Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Reliving Island Life: Staging Stories of the Blasket Islands

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Reliving Island Life: Staging Stories of the Blasket Islands

Article excerpt


Siamsa Tire, The National Folk Theatre of Ireland, has developed a form of folk theatre that aims to present on-stage material that draws from Irish folklore and traditions, not only in a creative and aesthetically pleasing manner but also in a way that presents opportunities for audiences to engage with folklore and stories of the past. In Oilean, a folk theatre production interpreted as "island", the company draws upon the traditions, customs, narratives, tunes and sayings of the Blasket Islands and, in particular, the Great Blasket Island, as documented in the works of many authors who visited or lived on the islands in the first half of the twentieth century. Although the Great Blasket Island is no longer inhabited, the production Oilean provides an opportunity for a second life to the folklore and customs of the island and presents it for an audience that is often comprised of tourists from many different parts of the world. The folk customs of the now uninhabited islands are transformed by theatrical mediation and represented in a manner that celebrates what is gone and creates something new for a theatre-going audience in the nearby space of the Siamsa Tire Theatre and Arts Centre in the town of Tralee, Co. Kerry, approximately 75km from the island.

The motivation for the production Oilean came in part from plans to commemorate the departure of the final residents from the Great Blasket Island on 17 November 1953, an episode that is represented in the production. The sense of loss and passing is expressed in the phrase "Ni bheidh a leitheid aris ann", translated as "there shall not be their like again", taken from Tomas O Criomhthain's Irish-language autobiographical novel An tOileanach (The Islandman) (1929). O Criomhthain (1856-1937) chronicled a way of life for the people of his community on the Great Blasket Island that gradually declined until it was finally evacuated in 1953. O Criomhthain's books, along with those of Peig Sayers (1873-1958), Muiris O Suilleabhain (1904-1950) and others, may be termed the Blasket library and are hugely significant not only for scholars of linguistics but as a window into Irish folk culture and folk life. As well as providing a description of a way of life, the books provide an insight into meon na ndaoine or mindset and way of thinking of the people, which Siamsa Tire founder Pat Ahern believes essential to understanding "folk". (1) As Foley (Step Dancing 215) notes, a sense of community is both a recurring theme in the productions of the company and a characteristic of those involved.

Oilean was first produced as part of the fifty-year commemoration of the Blasket Islands evacuation, which was prompted by official government policy. Echoing some of the complexity of commemorating the 1916 Rising, there is an attempt to balance the celebration of the islands' culture with the loss and emigration entailed by the evacuation. Living through the government-appointed Decade of Centenaries, it is worth reflecting on Fintan O'Toole's remarks:

The idea of an island had a special importance for the independent
Irish state that was established in 1922. For the young country, the
Blasket and Aran islands had, as well as their echoes of Greek myth, a
more specific aura of pre-history. They were part of the creation myth
of the Irish state in which, as John Wilson had put it 'the western
island came to represent Ireland's mythic unity before the chaos of
conquest... at once the vestige and the symbolic entirety of an
undivided nation.' They were a past that would also be a future. Their
supposed isolation had preserved them from corruption, kept their
aboriginal Irishness intact through the long centuries of foreign rule.
(The Ex-Isle 112)

Alongside commemorations of the 1916 Rising and other events, it is imperative that the importance of commemorating what it was that people were fighting for is remembered. That includes the survival of Irish culture as exemplified in a regional form by the writers of the Blasket Islands and presented today by Siamsa Tire. …

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