Islands apart: change and community

Waves of the receding tide,
That return again to shore-
The sense of your noise ever
Is that day does not last.

Micheál O Guiheen (1904-1974)

Jeremy Godwin’s letter to The Orcadian, dated January 24, in which he refers to my Yule letter from North Ronaldsay, set me thinking. He talks about the “true feel of island life” which he believes I manage to convey in my letters. He hopes, too, that I am “not yet wearing out at 61” and thinks that, “turning night into day can be one of the signs”. My readers may remember that in my ‘Yule’ letter I mentioned that it was 3am as I was finishing off writing”. The above verse from a poem by Micheál O Guiheen, and one or two other pieces which I will quote, show that I am, of course, aware that time marches on. As another writer from the Great Blasket Island says when referring to how youth passes:

“Isn’t Youth fine! – but alas! She cannot be held always! She slips away as the water slips away from the sand of the shore. A person falls into old age unknown to himself. I think there are no two jewels more valuable than Youth and Health.”

From: An Old Woman’s Reflections, Peig Sayers. (1873-1958)

Anyhow, what the heck, I ask, is wrong with sitting up well past the ‘heuld’ of the night writing until 3am, or later as it has been sometimes. That’s when I’m in full flight with my ‘Letters’ which are mostly about the ‘entertainment’ side of island life. I’m beginning to think, though, that possibly Jeremy Godwin is not so far wrong after all. You know, when a person is young there seems time for everything, and even a bit later in life, time is still to be borrowed. But Wow! (as Burns says in Tam o’ Shanter) the day comes when one’s elders and their contemporaries are gone, and we have become that generation, upon whom we depended for advice, information and support.

It’s true, though, that this business of advancing years does come to mind from time to time. On Linkletstoon, there lived a man who refused to accept, or even think, that he was old and maybe that is really the best way to go through life. But isn’t it rather an interesting subject altogether with so many variables? I remember asking once, in one of my letters, what if we never looked old? And you know there are those who age but slowly, and still look, and are, quite ‘swak’ in their twilight years, not only that but they talk and think like younger folk. All of this got me reading again some of the work of the Great Blasket Island writers who were writing down recollections of their lives around the mid 1930s and earlier. Writers such as Thomás O Crohan, Peig Sayers, Micheál O Guiheen and Maurice O’Sullivan, all of whom had been born around the turn of the century, and as long ago as 1873 in the case of Peig Sayers. I have mentioned before the wonderful series of books that were written: Twenty Years A-Growing, Island Cross Talk, A Pity Youth Does Not Last, An Old Woman’s Reflections etc. I was looking particularly at what some of them say about the life in the Great Blasket Island (three miles out into the stormy Atlantic to the west of county Kerry), and of how youth passes so quickly.

Peig Sayers, says in her book, An Old Woman’s Reflections:

“Very often I’d throw myself back on the green heather, resting. It wasn’t for bone-laziness I’d do it, but for the beauty of the hills and the rumble of the waves that would be grieving down from me, in dark caves where the seals of the sea lived . . .”

I remember once doing something quite similar when, one fine summer’s day some years ago, I lay down in our meadow area and fell asleep for spell. When I awoke, I felt for a moment like Rip Van Winkle. All the while in the background the sound of tractors hammering away at some land work came haunting the peace of the day. How often in our lifetime have we done such things? Maybe when we were young we frequently might have – but not often since I suspect. To be seen behaving in such a way would be looked upon as “bone-laziness” by some, but as Peig Sayers says above it wasn’t. Only the other day when I had gone for a walk along the rocky shore to the west, while I was waiting for the strength of ebb to run off a heavy west sea, so as the OIC’s ferry could dock, I stretched out for a short spell on a sheltered flat rock. Round the corner of my rocky abode the wind came whistling and moaning, while above me some curious gulls, crying sharply, banked and balanced briefly in the turbulent air. All the while the heavy west sea thundered not far from where I lay with white froth like snow flying here and there.

Micheál O Guiheen in his book, A Pity Youth Does Not Last, writes:

“A person’s life races on in the exact same way that a wind lifts the mist from the shoulder of a mountain . . . We are greatly mistaken that we do not make use of the loan of this life for the short time we are there, despite the best we can do”.

“Well, well”, as my Faroese friend would say. Now, let me think about Jeremy Godwin’s belief that I convey the “true feel of island life” in my letters from North Ronaldsay. Yes, I have described our enjoyable, social life in some detail over the years. I’ve also, more briefly, mentioned other things that happen from time to time, work on the land and sea, a bit of history, and a little about tradition. But it would be very misleading to believe that everything always flows as smoothly as the sea on a summer’s day.

“‘It’s hard to be growing old,’ said Peig when I (W. R. Rodgers) said good-bye to her in Dingle, ‘but’, she added with a grin, ‘I’ll be talking after my death, my good gentleman.’ So she will, for as the proverb says:

‘A tune is more lasting than the song of the birds, and a word more lasting than the wealth of the world’.”

Peig Sayers - 1873-1958 - as she appears on the cover of her book, An Old Woman’s Reflections, The Life of a Blasket Island Storyteller.

Here I am then, reading the words of Peig Sayers written around 50 years ago, and I’m wondering who might bother to cast an eye over my North Ronaldsay chronicles as far into the future. Perhaps by then the island could be like the Great Blasket Island, (evacuated in 1953), “abandoned to sheep, seagulls and silence”. If change for the better doesn’t come soon it probably will. It seems, therefore, that I should say that life on North Ronaldsay, like the sea, has its share of smooth and stormy times, just like, I’m sure, many other small communities have. I suppose too, that over the years, such communities can have various individuals who, like the secondary tides (tides which run up on the main tides of Flood and Ebb), become very wild and tricky when the wind blows in their face. Sometimes, maybe, among other ambitions, those tides fancy being in command, others busily keep the wind blowing. They turn and twist, rise up in menacing postures, and can be very troublesome, but it is possible to pick a way through them just as the versatile North Ronaldsay praam does many a time. If that is not an option then one has to be judicious and wait a little. Eventually they fade away and become absorbed into the main flow. But even on a fine day one has to be vigilant for, although everything appears smooth and normal, the tide is still there moving as fast and as purposefully as ever. And sometimes when boats built elsewhere attempt to work in waters of a different complexity, such as North Ronaldsay experience, they can find it difficult – particularly if they are not prepared to understand the complicated tidal currents – or at least listen to those that do. Those boats come and go. Some lose interest and leave, or simply remove themselves from the lifestyle of the tumbling tides, but many of those who stay do contribute constructively to community life which, in many isolated communities, becomes more and more vulnerable as the number of working boats becomes less. Those are the ones, as Sheila Gear, from Foula (mentioned below) who says: “came and stayed because they had a real affection for the place”. In addition she thinks that: “an island needs its own islanders . . . it’s his home and he has a strong attachment to it”.

Recently, I read about a small village community in New England in the USA. There a bitter dispute raged about making a hard-topping over a piece of an old hill-road, which bordered the village green and had existed for generations. Eventually the time came for a public meeting to decide on a course of action. Opinions and hard held views were exchanged with unabated fury. The writer of this account (who also held passionate views on the subject) learned one thing that day, and that, as she said, was the fairness and finality of a democratic vote which resolved the matter. This account reminded me of similar occurrences in North Ronaldsay’s past when the population was well over 100, and democracy played its part. One involved a dispute about the use of certain island monies for financing a particular road. A fairly stormy debate took place in the Memorial Hall when those against the motion won the day, but as time went by, circumstances changed altogether and the road was built. And once, in the 1960s, when the island was working hundreds of tons of tangles, island workers threatened strike action for more pay during shipping operations, I remember a formidable delegation striding boldly down to the pier to demand satisfaction from an Alginate Industries manager. On another occasion when agreement couldn’t be reached about a right of way, the Land Court decisively settled the argument. Over the years there have been disputes about this and that, and differences of opinion. They come and go, some are resolved, some are not, and occasionally, despite a public vote, repercussions and ill feeling can last for a long time.

A problem can arise, however, when the population of any small community falls too far. One often hears and reads about this sort of scenario, and it’s easy to imagine various consequences. Issues and disputes tend to become exaggerated, and in addition, the so-called democratic vote may easily no longer operate as it should. Some folk simply do not vote at all – they are not interested, or abstain. Others will not vote as they think, because of one influence or another, or more seriously, because they might be beholden to the promoter of a particular concept or idea within the community. Such a vote, or abstention, could then adversely affect the lives and future of the people living in the locality. To use my analogy about the sea – perhaps there are too few boats of the calibre of the NR praam left to deal with the troublesome tides.

The challenge, as the American writer, May Sarton, from New England says, “is the ruling of a small community with wisdom and justice”. She also mentions the great importance of their Moderator – a man of principle, skill, and independent vision who presided at meetings. Yes, that’s what small communities with problems might consider. It would require someone who could see through the sometimes ingrained prejudice and even self-interest which can exist and does – even in the great corridors of power. Could such a person be found? But, if so, would he or she be acceptable to a community or regarded instead as a meddler, and a danger to those who have their own agendas? In any case such an arbitrator maybe could provide the vital solution to seemingly intractable problems.

The re-reading of Peig Sayers’s book and others has given me much pleasure and often amusement. Peig’s stories, proverbs, insight and knowledge of life in the Great Blasket Island are very special. Here is one of the other proverbs she quotes: “It’s for ever said that the three things that run swiftest are a stream of water, a stream of fire, and a stream of falsehood”, and describing an incident in island life, she adds, “and a lot of falsehood was being mixed with the whisper-lisper that was going on”. There’s no doubt that we all are perhaps a little bit guilty, and even enjoy a spot of the whisper-lispers, but certainly Peig did not approve of such behaviour.

Well, Jeremy Godwin, I hope this letter says enough – but I think you know it all. Once, I remember, you wrote a letter of support in The Orcadian when I was being less than diplomatic about our little ups and downs and had been criticised for it. I hope this letter, which is the view of one individual, avoids offence this time, but there is more to life in North Ronaldsay than Harvest Homes, decorations, candles and oil-lamps, and those of us of an older generation who were born and bred here know it.

There are ambitious plans for the future of the island presently being pursued with dedication and effort by numerous folk: young and old, islanders and new islanders, and folk from outwith the community. And assistance is being sought from various outside bodies. But in addition I still believe, much can be learned from those Great Blasket Island writers and their like in such communities. For instance, another islander, Sheila Gear, a Foula inhabitant, writing in the 1980s in her book Foula Island West of the Sun, makes some interesting observations in her last chapter about Foula’s future: “The care for an island must come from within . . . the young people, both living on and having left the island, are the ones who should be asked what they want for the future of their island . . . the so-called isolation is not the problem – rather it is the lack of housing and employment”. Sheila Gear believes that “an island, or any community, is viable because it itself believes it is”.

The Great Blasket Island’s poets and writers understood what their island life meant. They had, after all, lived there for generations and knew their history and folklore. Theirs was a continual struggle for survival in the face of poverty but always, “the hardship is countered by the strength of the community spirit”. And those who saw the inevitable end of life on the Great Blasket wrote with sadness at the passing of their community. That end came, as Tim Enright, the translator of A Pity Youth Does Not Last, said, when the islanders could no longer compete with the “giants of capital”.

The following quotation from Peig Sayers probably sums up one of the great aims of any community. One which, I think, along with a rich culture, respected and fiercely held, sustained a remarkable group of people for hundreds of years:

“But I have this much to say, that I had good neighbours. We helped each other and lived in the shelter of each other. Everything that was coming dark upon us, we could disclose it to each other, and that would give us consolation of mind. Friendship was the fastest root in our heart…”

It’s good to remind ourselves of those qualities to which we islanders are no strangers, and which, when folk were, arguably, more dependant on each other, also sustained the long established community of North Ronaldsay.

Before I finish, I’m remembering Alfie Swanney, North Gravity. We attended his funeral on the island recently. Alfie used to keep everybody on their toes with his quick wit and levelling remarks. His building work is to be seen round the island. Once when I was gingerly trying to paint one of Antabreck’s chimney blocks (I have no great head for heights) Alfie, who was at the house on some errand and in his seventies at the time, hopped swiftly up on to the roof, and from there to the chimney head where he calmly walked around its edge. With the passing of our older generations, who knew what island life was all about, North Ronaldsay dies a little. The Blasket islanders knew it and I often think when I’m daydreaming that I, like Maurice O’Sullivan and Micheál O Guiheen, if given the choice between the old world and the new, would choose the old. But, seriously, the great challenge is how do we bring the island forward functioning into the new millennium, and yet still retain the best of the old values. If this is possible then North Ronaldsay, along with its history, will continue far into the future.

I close with two verses from Micheál O Guiheen’s poem, ‘The Great Blasket’

Often when night’s coming I am found
Where the sea-gull sinks in settled sleep;
The black clouds mass above me
The evening star, polished, shines bright.

True, last night I sat down
A full, fitting company beside me;
Our talk was the traits of our forebears,
Praising their deeds on the Great Blasket.