Mixing the Republic – Frank McNally on the sad end of a Blasket hero – The Irish Times

At a seminar in Áras an Uachtaráin on Thursday, as the president and others wrestled with the meaning of Irish independence 100 years later, there was a concise contribution from Blasket Islands writer Tomás Ó Criomhthain .

It was channeled by keynote speaker Declan Kiberd, who quoted a passage from the book Allagar na hInse (“Island Cross-talk”) in which Ó Criomhthain asked his fellow Blasketeers to say the word “republic” in Irish.

It was no surprise to him that he couldn’t find a suitable equivalent. He joked: “agus is beag a chuir a soláthar imní ach oiread oraibh” (“and his achievement didn’t worry you either”.)

As Kiberd reminded us, the Great Blasket was a kingdom rather than a republic. But paradoxically, its king was still elected. It was therefore an egalitarian monarchy, if that is possible.

I will come back to Machnamh 100, as the Áras event was headlining, next week. But by pure chance, I also read a book this week called On An Irish Island. Which, although published in the United States, concerns the same Great Blasket, with Ó Criomhthain also looming.

The author, Robert Kanigel, is a New Yorker, and when his book first came out in 2013, it eluded me, as it seems to have most people in this country. I read it now only because it was recently given to me by a Kerryman employed by Google in California.

And although I thought I knew most of the characters who participated in the creation of the Blasket school of literature a century ago, including the Englishman Robin Flower and the Norwegian Carl Marstrander, it was Kanigel who had to tell me remember the crucial but sad role played by one Brian Kelly, from Killarney.

Almost forgotten today, Kelly’s life story (1889-1936) resembles a Greek tragedy. A brilliant scholar, from a wealthy family and educated at Clongowes and Trinity College, he could have achieved great things in independent Ireland.

But the seeds of his downfall may have been sown when, while a graduate student in World War I Germany, he was arrested and interned.

The man who finally freed him was Sir Roger Casement, in Germany on a revolutionary mission. And as he did with the Irish military prisoners of war, Casement then tried to recruit Kelly to the nationalist cause.

But the latter refuses and, instead, when he returns to Ireland in 1915, provides the British authorities with a report on Casement, which he considers unbalanced.

According to the Dictionary of Irish Biography, this was given on condition that it not be used as evidence. Even so, Casement had become a martyr to Irish republicanism by the time Kelly arrived on the Great Blasket in April 1917, seeking Irish lessons.

By royal appointment from King Blasket, Ó Criomhthain was the man usually delegated to teach Irish to visiting scholars.

He had already done this for Marstrander and Flower, whose interest helped build Ó Criomhthain’s sense of himself as an island intellectual and a man with interesting things to say.

But it was Kelly who convinced him now that he needed to put his thoughts on paper, that there were people far beyond Ireland who might be interested in reading them.

And it happened. Supplied by Kelly with pen, paper and books by Gorky and others, Ó Criomhthain became a writer, first via a diary and finally in his great memoir An t-Oileánach (“The Islandman”), which paved the way for other Blasket writers. , including Peig Sayers.

This should have made Kelly, or Ó Ceallaigh as he had become known, a hero in the new Free State.

But it wasn’t, somehow. Perhaps knowledge of his contribution to British intelligence on the now Holy Casement followed him. Whatever the reasons, his career in independent Ireland did not prosper.

He was briefly a junior inspector of national schools in 1918-1919 but lost his job. He then applied for a post as a school inspector in 1924, before withdrawing his candidacy.

Even his efforts to get Ó Criomhthain printed, after first persuading him to write, were a failure. It was up to someone else to find a publisher. Although he lived long enough to, Ó Ceallaigh may never have seen the books of Ó Criomhthain.

His last years are darkly obscure. The last recorded sighting of him by friends was at a Berlin train station in 1927. At the time of his death from polio in 1936, he was living in Yugoslavia.

He is said to have been a “lonely, introverted man” in later years. And whatever his influence on others, he himself must have been haunted by his peripheral but damning role in 1916. According to the DIB, quoting Muiris MacConghail, “knowing that his statement on Casement was still in Dublin Castle may have -to be weighed heavily on his mind”. .

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