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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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Chapter One Wild Things and Western Men: Impressions of the People, Culture and Language of the Blaskets 23


CHAPTER ONE Wild Things and Western Men: Impressions of the People, Language and Culture of the Blaskets The early part of this century saw the occurrence of a strange literary phe- nomenon on the Great Blasket Island off the Kerry coast of Ireland. From a peasant population that never exceeded two hundred came three writers, whose works portrayed the Island life they knew: Tomás O’Crohan, Peig Sayers and Maurice O’Sullivan. Others soon followed where they led with the result that there is now a collection of more than twenty books coming from the Island. These first three to write, Tomás, Peig and Maurice, all achieved publication between 1928 and 1939 and are generally considered to be the most important of the writers. Their books were both significant and poignant: not only were they the first written utterances from within a Gaeltacht, they were also the works of a people writing in a language that was “hovering even then between life and death” (Mac Conghail1 1994 11) about a community and a way of life that was about to end. Tomás’ literary activity occurred during very volatile times. While, at the personal level, he was addressing the issues of old age, the small soci- ety in which he lived was in decline, the language he spoke was almost dead, and the way of life on the Island was becoming untenable. Economic conditions within the Island community had long been forcing the young people of the Island to emigrate...

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