Meeting the King of the Blaskets
In 1947 the population of the Blasket Island was reduced to less than 30 people, mainly Old people, bachelors and one married couple. When Gearoid O’Cathain was born that year to this couple, all the islanders knew that this child was special because it was probably going to be the last child born on the island and so it was. As a child growing up on the Blasket it seemed to outsiders, lonesome for Gearoid, as the nearest person in age to him was his uncle Sean Faeili who was 30 years older. On Christmas Eve 1951 a journalist named Liam Robinson and photographer Donal Macmonagle visited the Island for three days, with the intention of producing an article for the local press about Blasket island life. The article with a photograph of Gearoid playing his father’s fiddle was soon published with a sub-headline “The loneliest boy in the world”. The feature was syndicated in different newspapers all over the world. This article captured the attention of many of its readers of all nationalities. Letters began to pour into the island, keeping the island postman busy with sacksful of letters and parcels, for the loneliest boy in the world. There were offers of adoption from wealthy Texas ranchers with promises of huge plantations being left to Gearoid as an inheritance, in time. Gearoid’s father and mother took no notice of all the publicity and would never part with their dear son. In 2014 Gearoid published his autobiography surprisingly titled! “The loneliest boy in the world” with help from ghost writer Patricia Ahern.
In Irish secondary schools, for many years the autobiography of another Blasket islander Peig Sayers was on the Irish curriculum, a book which introduced most people to the Blasket islands. The government at the time of its introduction intended that the story of the poor widow woman with her tales of woe would make the reader embrace the heritage of our Gaelic language and therefore promote the Irish language. In fact the opposite happened! As most student readers have carried a hatred for Peig and her Blasket story all their lives, a book which they felt was forced on them.
I once gave the English version of Peigs story to my elderly grandmother, who had never read the book; hailing from County Kerry, she loved it and said that it was like traveling back in time, to the times she grew up in with no frills. An honest portrait of hard times, which only those people who lived at that time could appreciate. Her review of the book changed my attitude about Peig and the people from the Blasket. I began reading all the books on the Blasket island, which when put together makes a small library of books .There are currently 20 to 30 books written by Blasket Islanders. Which I have read over and over, with new books being published every couple of years.
When I read Gearoid’s book, there was one line that captivated me, his description of what the island looked like, from his back yard, on a moonlit Christmas night in 1952.“The full moon over Dunmore bay was lighting the village, with all the Christmas candles in the windows of the cottages”
During the summer of 2016, after I read Gearoids book, I visited the Blasket Island, with the sole purpose of going to where Gearoid stood that night and take a photo of the now ruined Blasket island village. I then digitally manipulated that image into the Christmas night scene which Gearoid had described. I decided to send this image to Gearoid.There was one little problem, I didn’t have his address! I then remembered that at the end of his autobiography, he mentioned, that once when his father visited his house in Cork that he took sick and died, he mentioned the road he was living on. I sent a small print of the image to Gearoid at this address, with the hope it would find him. Low and behold within the month I received a lovely letter of appreciation, for the gift, which he said brought back wonderful memories. it was as if he had travelled back in time to that night. The image took his breath away and he was humbled that I had taken the time to re-create one of his happiest memories. At the top of the letter he had written his phone number so without hesitation I rang him. He came across as a bit of a character in the nicest of ways and he thanked me again for the picture which he intended to frame. I said to him that the small print I sent had the purpose of “sending out the trout to catch the salmon”, and I told him I would print it up bigger and frame it for him now that I knew his full address. Which I did straight away. I printed and framed the image and on Christmas Eve I drove down to Cork, through all the heavy Christmas traffic to present the framed image to Gearoid, which I wanted him to have Christmas night, which of course was the night described in the book.
When I got to Gearoids house, I was given a great welcome to Cork by a man who still had his Kerry accent. I presented him with the framed photo and he said “We will have to make you the King of the Blaskets” He guided me into his front living room and We sat down for an hour and a half and chatted about one of my favourite subjects “The Blaskets” while drinking a cup of tea.
I knew that the Blaskets was a beautiful place in the summer time and had read that it was not so nice in the winter. Gearoid explained that sometimes the weather was so rough, that the waves which hit the southwest of the island in times of a storm, would be so ferocious, that the spray would come over the hill behind the house, which was very frightening. Sometimes the islanders would not be able to leave the house for many days. When his father would venture out in rough weather, he would be tied onto a rope held by his mother, Who stood inside the front door. I mentioned to him about my introduction to the Island “Peig Sayers biography”, and was fascinated when Gearoid said he had met Peig Sayers twice. Peig spent her later years in hospital in Dingle and Gearoid’s mother would visit her whenever she was in town, bringing along young Gearoid .When Peig died Gearoid was one of the altar servers at her funeral.
I asked him, of all the toys he got in the post from all over the world, which was his favourite. “I loved the comics with all the cowboy stories; I had hundreds of them, my mother kept them in a cupboard over the fireplace. Whatever happened to them I don’t know but I would love to read them once more” I asked him was he lonely as a Child with no pals his own age. “I knew no different and my pals were my uncles and the men on the island, they were very patient with me, I must have been getting in their way at times but they never said a word.”
Gearoid recounted that he was six when his family left the island, as it was time he started his schooling on the mainland. He had only fleeting memories of before he was three, so he only had three years of memories from the island and that was a long time ago. He said that the island Kings daughter Maire mike lean Ui Guiheen was like a second mother to him. Maire was the little hostess that J.M Synge based the character of Pegeen Mike on for his play “The playboy of the western world”. Synge stayed in the Kings house in 1906 when he visited the Blaskets.
Gearoid is now retired and recently celebrated his seventieth birthday, He has to cut down on the potatoes and bread, as he has just been diagnosed with Diabetes, which his father also battled with all his life on the island, A man who only ate fish and potatoes! Gearoids mother used to pray every time his father went out fishing, hoping he would come home safe. Gearoid mentioned a Limerick connection also; his mother once worked in Templeglantine at “The Devon Inn” before she was married. Before I left, I got Gearoid to sign my copy of his book. I would have liked to stay longer chatting, but I had to brave the Cork city, Christmas Eve traffic, once more and try and get home for Christmas Eve mass. As I left, Gearoid said that, he would never forget the generous gift I gave him, and I thanked him for being so generous with his time, to a complete stranger.
A couple of months passed and I had wondered in all that time, why he said “We will have to make you the King of the Blaskets” and it dawned on me that the King of the Blasket, got his title because, he was the island postman. Of course! I was Gearoid’s postman that Christmas Eve, delivering his framed picture. I contacted him once again and said it to him, “It took you a long time for the penny to drop!” he said laughing heartily. He said that, as he was the last Island man, he was probably King of the Blaskets but to his dismay, his annual annuities were not very large! If that were true the Blasket Island would have a great King.
King Gearoid. God save the King!