Finding unexpected things in the archives is always a joy. Recently I spent a week in Dublin visiting the wonderful National Archives of Ireland and National Library of Ireland. The library is in an impressive nineteenth-century building opened in 1890 and full of beautifully crafted woodwork and marble. I found so much that I finally decided to start my blog.
I spent my time tracking down government papers, travel writings and newspaper articles about the evacuation of the Great Blasket Island. An Blascaod Mór, as it is known in Irish, rises out of the Atlantic to become the main island of the Blaskets, off the Dingle coast in County Kerry, Ireland.
For centuries, the Great Blasket formed Ireland’s most westerly settled community. In the nineteenth century, the population rose and fell reaching a peak of around 140. By the 1946 census the inhabitants had dwindled to 46 people. Emigration led to many more men than women living on the island, very few children being born and a sense that the population had become unsustainable. From the mid-1940s, the islanders began pleading with the Irish Government to be migrated to the mainland but faced great reluctance.
The head of the Irish Government, the Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, had visited the island in the summer of 1947. He promptly set up an Inter-Departmental Committee to investigate living conditions on the island. The subsequent report made several recommendations to improve life on the island such as providing better landing facilities for incoming boats. Curiously, the Committee did not recommend mass migration even though it noted that the islanders wished only to leave. The hesitancy was partly due to the cost and the difficulty of finding suitable land on the mainland. The fear of permanently losing a distinctive Irish-speaking community also loomed large.
Among the papers in the National Archives of Ireland, I found a letter from the ‘Islanders’ addressing the Taoiseach as ‘Dear Leader’. The letter is undated but was probably received in late summer, 1947. The message pleaded for the islanders to be told of what would be done ‘immediately for Winter is coming’. The islanders had not eerily foretold the motto of House Stark but, even so, the unexpected familiarity of the phrase and sense of impending hardship struck me. The appeal resonates with other reports of the islanders’ isolation and likelihood of being cut off from the mainland in bad weather.
Reading through these papers, I became increasingly dismayed at how long it took to decide the islanders’ future. The migration was finally approved in 1952, five years after the Inter-Departmental committee had been set up. Even then, the move took place a year later in 1953.
Over the summer, I will be exploring how the migration took place and connecting it to broader attempts to preserve the Irish language. I’m excited and hoping this will all come together into my first article on Irish history.
I really ought to finish before the winter.