A Blasket Island Songbook

IMG_2207If you’d like to follow my continuing work on Blasket Island native Martin Kearney and his life on the Blaskets and in America, take a look at my blog, A Blasket Island Songbook. In April 2014, I did a faculty concert with some amazing colleagues/students/musicians that featured my original songs about Martin Kearney and his family, and the history of the Blasket Islands and its peoples. We’re working on an album project, and of course, the documentary film work is ongoing.

I’ll be keeping a chronicle of work in progress — I’d love to hear from you if you are a Blasket Island native or descendant, or if you have stories to share!

Here is a repost about Martin Kearney from February 7, 2011.

Meeting Martin Kearney

In October of 2006, the second month into my Fulbright year in Ireland, my sister Joni and her husband Dave came to visit me. We spent a few days exploring together and learning more about the Dingle Peninsula, Dunquin, and the Blaskets. At the end of one spectacular day, we stopped in at Lord Baker’s Restaurant in Dingle for dinner. I noticed some framed newspaper articles on the wall near our table, and I went to investigate. I started reading about two brothers, Martin Kearney (Máirtin Ó Cearna, born in 1923) and Mike Carney (Mícheál Ó Cearna, born in 1920) who had been born on the Great Blasket Island and immigrated to the Hungry Hill area of Springfield, Massachusetts. I read a second framed article about their older sister, Céit Ó Cearna (Kate, born in 1918), who had helped raise her younger brothers and sister when their mother, Neilí Ní Dhálaigh, died at the age of 35.

Brothers, Martin Kearney and Mike Carney
Photo taken in Dingle, 2006

Sister, Kate Kearney
Photo taken in Dingle, 2006

I recognized those names and faces.

During the summer of 2000, I took my first trip to Ireland, to attend a 2-week International Summer School of Irish Traditional Music and Dance (Blas) at the University of Limerick. More about that amazing connection in a later post; the experiences I had there, and the wonderful people I met and worked with, helped to shape and focus the future of my subsequent study of and passionate interest in Irish traditional and contemporary history and culture. My interest in the Dingle Peninsula and Dunquin had been ignited during my teenage years, and after my course at UL was finished, I rented a car and drove to the Dingle Peninsula, where I stayed for 3 weeks. It was a trip I had dreamed of since I was a young girl, and it was a transformative, life-changing experience.

I learned about and visited the Blasket Island Centre many times over the course of that first 3-week visit, and I fell in love with the place – the stories of the islanders’ difficult, primitive and dangerous existence on the Blaskets, the immigration of some of them to America, the amazing multimedia exhibits capturing a way of life, freezing moments in time and lining out a distinctive history and culture, the scholars and writers who came to visit, a rich oral tradition of story-telling, folktales, poetry and a vanished literary tradition – and the stunningly gorgeous land- and seascapes that are a deeply influential aspect of all of these things. I learned much about the Blasket Islands and the people who lived there, and came home knowing that, one day, I would go find a way to go back and stay for a substantive amount of time.

In the Centre, in a small exhibit room at the end of the long corridor that looks out to the islands, I first encountered and now remembered seeing the faces of Martin and Mike and their families, displayed in photos taken at their homes in Springfield, Massachusetts, and I remembered reading their stories about life on the Blaskets and life in America.

And now, owing to a lucky, random dinner choice in this Dingle restaurant, here were more stories and photos about the Ó Cearna family and their Blasket heritage.

A young man working at the bar in Lord Baker’s came over to me and politely asked if I had any questions about the articles. We talked for a bit – me explaining my interest in the history and heritage of the islands – him explaining that the people in the photos were his relatives. I was excited to speak to him and learned that his great-uncle, Martin Kearney, was in Dunquin for a few days visiting relatives. Would I be at all interested in meeting him, the young man asked. I was elated at the possibilities. He took my mobile number and said he would get it all sorted and ring me back with a meeting time and place, if possible. He also told me that a book had been recently published about the Ó Cearna family – the Kearneys – and their journey from one way of life to another. He wrote down the title, and the next day I picked up a copy in Dingle.

Later that next afternoon, while my sister, brother-in-law and I were in the Blasket Centre, my mobile rang. A meeting with Martin and his wife Eleanor was arranged. They would meet us in the sitting room at the B&B where we were staying in Dingle, and would it be alright, the young man asked, if a few others came along – Martin and Eleanor’s son Marty and his wife (along on the visit from Springfield), and Martin’s nephew Paud and his wife (living on the mainland, close to Dunquin). We were delighted! We had a marvelous meeting, and my sister and brother-in-law were brought into the bones of the place and Martin’s life in a personal and deeply poignant way.

A recent phone conversation with Martin’s son, Marty, solidified for me what that chance encounter had meant to his Dad. He was, Marty told me, so proud that I wanted to meet him and talk to him about his life on the Blaskets and his life in America. It was one of the most touching, humbling and wonderful events of my life, and I am so happy to be working on this project.

Martin Kearney died in November of 2009. I am sad that I won’t ever have the opportunity to talk with him again, but I am grateful and excited to be working with Marty and Eleanor, and wonderful people in Springfield, MA and Dunquin, Ireland. I look greatly forward to  doing the work of this project – and to writing songs which will help to tell the story of Martin’s life on the Blaskets and in America.

Following are some photos taken by my brother-in-law, Dave, during my October 2006 meeting with Martin and his family, and our interview and discussion.

Martin and Kearney and Judith Coe
Photo taken in Dingle, Co. Kerry, October 2006

After introductions, we all settled into comfortable places. Martin and I talked informally, and every now and then, someone in his family would augment our discussion or his answers to my questions, and add details or another perspective.

He had such a great, strong spirit. His eyes were bright and proud, and although he was clearly a very private man, he was so gracious. I asked him how he thought of his identity – did he consider himself to be an Islandman, a Kerry man, an Irishman, or an American? He was adamant that he was an American.

Listening to Martin Kearney’s stories about life on the Blaskets and life in America
Photo taken in Dingle, Co. Kerry, October 2006

It was wonderful to have his family, Irish and American, there with him. Martin’s wife, Eleanor, told me a little about how they met after Martin came to America (at a dance). His son, Marty, told me a bit about what it was like growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts in the Hungry Hill area, where the people who immigrated to the US from the Blaskets settled. He also told me what a very different place the Celtic Tiger Ireland was from the Ireland he had first visited on his honeymoon (his wife concurred). Martin’s nephew, Paud, and his wife, shared stories about growing up on the mainland and about what it was like to hear stories about the Blaskets and his relatives who had been born there, many of whom now lived in the US. It was lovely to meet all of them and to get a glimpse of a vanished world.

L to R: Martin Kearney, Judith Coe, Marty Kearney, Eleanor Kearney
Diane Kearney, Maureen Kearney, Paud Kearney
Photo taken in Dingle, Co. Kerry, October 2006

One last, proud photo of Martin, alone, and our incredible evening came to a close. As Martin and his family, my sister and brother-in-law, and I, all hugged and said goodnight, I was extremely conscious that an exceedingly rare and wonderful event had just occurred. Owing to the generosity and good will of these lovely people, and that of the young man in Lord Baker’s the night before, my family and I experienced a wonderful cultural connection.

Martin Kearney
Photo taken in Dingle, Co. Kerry, October 2006

During a recent cybersearch, I found Caitlin Foley’s blog. Her grandmother, Mary (Sullivan) Foley, was born on the Blasket Island and is related to Martin and his family. Her school blog project was to research the lives of the people originally born on the Great Blasket who now live in the Springfield, Massachusetts area. She conducted interviews with several people, one of whom was Martin.

This photo of Martin is from Caitlin’s blog. Click on the link below to read her account of meeting Martin.

Photo of Martin Kearney
Source: Caitlin Foley’s blog, Blaskets to Springfield, May 13, 2008.

Meeting Martin Kearney was one of the great joys of my life. He was a private, dignified, proud man and it was an honor and a pleasure to spend a few hours with him and his family and mine in Dingle one misty October evening so near to the place he was born on the Great Blasket Island. I will be forever grateful for that chance encounter and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn more about Martin’s life on the Blaskets and in America, and to begin a wonderful friendship and association with his family.

Síochán leat (peace be with you), Martin.


One thought on “A Blasket Island Songbook

  1. Pingback: Meeting Martin Kearney | A Blasket Island Songbook

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