Hear how a young man’s death broke the heart of an Irish island community, on the Great Blasket 70 years ago

IMG_2752Seventy years ago, a young man known as Seánín died on the Great Blasket, a remote island at the tip of the Dingle peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland. He was one of the few remaining strong, youthful men in an island community that had once been strong and vibrant and famous for its oral, storytelling culture. Most of the young had gone to America, where they gathered again in a place called Hungry Hill and flourished. The death of Seánín broke the hearts of the remaining islanders and ultimately led to the evacuation of the Great Blasket in 1953.

I was privileged to be able to tell his story and go in search of the islanders for the book Hungry for Home (published by Viking 2001 and later by the Curragh Press, and now being prepared for a revised, updated edition with details here) with the help of my friend and guide Mícheál de Mordha. The photograph above shows Dr Mike Carney looking out across the Sound to the island where his brother died, when Mike risked his life to go back for one last look in 2013, at the age of nearly 93. In tribute to Seánín and the rest of the remarkable Ó Cearna – or Carney – clan, here is Enda Oates reading from the first chapter of the book, describing those final moments. It was originally broadcast by RTE.

Since posting this, I have learned of the death of Ray Stagles, a fellow Englishman who was passionate about the Blaskets. He was a friend, a mentor and a great support when I was writing the book and I will always remember him as a gentleman and a scholar.

 

Hungry For Home

“Extraordinary … when I put it down I wasn’t sure whether I had seen the film or read the text; the quality of its writing creates an essence which is both visual, oral and literary.” Irish Times

Hungry For Home by Cole Moreton was published in hardback by Viking in 2000 and in paperback by Penguin the following year. It was shortlisted for the prestigious John Lewellyn Rhys Prize for a first book in any genre, alongside White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Serialised on Irish radio, this was also one of the Sunday Times travel books of the year.

Now a new edition is being prepared, in which Cole returns to the Great Blasket with the last islandman, a 93-year-old risking life and limb for one final look at home.

Scroll down for more, click below to hear the opening page read by Enda Oates for RTÊ.

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This is a book about home and what that means, a voyage to America from the edge of Ireland and a gripping account of the search for a vanished people. It is the story of a small island community that came to occupy a huge space in the Irish psyche, as an emblem of what the newly free state could be. At a time when many are exiled from their homes as a result of the migrant crisis, Hungry for Home resonates in a new way. And it is the story of a family, a set of brothers and their breathtaking journey from one way of life to another.

On Christmas Eve, 1946, a young man collapsed on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland. There was no priest, no doctor and no policeman on the Great Blasket, and no contact with the outside world. Helpless, his family watched him die.

The death of the young man was the final catalyst for the end of the island community, whose people spoke a pure form of Irish and gathered by turf fires to hear tales handed down from ancient times. Despair forced them to abandon their way of life and plead for evacuation, which finally took place in 1953. Some, like the dead man’s sister, went to live on the Irish mainland; others headed west to America.

Hungry for Home tells the story of the dramatic events that led to the Great Blasket being abandoned, including betrayal by Eamon de Valera, the man who promised the islanders to their faces that he would save them.

The exiled islanders whose culture still bore traces of the Middle Ages dared to cross the Atlantic and make a new life in the most advanced nation on earth. Cole Moreton follows their footsteps all the way, seeking out the dead man’s brothers and discovering their extraordinary, untold story.

Now this new edition will follow the last islandman, Dr Mike Carney, as he makes a final trip back to the place he loves, knowing that the effort could be too much.

We’re looking for partners to help get the story out there in Britain, Ireland and America, so if you’re interested do, please, get in touch. 

 

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Hungry For Home

51Ei3PQKSKL._Hungry For Home: A Journey To America From The Edge Of Ireland was published by Viking and Penguin. “Extraordinary … when I put it down I wasn’t sure whether I had seen the film or read the text; the quality of its writing creates an essence which is both visual, oral and literary.” Irish Times

The Last Islandman

“I don’t know if I will be able to make it,” says Mike Carney, looking out across a wild stretch of water to the place where he was born 92 years ago. “I would like to put my feet down there one more time, but I wonder, is it possible?” Frankly, it seems crazy to try. The Great Blasket is famous throughout the world as a place where a remarkable community once lived, but it is remote, empty and inaccessible for most of the year. To get to the island, the old man will have to negotiate a wet quayside, a rubber dinghy, a sharp climb up into a converted fishing boat and an hour’s journey by sea, buffeted by the Atlantic waves. Then he will face the derelict island slipway, slick with seaweed. Yet he says: “I have the determination within me to do this.” A long-form report and film for The Telegraph.