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The Islandman (1929)

by Tomás O'Crohan

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323658,376 (4)7
Tomas O'Crohan was born on the Great Blasket Island in 1865 and died there in 1937, a great master of his native Irish. He shared to the full the perilous life of a primitive community, yet possessed a shrewd and humorous detachment that enabled him to observe and describe the world. His book is a valuable description of a now vanished way of life; his sole purpose in writing it 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'. The Blasket Islands are three miles off Irelands Dingle Peninsula. Until their evacuation just after the Second World War, the lives of the 150 or so Blasket Islanders had remained unchanged for centuries. A rich oral tradition of story-telling, poetry, and folktales kept alive the legends and history of the islands, and has made their literature famous throughout the world. The 7 Blasket Island books published by OUP contain memoirs and reminiscences from within this literary tradition, evoking a way of life which has now vanished.… (more)
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One man’s fascinating history and recollections of his life on the Blasket Islands of Ireland in the 1800-1900s. The islanders were Irish-speaking – some had no English. Life consisted of family, hard work, camaraderie and hardship. They fished, farmed, hunted, salvaged and did whatever else they could to live. The islands were evacuated in the 1950s and are now uninhabited, so Tomas O’Crohan’s wish to document a disappearing society with this book was prescient. ( )
  Hagelstein | Sep 20, 2019 |
This was a challenging read. Very interesting, but a bumpy ride. The translation, punctuation and pronouns were often awkward. Tomas has a fascinating story to tell, but you have to be committed to follow it. I enjoyed reading it after visiting Blasket Island. I had pictures and other sources to read along with it. ( )
  njcur | Aug 7, 2017 |
I find these kinds of memoirs especially wonderful and precious. This is an account of a way of life that has long since ceased to exist, told simply and truthfully by someone who was just an ordinary person.

The place is an island off the south west coast of Ireland, right on the edge of Europe. Tomas O'Crohin was born there in the middle of the 19th century and lived there all of his long life. His voice comes to us loud and clear from way back through the mists of time. The style of writing is simple and straightforward. I suspect that it is even better in the original Gaelic in which it was written. Having read about his haphazard schooling - they only went to school during on-off periods when a school teacher was available on the island, I was intrigued that he could write so well. But then I read elsewhere that he made an effort to learn to read and write at the age of forty and that he became involved in the preservation of Gaelic.

Although living a hard and simple life, these people seemed to have a special appreciation for language. He describes how "the poet" in the community was highly regarded. Tomas appears to have been the poet's scribe and if The Poet got a new poem in his head, Tomas had to drop what he was doing and sit down and record it immediately. One such an occasion happened out on the hill in the middle of winter!

They also loved singing but it seemed that they needed a few drops of liquor to get them started! Liquor was mostly consumed when they went to the "mainland" but otherwise what they could lay their hands on was saved for Christmas. (This is actually one area where the author contradicts himself, because he describes them drinking at other times too.) But don't let me give the wrong impression:- They drank milk and water most of the time.

Life on the Blasket Islands was hard and governed by the seasons and the elements. They lived from both the land and the sea. Occasional shipwrecks provided much excitement and bounty, sometimes saving them from starvation. In a curious way the shipwrecks connected them with the wider world too. For example, they discovered tea for the first time from one such a wreck. They did not know what to do with the chests full 'strange 'stuff' of and ended up feeding it to their pigs!

I found it fascinating to read about the way they lived. How they sometimes discovered better ways of doing things by accident. Over Tomas' lifetime things improved and gradually they become less and less isolated. But as he was writing these memoirs, he already knew that their way of life was coming to an end, hence the motivation to write it all down. As he says:

I have written minutely of much that we did, for it was my wish that somewhere there should be a memorial of it all, and I have done my best 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.

I started reading this book, coming back from a holiday in Ireland. I was longing for the beauty and tranquility of the west coast of Ireland to linger in my mind. And now this book itself has stayed with me days after I had finished reading it. I've just found out that there is an unabridged version which contained some material that the original translator had left out. Very, very tempted to get hold of a copy. ( )
  pengvini | Sep 22, 2013 |
As Robin Flower says in the introduction, “the great value of this book is that is a description of this vanishing mode of life by one who has known no other, and tells his story with perfect frankness, serving no theory and aiming at no literary effect, but solely concerned to preserve some image of the world that he has known, or, 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.’”

O’Crohan is not a professional writer, he’s an Irishman who lived in a small community on Great Blasket Island near Dingle Bay, off the Western coast, in the 19th and early 20th century. The island is today uninhabited.

Just how tough his life was is described in so many ways, but it’s always understated and from our perspective that it’s apparent: O’Crohan himself is certainly not whining when he talks about living with animals in the same house, his very irregular schooling, and fighting off authorities with rocks from the cliffs when they come to collect taxes. He does lament the changing world at times, however, from the younger generation leaving the Blaskets for America (and sometimes coming back because life was no better there), to observing that “nobody would put a bit of seal meat in his mouth to-day.”

As one visits Great Blasket Island today and sees the ruins of houses on the green hills overlooking the peaceful strand with seals looking out amongst the rocks, one tries to imagine raggedy children and tough men ambling down to try to catch and slaughter them. O’Crohan talks about hauls of thousands of fish in boon times, and of men drowning during storms – truly a rugged, difficult existence out there on that rock. He also describes his visits into the town of Dingle, a big event for him (and wonderful town today), and of the drinking of his compatriots which sometimes got out of hand. For “Drink was cheap, too. It wasn’t thirst for the drink that made us want to go where it was, but only the need to have a merry night instead of the misery that we knew only too well before.”

What’s also interesting in the book is what’s not there: very little description of his wife, their courtship, marriage, or his children, except a passing mention of some of their sad deaths. I say that not to fault him; that fact in and of itself is an interesting reflection of the way life was then, or at least, how he saw his life. This hit home all the more towards the end when he says “What I’ve written down are the things that meant most to me”.

The people are gone, and their way of life too. The waves still crash there and the wind still howls. The rabbits, seals and fish still thrive. The ruins of the houses are a reminder of what once was, and books like The Islandman (as well as a few others from those who lived there) bear witness. And for that it’s worth reading. ( )
1 vote gbill | Sep 16, 2013 |
Perhaps the fact I am half-Irish colors my review of this book, which is written in the simple language of a simple man. Or perhaps it is the fact I studied it in an Irish Literature class I took through our local community school for no reason other than I wanted to know a bit about my people of origin? Or the fact our instructor loved the subject-matter deeply and shared with us pictures and videos of her experience visiting Great Blasket Island where this story takes place? Or the fact it is near April 15th here in the USA, tax day, and there was something about the way people in the story hid their cows and pigs from the tax-man so as not to have to pay a tax upon them? Or the thought of harvesting seals for food to survive the Great Potato famine? Or the tea which washed up upon the shore after a shipwreck? And how they had never seen such a substance and used it to dye their petticoats and fatten their pigs until they figured out it was good to drink? In any event, this is not an UNBIASED review, but an eminently biased one, because despite the slow pace in places, I enjoyed this story immensely by the 'last calf of an old cow' and would recommend anyone interested in Irish history read it and view our history not through the eyes of a high bard, but a fairly ordinary person. ( )
1 vote Anna_Erishkigal | Mar 31, 2013 |
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Tomas O'Crohan was born on the Great Blasket Island in 1865 and died there in 1937, a great master of his native Irish. He shared to the full the perilous life of a primitive community, yet possessed a shrewd and humorous detachment that enabled him to observe and describe the world. His book is a valuable description of a now vanished way of life; his sole purpose in writing it 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'. The Blasket Islands are three miles off Irelands Dingle Peninsula. Until their evacuation just after the Second World War, the lives of the 150 or so Blasket Islanders had remained unchanged for centuries. A rich oral tradition of story-telling, poetry, and folktales kept alive the legends and history of the islands, and has made their literature famous throughout the world. The 7 Blasket Island books published by OUP contain memoirs and reminiscences from within this literary tradition, evoking a way of life which has now vanished.

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