The Blasket Islands (Na Blascaodaí) are an archipelago off the Dingle peninsula of County Kerry. They've had no permanent residents since they were evacuated in 1953, but in summer Great Blasket the largest island has a couple of rangers-cum-caretakers, self-catering cottages, and camping is permitted.
These rugged islands are the most westerly parts of Ireland, dashed by the Atlantic. They've become symbolic of remoteness and isolation, in both a positive and a negative light - yet they're not. Their main village at the northeast end of Great Blasket is ony 2 km from the mainland, so in calm conditions you can reach it by kayak, sail-board, SUP-board, you could just about swim. But then, it might less than calm going back. In winter the ocean rages for weeks on end, there's no harbour and the anchorage becomes unsafe; nothing for it but to drag the boats well up the beach and hunker down. Bygone ages had lower expectations, but when in 1953 a young man died for want of medical help that was almost within hallooing distance, then something needed to change.
The positive side was the sturdy self-reliance of the islanders. They had fishing, grazing for livestock, garden vegetables, and seabirds eggs. They grew potatoes but were never dependent on them and fared well during the Great Famine, indeed mainland families relocated here. They spoke only Irish, in a distinctive dialect that scholars were keen to record. They produced a remarkable series of writers, notably Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Peig Sayers and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin. And the place had no strategic value so they were never colonised or garrisoned: even Cromwell couldn't be bothered, nor Queen Victoria's squadrons of muskets and moustachios. Nationalist writers therefore romanticised the Blaskets as a pure survival of unconquered ancient Irish land, people and lore. If only the rest of the country would emulate these isles, and subsist on hand-weaving and left-over cabbage, what a blessed Tír na nÓg an Ireland unshackled from Britain could become.
The negative side was a harsh life scratching a living from rugged land and hazardous sea, living in crude cottages without basic sanitation or other utilities, in a very small, inward-looking community. In the unlamented days when the English made jokes about the Irish, the Irish made similar jokes about Kerry folk, and Kerry folk joked about Blasket islanders; then the Blasket folk enjoyed a chain of mock and mirth all the way down to the outermost islands. The population peaked at some 160 in the 1911 census then went into sharp decline; by 1951 only two dozen remained. After a particularly wretched spell in 1953, the government agreed to evacuate them before another winter closed in. The final boat party had to abandon their heavy belongings on the beach when yet another storm broke. Thereafter the islanders returned in summer for grazing, with their sheep and cows making a ruckus in the boats, but there were no permanent inhabitants except the three lighthouse keepers of Tearaght until that was automated in 1986.
The islands geologically are a continuation of Dingle peninsula, mostly of Devonian sandstone. Except for low-lying Beginish they rise abruptly, hence the lack of harbours, with sea caves at their base, and are lashed by sea spray, rain and sleet but seldom snow. There are no trees or peat-bogs, so fuel was always a problem. Salt-tolerant vegetation clings to the slopes, with little invasive flora such as bracken. Sea birds roost on all the islands and outlying stacks, especially storm petrels and Manx shearwaters, plus puffins, chough, kittiwake and fulmar. There are no rats, which would make short work of the ground-nesting birds, so it's essential to keep it that way. Around 2002 someone thought it a bright idea to introduce hares to Great Blasket, where they thrive. Their impact appears tolerable but whether they should remain is a question.
There have long been hopes (shared by the Blasket diaspora) of safeguarding the islands as a National Park, but long-established property rights have thwarted this. The Office of Public Works nowadays owns most of the property and can block unwelcome developments, so de facto it is a park. You wouldn't want a rash of holiday cottages here or a busy helipad. That said, the Blasket Islands are not wilderness but remote farmland. Low-intensity upland farming created their landscape and is part of what needs to be preserved.
1 Dingle is the only town of any size on the Dingle peninsula. Boats sail in summer, weather permitting, from there or from the smaller nearby harbours of Ventry or Dunquin. Some of these are simply ferries, they take you there and back and leave you to do your own thing, reckon €55 pp. Others are boat trips, puttering round the islands and pointing out this and that. And some are complete packages, facilitating stays on the islands, guided walks and so on.
The ride out takes 50 min from Dingle, 40 min from Ventry and 20 min from Dunquin, in small bouncy open boats where you're likely to get sprayed. The islands lack harbours - one reason for their evacuation - so you transfer to an even smaller boat to scramble ashore. Wear stout hiking boots, and come prepared for changes of weather, there's no shelter. Dogs are permitted on the leash.
Getting between islands can be even more difficult than reaching them from the mainland, and there are tragic examples of islanders starving to death while others got by but were unable to send help. All the main islands have a traditional landing cove (but by no means a pier) sheltered from the prevailing southwesterly weather but precarious when the wind lies in other quarters. But in fair weather this isn't rufty-tufty navigation and, with one eye always on the conditions, the Blaskets are well within the range of competent amateur mariners: use a Rib / Zodiac capable of being beached.
Hike everywhere on the islands that a human can safely set foot. Great Blasket has a grassy cart track or boreen, still used by tractors, otherwise it's just narrow sheep-trails. Islanders occasionally used carts but more often loaded ponies and donkeys with paniers. Tis said you could always spot them on the mainland, as they would persist in walking single-file even along the broad boulevards of Tralee.
Biking isn't forbidden but the tracks are unsuitable and the boats won't carry bikes. Even a mountain bike would frankly be an encumbrance both aboard or ashore.
- On the mainland: Dunquin or Dún Chaoin has the Blasket Centre, an exhibition on island life, and views down a corridor likened to "looking through a stone telescope". Some boat trips sail from here. Two km south, Dunmore Head looks onto the archipelago: the channel is only 2 km wide at this point. Lure Island just off the Head isn't considered as one of the Blaskets.
- Wildlife on the boat ride: always keep looking! Fungie the Dolphin is no longer with us but other dolphin sightings are common, and you never know what strange marine beast may briefly swim into view. Even if they don't show up, they're doing you a favour, as keeping your eyes on the horizon will help to minimise sea-sickness.
- 1 Great Blasket Island (An Bhlascaod Mór) is the largest and most visited. You come ashore at the northeast end, An Tra Ban "the white beach" as indeed it is. The abandoned Lower and Upper Village stand above it, some 30 ruined cottages plus a modern ranger's house. A grassy cart track heads off along the ridge, the main hiking trail. The islands never had a church - people went to their ancestral mainland parish church for weddings, baptisms and funerals, so the village graveyard was an unconsecrated cillin. Apart from emergency burials of those who could not be transported, it received washed-up mariners, unbaptised children, and others that holy church in its wisdom would not admit.
- Illaunbaun and Carrigfada are the two islets seen north of the landing area. Nothing there but more seabirds.
- 2 Beginish (Beiginis) means "little island", so don't confuse it with similarly-named others, especially the one just north of Knightstown on Valentia Island which has monastic remains. This one is low-lying and has colonies of Arctic terns and grey seals. Young Island is an islet 200 m further north: yet more birds.
- 3 Inishnabro (Inis na Bró) is the most unlikely spot ever proposed for a space-launching facility, in a 1973 bid that only became public in 2003. But who's to nay-say, in a nation that launched Ryanair, the world's first aviation disaster in 1785 Tullamore, the 1607 Flight of the Earls and the legendary nocturnal soarings of Mad King Sweeney? You hike to the summit of 175 m, across colourful heather and sea-pink as the island wasn't grazed, and think "what if?"
- 4 Inishvickillane (Inis Mhic Uileáin) is only 200 m from Inishabro. It has colonies of fulmar, storm petrel and puffins, and the remains of a monastery with a beehive hut and oratory. An Ogham stone commemorating "Mac-Ruaid, grandson of Dálach" is now held by TCD Dublin. In 1970 Charles Haughey (1925-2006), later thrice Taoiseach of Ireland, bought land here to build a summer bungalow, but what with his scandals and lurid "GUBU" nothing came of this.
- 5 Inishtooskert (Inis Tuaisceart, meaning "northern island") is also known as An Fear Marbh "the dead man" from its outline seen from the mainland. There are monastic remains and over 27,000 pairs of storm petrels.
- 6 Tearaght Island (An Tiaracht) has a fair claim to be called the most westerly part of Europe - it depends how you regard Iceland and the Azores, culturally European but geologically mid-Atlantic. It's a double pyramid, one greater and one smaller, linked by a ridge pierced by a sea-tunnel. It has sheer sides with no beach, so tourist boats don't attempt to land. The lighthouse was built in 1870 and automated in 1988. A funicular rail track was used to haul supplies up to it, so until someone discovers rusty tracks on the slopes of Iceland's Bárðarbunga, this has to be Europe's most westerly, steep and obscure disused railway.
- Dark skies: day-trippers must be gone long before dusk draws in. Overnight visitors need a clear sky and true nightfall, which in mid-summer might be around 23:00. But then the Milky Way and other celestial objects will swim into view as never before.
- Hiking on Great Blasket you start from the east landing beach of An Tra Ban. Follow the track along the shoulder of the ridge: it loops both sides of the two closest hills, so you might want to walk northside outbound for shelter, and southside on return with the wind and westering sun at your back. Conversely, you might prefer a breeze to deter the confounded midges. The hike is 4 km via Slieve Donagh (281 m) to An Cro Mor at 292 m / 958 ft the highest point in these islands. From here the mainland is out of sight and the ridge dwindles for another 2 km, with the outer islands and Atlantic beyond. But it's not worth coming if the tops are socked in by low cloud.
- Hear whale-song: it's likened to the groaning of an old woman, and comes from northern minkes. Much of the song is infra-sound below the human auditory range, and a banshee-screech comes not from whales but shearwaters. Minkes are hard to spot as they have low fins and blow-jets, and don't breach or up-flukes.
You need to be self-sufficient.
In summer there's a small cafe in the village.
There's running water on tap in the village, otherwise it's spring water (preferably from a source that the sheep don't use as a bidet) or what you carry with you.
Three modern cottages are available on Great Blasket for self-catering; they may arrange breakfast. They have running water, gas cookers and fuel-burning stoves. They have no electricity, hence no lighting, and showers are cold. Overnight guests are prioritised on the Dunquin crossing in Peig Sayers (and get a lower fare), while other boats are often fully booked by day-trippers. These cottages are not available in 2021, and no longer run as a hostel.
Camping is permitted anywhere, the challenge is to find level ground. Most campers pick somewhere near the village facilities, but the midges will find you wherever you pitch.
As of May 2021, the mobile signal is patchy but you should manage 4G from all Irish carriers on the boat ride and on all islands except Tearaght. Great Blasket village has facilities for phone charging.
- Back to your port of departure it must be.
- Other nearby islands such as Valentia will seem tame by comparison. For a really remote and memorable experience, try to reach Skellig Michael.