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.

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Dingle Pub Night

DSCN3777After a gorgeous day, much learned on the island and deeper connections to the Blasket people built and nurtured, we headed back to the Blasket Centre for a bit and then, after a rest, we all walked into Dingle and did a mini pub-crawl to hear some Irish traditional music. We talked about protocol (very different in the pubs that feature professional traditional musicians from the pubs that feature very good ‘folk’ musicians who often organize a sing-along or incorporate a stand-up act), instrumentation and performance practice, and sean-nós (old-style) singing. Students really enjoyed relaxing after three very intense weeks and a physically rigorous day of being on the island and walking and climbing the steep hills and paths that the islanders once walked and climbed. A good end to a very good day!

Inis Tuaisceart (Inishtooskert) and Inis Mhic Aoibhleáin (Inishvickillane)

IMG_2123Here’s my June 5th photo of Inis Tuaisceart, the northernmost of the Blasket Islands – also known as An Fear Marbh (the dead man) or the sleeping giant due to its appearance when seen from the east. This island houses important seabird colonies, as well as extensive ruins of ancient stone buildings.

Inis Mhic Aoibhleáin is one of the Blasket Islands of County Kerry, Ireland. Referred to by Blasket islanders as “The Inis”, Inishvickillane was intermittently inhabited during the 19th and early 20th centuries, by one or more families. There are extensive ruins of ancient stone buildings and a house was built in the 1970s by the late former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, who owned the island and used it as a holiday home. I took this photo on Day 18 of our Maymester trip – going over the Clasach from Ventry to Dunquin – a gorgeous journey.

When I was a Visiting Scholar in the Blasket Centre during the spring of 2011, the Centre was just ready to display Haughey’s archive, and I was fortunate to be able to examine some of those documents and build deeper context between the islands and modern life in Ireland.

From the April 11, 2011 Irish Times article, Haughey’s Inishvickillane archive goes on display in Blasket Island centre

“A collection of papers and photographs documenting the relationship between the late Charles Haughey and Inishvickillane, the most southerly of the Blasket Islands, has gone on display at the Blasket Island centre in Dún Chaoin, west of Dingle.

Nine miles off the coast of Kerry, the 170-acre island, which was purchased by Mr Haughey in the 1970s and is still owned by his family, was also a world stage, a nature reserve and a centre of public fascination, according to the papers, now fully archived and also available in digital format.”

Maria Simonds-Gooding

IMG_2099When I was on sabbatical in 2011 and working as a Visiting Researcher in the Blasket Centre, I met Maria Simonds-Gooding, an amazing artist and a wonderful person with a fabulously interesting life story. I asked Maria months ago, if I could bring students to her studio in Dunquin to get a glimpse of her work and hear her stories about how she came to this part of the world and how the beautiful land- and seascapes inform her work. She was so lovely – yes, she said, come ahead!

Students in my semester-long honors course during spring 2014 learned about the work of two Dunquin artists – Carol Cronin and Maria Simonds-Gooding. Their work is very different, but both artists are informed and inspired by the way the light looks here and the way the air feels, the people, the landscapes, the colors, the pace of life – and the sea. We had tentatively scheduled a gallery visit to Carol Cronin’s gallery in Dingle and I was excited for my students to experience the marvelous work and lovely, warm personalities of both of these amazing artists.

IMG_2094After we finished up in the Blasket Centre, we walked up the hill to the townland of Ceathrú, where Maria lives. Her cottage is fabulous – reconstructed by its original owner from the island, Maidhc Shea Faight, who brought his wooden roof over to the mainland when he cam off the island. It is a marvelous cottage – every authentic detail preserved, including the open hearth and the pot-oven with its iron swing arm design, painted bright green. We walked through the arched entrance into a small courtyard, and I could hear Maria talking softly. The wooden half door was open at the top and latched at the bottom. I called to her, and she came to the door and welcomed us in – greeting each student with a firm handshake, a lovely smile and an inquiry about the students’ name. After we were all seated around the peat fire in the hearth, Maria introduced us to another guest who had arrived a few minutes before us – an artist from Germany.

IMG_2098We had a delightful conversation – Maria told students about her home and how she had acquired it many years ago (with the help of the Christian Brothers and her Aunt, who purchased the cottage for her at an auction, for £800), and about the primitive drawings and paintings on the walls of her cottage, most done by Peig Sayers’ son. She then asked each of the students where they were from and what they were studying, and had a fabulous, engaged discussion with each of them – this made a huge, wonderful impression. Maria asked them questions that made them laugh, made them think, made them open up and reflect a bit deeper about their lives. It was an extraordinary hour!

IMG_2105We moved into her studio for a bit, and although most of her works had been removed for a retrospective exhibit opening in Dublin at the end of June, she was able to share a few of her older works (print plates and prints from her printmaking days, sketches and drawings of Fungie the Dolphin, photographs of tapestry work, and aluminium etchings from her most recent work) and describe her process, a bit. Students loved this part of our class – the two artists in the class as well as the science students who rarely get to engage at this level in discussions about or exposure to creative artistic thinking and practice. It was marvelous! We said our goodbyes and walked back down to the Centre for the next part of our planned activities for the day, a trip to see the amazing Gallarus Oratory.

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Micheál de Mórdha and the Blasket Centre

IMG_2050Today is actually June 11, my birthday. It’s been a wonderful day and I am looking forward to spending the next few months in Dunquin. Our amazing Honors Maymester class finished up on the evening of June 6, and I’ll post a few more missives to get caught up! It was a great class and the students were all just phenomenal. More about that later; for now, let me tell you about the rest of this incredible day 17 of our learning journey.

IMG_2073On the morning of June 4, first our wonderful island guide Tommy Long, and later, Micheál de Mórdha spent a good deal of time with students in the Blasket Centre. After watching the documentary film about the Blasket people, Micheál talked with us about the beautiful art glass piece at the font of the entrance to the centre – Róisín de Buitléar’s art glass wall, “The Journey” – the largest secular glass work in Ireland. He welcomed the students and gave an introduction to the centre and its exhibits, and they had a bit of time to explore on their own.

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IMG_2089We had a delightful group lunch in the café – our friend, Christy Mac Gearailt runs the café (the An tIascaire Restaurant) and makes delicious cakes and deserts and the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted. Students loved the fish and chips and were delighted to have some time to slow down a bit and have a good meal. The café is a lovely place – situated so that you can see the Great Blasket out of large windows all along one wall. They were excited about going out to the island, the next day. It was good to see their engagement with the history and culture of the Blasket people and I was eager for them to experience the island.

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Slea Head Drive to Dún Chaoin – Day 17

IMG_2049At 9am this morning, Diarmuid Begley picked us up in his people mover and drove us along Slea Head to the Blasket Centre. I’ve been waiting for this moment for three weeks – to share this beautiful place with students and gauge their reactions to such gorgeous land- and seascapes.

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I have driven this road hundreds of times and every time I come back to this magical place, I learn new things about its history and the people who lived here, and the layers of home for me settle down further and further. Diarmuid was a great guide and hilarious – he has us all in stitches. The students really dug him! We drove to the Burnham House (a Georgian ‘big house’ and former estate of Lord Ventry, now a private Irish-speaking secondary school, Coláiste Ide, run by the Sisters of Mercy) and saw the five upright ogham stones (pillars) along the entrance road arranged in a row behind two mounted dark pulvinar ogham stones with a small cross slab and bullaun about the center behind the pillars. This was the day the girls at the school were to start their exams, so we didn’t stop in. We also saw Burnham Tower (or Esk Tower), which is situated at the entrance to the Dingle Harbour. It was built in 1847 by an English landlord to provide paid work to the men of Dingle.

IMG_2055We drove through the village of Ventry (as we did last night to get to Brenda Ní Shúilleabháin’s house) and past the Ventry Harbour and Strand, beautiful on a calm, sunny morning. We saw the Dunbeg Promontory Fort, an Iron-age fort overlooking Dingle Bay, and several beehive huts or clocháns– drystone, corbelled huts. It’s thought that these huts may well date to the 12th century when the invading Normans forced the Irish off the good land and out to the periphery of the peninsula.

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I asked Diarmuid if we could stop by Coumineol Strand – my favorite beach on the planet (I might explain why in a subsequent post, but it has to do with the David Lean epic film, Ryan’s Daughter, when I was thirteen). I wanted students to walk down the steep stone path and onto the curved stone road that leads, not at all gently, to the beach and the wild Irish sea. There was a cool wind blowing but the sunshine was warm and we all got a good dose of fresh sea air and some beautiful scenery. Diarmuid tells us that this beach is also the site of four Spanish Armada ships that were wrecked in 1588.

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We drive past the Dún Chaoin primary school, next to the Daly (Ó’Dálaigh) cottage where Brian and I stayed while I was on sabbatical in 2011 and working as a Visiting Scholar in the Blasket Centre) and finally, we arrive at the Centre – so happy to be here, at last! The students bound out of the people mover and immediately start photographing the beautiful vistas. They’ve never seen anything like this and they are stunned by how gorgeous it is. We all agree that there is no way to describe the greens of the hillsides and the blues of the water.