Thursday, August 8, 2002

Visit to Dun Chaoin / Blasket Islands / Annascaul, Co. Kerry

I was in County Kerry last week on a weekend trip organised by the local Heritage Centre, the main purpose of which was to meet members of the Tom Crean Society in Annascaul. Tom Crean you will recall was a colleague of Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer whose exploits are featured in an exhibition in Athy’s Heritage Centre. Annascaul was the birth place of Tom Crean and the place to where he returned when he retired from the Royal Navy in 1920. It was in the South Pole Inn in Annascaul, Co. Kerry that the Athy visitors met the Tom Crean Society members. It was an appropriate meeting place, given its association with Crean who was landlord of the Inn following his retirement until his death in 1938.

On Friday night Brendan Grunewald, originally from South Africa but now living in Belgium, gave a lecture on “living and working at the South Pole”. Brendan who is a physicist spent 14 months living in the Antarctic in conditions which would tax the bravest and the sanest amongst us. His was a wonderful and well received lecture accompanied by slides which I gather may well be included in the Shackleton Autumn School scheduled for Athy during the October bank holiday weekend.

Saturday morning saw the intrepid would be explorers from Athy and South Kildare venturing on foot across the Kerry landscape to visit sites and places associated with Tom Crean. Our guide was Maeve Kelly of Donegal who is now living in Annascaul from where she operates “Walking Boots Tours”. The montbretia and the fuchsia laden hedges provided a colorful backdrop as the walkers followed the Tom Crean Trail which brought us on his favourite walk as well as to his place of birth and his final resting place. It was a lovely sunny day and would remain as such for most of the day as the men and women from the short-grass county made their way past houses still adorned with the Kerry flag following the recent football match played in Thurles. The Crean family home and where Tom Crean was born was down a narrow country lane and there it stood deserted and somewhat dilapidated. A kindly neighbouring farmer did his best to clear the laneway of cow dung so that visitors could walk with greater ease while the football banter flew between the followers of the vanquished and the spade wielding follower of the victors. The men of the kingdom so long used to success bear their football superiority with a generous display of good humour.

The graveyard where Tom Crean is buried is a small one, perhaps a mile or more away from the village of Annascaul. Bound on one side by a stream it occupies ground which was clearly of even poorer quality than the surrounding fields. Those fields for their part did not, to Kildare eyes at least, seem capable of maintaining more than a handful of sheep and even they were conspicuous by their absence. The boggy ground in which the dead of Annascaul had been laid for generations past had caused a village of pedestal tombs to be erected there. These chest-like tombs whose height are greater than their length encased in concrete or stones the remains of local families. There, in the furthest corner beside the murmuring stream was the tomb which the Antarctic explorer Tom Crean built with his own hands to hold the remains of his family. Resting there with Tom Crean is one of his daughters and his beloved wife.

Later that afternoon we journeyed to Dún Chaoin at the uppermost tip of the Dingle Peninsula to meet up with Kilkea born Michael Delaney who was bringing us on a guided tour of the Great Blasket Island. Michael who has spent 30 years or so teaching in the National School in Dún Chaoin had arranged what for most of us was our first opportunity to set foot on the island which was last occupied in 1953. The Great Blasket is thought to have been first occupied in the 17th century and at one time had a population of about 160 people. The chief livelihood of the islanders was fishing, but emigration, particularly to America, provided an escape route for the younger generation. With only 22 or so remaining on the island in 1950 the island was officially evacuated three years later.

Interest in the Blasket Islands has been nurtured over the years by the writings of islanders such as Muiris O’Suilleabhain, Peig Sayers and Thomas O’Criomhthain. O’Suilleabháin’s “Twenty Years of Growing” and O’Criomhthain “The Island Man” are particularly good examples of Blasket Island literature. As for Peig Sayers work anyone who has had to study her for the Leaving Certificate course generally claims that hers is the literature of depression!

The Great Blasket Island is about three miles by one mile of mountainous land, with that part facing Dún Chaoin Parish holding the remains of the houses which in earlier times made up the village. The ruins of about twenty houses dot the landscape and included amongst them is the Protestant school built in the 1830’s as part of the mission work of the Church of England. There is no Church on the island and there never was one. At one time the Church of Dún Chaoin was visible on a good day from the island and the practice evolved of hanging out a white sheet at the Church door when Mass was being said as a signal to the islanders congregated in the island school. There they said their prayers, participating from afar in the mainland Mass across the sea from them in Dún Chaoin. When the white sheet was taken in they new Mass was over and all then departed to their homes.

The Great Blasket trip was the highlight of the weekend trip to County Kerry and to Michael Delaney goes my thanks for generously sharing his time and his knowledge with his former County Kildare neighbours. On the way home on Sunday we stopped off to visit the County Museum in Tralee, and particularly to see the Antarctic exhibition which is on there and will be for a further few months. It’s a first class exhibition and well worth the visit by anyone interested in the South Pole and especially the exploits of such great men as Scott and Kerry’s own Tom Crean.

Tralee itself is like Athy, a 12th century town founded by the Anglo Normans. There the similarities do not end for we find that it was the Fitzgeralds of Desmond who established the town of Tralee and who founded its Dominican Friary ten years before the Dominicans arrived in Athy. Of course it was the Fitzgeralds of the House of Kildare who were the lords and masters of Athy and South Kildare for centuries past and they with the Fitzgeralds of Desmond were the two main branches of the Geraldine family.

The towns of Tralee and Athy founded 800 years ago by different branches of the same family bear many similarities over the years which I hope to go into at another time. Suffice to say that the names Crean and Shackleton are inextricably linked by their Antarctic journeys with Crean honoured in his native County Kerry and the town of Tralee, while Shackleton is remembered in the town of Athy near to where he was born 126 years ago.

The second Shackleton Autumn School will be held in Athy over the weekend of 24th to 27th October, 2002 and further information in relation to the Shackleton School will be announced by Margaret O’Riordan, Manager of the local Heritage Centre over the next few weeks.

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