The lonely rock and the great sea

About ten years ago,  I went to western Ireland. I stayed on the Dingle Peninsula, which is the westernmost point of the country and one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Really, it’s impossible to describe the amount of  beauty crammed into this small peninsula on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s best to just see it.

There are dramatic sea cliffs…

…and wide expanses of land…

…and islands rising from the water off the coast…

…and a lot more that I won’t share, since I might not be able to stop.

Since that visit almost ten years ago, I haven’t gone long without thinking of western Ireland. But just a few years ago, I started thinking I should write about it. So, of course, I started to read about it.

In the background of that last photo—it’s so faint you could miss it if you don’t look closely—is one of the Blasket Islands. They’re uninhabited now, but for a long time they were home to a small Irish peasant community.

Today, the Blasket Islanders are best-known for the unreasonable number of memoirs produced by members of this tiny community. Several have since become Irish classics. I read three of them: Peig by Peig Sayers, Twenty Years A-Growing by Maurice O’Sullivan, and The Islandman by Tomas O’Crohan.

These books are remarkable. The lives they portray are bleak and often tragic, but they’re also lively, funny, and full of adventure. The books offer a fascinating, unflinching picture of a group of people who chose to live extremely difficult, isolated lives on what Peig Sayers calls “this lonely rock in the middle of the great sea.”

For a while, I was sure I would write about the Blasket Islanders. When I couldn’t figure out how to do that, I decided that instead of writing about a group of people who’d already written pretty well about themselves, I would use them as inspiration for my own story.

I came up with a fictional island that looks a lot like one of the Blaskets and a community of people who behave a lot like the Blasket Islanders. But I wanted the people on my island to be even more severely isolated, and for very different reasons. It’s been a welcome challenge, figuring out what to preserve of the Blasket Islanders’ lives and what to invent. Both have provided so many opportunities for character, plot,  and theme.

It’s probably no surprise that I chose to preserve many of the beautiful (yet forbidding, no?) landscapes that I saw on the Dingle Peninsula.  Some  places in the real world are just made for fiction.