Living on the edge

Historian Diarmaid Ferriter has turned his fascination with Ireland’s offshore islands, including Aran and Inishbofin, into a captivating new book. “Island people had an extraordinary strong sense of place,” he tells Judy Murphy.

Historian Diarmaid Ferriter can trace his fascination with Ireland’s offshore islands back to 1977, when he was five years old.

“We went to the Blasket Islands and I remember being terrified going out on the boat,” he recalls of a family trip to the islands off West Kerry. “Your imagination as a child is so vivid and I was wondering what it would have been like as a child out there, getting up in the morning and going to school.”

Although Diarmaid was born and reared in Dublin, his father’s family were from West Kerry and the islands were known as Ferriters’ Islands before becoming the Blaskets.

He returned later and the fascination didn’t diminish.

Diarmaid became one of many people from film-maker Robert O’Flaherty to poets Theodore Roethke and Richard Murphy and artist Paul Henry to have felt the pull of these wild places.

Now one of Ireland’s best-known historians, and professor of Modern Irish History at UCD, Diarmaid has specialised “on communities living on the margins and in 20th Century history”.

His books include The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000, Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland, and Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s.

When it comes to communities on the edge, there aren’t many more out there than Ireland’s offshore islands.

These are the subject of Diarmaid’s latest book, which will be published next week.

On the Edge: Ireland’s Off-Shore Islands: A Modern History, explores issues relating to various offshore islands including Aran and Inishbofin.

Some of the material is from recently-released State files “to which I was lucky to have access”.

Before Ireland gained independence, the offshore islands had been regarded as the repositories of language and culture, “as having an unbroken tradition of an undivided nation”, he says.

Many key figures in the nationalist movement had visited and drawn inspiration from these remote places.

“But as the new State developed, the islands were left behind”, says Diarmaid.

He argues, with good reason, that Ireland’s islands had fared better under the 1891 Congested Districts Board relief scheme set up by the British Government, than they did in the years after Irish independence.

in 1841, Ireland had 211 inhabited islands with a combined population of 38,000 while by 2011, only 64 islands were inhabited, with a total population of 8,500.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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