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9 September 1999 Edition

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The Great Blaskets betrayal


``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.''

``My grandfather had second vision when he wrote, in 1926 `the likes of us will never be again','' says Niamh Ní Chriomhthain-Laoithe, granddaughter of Tomás O Criomhthain, author of the An tOileánach (translated as The Islandman).

``I have a handful of potatoes and a fire... I have known famine and plenty, and when I am gone men will know what life was like in my time and the neighbours that lived with me... the agonies that befell us when our only resource was to go right on.'' So her grandfather wrote.

Islanders forced to leave

Niamh was born on the island, and left with her mother for the mainland, to a house with one bedroom and a kitchen ,when the Island school, which at one time had had 50 pupils, closed for the last time. The other children on the island went across the water alone, for schooling on the mainland. There were no children left. Niamh went back to the Island in the summers to visit her grandparents.

At the turn of the century, times had been good on the island, with an abundancy of horse mackerel, until the Americans put a $2 tariff on each barrel, and the young men and women emigrated. Large families of 8 or 9 children went, one by one, with one-way tickets to America. They went mostly to Springfield, Massachussetts, and Hartford, Connecticut, to work at the hardest jobs. The last of the Great Blasket Islanders left the island in 1953.

Little help from Dev

It was not for lack of imploring the government of the day, and de Valera in particular, to do something to help. Mícheál de Mórdha, who runs the present Heritage Centre, quotes a tragic letter he found in English in the archives, written in 1947.

``We are sending you these few lines because we want you to let us know what you are going to do for us. Please let us know immediately, for winter is coming and if you are not to do something on our behalf we will have to get some place on the mainland. You know well, leader, that there is great privation here that no one could stand with 20 years, only the islanders.''

The response was meetings, reports, Commission inspectorates, consideration, and eventual supervision of the evacuation in 1953. Six years to do nothing, except to prepare for evacuation. Maintaining the islanders in dignified life on the island was not an option, apparently.

The Forgotten People

Recently, Niamh revisited the island to show visitors where her grandfather had written and lived. She found the houses in ruins, a tent pitched in the middle of one, underwear cast over the broken walls to dry and rubbish strewn in the corners.

She wrote of her sadness at the neglect of our heritage. Quoting Patti Dunlevy ``Deireadh an Ail'' - ``The poor people of the Blaskets - the ones who were left in 1953 and before that were badly done by when the school was closed in 1941, they had no quays built, no regular delivery boat provided, nobody to attend to their medical needs, You could call them the forgotten people.''

And nothing has changed, nearly 50 years on.

But Why?

The story of why the island has not been preserved, restored, or respected - the people who live now on the mainland in Dún Chaoin remain neglected, without essential services, with little hope for their community's survival into the next century - is a long, and somewhat shady tale of, at best, political ineptitude.

The story goes that a Taylor Collins, an apple and blueberry farmer from Alabama, visited the island in 1970. He found it in a desolate and uninhabited state. He bought many areas of land in the village on the Great Blasket, and thereby entitled himself to, according to the High Court, 17/25th of the commonage, representing 1,060 acres of the 1,132 acres of the entire Islands.

Most of the other 72 acres remained in the ownership of people who had lived on the island, many of whom had emigrated. The purchase price of some of the holdings, though not recorded, is often alleged to have been a pittance - a bottle of whiskey, a plug of tobacco.

Taylor Collins and his wife worked over 18 months to restore some of the houses, including that of the Island's most famous resident, Peig Sayers, and provided some accommodation and facilities in the form of a guest house, at their own expense.

Honky Tonk Island

Mícheál O Cinnéide happened to be in the USA in 1985 when he chanced on an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal offering the property for sale at around $900,000. Mícheál contacted the estate agent, who turned out to be a Michael Collins (a great nephew of the great man of the same name) at Hempstead Investments in San Diego, California. He was reluctant to put Mícheál in touch with Taylor Collins, assumed to be the seller, but suggested that Mícheál should contact Collins' solicitor in Dingle, Kerry.

Many people were horrified that the major part of the Great Blasket Island was up for sale in the States, and feared that it might lead to a `Forbes Ranch', a private retreat for the wealthy, or a `honky-tonk' development for the leisured classes.

The Fundúireacht formed

In 1985, the Fundúireacht was formed to protect the island and its heritage. The Fundúireacht's declared purpose was to create a National Historic Park of the island, restore the houses, provide an interpretative centre in Dún Chaoin, and improve access facilities. It set itself the task of raising £1 million.

A number of the `great and the good' backed the Foundation. The Fundúireacht was chaired by P.J. Moriarty, then CEO of the ESB. Patrick Moriarty was later involved in controversy over his decision to support the construction of a £165,000 wind generator on Mr. Haughey's island, Innisvickillane. The wind generator was built without the prior approval of the ESB board, but was approved by the directors retrospectively.

Charlie Haughey, then Minister for the Gaeltacht, promised his support, on condition that the Foundation got the support of the people, and all-party backing. And they did, in the form of patrons including Dick Spring, Dessie O'Malley, Alan Dukes and many distinguished political and literary figures.

Price Hikes

In 1986, Taylor Collins offered the share of the island to the nation for a nominal sum of £40,000, but the Fundúireacht had some difficulty establishing the ownership of the property, as it was still registered as in the hands of the estate agent Michael Collins, who was offering it for sale for $1 million, and was not Taylor Collins' land of which to make a generous gift any longer.

It later emerged, as reported in the Sunday Business Post last year, that Taylor Collins had sold half of his interest in the island to an American diplomat, Philip Brooks, for £50,000. The other half had been sold in 1972 to two brothers, Jim and Peter Callery, a businessman and a solicitor in Dingle, respectively. They bought their stake for £23,000 plus other unspecified considerations, according to the 1992 Sunday Business Post report. They hold ownership through their joint company, An Blascaod Mór Teo. (ABMteo).

In 1985, according to evidence accepted by Judge Budd, (adjudicating in the High Court on the issue last year), ABMteo was asked by the Fundúireacht to defer selling the property, on the understanding that an offer would be made for their interest. However no such offer was forthcoming, though the price offered moved from £50,000 to a final offer price of £1.5 million. At the end of the day, ABMteo held onto the property.

Flawed Act to CPO Island

Instead, an Act was introduced into the Seanad by Charlie Haughey himself and passed through the Oireachtas, which allowed compulsory purchase order on the Great Blasket Island land acquired since 1953 but which exempted from CPO land belonging to the `Pedigree folk', namely those who owned their land before 1953 or relatives or heirs.

Not surprisingly, this act was contested through the High Court, where Judge Budd found it flawed. He said in a strong judgement that ``the provisions of this Act are so obviously unusual, unorthodox, unfair and discriminatory as to invite challenge on constitutional grounds''.

The Supreme Court supported the trial judge's position and dismissed the appeal of the OPW and Government. It held the Act unconstitutional, in that it ``introduced an unusual and dubious classification with ethnic and racial overtones''.

Unanswered Questions

There are many unanswered questions. Was the legislation flawed by default or design? Why was it drawn up in an unusual way, outside of the normal drafting procedures? Why, as Judge Budd questioned, was there no discussion with ABMteo over the legislation to enable compulsory purchase? Why did the legislation only deal with one of the Blasket Islands? Why did the State not buy the 17/25ths of the Great Blasket when it was apparently on offer, and instead, as Judge Budd accepted from Michael Begley's evidence, did the Fundúireacht lobby for compulsory purchase legislation?

And there the matter rests. The houses on the Island fall asunder. There roofs are gone, their walls in ruins. The funds allocated by the EU for the building of a harbour/pier on either side of the three-mile channel cannot be spent, because a condition of this funding is that the property be state-owned.

The parish of Dún Chaoin has only 20 children left in a two-teacher school. There is no shop, no post office, and a bus once or twice a week. There are twice as many summer houses as houses inhabited all year round, and with the price of a site at £40,000 for half an acre, it is unlikely that all year residents, the vast majority of whom are Irish speaking on a daily basis, will be able to increase their holdings or acquire sites for their children.

The marvellous Heritage Centre exhibition, run by Mícheál de Mórdha, with its history of the islands, the islanders and their literature, a building with a superb vista to the sea and the Blasket Islands, remains, as Mícheál O Cinnéide says, as a bird with one wing, with the Island village itself falling to ruin.

The `real resident of the Blaskets'

South Kerry Fine Gael TD Michael Begley announced to a distinguished gathering for the launch of the Fundúireacht that it was going to bring the island back to life again as a tribute to its unique cultural importance. Undoubtedly, some have tried hard to do this.

Later in the evening, ironically, Charlie Haughey was introduced as ``An tUasal O hEochaidh, Oileánach - the only real resident of the Blaskets''. He said that there was `enough commitment, goodwill and political power here to defeat the Wall Street Journal and save the Blaskets once and for all.'' Perhaps he made the mistake of thinking he had. [L'état, c'est moi. (itals, Ciarán)]

In the meanwhile, how much of the £10 billion funding, announced last month, to be allocated for the development of the West, is to be spent on harbours, restoration of the houses on the Island, transportation to it or services on the Island for the villagers who live in the parish of Dún Chaoin?

``Life as it existed in the Blaskets is dead and gone. People today have a better life. I understand that a social system that could let such a culture die must be rotten in some way... I now believe that such a civilisation is impossible within our modern monetary society. It was money that destroyed this place.

``They are frail memories from the past, airborne above us, quietly hinting to our subconscious, in our society, cheap as dirt, and in a foreign tongue. Naomhógs flew through the air... the Blaskets was swept away by the wind... like the statue of a soldier in a churchyard.''

(Seoirse MacTomáis 1903-1987, speaking in an RTE documentary on the Blasket Islands)

An Phoblacht
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