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The Islandman

The Hidden Life of Tomás O’Crohan


Irene Lucchitti

This book concerns Tomás O’Crohan of the Blasket Islands and offers a radical reinterpretation of this iconic Irish figure and his place in Gaelic literature. It examines the politics of Irish culture that turned O’Crohan into «The Islandman» and harnessed his texts to the national political project, presenting him as an instinctual, natural hero and a naïve, almost unwilling writer, and his texts as artefacts of unselfconscious, unmediated linguistic and ethnographic authenticity. The author demonstrates that such misleading claims, never properly scrutinised before this study, have been to the detriment of the author’s literary reputation and that they have obscured the deeply personal and highly idiosyncratic purpose and nature of his writing.
At the core of the book is a recognition that what O’Crohan wrote was not primarily a history, nor an ethnography, but an autobiography. The book demonstrates that the conventional reading of the texts, which privileges O’Crohan’s fisherman identity, has hidden from view the writer protagonist inscribed in the texts, subordinating his identity as a writer to his identity as a peasant. The author shows O’Crohan to have been a literary pioneer who negotiated the journey from oral tradition into literature as well as a modern, self-aware man of letters engaging deliberately and artistically with questions of mortality.


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Introduction 11


Introduction Tomás O’Crohan’s autobiography, The Islandman1 (O’Crohan 1937), came into my hands on the day that I first saw the Great Blasket Island, impres- sive, forbidding and shrouded in mist on the other side of a hostile sea. It was not the first time I had travelled the road past Slea Head and on to Dunquin, but on the previous occasion, the sea mist and fog had been so thick and heavy that there was nothing to suggest the presence of an Island out there to a stranger such as myself. Even on a fine day, as a stranger, you are not really sure what you are looking at through the windscreen as you travel that twisting, turning road, where there so often appears to be wild ocean between yourself and the road ahead. One promontory after another raises its head as you take each bend, with the result that, when the Great Blasket finally hoves into view, it is hard to be sure that you are looking at an island. Of course, the wild variations in the light, mist and weather that colour the ocean between the mainland and the Great Blasket compromise the perception even more, with the result that no two journeys along this road prompt the same response in the traveller. The uncertainty of my perceptions, aroused by these early glimpses of the Great Blasket Island, stayed with me as I read The Islandman, Robin Flower’s long-awaited translation of the original Irish text, An tOile...

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