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Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, (also known as Maurice O'Sullivan), was born in 1904 on the remote island of Great Blasket situated off the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry. One of the last outposts of traditional Irish culture and language, the island was visited in the early part of last century by several English scholars who wished to study the language and way of life. As a result of this, some of the islanders were encouraged to write their memoirs which were published to much interest, giving the tiny island a disproportionately rich literary output. 'Fiche Blian ag Fás' was published in 1933 and the later English Translation, 'Twenty Years A-Growing' was acclaimed as a world classic upon publication by the Oxford University Press in 1953.
I stumbled across 'Twenty Years A-Growing' in a charity shop earlier this year, having no knowledge of any of this. Attracted by it's seeming authenticity, it's age, cover photo, and an interest in Irish history I instantly forked out the 50p or thereabouts necessary to purchase it. My copy has the original introductory note written in 1933 by E M Forster and a preface by the translators Moya Llewellyn Davies and George Thomson. These are interesting period pieces in themselves, occasionally patronising, with Forster calling the book; "an account of neolithic civilisation from the inside."
A sentence from the first page sets the tone;
"I am a boy who was born and bred in the Great Blasket, a truly small Gaelic island which lies north west of the coast of Kerry, where the storms of the sky and the wild sea beat without ceasing from end to end of the year and from generation to generation against the wrinkled rocks which stand above the waves that wash in and
out of the coves where the seals make their homes."
Here is a read that won't be rushed. In her preface, Llewellyn Davies writes of the Irish vocabulary having more range and 'poetry' than the language into which it has been translated. Much it seems is lost in the translation, apparently some of the original passages are also not in the English version. Nonetheless, it still translates well. The author's voice is conveyed in sing-song Irish dialect and the dialogue sounds authentic enough to me.
There are a few Irish words and sayings left in the text, some of which are explained in notes throughout, while others are left to be interpreted by the reader. 'Musha' is one such, which was used all over the place and I came to understand as being both an exclamation and a term of endearment. At times this reads more like a series of anecdotes than a narrative story. The style is direct, fervent in it's expression yet also polite and touchingly naive. I found it did take a little getting used to both dialect and style, but it wasn't too long before I was quite captivated.
The story takes us through O'Sullivan's life in a series of snapshots. It's rich with detail, special days are focused on, then years skip by in an instant. The community eke out their livelihood from land and sea, choose their own 'King' and have limited contact with outsiders. Most people will agree that life on the island is harsh, but at times it also seems idyllic.
An early chapter describes a day out hunting for rabbits, puffins and birds eggs; Maurice, his pal Tomas and their dogs, Topsy and Beauty. It's a simple story but crystal clear in the telling. The sense of setting is perfectly evoked, beautiful in it's detail, the memory told so well that I felt myself there, longed to be back there almost. Years old conversations are recounted in depth, how exact they are I couldn't say, but as one of the main sources of entertainment for the islanders, conversation was treated as a form of art. Particularly enlightening are Maurice's chats with 'Daddo', his grandfather. If Maurice's lifestyle is in the main forgotten, how much more so the days of his grandfather? Daddo harks back to a time when they had no flour, tea or sugar. He thinks the islanders are being made weak with fancy food and shoe wearing children, although he has fond memories of a shipwreck that left them with enough wheat for a year so that they lived 'the lives of gentlemen while it lasted'.
One of my favourite parts is a tale from Daddo about how the men on the island came to be lobster fishermen. His story of a trip out in the curragh, (a boat), in which the men discovered a strange rope left by some English fishermen and lifted it out of the water is an absolute joy. One of the men is convinced that they have pulled up, "the old fellow...the devil himself." It's a tale that really brings across the isolation in which the community lived. The idea of someone being terrified by a lobster seem quite comical today, but it's impossible to know how you would feel if it was something completely unknown.
It's strange to think that this took place only a few generations ago, Maurice's parents were the same generation as my own Irish great grandparents of whom I have scarce knowledge. It made me wonder how similar the lives described in 'twenty years' would have been to those of my own ancestors who left Ireland at the same time as many of Maurice's friends and family as they joined with the mass emigration to America, many of them ending up in Liverpool.
I also wondered how much was hidden. Whilst Maurice covers all sorts of events and incidents; Halloween celebrations, a wake, a trip to Ventry races (now known as the Ventry Regatta), amongst the amusing anecdotes I found myself looking for undercurrents of abuse. Wrong perhaps, but maybe a reflection of the fact that we are nowadays so used to 'misery lit' that a simple tale such as this seems like it's not telling the whole story. O'Sullivan takes an obvious pride in his heritage and his book is filled with love for the people and place he grew up with, it feels disrespectful to ask whether he saw it all through the rose-tinted glasses of an exile, (he moved to Connemara on the mainland).
One thing that could have improved the book for me would have been a few photo's, I don't know if there are any in other editions. I have found a photo of Maurice and his house on a Kerry tourist website, (http://www.kerryholiday.co.uk/blaskets.html#village), as well as a picture of The King's House - the description and the picture seem ludicrously far removed from each other. For me, 'Twenty Years A-Growing' delivered on it's early promise to transport me entirely to a completely different world and involve me in a long lost way of life. It's something of a forgotten classic and I'm not sure the style of writing would appeal to modern consumers used to the warts and all style of storytelling so prevalent today, but for those interested in the old ways it's an invaluable read.
The last inhabitants left the Great Blasket in 1953, the same year O'Sullivans book was being published in the English language. These days the island is visited only by tourists.
Details: 312 pages, published by Oxford Paperbacks; New Ed edition (17 Feb 1983). Currently priced £5.99 new on Amazon.
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