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Childhood on Blasket island Dingle Peninsula inspires films

Filmmaker Simon Hambrook tells Sharon Ní Chonchuir how a hippie upbringing off the Kerry coast has become a source of creativity

CHILDHOOD memories are precious to us all. They give us a sense of where we came from and the people and places that shaped the adults we have become. Imagine how it might feel if your childhood memories consisted of life with your hippie parents on the Great Blasket Island at the end of the 1970s. Can you picture how such a childhood might have impacted on the person you are today? These are the questions filmmaker Simon Hambrook is grappling with as he makes the second in a series of films about his early life on the Great Blasket Island. He made his first film, the 12- minute The Isle of My Youth in April of last year and it has since appeared at the New Designers Exhibition in London and at Keswick Film Festival. Now he is in the process of making a follow-up film called The Isle of My Heart .

“This all started when I began to write a book about my family’s life on the island about a year and a half ago,” says Simon, who at that time was living in Torquay in England. “I realised I missed Ireland and the island so much. It ignited my desire to return and made me want to make a film about what the island means to me.”

His early life on the island is certainly an unusual one. His parents were searching for something different to the lifestyle on offer in the UK in the 1970s. “They saw an ad in The Times asking people to come and work on the Dingle Peninsula,” says Simon. “It seemed like the thing for them.”

And so it proved to be. They worked for a local businessman, leading horse-riding trips, doing handiwork and eventually moving out to run the café and hostel on the Great Blasket Island in 1977.

“They moved there with my brother and lived there with sheep, goats and visitors,” says Simon. “I was conceived there and spent my first two and a half years living there.”

The Hambrook family moved to another island off Connemara in the early 1980s but often returned to the Great Blasket. Simon’s most vivid and formative memories are of his time there.

“I remember Patrick Dunleavy, the only other permanent resident of the island, giving my brother and me sweets. Our parents never gave us sweets so this was really something special for us. I remember another girl called Sinéad sharing her chocolate with me. I remember coming back to the island and finding our toys still hidden in the sand from our previous visit. Mostly, what I remember is the shape of the island looming on the horizon and it feeling and looking like home.”

He recreated his memory of Sinéad offering him chocolate using Super8 film in the opening of The Isle of My Youth and this struck a chord with people.

“It really captured the feel of that moment and people thought it was a real bit of footage,” says Simon. “This new film will be more focussed on recreating more of those memories on the island.”

The first part of the new film will feature his life in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The second will be shot in 60mm format and will seek to portray the special abandoned atmosphere of the place. “Our cameras will look at the village from the sea and from the hill and capture the vast expanse and power of the island,” he says.

The final part of the film will follow the filmmakers as they journey to the end of the island, shooting the sights they see.

“Our arrival at the end of the island should make for a suitable ending for the film,” says Simon.

It is unlikely to mark the end of his infatuation with the island.

Once shooting is over, he then plans to remain on the Dingle Peninsula.

“When I came back last year, I knew then that I had to come back and live here,” he says. “It’s taken this long to make it happen but now is the time.”

He also hopes to make even more films about the island in the future. “Dylan Thomas started writing a script for Twenty Years A-Growing’ — Muiris Ó Súilleabháin’s book about his life on the island and I would love to film that,” laughs Simon. “It’s perhaps a little too ambitious for me just yet.”

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

Top ten mistakes to avoid when traveling to Ireland / the Dingle Peninsula

Top ten mistakes to avoid when traveling to Ireland / The Dingle Peninsula


Just read a list of mistakes not to make on your trip to Ireland. Most of them were stupid, so I thought I’d create my own.

When I was in college, we read a book called The Ugly American. There are reasons why Americans are not universally loved in other countries. My high school Spanish teacher once told us he was glad he could speak Spanish without an American accent so he wouldn’t be associated with the other Americans he encountered in Spain. We Americans have many endearing qualities. We also do stupid obnoxious things when traveling. Forewarned is forearmed, so here are ten things you should never do when traveling, especially to Ireland.

1. Don’t come unprepared.
Good websites are essential. The Dingle Region Website is probably the best  http://www.dingle-region.com .

Do your research before you come, check and verify it with as many sources as possible, and carry the information you need as you travel for constant reference. That way, you’ll be ready for anything, expected or not.

2. Travel as a local as much as possible, rather than as a tourist.
I call this traveling through the “back door.” Where I grew up, in the hinterlands of eastern Colorado, only strangers knocked or rang at the front door. Friends come through the back door. That’s so true in Ireland. A big tour company will show you great scenery through the window of the coach, as you follow all the other coaches to attractions and shopping areas that give the driver a commission on sales. Get away from those, find the locals, and learn how they live and what they value. Your trip will be so much better. The next suggestion is an excellent way to make this happen.

3. Don’t neglect the pubs.
The two most important social centers in Ireland are the pub and the church, in that order. While the church is essential to Irish culture, the pub is where it is really experienced. That’s confusing and contradictory to Americans, who often don’t know the difference between a pub and a bar. A pub may HAVE a bar, but it’s far more a place to socialize, meet people (not in the “pick up” sense of many American bars) and truly experience the life of a local.

4. Don’t travel in the peak season.
OK, so this one may not be avoidable, depending on when you have your time off. But if you can, visit Ireland during what is called the “shoulder” season. High season in Ireland is the summer, from June through August. Mid-September through October, and April through mid-May are times when far fewer people travel, so you’ll avoid crowds, find the locals less stressed, and even save money on airfares. You can travel the low season (winter) if you want, but the weather is not as friendly and many attractions are closed. Not bad if you spend much of your time in pubs (see above) and stay away from the tourist traps. This can be especially good if you like walking in the rain, but bring a good woolly jumper and a plastic mack.

6. Don’t miss out on the music.

Irish traditional music (or TRAD, as aficionados call it) reaches the soul more thoroughly and effectively than almost any other type of music, whether you’re Irish or not. I have played, sung, listened to, and experienced TRAD music in many different venues, and I never cease to marvel at the emotional impact it has on those who experience it. I have played and sung with Germans, Scandanavians, Europeans, Americans, and those of many different backgrounds; all of whom have chosen this style of music because of the way it attracts. It’s astounding.


7. Don’t limit yourself to the bigger towns.
As above, remember that bigger places, such as Dublin, see a lot more tourists, so they become jaded and offer what they think you might like, more than something you really should experience. Find time to get out into the country side, the small communities that are the heart of Ireland. Stay in a local B&B (instead of a hotel) and ask the landlady some probing questions about her favorite ways to spend some quality time. I know of a couple who own a B&B in Dingle who also do archaeological tours of the peninsula. That kind of discovery can make an already enjoyable trip into the experience of a lifetime.

In the UK and Ireland, every neighborhood in the big cities has its own local pub, where neighbors and friends gather regularly. That’s even more true of smaller towns, where the controversies of the day may be forgotten for the moment over a few pints. That’s when you start to experience the music and the stories that make the Irish people famous.

8. Learn about the history of the country.
The Irish are said to have a long memory. The famine of 1845 is a recent event. This past April we commemorated the anniversary of Brian Boru rising to become High King of Ireland in 1014 AD. The ONE THOUSANDTH ANNIVERSARY. I mentioned archaeological tours above. There are passage tombs a Bru Na Boinne that are older than the oldest pyramids of Egypt. The story of Ireland goes back ten thousand years or more. Don’t miss that when you go.

When we took the loop road around the Dingle penninsula, we saw clochan (stone huts) that are still tight against the rain hundreds of years after they were built, and the Gallarus Oratory, built along similar lines and just as solid as it ever has been. We saw standing stones so old that nobody knows why they were set up, and pillar incised with Ogham, one of the oldest forms of writing known to man.

I have a friend who says that every stone next to every road and field in Ireland has a story. You’ll find that the locals know those stories and will be glad to tell them to you, especially if you buy them a pint. Speaking of which, don’t forget that in Ireland, the custom is that you buy a round for you and your friends, and they return the favor, unlike America, where everyone is responsible for his own drink. So if someone buys you a pint, don’t neglect to return the favor.

9. Don’t miss out on local sporting events.
Hurling is the national sport of Ireland, and its cousin GAA football is played in every county and townland you’re likely to visit. You may not be able to find an event in Croke Park, but you’ll certainly see somebody playing one of those sports, or perhaps soccer, rugby or Australian rules football in any local community. I spent some of the most enjoyable hours in Kilronan (the only town in the Aran Islands) with some locals, watching a football (soccer) match between Dublin and Westmeath. It’s a great way to really get to know people.

10. Don’t try out your Irish accent.
There are many other possible mistakes you could make on your trip, but I saved this until last because so many Americans just don’t understand how stupid it sounds when you great them with “Top O’ The Morning” or some other cliché you learned from the Lucky Charms leprechaun. If an Irish man or woman came to America and talked like a cowboy from a 1930’s western movie, you would look on them the same way as the Irish look on an American who comes to Ireland and says, “Sure and begorrah, ‘tis a grand country you have here.”

Taking a trip around Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula

They are two of the greatest drives I’ve ever taken.

Along the way, I encountered more than 40 shades of green and at least a dozen shades of blue. The Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula drives in Ireland offer an array of majestic vistas, impressive historical sites and charming towns.

My wife Cindy and I knew it was going to be a great day after our luggage finally arrived in Kenmare - four days after our flight to Dublin. If you ever get separated from your bags in Ireland I recommend going to Dunnes Stores. They have outlets all over Ireland. Their prices are good and I personally like the quality of their underwear, socks and golf shirts.

The next day we did the Dingle Peninsula. My good friend Tim Luckadoo of Cary warned me. Visit Anascaul and you will come back with a song! Tim was right. Several songs are brewing in my brain after visiting this lovely community where rugged Antarctic explorer Tom Crean was born. There’s a statue of the so-called “Irish Giant” in Anascaul and a picture of the statue in the slide show.

I was blown away by the story of Gallarus Oratory down the road from Anascaul. We marveled at this beautiful little stone chapel which is 1300-years-old. The history of the church’s construction is fascinating. It is a simple sandstone archaeological site. There is only one of its type in Ireland.

I highly recommend The Goat Street Bistro for lunch in the town of Dingle. Here we heard locals speaking in Gaelic as we enjoyed a fabulous fresh seafood and pasta dish.

Speaking of food, next week I will tell you where I had the best meal of my life as our travels continue up the west coast of Ireland. Here we encounter meadows of stone and stunning cliffside views of the Atlantic. Plus, more pictures and music!

Ireland is a dog’s best friend: Mabel the pug gets VIP treatment in the Dingle Peninsula

Ireland is a dog’s best friend: Mabel the pug gets VIP treatment in the craggy south-west

For children and dogs, there is a magical haven on the craggy South-Western tip of Ireland.

It’s called Pax House, a B&B just a short walk from the pretty town of Dingle, where David Lean filmed Ryan’s Daughter with Robert Mitchum and Sarah Miles 44 years ago.

Our pug Mabel, on her first trip to Ireland, was treated like a VIP. She was even taken along with a group of children to inspect the chicken hutches before breakfast. Had the hens laid any eggs? Of course they had. And miraculously, the eggs bore the names of each of the children, too.

The Irish love children, however noisy, and dogs are also extremely popular. We opted to take Mabel to Co. Kerry via the Stena Europe ferry from Fishguard in Wales to Rosslare in Co. Wexford.

It's a pug's life: Travelmail's writer John McEntee with his happy pug Mabel

It’s a pug’s life: Travelmail’s writer John McEntee with his happy pug Mabel

On arrival at Rosslare, we checked into Danby Lodge Hotel, which welcomed pets to comfortable cabin-like rooms equipped with doggie treats.

After a walk on the nearby beach we had an early night in preparation for the long drive to Dingle. It  took five hours to reach Pax House. We wanted to arrive well before it got dark so we could keep an eye out for the antics of Fungie the dolphin in the nearby bay.

He’s a local legend, a 30-year-old bottlenose who swoops and dives for the entertainment of tourists in the bay (so confident are the boat owners in the dolphin’s reliability that a no-show merits a full refund).

On our first evening, Mabel watched TV and slept in the room while we walked down the hill to Dingle to dine at Patricia Fenton’s excellent bistro.

Charming: Dingle in rural Ireland is found wanting for friendly pubs and live music venues

Charming: Dingle in rural Ireland is found wanting for friendly pubs and live music venues

Next day - after Mabel was cooked a breakfast treat of diced sausage wrapped in an ornamental swan made from kitchen foil - we drove up and over the spectacular Conor Pass, which commands panoramic views of the Blasket Islands, the Ring of Kerry, Mt Brandon and the minuscule spread of Dingle in the valley below.

Dingle at night is unmissable. Most bars provide free sessions with musicians moving from pub to pub. Dogs are allowed in most, though O’Flaherty’s barman declined to give Mabel a drink of water and a farmer asked if she was any good at rounding up sheep. Imagine.

On the way back, we loitered in Killarney, where the now famous lakes were unknown until Queen Victoria arrived in the mid-19th century and insisted on a tour.

Mabel seemed to take a shine to Killarney. In fact, her mood throughout our trip was nothing short of joyful.

The ultimate guide to a vacation to Dingle, Ireland


 Few places on Earth are more beautiful than the the Dingle Peninsula, Ireland

Few will argue that perhaps the most scenic part of Ireland is to be found westward and particularly breathtaking is the Dingle peninsula. Dingle town itself is also a gem in its own right - the pubs, the grub, the people - An Daingean has it all. So fantastic is Dingle, it just won the title of Foodie Town of Ireland. If you’re pondering a trip down South, and you really should, here’s five unmissable to dos for your list.

1. A boat trip out to see Fungie, the dolphin .. On a good day, he’ll be lepping all over the place, spraying you with some fresh Atlantic water. On a bad day, a day when he fails to make an appearance, you get your money back. This is a rarity, mind, but if, for some reason, Fungie comes down with dolphin flu, it’s still a pretty gorgeous boat trip around Dingle bay. A win win, you’ll agree.

2. Slea Head Drive - Whatever the weather, no trip to Dingle is complete without a drive around the whole peninsula. Come rain or shine, it’s always impressive. Give yourself plenty of time and be sure to make lots of stops. Dingle prides itself on its blue flag beaches and each one is worthing stepping out of the car for. Clogher is at its best when the weather is particularly wild. Just don’t, whatever you do, go for swim here.  Take in a spot of surfing at Coumeenoole and look on in awe at the Sleeping Giant.

3. Restaurants . Our  favs are:
Ashes Restaurant
The Boat Yard Restaurant
The Global Village
The Goat Street Cafe

4. The pubs you can’t miss:
Murphy’s Pub - Great food and music
Curran’s - so famous it even featured in a documentary

The Dingle Pub -  Great food and music

John Benny’s   - Great food and music

The Marina Inn — Great food and music

5. Best take away - The Reel Thing. The fish and chips are out of this world, we  kid  you not.

Truth be told, we could go on and on and on about all the things there is to do in Dingle. Regardless of age, there really is something for everyone in this peninsula

Beautiful Gallarus Oratory Dingle Peninsula , Ireland

I realise that the Gallarus Oratory is already fairly busy dealing with tourists, being among the must-see attractions of the Dingle Peninsula. Even so, it struck me on a recent visit that it could also serve a useful role as a part-time house of correction.

My idea that is that rogue builders and property developers might henceforth be required to spend periods incarcerated in it, repenting – as countless pilgrims must have done there down the centuries – of their sins. While repenting, ideally, they would also absorb some of its lessons about beauty and functionality, and how these can be combined in a structure designed to last forever.

Maybe, while we’re at it, the oratory could be given a more formal role in the education of architects too. Instead of just passing through it occasionally, like tourists, they would be required to spend at least one night between its walls, reflecting on the building’s permanence in a world of change.

This might not help prevent things like Hawkins House, and other atrocities that must have seemed like good ideas in their time. But it couldn’t do any harm.

No doubt, masterpiece that it is, even the Gallarus Oratory has faults. I noticed, for example, that its sloped wall-cum-roof is now sagging a little on both sides. This was a weakness in the corbelling technique (the overlapping placement of stones to form an arch), which was more suited to the ancient beehive huts also found around Dingle, and explains why the roofs of other rectangular buildings in this style have collapsed.

Also, I suspect that the oratory, as it currently stands, would get at best a B3 energy rating. Its lack of a door would tell against it. The glassless east window must cause draughts too. On the other hand, the dry stone walls (not entirely free or mortar, I gather – there is some evidence of the use of medieval polyfilla) are still waterproof after a thousand years or so, which is more than can be said for many houses built earlier this century.

A thousand years is just a guess, because nobody knows how old the place is. Estimates of its origins range from the 7th to the 12th century. Guide books claim with certainty only that it was “discovered” in 1756 by a man called Charles Smith. But, a bit like America, its existence must have been well known locally long before the “discoverers” arrived.

There is an echo of this dichotomy in the way most people discover Gallarus now. The approach is these days commanded by an interpretive centre, with carpark, toilets, and the opportunities to spend money that most tourists need. There’s also a small entry fee – €3. And yet you can still bypass the centre and walk straight in without fee, or interpretation.

Like the oratory’s age, the name is a bit of a mystery. It puts the cart before the horse, grammatically, in meaning “the house of the foreigners”. But that aside, the “foreigners” may be misleading. It probably referred to nothing more than pilgrims from outside the peninsula, including those from such exotic outposts as east Kerry.

Apart even from its great age, the chapel is also a visual treat. It’s quite beautiful the way the individual stones fit so perfectly together to achieve a practical end. And the overall shape – like a rick of turf or an upturned boat – is also deeply pleasing to contemplate. An upturned boat made of stone should not be a calming image, yet somehow it is.

I think of AIB’s boat logo, expensively created back in the 1990s. That’s supposed to evoke Noah’s Ark, with the dove and the olive branch hinting at imminent landfall. Which I suppose is the sort of vaguely optimistic message that a 1990s bank needed to project.

Now that we’re trying to reach dry land again after another deluge, however, I suggest a Gallarus-based design might be a more useful image for a company in the mortgage sector. As a symbol of solidity, it would be faultless. But in evoking both a house and a capsized boat, it would also hint that the value of your investment may go up or down.

Anyway, back to the oratory’s potential use as a correctional facility. It’s a pointed coincidence, I believe, that the building most synonymous with modern constructional delinquency also has a religious name. You could write a thesis about the Irish building industry “from Gallarus Oratory to Priory Hall”. And come to think of, maybe that should be one of the tasks set for inmates, upon their arrival in Dingle.

@FrankmcnallyIT

fmcnally@irishtimes.com


Meeting Fungie the dolphin

By Tina Bridenstine
Posted Jun. 5, 2014 @ 12:00 am

    I’ve been fascinated with dolphins ever since I was a little girl. I’ve also been fascinated with Ireland ever since I was little. That said, Dingle, Ireland, has become a top destination on my “places to go someday” list, and it’s all thanks to their local celebrity: Fungie the dolphin.



    Fungie is a bottlenose dolphin who popped up in Dingle’s harbor back in 1983, and there he’s stayed ever since. This is something that, while not unheard of, seems to be unusual for dolphins. Rather than swim around with a pod out in the ocean, he’s become a fixture in the harbor, and he draws in plenty of tourists who take boat trips out to get a glimpse of him. I’ve read he’s a real ham and enjoys showing off for the boats, or at least he did in his younger days. He’s getting up in years.

    I read an article the other day explaining that Fungie is still alive and well, despite rumors on Twitter that he had passed away. Apparently, the mayor made a comment something along the lines of, “When Fungie dies, he’ll have a bigger funeral than the president.”



    I don’t doubt it.

    Dingle is a neat little town located on a gorgeous part of an already beautiful island. (I speak from experience because I have, actually, been there. Dingle was an unexpected but delightful detour on a trip I made in 2005. Unfortunately, I can only assume Fungie hadn’t hit my radar yet, otherwise he would have been a must-see on my visit.) It has plenty to recommend it to draw visitors in even without Fungie.

    Still, the lively little guy has been amusing tourists for a few decades now, and by all reports, the locals are pretty fond of him as well (especially the boat captains, with some claiming he will show off for different captains in different ways, or not show off at all if someone else pilots their boat for a day). He even has a statue.



    He’s like Flipper’s Irish cousin.

    I hope someday I’ll make it over to catch a glimpse of him. And, hey, maybe someone reading this column will decide they want to go over as well. If you do, and you see Fungie, tell him Tina said hello.

An Irishman’s Diary about the luck of Dingle tourism

 John Mills  in a   still from Ryan’s Daughter.  Photograph: AP/MGM

John Mills in a still from Ryan’s Daughter. Photograph: AP/MGM


David Lean must have turned in his grave recently when I finally got around to watching his Irish epic, Ryan’s Daughter, 45 years after he made it, frame by painstaking frame.

The occasion was a wet afternoon in Dingle, and I was at a loose end. So on a whim, and knowing it was sacrilege, I downloaded this visual masterpiece, shot in “Superpanavision 70”, to an iPad. As if the great director hadn’t suffered enough from its mauling by the critics.

And yes, I could see why the critics didn’t like it much. Even by 1970 standards, it must have seemed a bit slow. By the end of the third hour, I found, the main source of dramatic tension came from wondering whether my iPad battery would hold out long enough, or whether I’d have to fetch the charger, which was in the car.

Then there was poor Christopher Jones, playing the British officer who turns the head of eponymous Kerry publican’s daughter (Sarah Miles). He had something of a nervous breakdown on set, apparently, and gave up acting afterwards. Suffice to say of his performance that it looked like he had retired already.

By modern standards, the film is a dinosaur – magnificent but unviable. Animals were indeed harmed in the making of it (albeit accidentally, when a bus on the set’s main street ran over a pig and some hens). But if it’s any consolation, so were humans.

No computer graphics, or even stunt doubles here – the famous storm scene was real. In fact, it was a composite of several storms – a greatest-hits collection of Kerry’s most violent weather – none of them faked.

In his commitment to cinema verité, mid-tempest, Lean gave two of his leading actors, John Mills and Trevor Howard, a sporting chance to drown themselves. They nearly succeeded, when a currach overturned in 20ft waves, knocking Mills unconscious.

All that aside, however, and even when it’s squeezed onto a eight-inch iPad screen, the film is still staggeringly beautiful. This is largely due to the Dingle Peninsula, which won a supporting Oscar for its role – or at least contributed handsomely to the one won by cinematographer Freddie Young.

The only other Oscar went to John Mills as the village idiot – a part that involved more ham than the pig in the bus accident. Certainly, of the two award-winning performances, the Dingle Peninsula’s has stood the intervening decades better.

Even at the time, it survived the critical panning unscathed; although the film’s negative reception may have been a factor behind one lingering source of local regret – the short-sighted decision not to retain the fictional village of Kirrary. With typical extravagance, Lean had built the 30-odd houses from solid stone. After filming, the production company even offered to finish any buildings that didn’t have a full structure, if Kerry County Council would assume responsibility for the site. Instead, insurance issues led to the village being bulldozed.

But village or no village, the film remained an advertisement for Kerry of a kind Bord Fáilte couldn’t have bought.

In the intervening years, of course, the canny people of Dingle have supplemented Ryan’s Daughter with a more sustainable tourism generator – a bottle-nosed dolphin called Fungie.

It’s extraordinary that, of all the bays in all the towns in all the world, a marine animal of such star quality should have swum into this one back in the 1980s. Yet there he was, and there he remains – still performing after all these years, to the undying gratitude of local boatmen.

@FrankmcnallyIT

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

Loneliest boy in the world’ is sole survivor of Blaskets evacuation

Gearóid and his pet donkey in Dunquin in the 1950s
Gearóid and his pet donkey in Dunquin in the 1950s

In 1948, newspapers dubbed Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin the ‘loneliest boy in the world’: he was the sole child on the Blaskets, and now is the only surviving evacuee of 1953-54, says Áilín Quinlan.

IT was Christmas Eve, 1948, when reporter Liam Robinson and photographer Donal MacMonagle arrived at the jetty on the Great Blasket Island. The duo stayed on the island for three days, until St Stephen’s Day.

Their mission? To meet the last child of the Blaskets — Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin, then 18 months old and living with his parents in the primitive fishing village of Bun a’ Bhaile, which had no electricity, doctor, school or priest — for Sunday mass, the community rowed three miles across open sea to the village of Dún Chaoin, on the mainland. Robinson’s subsequent article was syndicated around the world. It made Gearóid famous.

Gifts of toys, clothes, books and offers of help poured in — a Minnesota rancher offered to adopt ‘the loneliest boy in the world’, whose only playmates, the article said, were seagulls.

A couple from Iowa wanted to provide his parents with jobs and rear Gearóid to take over their family grain operation. “The article was extraordinary,” says Gearóid, now 66, who later moved to Cork and trained as an accountant.


Gearóid with his grandfather, Pádraig (Ceaist) Ó Catháin, at Bun a’ Bhaile on the Great Blasket.

“The journalist chose the heading ‘The Loneliest Boy in the World’. The article was syndicated and it went everywhere — New Zealand, Australia, America. I got a huge amount of presents and clothes and toys, and people would come to the Blaskets and take photographs of me, the miniature Tarzan of the islands. There was a big rancher in America, who wanted to buy me and adopt me — he had no heir and he decided I’d be the one who would take over his ranch. My parents were amazed by this, but they decided not to take him up on his offer,” says Gearóid, who met Robinson in 1988, after the journalist heard him being interviewed on the Gay Byrne show about the islands.

Gearóid was the last person born on the island and the only child living there at the time — his young sisters, Áine and Josephine, were born on the mainland, where his family and the other islanders had moved.

But for Gearóid, island life was never lonely. He grew up surrounded by family and neighbours in a tight-knit and supportive community.


Maras Mhaidhc Léan, Gearóid, Mary Pheats Mhicí Uí Guithín and Seán Mhaidhc Léan

He never noticed that he was the only child in the village — he saw everyone as the same age, even though the next-youngest person was his uncle, Faeilí (30).

“I lived on the Blaskets until I was six years old,” he says. “My memories of those years are brilliant — I knew no different, so the old people were my playmates.

“I was involved in everything they were doing — shearing sheep, catching rabbits, fishing, collecting turf from the bog and sailing the islands in the naomhóg. They gave me a piece of whatever they were doing.”

The youngster even met the indomitable Peig Sayers, whose autobiography was a memorable part of Leaving Certificate Irish for so many students: “She was a beautiful woman — I met her when my mother visited Dingle.

“Peig was in hospital in Dingle at the time.

“I was about eight or nine and I’d go to the hospital to see her with my mother.

“She was a fine, lovely woman; I remember her as a big, cheerful woman in her 80s.

“She’d be wearing her bed jacket and a crucifix. She had a lovely, friendly face, a young face, and she’d always shake my hand,” Gearóid says.

Gearóid was six when the island was evacuated — it had been coming since the year he was born.

Marie and Gearóid at their first dinner dance in the Metropole Hotel, Cork, in the late 1960s

In April, 1947, just a few months before his birth, the island was battered by such a terrible storm that the islanders sent a telegram to Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, pleading for help: ‘Storm bound, distress, send food, nothing to eat.’

A few months later, de Valera visited, and spoke to the community, and within a few years the island had been evacuated.

However, nine days after Gearóid was born, on July 21, 1947, in St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Dingle, he returned to the islands with his parents.

All the islanders — by then there were only 30 people on the island — gathered to give their blessings to an leanbh.

On September 5, 1953, Gearóid and his parents were the first to be evacuated from the islands, soon to be followed by the rest of the islanders. “We ended up in Dún Chaoin, in houses built by the government,” Gearóid says. “I went to school the day after we arrived. It was strange to be around other children, at first, so I ran away from the school on the first day, because I didn’t want to be mixing with these young people. I wasn’t used to them. I was used to the presence of older people, but it didn’t take long for me to settle.”

Once settled in Dún Chaoin, he pursued Gaelic football, traditional music and formal schooling, as he and the other former islanders adapted to a new environment across the water from their deserted island.

Gearóid received his second-level education in a boarding school in Kilkenny and, afterwards, worked in Cork — he now lives in the leafy suburb of Blackrock. He trained as an accountant, and married and had two daughters.


Tom Sheáinín Mac Donncha, Gearóid’s wife, Marie, and Gearóid at TG4 in June, 2011

Of the evacuated islanders, Gearóid is now the only survivor. His memories are entwined with beliefs and customs handed down through the generations — the name Ceaist, for example, comes from the word ‘ceast’, which is a heavy stone or lump of iron, and distinguished Gearóid’s family from others of the same surname.

Ceaist originated at a time when his paternal grandfather, Pádraig Ó Catháin, was the best at rock-throwing, a popular pastime with the men of the island, when they gathered on the flat of the Great Blasket’s main path above the strand, An Tráigh Bháin. From then on, his grandfather was called Ceaist.

Despite the dramatic evacuations of the 1950s, The Blaskets, of which nothing remains but crumbling cottages and windswept land, will live on, in part due to the invaluable memories of the last child of the Blasket Islands.

“It’s a while since I went to the Blaskets,” he says.

“It makes me feel sad and lonely to go there. I’m the only surviving member of the 1953-54 evacuation. All the others are dead and it’s very sad.

“The island is barren and crumbling and I’d like the Office of Public Works to restore even the old houses and the jetty. It’s difficult, and even dangerous, to land there at the moment, though people come in their droves every summer.

“It’s a huge attraction and we should be making more of our heritage.”

The Loneliest Boy in the World – The Last Child of the Great Blasket Island, by Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin, with Patricia Ahern, is published by The Collins Press, price €12.99. It is available in all good bookshops and online from www.collinspress.ie

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