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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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Conclusion “All that Seaboard a Silent Land”: Echoes of Voices Still 207


Conclusion “All that Seaboard a Silent Land”: Echoes of Voices Still In the course of my research, I have seen and heard Tomás’ autobiogra- phy referred to as both a masterpiece and a piece of minor literature. The ambivalence toward the text that is evident in these two views has its ori- gins and explanation in the politics of culture that I first encountered on my initial research trip some years ago. While, no doubt, many readers who acclaim the text as “masterpiece” do so in response to their own reading, it is likely that many others have been influenced to form such a view by the romantic framing narrative that has accompanied the text since its first publication. For such readers, the judgement of “masterpiece” might spring from the representation of The Islandman as the utterance of a heroic late survival of the old Irish nation or from the romantic representation of the author as a literary Rip Van Winkle who, prodded out of his slumber, suddenly wakened to write the story of his Island life just before it ended. Those who count Tomás’ autobiography as “minor literature” may also find the justification for their view outside his pages. At its most elementary, such a view might draw strength from the size and status of the tiny com- munity from which Tomás wrote. It might also reflect the once-prevalent view that “peasant writing” lacked the sophistication worthy of the name of literature. Or perhaps it derives...

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