Tomás Ó Criomhthain
This is the final chapter of the autobiography of Tomás Ó Criomhthain (Tomás O'Crohan), written when he was close to seventy years old, published in Irish in 1929 and translated into English by Robin Flower in 1934. The first of the Blasket Island memoirs, the book reveals the harshness of island life, with near starvation at times when the crops failed or fish were scarce, yet plenty when a storm drove a wrecked cargo onto the shore. Ó Criomhthain reveals here his shrewd, yet humorous detachment, which allowed him faithfully to depict a vanishing way of life.
Well, I've slipped along thus far to the end of my story. I have set down nothing but the truth; I had no need of invention, for I had plenty of time, and have still a good deal in my head. It's amazing what a lot there is in an old man's head when somebody else starts him talking and puts questions to him. All the same, what I've written down are the things that meant most to me. I considered the whole course of my life, and the things that had meant most to me were the first to come back to memory.
I have brought other people besides myself into my story, for, if I hadn't, it would have been neither interesting nor complete. I never disliked any of them, and I've spent my life in their company till to-day without any trouble between us. I don't know what colour the inside walls of the court in Dingle are, old though I am.
We are poor simple people, living from hand to mouth. I fancy we should have been no better off if we had been misers. We were apt and willing to live, without repining, the life the Blessed Master made for us, often and again ploughing the sea with only our hope in God to bring us through. We had characters of our own, each different form the other, and all different from the landsmen; and we had our own little failings too. I have made no secret of our good traits or of our little failings either, but I haven't told all the hardships and the agonies that befell us from time to time when our only resource was to go right on.
This is a crag in the midst of the great sea, and again and again the blown surf drives right over it before the violence of the wind, so that you daren't put your head out any more than a rabbit that crouches in his burrow in Inishvickillane when the rain and the salt spume are flying. Often would we put to sea at the dawn of day when the weather was decent enough, and by the day's end our people on land would be keening us, so much had the weather changed for the worse. It was our business to be out in the night, and the misery of that sort of fishing is beyond telling. I count it the worst of all trades. Often and again the sea would drive over us so that we could see the land no more—a long, long night of cold like this, struggling against the sea, with often little to get, only praying from moment to moment for the help of God. It was rare, indeed, for us to get a full catch, and then often we would have to cut away the nets and let it all go with the sea. On other nights, after all the labour of the fishing, the boats would be fairly full, and we couldn't make the harbour or the land, but the swell would be rising to the green grass, the storm blowing out of the north-west, and the great waves breaking. We would have to flee then before the gale, some of us to Cuan Croumha, some to Ventry Harbour, some to Dingle.
You may understand from this that we are not to be put in comparison with the people of the great cities of the soft and level lands. If we deserved blame a little at times, it would be when a drop of drink was going round among us. The drink went to our heads the easier because we were always worn and weary, as I have described, like a tired horse, with never any rest or intermission.
It was a good life in those days. Shilling came on shilling's heels; food was plentiful, and things were cheap. Drink was cheap, too. It wasn't thirst for the drink that made us want to go where it was, but only the need to have a merry night instead of the misery that we knew only too well before. What the drop of drink did to us was to lift up the hearts in us, and we would spend a day and a night ever and again in company together when we got the chance. That's all gone by now, and the high heart and the fun are passing from the world. Then we'd take the homeward way together easy and friendly after all our revelry, like the children of one mother, none doing hurt or harm to his fellow.
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.
I am old now. Many a thing has happened to me in the running of my days until now. People have come into the world around me and have gone again. There are only five older than me alive in the Island. They have the pension. I have only two months to go till that date—a date I have no fancy for. In my eyes it is a warning that death is coming, though there are many people who would rather be old with the pension than young without it.
I can remember being at my mother's breast. She would carry me up to the hill in a creel she had for bringing home the turf. When the creel was full of turf, she would come back with me under her arm. I remember being a boy; I remember being a young man; I remember the bloom of my vigour and my strength. I have known famine and plenty, fortune and ill-fortune, in my life days till today. They are great teachers for one that marks them well.
One day there will be none left in the Blasket of all I have mentioned in this book—and none to remember them. I am thankful to God, who has given me the chance to preserve from forgetfulness those days that I have seen with my own eyes and have borne their burden, and that when I am gone men will know what life was like in my time and the neighbours that lived with me.
Since the first fire was kindled in this Island none has written of his life and his world. I am proud to set down my story and the story of my neighbours. This writing will tell how the Islanders lived in the old days. My mother used to go carrying turf when I was eighteen years of age. She did it that I might go to school, for rarely did we get a chance of schooling. I hope in God that she and my father will inherit the Blessed Kingdom; and that I and every reader of this book after me will meet them in the Island of Paradise.
Tomás O'Crohan, The Islandman(1934), pp. 320–324.
Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press.