on 5 June 2014
The Loneliest Boy in the World - The last child of the Great Blasket
By Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin with Patricia Ahern. Collins Press.
The Blasket Islands, off the coast of Kerry in the extreme west of Ireland, have a habit of getting under your skin. Once discovered, they are not easily forgotten.
This is partly due to their history – an isolated Gaelic community, fighting against the odds, until what seemed an inevitable evacuation in 1953; and partly due to their position ‘on the edge of the world’, so near but so far from the jetty at Dun Chaoin on the mainland. Today the ruined village clings to the island slopes above an tráigh bháin – the stunningly white beach – as grassy tracks lead between the still clearly defined fields.
Sitting by ‘the American Well’, where day by day the islanders gathered and talked of those who had emigrated to the ‘next Parish west’, it’s difficult not to hear those voices, and impossible not to seek to capture the lives of those who were once here.
Luckily – and this is another reason for the island’s haunting presence – those voices speak clearly to us through the island’s literary tradition. It is a tradition encouraged and promoted early by visiting scholars, and follows on from the original highly acclaimed works from Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Peig Sayers, and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin.
Many books by islanders have been published, adding to the writings of scholars such as JM Synge, Brian Ó Ceallaigh, Ray Stagles, and Robin Flower, and the body of work is often referred to as the “Blasket Library”. All add to our knowledge of Great Blasket and its surrounding islands, all are told from different points of view.
Last year we had a memoir from Michael Carney, the oldest living islander, and now comes the story of Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin – the only child on the island at the time of the evacuation – and the last survivor of that group.
Written with Patricia Ahern, this is a new and fresh angle on the story of the Blaskets. Only 6 when he left the island, Gearóid’s description of his early life, and the people who inhabited it, is based on a child’s view and is sharp and observant in a way that adults may not always replicate. He saw the islanders as being the same as him – not knowing any other children, he saw no distinction between adult and child. The islanders, in their turn, treated him as a full member of the community, and even in his brief years there, he learned the daily routines, the working practices, the survival skills necessary to these folk on the edge of the world
If you’ve ever sat amongst the ruins on Great Blasket and wondered about the ordinary lives of these people: meals, sleeping, working, and enjoying themselves, this book gives you answers in a typically understated island style.
On Chritmas Eve, 1948, journalist Liam Robinson, and photographer Donal MacMonagle, visited the Blaskets and a piece was produced on Gearóid’s singular life. A wily subeditor headlined it “The Loneliest Boy in the World” and it was syndicated across the globe.
Gearóid is still at pains to point out that he was not lonely in any sense, and laughs at the suggestion that his ‘only friends were the seagulls’, but he is honest enough to agree that he enjoyed the amazing reaction to the article. Good wishes, toys, clothes, and offers came from the five continents. An American rancher offered to adopt him, others offered land and a home to his parents and family, he gained penpals in other countries. The Blasketers were used to international attention in later generations – but the story of Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin seems to have struck a nerve internationally.
It is symptomatic of the islanders’ phlegmatic approach that they took the fuss in their stride, and Gearóid details in a quite matter of fact style how his life was changed - but not to any great extent. However, two highly affecting moments in his writing refer to his later meeting with Robinson in 1988, and to the atmosphere on the island on Christmas Eve, when there was a lighted candle in the window of every house and the full moon made glisten the frost on the tarred felt roofs.
Another attraction of this book is that we learn in some detail of life on the mainland for the islanders after the evacuation – and local characters around Dun Chaoin, such as the larger than life publican, 'Kruger', fairly walk off the pages in the later parts of the story.
Anyone who has read the Blasket names on the gravestones in the new cemetery near Dun Chaoin, overlooking the island, must have wondered how they made a new life on the mainland. Earlier books by Cole Moreton, and last year’s offering from Michael Carney, paint a picture of the American emigrants; Gearóid does the same for those who stayed closer to the island – as well as detailing his educational experiences – his first meetings with other children in the national school at Dun Chaoin, his boarding school experiences in Kilkenny, and his eventual education in Dingle’s more familiar surroundings.
The tales of his adult life, and the gradual loss of his parents and their generation from the island, fill in more gaps in our knowledge, and there is a sense, as there must be, of some things coming to an end.
An old tale, then, from a new angle, but what endures – as it seems to in all the books in the Blasket Library – is a sense of a remarkable people, far removed from the sentimentality we may be tempted to show towards a lost way of life, accepting of what needed to be done, proud of their past, embracing their present, and facing their future with a strong Faith and self awareness.
It’s difficult to better the famous lines of Tomás Ó Criomhthain, and indeed Gearóid repeats them more than once:
“Ní bheidh ár leithéidí arís ann”
The like of us will never be again.