces of Martin and Mike and their families, displayed in photos taken at their homes in Springfield, Massachusetts, and I remembered reading their stories about life on the Blaskets and life in America.

And now, owing to a lucky, random dinner choice in this Dingle restaurant, here were more stories and photos about the Ó Cearna family and their Blasket heritage.

A young man working at the bar in Lord Baker’s came over to me and politely asked if I had any questions about the articles. We talked for a bit – me explaining my interest in the history and heritage of the islands – him explaining that the people in the photos were his relatives. I was excited to speak to him and learned that his great-uncle, Martin Kearney, was in Dunquin for a few days visiting relatives. Would I be at all interested in meeting him, the young man asked. I was elated at the possibilities. He took my mobile number and said he would get it all sorted and ring me back with a meeting time and place, if possible. He also told me that a book had been recently published about the Ó Cearna family – the Kearneys – and their journey from one way of life to another. He wrote down the title, and the next day I picked up a copy in Dingle.

Later that next afternoon, while my sister, brother-in-law and I were in the Blasket Centre, my mobile rang. A meeting with Martin and his wife Eleanor was arranged. They would meet us in the sitting room at the B&B where we were staying in Dingle, and would it be alright, the young man asked, if a few others came along – Martin and Eleanor’s son Marty and his wife Diane (along on the visit from Springfield), and Martin’s nephew Paud and his wife Marian (living on the mainland, close to Dunquin). We were delighted! We had a marvelous meeting, and my sister and brother-in-law were brought into the bones of the place and Martin’s life in a personal and deeply poignant way.

A recent phone conversation with Martin’s son, Marty, solidified for me what that chance encounter had meant to his Dad. He was, Marty told me, so proud that I wanted to meet him and talk to him about his life on the Blaskets and his life in America. It was one of the most touching, humbling and wonderful events of my life, and I am so happy to be working on this project.

Martin Kearney died in November of 2009. I am sad that I won’t ever have the opportunity to talk with him again, but I am grateful and excited to be working with Marty and Eleanor, and wonderful people in Springfield, MA and Dunquin, Ireland. I look greatly forward to  doing the work of this project – and to writing songs which will help to tell the story of Martin’s life on the Blaskets and in America.

Following are some photos taken by my brother-in-law, Dave, during my October 2006 meeting with Martin and his family, and our interview and discussion.

Martin and Kearney and Judith Coe (photo taken in Dingle, Co. Kerry, October 2006)

Martin and Kearney and Judith Coe (photo taken in Dingle, Co. Kerry, October 2006)

Martin Kearney (photo by Judith Coe, taken in Dingle, Co. Kerry, October 2006)

After introductions, we all settled into comfortable places. Martin and I talked informally, and every now and then, someone in his family would augment our discussion or his answers to my questions, and add details or another perspective.

He had such a great, strong spirit. His eyes were bright and proud, and although he was clearly a very private man, he was so gracious. I asked him how he thought of his identity – did he consider himself to be an Islandman, a Kerry man, an Irishman, or an American? He was adamant that he was an American.

Listening to Martin Kearney’s stories about life on the Blaskets and life in America (photo taken in Dingle, Co. Kerry, October 2006)

It was wonderful to have his family, Irish and American, there with him. Martin’s wife, Eleanor, told me a little about how they met after Martin came to America (at a dance). His son, Marty, told me a bit about what it was like growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts in the Hungry Hill area, where the people who immigrated to the US from the Blaskets settled (everyone knew everyone). He also told me what a very different place the Celtic Tiger Ireland was from the Ireland he had first visited on his honeymoon (his wife Diane concurred). Martin’s nephew, Paud, and his wife Marian, shared stories about growing up on the mainland and about what it was like to hear stories about the Blaskets and his relatives who had been born there, many of whom now lived in the US. It was lovely to meet all of them and to get a glimpse of a vanished world.

L to R: Martin Kearney, Judith Coe, Marty Kearney, Eleanor Kearney, Diane Kearney, Maureen Kearney, Paud Kearney (photo taken in Dingle, Co. Kerry, October 2006)

One last, proud photo of Martin, alone, and our incredible evening came to a close. As Martin and his family, my sister and brother-in-law, and I, all hugged and said goodnight, I was deeply conscious of the fact that an exceedingly rare and wonderful event had just occurred. Owing to the generosity and good will of these lovely people, and that of the young man in Lord Baker’s the night before, my family and I experienced a wonderful cultural connection.

Martin Kearney (photo taken in Dingle, Co. Kerry, October 2006)

During a recent cybersearch, I found Caitlin Foley’s blog. Her grandmother, Mary (Sullivan) Foley, was born on the Blasket Island and is related to Martin and his family. Her school blog project was to research the lives of the people originally born on the Great Blasket who now live in the Springfield, Massachusetts area. She conducted interviews with several people, one of whom was Martin.

This photo of Martin is from Caitlin’s blog, where you can read her account of meeting Martin.

Photo of Martin Kearney from Caitlin Foley’s blog, Blaskets to Springfield (May 13, 2008)

Meeting Martin Kearney was one of the great joys of my life. He was a private, dignified, proud man and it was an honor and a pleasure to spend a few hours with him and his family and mine in Dingle one misty October evening so near to the place he was born on the Great Blasket Island. I will be forever grateful for that chance encounter and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn more about Martin’s life on the Blaskets and in America, and to begin a wonderful friendship and association with his family.

Síochán leat (peace be with you), Martin.



  1. My grandfather was named Michael Kearney and was born (circa 1908) and raised in Slea Head. I’m wondering what the connection might be given all of the similarities. He married my grandmother, Nora Kavanagh and they eloped to England and then Canada. I’m not familiar with much of my grandfather’s family as they lost contact after my granparents ranaway from Ireland. I know that his nephew is named Paddy O’Se and that his family lived and worked on a leased farm not far from the Blasket Islands.

    With thanks for any insight.

    Kate Kearney

    • Hi Kate, I don’t know about this particular branch of the Kearney family (I wonder if it is somehow connected to the Kearney family into which Kate Kearney, Martin Kearney’s oldest sister, married? I’ll check in with the Blasket Centre folks and get back to you!

  2. My grandfather, Timothy O’Connor was born on the Great Blasket and his wife Nell Malone was born in Dunquin. They were married in Springfield MA where they settled. Tim worked his entire life at Fisk Tire and Rubber Co where many of the Islanders worked as well. My father is from Kilnamona in Co Clare and Mom is born in Springfield. We all knew Mike Carney who was instrumental in all things Irish in Springfield and in setting up the Cultural Center in Dunquin. My sisters all took Irish dance at the John Boyle O’Reilly Club in Springfield that was run by Mike years ago.

    My 2nd aunt Marieaid O’Neill is the current owner of “Krugers” a B&B and restaurant in Dunquin that was once owned by Kruger Cavanaugh who was a driver for Eamon DeVelara. We visited with Marieaid last summer when we were over for a visit.

    Some years back my sister & husband along with my wife and I visited the Island and took a random photo that turned out to be the foundation of the home of the O’Connors. They were the weavers on the Island.
    I am retired and live in Thailand.

    Thanks for a great article. I found it by accident just browsing.


    Bob Neylon

  3. Thanks for a nice response, Bob! Great to hear a little bit about your story. I was in Dunquin in May 2013 for the “Blaket Gathering” event where Mike Carney spoke about his life and launched his memoir. I know Kruger’s well and have been to Springfield (and the JBOC) twice, now. Lovely people, these Blasket descendants — great stories to tell and share!

  4. […] connects, for a lifetime. I sang two of my new songs from my Blasket Island Songbook project about Martin Kearny’s life on the Blaskets and in Springfield, MA, and told a few stories about my Fulbright year in […]

  5. […] good. One last night in Galway, then headed on to the Dingle Peninsula, to walk in the footsteps of Martin Kearney and learn about the Blasket people and […]

  6. […] gaeltacht as well as from those that immigrated to American – including Maureen Kearney Oski, Martin Kearney’s younger sister) and she also published a companion book, Bibeanna: Memories from a Corner of […]

  7. […] I just did a faculty concert last semester that featured my original songs about the Blaskets and Martin Kearney – I titled one of the songs “Ferriter’s Islands” (the original name for the […]

  8. […] between Ventry and Dunquin), in anticipation of our boat ride out to the Great Blasket Island where Martin Kearney was born. Students loved the ride – the narrow, one-track lane, the hedgerows sporting small red […]

  9. […] family that we have studied and this unique and isolated Irish-speaking community. You can read Martin Kearney’s older brother, Mike Carney’s beautiful and funny memoir, From the Great Blasket to America: The […]

  10. […] – a significant place (this is where, during my Fulbright year in Ireland, I met Maureen Kearney, Martin Kearney’s niece, her husband John Moriarty and their son, Jonathan – owners of Lord Baker’s). We arrived […]

  11. […] family that we have studied and this unique and isolated Irish-speaking community. You can read Martin Kearney’s older brother, Mike Carney’s beautiful and funny memoir, From the Great Blasket to America: The […]

  12. Hello, Whilst researching my fathers Carney/Kearny family I made contact with a 3rd cousin who told me that it had been passed down through his family that one of our great grandfathers had built a house on the Blasket Isles and his family had lived there for a great many years. It was said that they eventually moved to the mainland – Kildare/Dublin area and at the time of the potato famine moved to the UK. The farthest I can go back is to a Hugh Karny marrying a Bridget Farrell 01/12/1843 in Allen, Co Kildare. Hugh was born c1816 and his father was given as Hugh Kearny but I have no further info. I did buy a book on the history of the Blasket Isles and although very interesting did not help me much. Have you any idea where I can find out more please – thanks very much
    regards Dorothy Chadwick nee Carney

    • Hi Dorothy, there were three different Kearney’s/Carney’s on the Great Blasket. You can write to the Blasket Centre to find out more detailed information, and a couple of new books might be helpful, as well. Good luck!

      The Blasket Centre

      The Great Blasket – A Photographic Portrait/An Blascaod Mór – Portráid Pictúir by Dáithí de Mórdha and Micheál de Mórdha

      An Island Community – The Ebb and Flow of the Great Blasket Island by Micheál de Mórdha

      • Thanks very much for your reply Judith. I might just buy the suggested books and hope it throws some light on my family members before contacting the Heritage Centre. Best wishes, Dorothy

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