Arts & Books Books

An Ireland where priests are the heroes

A woman gazes towards the mainland from the Aran Islands circa 1950 (Getty)

Michael Duggan reads an enthralling yet sobering account of forgotten peoples

On the Edge
By Diarmuid Ferriter
Profile Books, 400pp, £25/$27

When I picked up Diarmuid Ferriter’s history of Ireland’s offshore islands, I wasn’t expecting to come across John Lennon or Theodore Roethke. But here they both are, none the less. Lennon bought Dorinish, an island off the coast of County Mayo, in 1967. He visited it only twice, before passing it on to a colony of hippies. The American poet Roethke turned up on Inishbofin in 1960. His sanity already compromised, he ended up in a mental hospital on the mainland.

What were the likes of Lennon and Roethke seeking in such places? Well, probably the opposite of what was available to them in London or New York. But be careful what you wish for, someone might have told them.

Opinions about the islands were divided. Were these places of sublime and rugged beauty or just a collection of bleak, dangerous, sodden rocks? Uncontaminated outposts of an ancient culture or backward hold-outs? Communities worth saving for the nation or best allowed to wither away?

As for the islanders themselves, some outsiders saw people who were kind-hearted, quick-witted and indomitable. Others, though, suspected at least some of them were bitter, poitín-swilling chancers. Theirs was certainly a life like no other. The same boat that brought relief one week might bring bailiffs the next. The inescapable sea was a boon and a curse.

Taking up the story in the 19th century, Ferriter vigorously patrols the fault line between rhetoric and reality. He introduces us to swathes of politicians, intellectuals, antiquarians, anthropologists and artists who ploughed the waves to the islands without ever quite agreeing on what they found there. Ferriter himself, perhaps a little bit too pleased with his own hardnosedness, is keen to stamp on any piety, righteousness or sentimental “mush”. Certainly, one can sympathise with the frequent irritation of the natives as analyses of them by outsiders start to go round in endless, enervating circles.

Whichever way the problems of the islands and their inhabitants were framed, however, no one appeared to have a magic wand. On the Edge contains the all-too-familiar miseries of 19th-century Ireland: famine, destitution, depopulation and landlordism.

Tragedies and privations continued to afflict the islands well into the 20th century and the years of national independence. Ministers and civil servants of a fledgling, hard-pressed state present easy targets for the caustic modern historian. The pages begin to drip with suspicion about the actions and motives, the missteps and failures, of distant government departments, now in Irish hands, where no one seemed willing to take exclusive responsibility for places that supposedly preserved the very essence of Gaelic Ireland.

The European Economic Community (as was) eventually turns up, but doesn’t cover itself in glory. Perhaps discomfited by this inconvenient truth, Ferriter deals with it peremptorily, singling out for criticism “alienating language” and destructive policies, particularly on fishing, and the excessive deference of Dublin governments to Brussels bureaucrats.

Indeed, the author, who has in the past shone unsparing light on the failings of the Catholic Church, might have found himself writing something unthinkable for modern Ireland: a book in which the clergy are among the heroes, while villains are supplied by the European Union. Time and again, priests step forward as the islanders’ most energetic, outspoken, though not always uncritical advocates and organisers. “Send us boats or send us coffins,” telegrammed Fr O’Donoghue from Aran in 1870.

Occasionally they succeeded in getting better economic outcomes for their flock, whether this meant striking deals in committee rooms or, in one case, doing shifts driving earth-moving equipment to build an airstrip.

The record of the island clergy was not, of course, unblemished. When dealing with them, Ferriter is adept at getting his equivocations in early and doesn’t miss opportunities to find fault. A priest who points out that older people on his island would be pleased to see a land bridge built before they die is hyperbolically accused of “moral blackmail”. One of the most controversial clergymen, the fiery and domineering (though economically forward-thinking) Fr Murtagh Farragher, who served on the Aran Islands in the late 1800s, is given generous amounts of rope with which to hang himself, while other more low-key achievers flit by.

Nevertheless, the very presence of a whole chapter on “the island priest” demonstrates Ferriter’s willingness to go where the sources lead. Following in his wake is worth every moment. Indeed, by the end one gets the feeling that Ferriter thinks one volume is not enough, with island life nowadays earning just a short “Postscript”.

An engrossing read.