Cleared to go

Hungry for Home

Cole Moreton <em>Viking, 278pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0670880124

Anyone who has stood on the headland above Dunquin in West Kerry, searching the rolling Atlantic waves in torrential rain, could be forgiven for believing that the legendary Blasket Islands might be just that. For they move in and out of sight like an elusive lover and exercise the same fascination. Cole Moreton's new book, Hungry For Home, draws you into this strange watery landscape from the first line: "This is the end of the world."

In 1911, the population of Great Blasket, the largest and most important of the islands, was 160. Life, particularly in winter, was harsh, isolated and impoverished. The Irish-speaking inhabitants were described by Eamon De Valera as "the guardians of our language and culture". But they were given no special treatment, and continued to eke a meagre living from fishing and the cultivation of about 60 clifftop arable acres. Without exception, the youth emigrated and, as women from the mainland became ever more reluctant to marry into the island, the birthrate fell.

In his moving account of the final clearance, Moreton traces the beginning of the eventual end of the island community in 1947. In particular, he concentrates on the early death from meningitis of 23-year-old SeanIn O Cearna, one of a handful of the young men on the island on whom the population utterly depended. It was the night of a wild storm, and the island radio phone had broken down. No doctor or nurse was within call. SeanIn's sister, Ceit, who had looked after the family of ten since she was 14, coped as best she could, but the young man died in agony on Christmas Day. For the next ten days, his body lay in the crowded house until the storm abated enough for his burial. It was a horrific experience, not just for the family, but for the entire population. His passing became the catalyst for the death of Great Blasket. (Only 22 islanders remained on Great Blasket when it was finally abandoned on 21 November 1953.)

The dustjacket of Hungry For Home shows a group of evacuees arriving in Dunquin. To the last, the wild Atlantic called the shots; the nambhogs - the tar and canvas curraghs - were abandoned in favour of a sturdy fishing smack. "Island evacuation impeded by heavy seas" was the headline in the Kerryman. As the islanders stepped ashore, they were asked by waiting reporters if they were pleased to be off at last. They replied with one emphatic word: "Yes."

As a result, it was concluded wrongly that they were a taciturn people, glad to be free from their rugged and brutal life. And yet anyone who has read their extraordinary literature knows that the islanders were courteous and literate; they produced three notable writers: Peig Sayers, Tomas O Criomhthain and Maurice O'Sullivan.

Moreton is the latest in a long line of romantic Englishmen to have fallen under the spell of this strange, proud people. Their most attractive feature for the writer - and for this reader - is their enduring sense of place. They knew who they were, through good times and bad.

Gemma O'Connor's most recent novel is "Time to Remember" (Bantam, £5.99)