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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 Two “Illiterate Natives of A Wet Rock”? Oral Tradition and Literacy on the Blasket Islands 51


CHAPTER TWO “Illiterate Natives of a Wet Rock”? Oral Tradition and Literacy on the Blasket Islands The framing narrative that encompasses Tomás’ writing presents him as a naive and inexperienced writer before the arrival of the visiting scholars and his culture as “authentic” and uncontaminated by outside influences. The strong impression this gives is that, in its isolation, the culture of the Island was not just uncontaminated by outside influences and unchang- ing, but also a blank space waiting to be filled. Its presentation of Tomás as a naive and inexperienced writer also contributes to the impression that, prior to the arrival of the visiting scholars, Tomás had spent his life in a cultural void. As views of the Irish language changed and as the West opened up to cultural tourism, the oral tradition of the Island came to be seen as the very locus and embodiment of the Irish “authenticity” that had almost been lost. As none of its cultural material had ever been recorded in literature, it was considered to reflect a culture that still needed to be given expression. John Wilson Foster writes that “the peasant had scant access to sophisticated means of self-expression, so others put words in his mouth and thoughts in his head” (1987 324). Although the status of the peasant had dramatically improved on account of the changing regard for the Irish language, the possibility that the peasant might achieve this written expression himself was not entertained. The artefacts of...

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