Just off Slea Head lie the Blaskets (Na Blascaodaí), dramatic island mountains with steep, gashed sides. Despite their inhospitableness, the largest island, Great Blasket (An Blascaod Mór), was inhabited by up to two hundred people for at least three centuries until 1953, when, with no school, shop, priest or doctor, it was finally abandoned. Because of their isolation, however, the islanders maintained a rich oral tradition in the Irish language, which in the early twentieth century, encouraged by visiting scholars, evolved into a remarkable body of written literature. Works such as An tOileánach (The Islandman) by Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty Years A-Growing) by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin and Peig by Peig Sayers (an oral account written down by her son) give a vivid insight into the hardships of island life.
The island’s story is told with great imagination at the Great Blasket heritage centre, Ionad an Bhlascaoid Mhóir, on the mainland opposite, at the north end of Dunquin. Though the building doesn’t look like much as you approach, inside is a beautiful museum space. There are excerpts from the island writers, and a moving section on Great Blasket’s abandonment in 1953 and the migration of many islanders to Springfield, Massachusetts – where they still receive the Kerryman newspaper from Tralee every week. Every October, the centre hosts a commemorative festival, featuring lectures, stage productions and other events (wwww.ceiliuradh.com). There’s a bookshop run by An Café Liteartha, and the café is a good spot for lunch, with fine views of the islands.
Once on Great Blasket, you can wander the white-sand beach, Trá Bán, at its eastern end and the grassy footpaths that cross its six-kilometre length, passing the ghosts of the old village. Accompanied by seals, puffins, storm petrels and shearwaters, you can contemplate the 3000km that separates you, here on Europe’s most westerly islands, from North America where most of the islanders ended up, and the treacherous 2km of Blasket Sound which made living on the island untenable.