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Ireland 1957 FDC Tomas O'criomhtain Staehel Illus Cover
Ireland 1957 FDC Tómas O'Criomhtain - Staehle illustrated First Day Cover. Irish language write from the Blasket Islands. See biography below.
Ireland 1957 FDC Tómas O'Criomhtain
Date of Issue:
Tomás ?Criomhthain undefined
Tomás ?Criomhthain (Thomas O’Crohan) (1856-1937) was a native of the Irish-speaking Great Blasket Island two miles off the coast of Kerry in Ireland He wrote two books, Allagar na hInise (Island Cross-Talk) written in 1918-23 and published in 1928, and An tOileánach (The Islander), completed in 1923 and published in 1929. Both have been translated into English.
His books are considered classics of Irish-language literature containing portrayals of a unique way of life, now extinct, of great human, literary, linguistic, and anthropological interest. His writing is vivid, absorbing and delightful, full of incident and balance, fine observation and good sense, elegance and restraint. His work is often mentioned in the same breath as later Blasket writers such as Muiris ?Súilleabháin and Peig Sayers, but the superior literary achievement is ?Criomhthain’s ?they are not his peers.
He began to write down his experiences in diary-letters in the years after the Great War following persistent encouragement by Brian ?Ceallaigh (Brian O’Kelly) from Killarney. ?Ceallaigh overcame ?Criomhthain’s initial reluctance by showing him works by Maxim Gorky and Pierre Loti, books describing the lives of peasants and fishermen, to prove to ?Criomhthain the interest and value of such a project. Once persuaded, ?Criomhthain sent ?Ceallaigh a series of daily letters for five years–a diary–which the latter forwarded to scholar and writer Pádraig ?Siochfhradha (Patrick Sugrue; pen-name: An Seabhac, The Hawk) for editing for publication. ?Ceallaigh then convinced ?Criomhthain to write his life story and best-known work, An tOileánach.
An tOileánach begins with an early memory
“I was born on St. Thomas’s day in the year 1856. I can recall being at my mother’s breast, for I was four years old before I was weaned. I am ‘the scrapings of the pot? the last of the litter. That’s why I was left so long at the breasts. I was a spoilt child, too.?/P>
Up to two years later he says he was
“still throwing an odd glance now and again at my mother’s breast, for I had a fancy that I ought to be dragging at the teats still.?/P>
He had four sisters, Maura, Kate, Eileen and Nora, and a brother, Pats. His personality was well-grounded in intimate affection and respect for his parents who lived to a ripe old age. The only, minor, disharmony arose between himself and Nora who was five years older than him. She had been the family favourite until Tomás arrived “unexpectedly.?Her jealousy of him created friction between them.
He received an intermittent education between the ages of 10 and 18 whenever a schoolteacher from the mainland lived for a while on the island. The teachers were usually young women who returned to Ireland on receiving proposals of marriage. He had a long childhood of enviable liberty from drudgery without the constant confinements of the classroom or a grinding programme of chores from which he was spared by having five older siblings.
?Criomhthain married Máire N?Chatháin (Maura Keane) in 1878. She bore ten children but many died before reaching adulthood: One boy fell from a cliff while hunting for a fledgling gull to keep as a pet among the chickens; others died of measles and whooping cough; their son Dónal drowned while attempting to save a woman from the sea; others were taken by other misfortunes. Máire herself died while still relatively young. Their son Seán also wrote a book, L?dar Saol (A Day in Our Life), describing the emigration of the remaining islanders to the mainland and America when the Great Blasket was finally abandoned in the 1940s and 50s.
Life and Experiences
As a fisherman, ?Criomhthain caught a wide variety of seafood, including scad, pilchard, mackerel, cod, herring, halibut, pollock, bream, dogfish, ling, rockfish, wrasse, conger eel, porpoises (“sea pig?and “sea bonham”—the meat being described as “pork?, seals, crab, lobster, crayfish, limpets, winkles and mussels, as well as seaweeds such as dulse, sea lettuce, sea belt, and murlins. Many on the island relished seal meat much more than pork. One night ?Criomhthain and colleagues caught a “huge creature?in their nets with great danger and difficulty. A whale, perhaps? Oil from the liver of this unidentified “great beast?fuelled all the lamps on the island for five years (there were about 150 people in fewer than 30 households)
?Criomhthain harvested turf for home fuel from the top of the island and the sods were carried home by an ass. Often, when he set to work cutting turf he was interrupted by the island poet who distracted him by teaching him his lengthy songs. There is much comedy in ?Criomhthain’s silent exasperation at the hours wasted, yet he never snubbed the poet for fear a damaging satire would be composed against him.
In addition to fish and other “sea fruit??Criomhthain’s diet included potatoes, milk, lumps of butter, porridge, bread, rabbits, sea birds, eggs, and mutton. The few acres of arable land on the island were fertilised with dung and seaweed, supplemented by chimney-soot and mussel shells. The limited crops sown included potatoes and a few other vegetables, along with oats and rye. The island was alive with rabbits which were easily caught in great numbers and the hunting was sometimes assisted by dogs or a ferret. Birds hunted for their meat and eggs included gulls, puffins, gannets, petrels, shearwaters, razorbills and guillemots.
The roof of his home was made of a thatch of rushes or reeds and his sisters would climb up to collect eggs from under the hens nesting on top. One amusing episode in An tOileánach describes a neighbour’s family at supper when, to their bewilderment and consternation, young chickens began raining, one by one, onto the table and splashing into a mug of milk. “For God’s sake,?cried the woman of the house, “where are they coming from??One of the children spied a hole scratched in the roof by a mother hen.
?Criomhthain lived in a cottage or stone cabin with a hearth at the kitchen end and sleeping quarters at the other. A feature of island life much remarked upon by mainland readers of his books was the keeping of animals in kitchens at night, including cows, asses, sheep, dogs, cats and hens.
He was a keen collector of old tales and described a conversation between his father and a neighbour at the hearth one night. Once when at sea his father, the neighbour and other fishermen saw a steamship sail by. They had never seen one before and naturally assumed it was on fire. They rowed after it to render assistance but failed to catch it.
“‘We might have known,?said my father, ‘since the ship was moving, that there was something driving her and that she wasn’t on fire at all, as there was no wind and she had no sails up, and we were following in our boats rowing our guts to catch her, without getting any nearer.’”
The islanders?sometimes meagre existence was often supplemented by gifts from the sea when shipwrecks occurred. Timber, copper and brass were salvaged, as well as cargoes of food such as meal and wheat, which helped them to survive lean years. At one time tea was unknown on the island and when a cargo of the stuff floated ashore from a wreck it was used by one woman to dye her flannel petticoats (normally dyed with woad). She also used it to feed pigs. A neighbour was incensed that her husband didn’t bother to salvage a chest of this useful stuff for her—she too had petticoats waiting to be dyed and hungry pigs to feed. She scolded her husband so severely that he quit the island without a word, never to be seen again. Later, another application for tea leaves was discovered and it became a popular drink for the human population.
While ?Criomhthain portrayed lives of hard work, danger, and sorrow ?periods of plenty disrupted by intervals of want ?the strongest impression he created is of a well-knit community of remarkable freedom, resourcefulness, independence, skill, friendship, playfulness and wit. They took life’s knocks on the chin then pressed on with vitality, dignity and enjoyment.
“I have written minutely of much that we did, for it was my wish that somewhere there should be a memorial of it all, and I have done my best to set down the character of the people about me so that some record of us might live after us, for the like of us will never be again.?BR>?I>An tOileánach, final chapter
Allagar na hInise, ISBN 1-85691-131-8
An tOileánach, Cl?Talbóid 2002, ISBN 0-86167-956-3
Island Cross-Talk: Pages from a Diary, translated by Tim Enright; Oxford University Press, 1987; ISBN: 0-19-212252-5
The Islander, translated by Robin Flower; Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1951; ISBN 0-19-815202-7