A Yankee Notebook

September 28, 2015


MONTPELIER – Mother and I went to a “do” last night: a gala sit-down dinner at the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ newly renovated Alumni Hall Dinner was followed by a sort of Oscar-awards ceremony designating the outstanding Vermont writer of the year. Not just a token, either; along with a lovely glass trophy for the winner to hold for a year, there was a $5000 purse. Besides the slate of five finalists, the tables were studded with quite a few older, established writers – David Budbill and Archer Mayor, for example – prompting the reflection that there are probably at least as many “Vermont writers” as Vermont craft beers.

It was a lovely dinner preceded by over an hour of wandering waitresses bearing trays of hors d’oeuvres with Vermont accents, like pickled fiddleheads and pork on a crisp biscuit. We almost spoiled our suppers, as our parents used to say. Thanks to my liberal education and weird memory, I kept coming up with the line, “Everything was plentiful, for the Murphys, they’re not slow.”

A little later, prompted by the generosity of the evening, the plethora of Vermont authors, and the suggestions of that old Irish-American vaudeville tune, my mind wandered irresistibly to a tiny, now-abandoned island off the west coast of Ireland that once had a higher number per capita of published writers than any other single place in the world.

I’ve had the immense good fortune, during the past 25 or so years, to visit places on the earth I could only have dreamed of before then. Most of them were lovely, but weren’t places I’d spend a lot to return to; some were so enchanting I’d give a lot to go back. One of them is a small cluster of six islands and dozens of tiny skerries just off the coast of the Dingle Peninsula in southwest Ireland. Its westernmost isle, Teeraught (the spelling varies), is a stark crag of almost vertical rock strata surrounded by sea stacks and featuring a cliffside lighthouse so perched you can’t help but wonder how they did it. It’s the last European light emigrating Irish used to see as they left home.

The group is called the Blasket Islands. At least two of them show evidence of prehistoric occupation – clocháin, stone beehive-shaped huts, and seaside middens – which, again, makes you wonder how in the world they managed. I guess in the end they didn’t; eventually they disappeared. Then in medieval times, refugees from the mainland settled on the islands and persevered there – flourished is hardly the word; it was hand-to-mouth – until, reduced to only 22 by the emigration of their kids, they were removed by the Irish government in November 1953.

You get to the main island, Great Blasket, on a trawler-type vessel, and transfer to a Zodiac inflatable for the last few yards to the sloped landing ramp. Then it’s up a pretty steep hill to the lower level of the village. Back in the days of the very unpopular rent collections (absentee English landowners held title to much of Ireland’s property), the sheriffs waited till they knew most of the men were at sea, and then sent out the bailiffs. But at the site of an ancient stone fort high above the landing place, the women and children gathered rocks and boulders and played merry hell with the hulls and heads below until they retreated.

Not so today. There’s no one on the island now but a woman who styles herself a shepherd and sells tea, candy, and biscuits to tourists who find her little shop. There are no overnight accommodations. You wander past small, roofless gabled stone houses with dirt floors, their felt roofs and wooden rafters and jambs long gone. Just below, to the north, stretches An Tráigh Bhán, the White Strand, where the islanders waded deep to cut kelp for fertilizer, swam (and occasionally, sadly, drowned), and now and then beat each other half to death in wild hurley matches. About three miles away rise the gnarled cliffs of Dunquin, on the mainland. On good days, the islanders sailed their batten-framed and canvas-covered currachs back and forth; on others, they rowed.

I was introduced to the Blaskets when someone very kind handed me a copy of The Islandman, a memoir written by Tomás Ó Crohan (the Irish spelling is much more complicated to the English eye), Tomás was an original. Virtually uneducated, but expert in all the skills necessary to life on the island and with a keen eye and wit, besides, he was a natural target for a visitor to the islands in the 1920s, a linguist who wanted to experience his Gaelic as unadulterated as possible. The scholar encouraged him to write the story of his life, in Gaelic. The Islandman is the lyrical result, as lovely a poem in prose that ever was written.

If you’ve known many Irishmen – even a Bay Stater will oftentimes do – you know that very little gets said directly and succinctly. I had a great time in Galway once trying to get somebody to answer a question with a declarative sentence instead of another question. Here’s Tomás writing about putting up his house: “Some ten years after my marriage I built a new house. Nobody handed so much as a stone or a lump of mortar to me all the time I was at work on it, and I roofed it myself. It wasn’t a large house, but, all the same, if King George were to spend a month’s holiday in it, it isn’t from the ugliness of the house that he would take his death.” He and his wife had ten children, almost all of whom died in accidents or from measles and whooping cough. His wife never recovered from losing “the two best ones” and “never lasted to be old.”

The Islandman was a success, and several others, by other islanders, followed. It’s tempting to apply Calvin Coolidge’s “brave little state of Vermont” to life in the Blaskets, except that in the end it petered out – which I trust will not be the fate of this little New England rehearsal for the Promised Land. I can hardly wait to return someday to that other one across the Irish Sea.

Photo by Willem lange