Written by: Gene Cahill
Photos by: Gene Cahill, Jon Hynes, Ken O’Sullivan, Cian Walsh
The Blasket Islands lie off the coast of Dingle, Co. Kerry. They are Ireland’s and Europe’s most westerly isles and have been uninhabitated since the last people were evacuated to the mainland in 1953 as a result of poverty and deprivation. The Islands have given rise to three of some of the most acclaimed works in the Irish language – Peig by Peig Sayers, An tOileánach (The Islandman) by Tomás Ó Criomhthain and Fiche Bliain ag Fás (Twenty Years a Growing) by Muiris Ó Suilleabháin. Each book has a different focus but each also captures the unique atmosphere and spirit that is characteristic of these islands: poverty, desolation, isolation, the power and fury of nature, the relationship between the old islanders and their land as well as the spirit of adventure and exploration. A ferry brings day visitors from the mainland to a small pier on the largest of the Islands – The Great Blasket – but this is very weather dependent and trips are very much decided at the last moment. The original islanders were often cut off from the mainland for months at a time during the harsh winters and even today during the summer, in bad weather, the islands can be inaccessible. The rugged and exposed coastline of both the Great Blasket and the other smaller islands means that there are little to no anchorage opportunities for any large boats and as such, it is really only by kayak that one can truly fully explore these spectacular islands. Indeed, only 3 of the six islands have landings that can be described as anyway dependable and even then, landing opportunities are very much dependent on the weather and kayakers often need to make a swim landing.
On Friday, September 4th, I was part of a group of 14 friends who set off from Coumeenole beach on the Dingle Peninsula to spend the weekend kayaking, exploring and camping on the Blasket Islands. There were 13 kayakers and one Stand Up Paddle Boarder. I knew Jason, the SUPer, by reputation, but I hadn’t met him until that evening. Jason is a surfer and SUPer who has really been pushing the boundaries of what people thought possible on a SUP. Certainly along Ireland’s coast, he had clocked up a number of ‘first’ journeys by SUP. I was looking forward to seeing Jason in action and seeing if he could add another first by exploring the Blaskets on a SUP board.
It was 6.30 in the evening as we gathered on the beach at Coumeenole before setting off. We had spent the previous hour, unloading the cars and packing our kayaks full of tents, food, clothing and kayaking equipment. It was still bright but dusk was approaching and we needed to get across to the Great Blasket to set up camp before darkness fell. The wind had picked up and the Blasket Sound has a ferocious reputation so we would need to be smart and careful in our journey across. We broke the large group into two smaller groups, contacted the Irish Coast Guard at Valencia Island by VHF and informed them of our departure time, number of people in our groups and our ETA on the Great Blasket. And then we paddled!
There was a strong wind and large rolling swell as we paddled across the Blasket Sound, requiring constant attention and care. I thought back to two years previous when I was on another camping trip on the Great Blasket and a storm blew up overnight and I remember vividly an Irish Customs ship battling the raging seas of the Blasket Sound. Luckily our journey across the Sound was relatively straightforward. Our destination was an Trá Bán (White Strand) on the Great Blasket Island. A shower of rain halfway across obscured visibility somewhat but we were able to make out the long strand ahead of us. On our approach we were greeted by almost 200 seals, some on the shore and others just in the breakwater. All their attention focused on us as we neared their playground. We reached the shore and then the hard work began. We huffed and puffed as we hauled our camping gear up to the dunes above. We selected our camping spots and set to work erecting tents, packing away gear and cooking some food. Our plan was to set off early the following morning to explore the other islands, but we were all aware that it was very much dependent on the weather. We all bedded down early that night, hoping the weather gods would favour us!
We awoke the following morning to the sound of seals calling to each other and an autumnal sun trying to break through the clouds. The northerly wind was stronger than we would have hoped and as we looked northwards, we could see a lot of whitecaps on the ocean’s surface. Any plans to explore the northern side of the island’s coastline would have to be put on hold. This was unfortunate because this side of the island contains numerous and spectacular rock formations and caves. After breakfast, we began packing our boats, making sure we had enough food, water and safety equipment for the day and also to cover any emergencies that may arise. We had a quick briefing on the sand of Trá Bán and planned out a course of action. Our plan was to explore along the southern coastline of the Great Blasket, and weather permitting, try and make a crossing to the other islands of Inishnabro and Inishvickellane. There were a few of our group hoping to make it further and make a trip out to Teeraght, the most westerly of the isles.
The hills of the Great Blasket provided shelter as we paddled along the coastline. The remoteness and ruggedness of the coast was a stark reminder of the hardships the original islanders must have endured. Fishing was a major part of their lifestyles but it was obvious to us all that morning that if the rowing boats used by the fisherman of yesteryear got into trouble, then their lives were in the hands of the gods. There were no landing spots to speak of, should any emergency arise. Were a storm to blow up unexpectedly, the wooden boats would have been crushed mercilessly against the jagged rocks. Indeed a number of ships from the famed Spanish Armada of 1588 were lost in these waters. Despite the isolation of the islands, and the various tragedies that befell the islanders over the previous centuries, the islands also revealed their great beauty to us. Having studied maps of the island and read some of the Irish literature that emanated from here, the past became very much alive as we explored its coastline. The Irish language names for many of the fields, glens and coves still spoke of the native tradition that is long since gone. Gleann na Péiste (Glen of the Worms), An Leaca Dubh (The Sorrowful Slope) [named after an area in which 18 women were suddenly made widows after a tragic fishing accident] and An Ghort Fhada (The Long Field) are all reminders of what was a very unique civilisation.
As we paddled along, there was a sense of wonderment at the beauty of what we were experiencing. Nowhere was this more evident than at the very western tip of the Great Blasket, where we discovered a very large and deep cave, almost hidden among the rocks. As I paddled deep into the bowels of the cave, I was overcome by a real feeling of adventure and exploration. The general inaccessibility of this cave – very few, if any, boats would have been able to get into it, the cave is not accessible from land and it is not easily seen unless up very close to the rocks – meant that I was paddling into an area where very few people would have paddled before. It was a feeling shared by many within our group and I think we all felt privileged, and dare I say awestruck, to have been able to experience it.
On the western tip, we now had decisions to make. With the strong northerly wind, and no shelter from any landmass, were we prepared for the rougher trip across the channel to reach Inishnabro and Inishvickellane? A group of our three most experienced kayakers, decided to try and make an attempt at reaching and landing on Teeraght and they set off in hopeful spirits. The rest of us decided to aim for the landing spot on Inishvickellane and have lunch. Again, the rolling seas demanded all of our concentration and skillset, but we soon passed the magnificent Cathedral Rocks on the eastern tip of Inishnabro and with it came more shelter and much calmer waters. We picked out the only landing spot on Inishvickellane and we were all relieved that the calm waters in this area meant that we could make a relatively easy landing. We noticed a traditional wooden currach also at the landing area. We had observed the same currach earlier that morning, crewed by four people, leaving the Great Blasket. I couldn’t help but notice the name An t-Oileanach (The Islander) on the currach. – a salute to the book of the same name that was written about these islands by a native islander back in 1928. We pulled our kayaks up onto the stony inlet, above the waterline and tucked into a well-deserved lunch!
While some of our group opted to stay on the rocks by our kayaks and enjoy the sunshine and views, a group of three kayakers set off to circumnavigate the island. Myself and Gerry Geaney decided to climb up the rocks and steep hillside to explore the island. The island was owned by former Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Charles Haughey, who had introduced a herd of native Irish Red Deer to the island. As we climbed up the steep slope, Gerry pointed out the magnificent sight of a huge herd of deer, atop the island, silhouetted against a blue sky, looking down at us. As we watched them watching us, they suddenly took off in another direction, galloping along the island’s plains. We took a walk around the island, admiring the spectacular views of the other islands and of the Dingle Peninsula on the mainland. Looking westwards, we could see the Foze Rocks. A series of rocks, (Great Foze Rock and Small Foze Rock) rather than an island, they are the most westerly landfall in Europe, lying 6 kilometres SSE of Teeraght island, and it is considered to be the most committing paddle in Ireland. In his book on Irish islands Oileáin (available to buy/view/download at www.oileain.org), David Walsh notes that very few people have been recorded reaching these rocks, but members of the Irish Sea Kayaking Association (ISKA) landed there in 2006. A solitary kayaker landed on the Small Foze Rock in 2006 by swimming ashore while her kayaking companion minded her kayak nearby. Making a conventional landing on these rocks is not an option.
While exploring the island, we met the crew of the traditional currach that we had seen at our landing spot. They also hailed from Cork and were part of Naomhóga Chorcaí – a Cork-based Currach rowing club founded back in 1993 by Meitheal Mara. We exchanged pleasantries and some stories and soon after we watched them depart the island – true explorers and keepers of the native seagoing tradition of the area. We met up with our crew of three kayakers who had initially set off for Teeraght but decided to make for Inishnabro and Inishvickellane because of the rough sea conditions. They had explored the northern side of Inishnabro with its unique rock formations and sea arches.
We set about returning to sea and decided to explore the Inishnabro coastline in more detail. There is only one landing spot on Inishnabro, under a tall arch and into a very small cove. It can often be tricky to get into this cove but fortunately on this day the sea conditions on this side of the island were perfect. We explored the small cove but decided against landing because of the very steep climb up to get onto the top of the island proper. We made our way back towards the eastern end of the island and got as close as safely possible to the spectacular buttresses and Cathedral rocks. Unfortunately conditions prevented us from getting too close to exploring these geographical wonders but their beauty was evident, even from a distance. It had been my second time so close but so far from these rocks but my failure to explore them gives me another reason to go back there sometime!
The next three hours were spent returning to our base camp back at Trá Bán on the Great Blasket. We decided to return by the same route, along the southern side of the island, because of the island’s shelter from the strong northerly winds. By the time we reached the shore, it was well into the evening time and we were all quite tired after the day’s paddling and exploration. We hung our clothes and wet gear out to dry and it wasn’t long before the smells of various dinners being cooked permeated the air. As dusk fell, a group of us decided to explore some of the island on foot. We made our way towards the original village on the Great Blasket – now just a series of ruins. There are still a small number of houses just above the original village that a few people stay in over the summer, one of which is now a small hostel. On our walk, we met a fascinating man, originally from Dublin, but who spends many weeks of the summer alone on the islands. A fluent Irish speaker and authority on the islands, he was a wealth of knowledge on the original inhabitants and the houses. He regaled us with tales from the old days and pointed out the houses and buildings mentioned in the literature from the island. This encounter really brought the past to life once more and we bid farewell to him after a good chat. I don’t think he realised the sense of appreciation and respect he helped us experience yet again for the original native islanders.
With darkness upon us, we sat out beneath the stars. We passed around the bottle of whiskey and shared out our packets of jelly babies. Tales were told – but no songs were sung! We stared up at the sky, the Milky Way visible as it stretched out among the heavens. This area of Kerry is Ireland’s only designated dark sky reserve, and is one of only three gold tier reserves on the planet. Star clusters, galaxies and planets were all visible to the naked eye. The astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s words about us being on the shores of a vast cosmic ocean seemed much more real to me that night.
As I settled down to sleep, I couldn’t help but reflect on the uniqueness of these islands. As a history and Irish teacher, I was filled with a sense of respect and wonder. This was my second time visiting these islands, but this time, I felt more of a connection with the past. How I would love to bring a class out to spend a few nights camping here. I know that any student who explored these islands the way we had, would leave with a much greater love of the language and sense of history. Most students in Ireland have to learn Irish until they finish secondary school but many leave unable to speak it properly but more troublingly, with little or no value placed on the importance or cultural significance of the language. But out here, this was where the language came from. It was still whispered from the hills and inlets and coves – names that bore witness to the trials, suffering, tribulations and adventures of those who had gone before us. Looking out to sea, or down onto the jagged rocks, nobody could fail to appreciate and admire the fortitude of the original natives as they faced a daily battle for survival.
Sunday morning was a glorious day of blue sky and little to no wind. The water was calm in all directions. With the nice weather however, came a major problem – midges, and oh so many of them. They swarmed all over us as we took apart our tents and tried to stow away our gear. Some of our crew came prepared with nets to cover their faces and arms. I was having no such luck and soon, my arms were displaying the effects of the feverish vampiric tendencies of these flying insects! We couldn’t get on the water soon enough! Our large group broke into various smaller groups as we each set off on different plans on our way home. A group decided to head for the island of Inishtooskert, known locally as An Fear Marbh (The Dead Man) because of its shape. Others headed across the Blasket Sound to explore the coastline of the Dingle Peninsula on the mainland.
I joined a group who went exploring the smaller island of Beginish. On the northwest side of the island, there were some nice opportunities for rockhopping and rock gardening and much fun was had frolicking amongst the waves and rocks! As we paddled further along the northern coast, there were some magical hidden inlets and sea arches. A number of seals kept their watchful eyes on us as we made our way around the island. We then headed south towards the mainland and explored the many caves beneath the large cliffs. With a flat calm sea, and the sun shining, it was a perfect day for kayaking. Eventually we made our way back to the beach at Coumeenole. The beach can be a difficult place to land in a kayak as it often has a huge shore dump but that day we were lucky and it was an easy paddle ashore.
Back onshore we offloaded our gear and packed the cars for the journey home to Cork. We bid each other farewell and went our separate ways. I decided to climb to one of the highest points of the cliffs above Coumeenole, overlooking the Blasket Sound and see if I could spot our crew returning from Inishtooskert. It proved a difficult task but the glint of the sun on a set of paddles gave their location away as they paddled across the Sound. Jason, our SUPer clocked up what I believe to be another first – the first SUPer to reach and land on Inishtooskert. And with that, our weekend of kayaking, camping and adventure was at an end. But the memories and the friendships remain. And we will be back again. Oh yes!
When he wrote An t-Oileánach, Tomás Ó Criomthain gave the reasons for writing: ” I have written minutely of much that we did, for it was my wish that somewhere there should be a memorial of it all, and I have done my best to set down the character of the people about me so that some record of us might live after us, for the like of us will never be again.” We all left the Blasket Islands with a deep respect of the heritage, traditions and harsh way of life of the original islanders. While most of us knew about, or heard about what life was like for them, our short visit reinforced and educated us in a way no book or story could. Ó Criomthain was only half right however – the likes of those people will never be seen again, but it’s not just his writing that is a memorial to the islanders. The very islands themselves are the memorial. They whisper to those fortunate enough to visit. The spirit of the islanders are still very evident. You just need to visit and find it!
Blasket Island Review:
Sea Arch on Beginish:
Inlet on Inishnabro:
Cave on Great Blasket:
Setting Forth to the Blasket Island’s of Ireland:
Rock Hopping with Gene and Friends: