There is nothing on Earth more beautiful than the view from the top of Great Blasket island on a bright, clear day. The sky is vast, the sea fiercely blue as it stretches away towards the curving horizon, with the US beyond. You can turn and walk down the steep slope of the hill, through the ruins of a village that once faced the Irish mainland, a couple of miles away. Down on the beach called the White Strand, hundreds of seals play undisturbed. And because the island is not easy to reach and has been officially uninhabited for more than half a century, there will be days and nights when you have all this beauty to yourself.
It’s easy to see why there has been so much interest in the recent advertisement for a couple to come and live here, in this conservation area on the far edge of Europe. A local company that runs eco tours to the island is looking for two people to live there and manage a simple cafe and three restored holiday cottages. “It’s intense and tough but it’s a very unique position,” says Alice Hayes, who has received hundreds of enquiries from people as far away as Alaska and South Africa.
For those who want to get away and live a simpler life, Great Blasket may well feel like paradise, at least some of the time. But if you are going to apply, there are stories you should know. I wrote about them in my book, Hungry for Home, after falling in love with the place, its culture and its exiled people. I came here as a young man feeling disconnected from my roots and found myself looking out at the island, which rises and falls like the back of a huge whale coming up for air.
In the beautiful Blasket heritage centre on the mainland I learned that a century ago, when the community was at its peak, there were 176 men, women and children living out on An Blascaod Mór, as it’s called in Irish. Their isolation meant they spoke a form of Irish that was rare, some said pure. It drew scholars and champions of the Gaelic revival including the playwright JM Synge. Stories passed down by peat fires over the centuries were recorded and written into books that became famous, such as The Islandman by Tomás Ó Criomhthain and Peig by Peig Sayers.
You may shudder at the mention of Peig if you studied Irish at school, because her stories were heavily edited, sanitised and turned into Catholic propaganda, then forced on generations of pupils. But the real Peig was far saltier, spikier and funnier than that. English writers played a part in recording and preserving the culture, which is why the surviving, elderly islanders were so kind when I tracked them down many years later.
The island’s population started to decline in the early decades of the 20th century, as fish stocks dwindled, life became harder and tales of the outside world tempted Blasket young people to leave. They were all said to have made for the same three streets in Springfield, Massachusetts, called Hungry Hill, where Blasket Irish was all that could be heard in the 1940s. Back on the island, on Christmas Eve in 1946, a young man called Seánín Ó Cearna died from meningitis. The only radio had been smashed by the wind, so there was no way to call for help. His death broke the hearts of the 50 or so remaining, ageing islanders, who made a desperate appeal to the nation’s leader, Éamon De Valera, in Dublin: “STORMBOUND DISTRESS SEND FOOD NOTHING TO EAT – BLASKETS.”
De Valera was touched enough to visit them in person by boat soon after, bringing supplies, but they felt let down when his promises of further help came to little. It was six more years before they were finally evacuated, in November 1953, by which time there were only 22 inhabitants left. Their attachment to the place remained strong. I was privileged to be with Seánín’s brother, Mike, when he returned to the island at the age of 93. “I have lived my life suspended over the Atlantic,” he told me. “I love my life in America, but the island is in my heart.”
I hope whoever gets the job will honour the legacy of these extraordinary people and their culture. They will find out soon enough how quickly the weather can turn bad, even at the height of summer. The wind will howl, the rain sting. The mist will close in. They may feel lonely, isolated and even afraid out there at times, and be glad the contract only runs until October. But unlike their predecessors they will be paid to be there and able to communicate with the outside world. And they will be caretakers of an island of stories, one of the most enchanted and enchanting places on the planet.
• Cole Moreton is a writer and broadcaster. His latest novel is The Light Keeper