This work is a unique combination of telling the story of a way of life that is gone, a language and word origin study, how writers are affected by location and people and the shared love and admiration for a particular set of islands, the Blaskets.
This story is set mainly of the Great Blasket, an island off the west coast of Ireland, known during the early twentieth century for the communal life of its residents and the unadulterated Irish they spoke. With the Irish language vanishing all through the rest of Ireland, the Great Blasket became a magnet for scholars and writers drawn there to study a language that is slipping away and discovered a whole culture that is slipping away.
Kanigel introduces us to the playwright John Millington Synge, some of whose characters in The Playboy of the Western World, were inspired by his time on the island; Carl Marstrander, a Norwegian linguist who gave his place on Norway’s Olympic team for a summer on the Blasket; Marie-Louise Sjoestedt, a Celtic studies scholar fresh from the Sorbonne; and central to the story, George Thomson, a British classicist whose involvement with the island and its people we follow from his first visit as a twenty-year-old to the end of his life.
On the island, they met men and women with whom they formed lifelong and life-changing friendships. This book lets us get to know these men and women and learn of the culture of the islanders, their hard lives of fishing and farming matched by their love of singing, dancing, and talk. Sadly, we watch them leave the island, the village becoming uninhabited by 1953. The story of the Great Blasket is one of struggle—between the promise of emigration and the peculiar warmth of island life amid its physical isolation. This is the Ireland I imagine when I picture my ancestors setting sail from Ireland to America.