leaving the Blasket Islands

Great Blasket from above the ferry jetty

on my first trip to Ireland, my companions and I did a circuit of the Dingle Peninsula by car as I was taking them to Tralee to catch a bus to Dublin (on what turned out to be the Saturday at the heart of the Rose Festival; traffic was … interesting). one of my greatest regrets our self-imposed restrictions was that we only got a glimpse of the Blasket Islands as we zipped around Slea Head on what purported to be a two-lane road. (fortunately, almost everyone makes the drive in a clockwise direction.) my desire to visit the islands only grew as I continued my trip up the west coast, learning more about what happened to Irish farmers and families during the 19th century, and later in reading historical accounts of the last two centuries of Irish history – both fiction and non-fiction.

and so, when planning out our Dingle hike I knew I wanted to plan in a rest day to allow us time to take the ferry out to the island. armed with an approximate departure timetable for the fery, we started out at the heritage center which provided a pretty comprehensive look at life on the island, of linguistic heritage, animals and plant life, and the nature of the diaspora when the island was evacuated in 1953.

the islands were inhabited by small clusters of people for centuries, with the largest community on the Great Blasket (up to about 160 individuals). the islands saw an influx of residents from people fleeing the abominable policies of Lord Ventry (who owned much of the arable terrain on the mainland) during the Famine, though population declined in the 1840s all the same due to the effects of the Famine.

one of the single-family islands as seen from the main island

some of the smaller islands were home to single families and while in later years, particularly as the young emigrated and the remaining population aged, they relied on assistance from the mainland, their relative isolation and success as fishermen insulated them from the worst devastation of the Famine. the population didn’t begin to decline until the 20th century, when people hearing the success stories of those who had fled the Famine for America started leaving for better opportunities than a remote, island fishing community could offer. an outbreak of typhoid in the 1890s affected population as well. in the early 20th century, the government offered improvements, such as building a breakwater and new slipway; all the same, trips to and from the mainland still required adequate weather.

village on the Great Blasket from above

around the same time, cultural researchers became aware of the unique nature of the Blasket Islands – as an isolated community who’d defended their Gaelic language and heritage well in the face of efforts of the occupying English government to eradicate it from all of Ireland. (today, areas such as the Dingle Peninsula, Donegal and elsewhere Gaelic retains a strong presence are areas of governmentally-protected preservation called gaeltachts.) several researchers headed out to the islands to meet with inhabitants and to encourage them to share their stories for publication. quite a few took the opportunity, including Peig Sayers, who was actually born on the mainland (in Dun Choain) and married onto the island. her memoir Peig is one of the most well-known of the Gaelic Revival literature (it was certainly one of the easiest to find her book when looking for those Blasket narratives at a local bookshop after my first glimpse of the Blasket Islands in 2009).

ultimately, the exodus of young people took its toll on the island – while the island housed some 160 inhabitants in 1911, by the late 1940s only a few dozen people lived on the island (51, including infants, recorded in 1947). demands of subsistence living made further habitation of the islands untenable. trips to and from the mainland with necessities could only take place during good weather and the aging population increasingly could not keep up with the demands of island life; many abandoned the island in the decades prior to the final abandonment. eventually, the Irish government determined the islands must be evacuated and the last of the inhabitants left the island on 17 November 1953, relocating primarily elsewhere on the peninsula, as well as to America.

now, the islands are in a sort of limbo – not a national landmark but certainly not commercially owned. the highly informative interpretative center in Dun Choain provides an excellent overview of the history, culture, and life on the island, but a to fully appreciate the islands it’s worth the ferry trip (in good weather) out for a hike among the abandoned homes, up the mountain, and through the herd of remaining sheep (who, purportedly, are shorn once or twice a year and are otherwise left to their own devices).

(find additional information here: http://www.dingle-peninsula.ie/blaskets.html)


something we saw increasingly as we headed from León to Galicia were completely abandoned villages, or villages with two or even one permanent resident. this concept came up for the first time as we walked through the first town beyond Rabanal del Camino — Foncebadón. whereas Rabanal had not only several albergues, two hotels, casa rurales, a neighborhood store, and two cafes its closest neighbor only boasted  three small, moderately-equipped albergues, one of which also served as the town’s only pub.

during the middle ages, however, the town flourished, nestled on a sheltered ridge just below the pass over the Irago Mountains on the Roman-built road that wends its way towards the gold mines of Bierzo in one direction and far distant Italy in the other. for a time, it was the preferred (and only safe) route and received approval and development support from a number of monarchs over the centuries. vivacity of the town dwindled steadily from about the 16th century as the stream of peregrinos slowed; wars and new roads kept people away or sent the few travelers along other paths over the mountains.

by the early 1970s not only were most of the peregrinos gone, but so were virtually all inhabitants. as one of my guidebooks put it, in 1974, the village was in its “death throes” with only 4 inhabitants tending a couple of cows and sheep; by 1990 it was only a mother and son. — “Our pilgrims were permitted to lay sleeping bags on straw in one of the two houses in the village still having a semblance of a roof.” it sounded as if the buildings of Foncebadón crumbled and collapsed with each successive group they shepherded along the Camino until virtually nothing structurally reliable remained. all of which is to explain why we opted for Rabanal instead of hiking the extra 6 kilometers to this near ghost town.

staying over would have probably proven a unique Camino experience; at least we wouldn’t have needed to sleep out in the elements… (which gets me thinking — where along the Camino did Martin Sheen and his companions have to sleep outdoors? perhaps reason enough to go back and watch it to determine if I can pinpoint the general vicinity.) we ran into the Australian couple from San Martin while noshing in Molinaseca (our destination this day) and they related their experience of staying overnight in Foncebadón. very quite and somewhat eerie are the terms that come to mind. as I said, there are some refurbished buildings to cater to peregrinos, but more remain abandoned. in the second picture above you can see the patchwork metal roof on the left barely keeping out the weather and, presumably, just keeping the building from giving up sooner rather than later.

as for the cross in the above image, I forget the origins — perhaps something to do with erecting crosses in order to get a tax exemption — but there were signs asking peregrinos not to leave rocks at the base of each. two kilometers beyond the village is the Cruz de Ferro (about which more shortly) where the growing mound is an important Camino milestone and where people are invited to leave behind pebbles. for the few villagers, however, it seems an undue additional burden to keep the non-Cruz-de-Ferro free of pebbles from over-eager peregrinos.