Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of the government-assisted evacuation of the Blasket Islands in southwest Ireland.
To this day, they remain the most gorgeous place I’ve ever seen. So why were they evacuated?
The 6 clustered islands are located off the coast of the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, one of the most picturesque, breath-taking spots in Ireland.
But between the islands and the mainland lies a treacherous stretch of water, 3 miles of danger that, even today, is only sometimes safe to pass by boat.
Because the island was solely Irish-speaking, it became a hotspot for immersion in Irish language and culture in the 1920’s and 30’s (when there was an Irish-culture revival alongside the fight against British rule). A plethora of books came out of the tiny Blasket islands about their way of life which had become outdated in twentieth-century Ireland.
But that didn’t save its people from starvation and illness. Continued emigration of young people meant the population of the Great Blasket dwindled from 170 at its peak to only 22 people in 1953, when the government stepped in.
The way of life on the island was hard on this, the most westerly settlement in Ireland. They fished and farmed what little arable land there was and lived in primitive little cottages, some still standing today in a tiny ghost town.
There were never any horses on the island, but transportation wasn’t a problem. The Great Blasket, the largest of the islands, is only a few miles long. Donkeys served their purposes just fine.
The islanders survived the Famine, their potatoes untouched due to isolation, but their fishing livelihood was a difficult one, many men lost to the tough surrounding water.
There was no doctor, no pub, no store on the island. They relied heavily on supplies from the mainland, which could run out when the island was cut off during bad weather.
It was the death of a 24-year-old in 1947 that finally set the evacuation in motion. He died from meningitis, a death that could have been prevented had the islanders been able to get the boy to medical care on the mainland.
Can you imagine the frustration, living so very close to supplies and help, but not being able to reach it?
The remaining inhabitants were finally moved off the island by the Taoiseach (Irish head of state) Éamon de Valera in ’53, at the will of the islanders.
Some were relocated to the nearby mainland and given houses within sight of their gorgeous yet dangerous homeland. Others spread across the globe. Several moved to the same place in Massachusetts to keep their shared history alive with community.
The island is uninhabited now, though several holiday homes exist there.
And tourists are free to hike and camp at will (well, at the will of the ferry schedule). But a visit doesn’t come without risk – to this day, there are long stretches where boats cannot cross to the island.
While I was there, one boat hand told me their boat was only able to make the crossing 9 out of the 31 days in that past August. Imagine the situation exacerbated without modern technology! That’s the life these islanders lived.
Just 9 native islanders remain to commemorate this, the 60th anniversary of their home’s evacuation.
But I think we can all appreciate this terrible beauty.