Kanigel’s ‘Irish Island’ explores a world of wonder off the map

March 8, 2012

In “On an Irish Island,” Robert Kanigel tells a fascinating piece of history you probably won’t read anywhere else. At the beginning of the 20th century, England and Ireland were at each other’s throats. Not only that, Ireland itself was divided bitterly over the question of religion. The country was being drained by the emigration of its young folk to America, and the country’s food supply was still recovering. The country was a mess. Its patriots struggled to keep Ireland on the map.

One of the most cherished weapons in the battle for Irish survival was the resuscitation of the desperately complicated but extremely beautiful Irish language. Scholars, poets, linguists, patriots rushed to save it before it — like everything else Irish — was annihilated. The population that was interested in the language was divided into two parts: scholars who devoted themselves to reading and writing this elusive means of communication, and — at the other end of the spectrum — handfuls of peasants here and there who were illiterate but could speak the language fluently and took great pride in their skill.

One of the places where this oral proficiency occurred was on a remote and tiny island, the Great Blasket, surrounded by a little clutch of Lesser Blaskets, mostly uninhabited. The population of the Greater Blasket amounted to 150 souls. They fished for mackerel and lobster and grew a few vegetables. There was no electricity, of course, no phones, no trees — none at all. The people cut turf for use as fuel. But their spoken Irish was stellar.

Then a strange thing happened. During the early part of the 20th century, the island was visited by perhaps half a dozen linguists, scholars and playwrights. The most famous was John Millington Synge, who used what he learned during his relatively short stay to write “The Playboy of the Western World,” which remains one of the most famous Irish plays. Synge stayed with a man called “the king, who was no hereditary ruler at all but simply acknowledged for his strength and personal stature,” Kanigel writes. “Synge was given a small room just off the stone house’s main room. . . . In the evenings the house filled up with sometimes twenty or thirty people, talking, drinking, and dancing.” The island had no church, no medical clinic, no hotels, no taverns. Its only public building was a schoolhouse. It’s no exaggeration to say that the people of the Great Blasket made their own fun.

The other visitors who came to the Great Blasket in the next couple of decades were young men in their 20s (except for one fetching Czech woman who took up with an islander). There was Carl Marstrander, a brilliant Norwegian, who remarked that the islanders were drawn to “the strange and horrible”; Robin Flower, who spent the greatest part of his life as a curator for the British Museum; Brian Kelly, who wasted his own life but persuaded one of the islanders to write; and George Thomson, who fell in love not just with the island but with a beautiful Irish girl. These visitors didn’t mind the lack of civilization; they embraced it. They came to learn or to improve their own spoken Irish.


’On an Irish Island’ by Robert Kanigel (Knopf)

And they had the time of their lives. They danced every night, sometimes until dawn, in reels and sets, sometimes in the fields or on the island’s one little beach. They went to the home of a renowned storyteller who often cleared her furniture for dancing. Then they went home to their ordinary lives but returned again and again. Thomson made a best friend for life, whom he coaxed into writing short stories and then an autobiography, “Twenty Years A-Growing.” And another islander, best known simply as Tomas, wrote an autobiography full of sudden storms and sudden death, which was welcomed with enthusiasm by the reading public.

The Irish books were translated into English and other languages. One of them became a Book of the Month selection. More visitors, by the middle of the century, came to the island. All of the people mentioned here — those enthusiastic linguists still in their 20s — turned into middle-aged scholars and died, and, perhaps inevitably, the island as a community ceased to exist. The youngsters emigrated to America; the oldsters piled furniture and cows into their canvas boats and rowed three miles back to the mainland.

The Irish language still survives, but what’s gone is the whole concept of village life, without television, iPads or Beyonce. There’s no point in posing questions about where such a life went, or whether we can get it back. But now, at least, we’ve got this lovely book.

See regularly reviews books for The Post.

On March 17, Robert Kanigel will be at Politics and Prose at 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.

ON AN IRISH ISLAND

by Robert Kanigel

Knopf. 320 pp. $26.95

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