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Academic eye on offshore islands

On the Edge

On the Edge
Áine Ryan

ISLANDS induce an elixir that is addictive. Their magic is mesmeric as they sit out there on the edge of the horizon. Or play among the waves of salt-air in the shelter of the bay: here in west Mayo, like hump-backed children sheltered by the ancient holy mountain and protected by that great sleeping whale called Clare.
Like the rosary of rocks that have survived the Wild Atlantic Way for millennia – Tory and ’Turk, Bofin and Shark, Sherkin and Bere, Inis Oirr and Inis Meáin – they each have their unique stories to tell.
Sometimes these tales have been lost in the mists of time or retold so often they take on a whole new shape. They transform into the tunes of sad sean-nós songs with choruses of keening or, alternately, become verses of unbridled hilarity where belly laughter echoes out over the waves. These stories of bravery and bravado, tragedy and sadness, also dance and prance to the steps and stamps of a hornpipe or jig or, indeed, reel dizzily at the end of a half-set when a whole community is entranced by the long light of a  summer evening.
In his study, ‘The Tory Islanders: A People of the Celtic Fringe’ (Cambridge, 1978), anthropologist, Robin Fox wrote: “At the very highest level, Tory represents a hymn to the human spirit. Humanity consists here not only in heroism – although there is that too – but in many little things that collectively make a viable way of life in the teeth of the odds.”  
This vignette could easily be applied to all the island communities along the rugged west coast.
As the winter months hurtle and hurl wind, rain, swells and storms at these outposts, their communities reach back into a race memory where survival ‘in the teeth of the odds’ was a daily challenge. Even in these contemporary times with longer piers and bigger boats, satellite dishes and internet access, the whims of the Cailleach, the Celtic goddess of winter, still dictate the pace of daily life, the ebb and flow of the tide, the chasm between island life and that parallel world beyond.      

Casting a cold eye on history
PROFESSOR Diarmaid Ferriter’s new book, ‘On The Edge, Ireland’s Off-Shore Islands: A Modern History’ is an essential companion to all the poetry and prose, paintings and paeans, studies and surveys that enrich our  understanding of the microcosmic worlds of Irish islands. Its academic rigour ensures an absence of sentimentality. The romantic quest by besieged urbanites to discover the essence of existence on these unspoiled oases is put in perspective.
Referring to Charles Haughey’s suggestion that islanders are “unique in their ‘emotional’ attachment to their inheritance and ‘special link’ with the ‘immemorial past’”,  Ferriter glibly notes that the late Taoiseach was referring to the Blasket islands, already abandoned decades earlier.
Through his documentation of island life and the establishment’s – both secular and religious – economic, cultural and political responses over the last century, he examines ‘the gulf between the rhetoric that elevated island life and the reality of the political hostility towards them’.
Quoting the words of author, Deborah Tall, who wrote a controversial memoir about Inishbofin, called ‘Island of the White Cow’, Ferriter muses over the fact that there may have been something bogus about holidaymakers’ ‘passion for the life the islanders have discarded’.
Undoubtedly, the reality of island life has been way more complex than the romantic reveries of its many visitors. A key question examined by Ferriter is underscored by the fact that in 1841 there were 211 inhabited islands with a combined population of 38,000, but by 2011 only 64 were inhabited with a total population of 8,500.
Unarguably though, while Professor Ferriter’s casting of a cold eye on the stark realities of island life – from evacuations to mass emigration, clericalism to bureaucratic bungling – provides a fresh view on these miniature societies, their magical allure still hangs on horizons from Donegal to Mayo, Galway to Kerry.      

MORE Historian and author Diarmaid Ferriter will read from and discuss his new book as part of next weekend’s Rolling Sun Book Festival. This event will be held in the Clew Bay Hotel at 12pm on Sunday, November 18. Tickets, €15. See this week’s Living section for more on the festival.