20 June 2021

The Blasket Islands and
a new understanding of
Peig and Irish literature

The Blasket Islands in summer sunshine … an invitation to a Mediterranean experience – but only in summer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

The Great Blasket Island is one of the most remote parts of the Gaeltacht or Irish-speaking area of Co Kerry. It has been deserted since 1954, but remains a part of Irish literature and cultural identity because of the disproportionate number of islanders whose books were part of the school curriculum for generations of Irish schoolchildren.

Their books continue to be read, and most Irish people are still familiar with the names of Peig Sayers (1873-1958), not matter how negative their memories are of her book, and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin and Tomás Ó Criomhthain.

I am typical of my generation when I say I still resent having to read through Peig, and it helped to create many long-lasting negative images of how the Irish language was taught at schools in the 1960s.

But my schoolboy experiences of the Kerry Gaeltacht in Ballinskelligs have left me with a life-long affection for this part of Ireland, and a visit to the Blasket Islands seemed inevitable during last week’s visit to the Dingle Peninsula.

The main beach on the Great Blasket … home to Ireland’s largest seal colony (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Two of us took a one-day guided tour from Dunquin to the Great Blasket Island last week, when the strong sunshine, blue skies and sparkling sunshine on the seas invited comparisons with island-hoping in the Aegean or the Ionian seas.

The Blasket Islands are an uninhabited group of islands off the Co Kerry coast. There are six principal islands in the archipelago: the Great Blasket Island (An Blascaod Mór), Beginish (Beiginis), Inishnabro (Inis na Bró), Inishvickillane (Inis Mhic Uileáin), Inishtooskert (Inis Tuaisceart) and Tearaght Island (An Tiaracht). At longitude 10° 39.7', Tearaght Island is the westernmost of the Blaskets, and so is the most westerly point in the Republic of Ireland.

The Great Blasket covers over 1,100 acres of largely mountainous terrain, and is about 4 miles long and half a mile wide.

The first home of Peig Sayers is now in ruins (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

At its peak, these islands on the edge of Europe had 176 residents in 1916, and all were Irish speakers. They survived mainly through fishing, supplemented by subsistence farming, hunting, fowling and on shore food. There was no shop, no church, no consecrated burials ground and no resident priest or doctor on the island.

An earlier, 19th century school started by Church of Ireland parishioners in Ventry on the mainland provided education in Irish, but last a mere two decades.

There are stories of children who were buried one on top of another in a ceallúnach, kileen or unconsecrated burial ground, without coffins or gravestones, ‘illegitimate’ children being buried face down, supposed suicides that may have been murders that were never investigated, and tiny children being buried in fishbones that served as makeshift coffins.

Young infants were buried without coffins or grave markers in unconsecrated ground (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The islanders were the subject of many anthropological and linguistic studies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by writers and linguists including Robin Flower, George Derwent Thomson and Kenneth H Jackson.

In this climate, a number of books were written in the early 20th century by islanders, recording island traditions and way of life. These include Peig or Machnamh Seanamhná (An Old Woman’s Reflections) by Peig Sayers (1939), An tOileánach (The Islandman) by Tomás Ó Criomhthain (1929), and Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty Years a-Growing) by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin (1933).

Their works in Irish have been translated into English and other languages. I began to feel sorry for Peig, with her arranged marriage, her sorrows, her hardships, the children who died without the joys of childhood, the reproaches for her grief and mourning, and the bodies falling out of coffins.

They were stories that should never have been imposed on young teenagers in the 1960s. It was a new understanding that was complimented by comparisons of Tomás Ó Criomhthain with his Russian contemporary Maxim Gorky, placing him within the corpus of European literature of the day.

The former home of Tomás Ó Criomhthain … his work has been compared to Maxim Gorky (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

On the Great Blasket, the island population had fallen to 22 by 1953, and the small fishing community mostly lived in primitive cottages perched on the relatively sheltered north-east shore. But increasingly extreme weather often left the islands and islanders cut off.

The government decided it could no longer guarantee the safety of the remaining population. But the islanders had been asking to be relocated since 1947. They had been cut off from the mainland for weeks because of bad weather in April 1947, and sent a telegram to the Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, urgently requesting supplies. The supplies arrived by boat two days later by boat.

The death of Seánín Ó Cearnaigh acted as a catalyst in the islanders’ evacuation. When he became ill, poor weather meant no doctor or priest could reach the island. For many days, the weather stopped his body being taken to the consecrated graveyard across the Blasket Sound in Dunquin. It was a tragic event that led the Islanders ask the government to evacuate them.

The second home of Peig Sayers is part of the revitalisation of the Great Blasket (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The last remaining residents were evacuated on 17 November 1953 at the request of both the Islanders and the government. The most westerly settlement in Ireland was abandoned.

Later, in the 1980s, the former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, bought Inishvickillane and behaved like a mediaeval potentate. It is, perhaps, a commentary on Irish social history that the only two people in Ireland still recognisable by their first names alone are associated with the Blaskets: ‘Peig’ and ‘Charlie.’

The Office of Public Works has bought most of the property on the Great Blasket, including the deserted village, in recent decades. Today, more than 95% of the island, including the old village, form a de facto national park.

Peig Sayers’s second home is part of accommodation available to rent and of a café on the island. The home of Tomás Ó Criomthain was restored by the Office of Public Works in 2018. However, the home of Muiris Ó Súilleabháin and Peig Sayers’s first home are both in ruins.

The school set up Mrs Thompson from Ventry last a mere two or three decades (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Billy O’Connor and the Great Blasket Island Experience began renovating island cottages in 2014, and the restored cottages were opened for summer rentals. Two caretakers were recruited to manage the accommodation and café, but they lived without electricity and hot water.

The largest living presence on the Great Blasket today is a colony of hundreds of seals, the largest seal colony in Ireland. They were visibly enjoying basking in the summer sunshine on the long stretch of sandy beach in the warm summer sunshine last week.

The journey back to Dunquin took less than 20 minutes. The Blasket Islands may have been bleak for generations, but in the summer sunshine they had been inviting.

The Great Blasket in summer sunshine in June (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Sunday intercessions on 20 June 2021,
Trinity III, Father’s Day

A Father’s Day image by Sheba Sultan

Father’s Day: Prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession

The response to ‘Father of all’ is:
hear your children’s prayer.

Let us pray to God, our heavenly Father.

Father of all
hear your children’s prayer.

Sovereign Lord,
your Son has revealed you as our heavenly Father,
from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.

Father of all
hear your children’s prayer.

You have made your Church a spiritual family,
a household of faith.

We give thanks for the faithful ministry in this diocese
of our Bishop, Kenneth, as he prepares to retire.

Through Baptism we are reborn as the brothers and sisters of Christ.
Deepen our unity and fellowship in him.

Father of all
hear your children’s prayer.

You sent your Son to give his life
as a ransom for the whole human family.
Give justice, peace and racial harmony
to the world he died to save.

Father of all
hear your children’s prayer.

You gave your Son a share in the life of a family in Nazareth.
Help us to value our families, to be thankful for them,
and to live sensitively within them.

Father of all
hear your children’s prayer.

Your Son drew around him a company of friends.
Bring love and joy to all who are alone.

We pray for all in our parish who sick,
at home or in hospital:
Ruby … Arthur … Ann … Daphne …
Simon … Sylvia … Ajay …

Help us all to find in the brothers and sisters of Christ
a loving family.

Father of all
hear your children’s prayer.

You are the God of the dead as well as of the living.

We pray for all who grieve and mourn at this time …
for all who are broken-hearted and
coming to terms with the loss of loved ones,
for the Downes, Smyth and Doherty families …

In confidence we remember those of the household of
faith who have gone before us.

Bring us with them to the joy of your home in heaven.

Father of all
hear your children’s prayer.

Material for Father’s Day from Common Worship © The Archbishops' Council of the Church of England, 2000-2004

Facing fears and insults
in the storms of life
on Father’s Day

‘Leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him’ (Mark 4: 36) … fishing boats in a sheltered harbour at Loughrea, Co Galway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 20 June 2021

The Third Sunday after Trinity
(Trinity III, Father’s Day)

9.30 a.m. Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Morning Prayer

11.30 a.m. Saint Brendan’s Church, Tarbert, the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion II)

The Readings: I Samuel 17: 32-49; Psalm 9: 9-20; Mark 4: 35-41

There is a link to the readings HERE.

‘Let us go across to the other side’ (Mark 4: 35) … waiting gondolas near Saint Mark’s Square in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

As we work our ways through the storms of life, we have many questions to ask about the purpose or meaning of life. Often, we can feel guilty about putting those questions to God. Yet, should we not be able to put our deepest questions and greatest fears before God?

In the first reading, David seeks to assure Saul about his suitability to do battle with Goliath, and tells him: ‘Let no one’s heart fail.’ David casts off Saul’s heavy armour, disregards Goliath’s disdain, and puts his faith in God.

In an alternative first reading, God responds to Job’s questions with his own challenging questions and reminds Job that God is control of all forces in nature.

In our Psalm (Psalm 9: 9-20), we are reminded that God hears the cry of the poor and promises justice for the oppressed and those in trouble.

In the Gospel reading, the frightened disciples challenge Christ and ask him whether he cares that they are perishing (verse 38). But he offers them words of peace before doing anything to remedy the plight in which they have been caught, and goes on to ask them his own challenging questions: ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ (verses 40)? They, in turn, end up asking their own challenging question about who Christ is for them.

In the first reading, Saul lives in fear and is haunted by his dreams (I Samuel 17: 10-12), while David overcomes his greatest fear by facing it in the person of Goliath (verse 32-49).

David is disdained by the Philistine, who mocks, curses and insults him.

But David answers: ‘I come … in the name of the Lord.’ He believes God will give him victory so that ‘all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel,’ and that God prevails over material advantage. David’s victory marks the beginning of a new era of trust in God.

Psalm 9 is a reminder that the success of evil is only temporary, and in the end, the righteous will endure.

This psalm has a tone of victory over evil and it may have been written to celebrate David’s victory over Goliath.

We are reminded that those who know God (verse 10) will trust in him, for he is faithful to those who seek him. God remembers the pleas of those hurt by the wicked.

God is asked to show his mercy, and to save the petitioner from the ‘gates of death’ (verse 13), so that he may praise God in the Temple (verse 14).

The plight of the disciples in the Gospel reading (Mark 4: 35-41) seems to be the working out of a constant, recurring, vivid dream of the type many of us experience at different stages: the feelings of drowning, floating and falling suddenly, being in a crowd and yet alone, calling out and not being heard, or not being recognised for who we are.

Christ is asleep in the boat when a great gale rises, the waves beat the side of the boat, and it is soon swamped by the waters.

Christ seems oblivious to the calamity that is unfolding around him and to the fear of the disciples. They have to wake him, and by then they fear they are perishing.

Christ wakes, rebukes the wind, calm descends on the sea, and Christ challenges those on the boat: ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ (verse 40).

Instead of being calmed, they are now filled with awe. Do they recognise Christ for who he truly is? They ask one another: ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ (verse 31).

Even before the Resurrection, Christ tells the disciples not to be afraid, which becomes a constant theme after the Resurrection.

Do those in the boat begin to ask truly who Christ is because he has calmed the storm or because he has calmed their fears?

On Father’s Day, people have mixed emotions and memories.

The vast majority have memories of a loving, kind and gentle father, who cared for them and provided for them. Many will remember that when they confronted fears – from bad dreams as a child to fears for the future facing adulthood – their father calmed those fears, acted as a role model, and shared the natural hopes, fears and anxieties for the future.

But for some people, memories of father-figures in childhood can be disturbing, and still the cause of troubled dreams and memories of lost hopes.

Indeed, traumas such as this can make it difficult for some people, as children and as adults, to pray even the simple opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Our Father …’

And there are people who have no memories of a father, good or bad. People who grew up with bereaved or single mothers, people who were the children of broken families. Too often, the Church has often failed to understand the dilemmas and memories of so many.

But through the storms of life, through the nightmares, fears and memories, despite the failures of the Church, past and present, we must not let bad parenting, or bad experiences of parenting, to ruin our trusting relationship with God our Father.

Like David, we come in the name of the Lord. Despite those who mock and disdain us, despite the death or the failures of father figures, in all the storms of life, throughout all our fears and nightmares, we can trust in God as Father and trust in the soothing words of Christ, ‘Peace! Be still! Be not afraid.’

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The sails of a boat and the shape of the cross in the harbour at Collioure in the south of France (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 4: 35-41 (NRSVA):

35 When evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

‘ … they took him with them in the boat, just as he was’ (Mark 4: 36) … boats in the small harbour at Georgioupoli in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
you have broken the tyranny of sin
and have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts
whereby we call you Father:
Give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service,
that we and all creation may be brought
to the glorious liberty of the children of God;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

O God,
whose beauty is beyond our imagining
and whose power we cannot comprehend:
Give us a glimpse of your glory on earth
but shield us from knowing more than we can bear
until we may look upon you without fear;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

A closing prayer on Father’s Day:

Heavenly Father,
you entrusted your Son Jesus,
the child of Mary,
to the care of Joseph, an earthly father.
Bless all fathers
as they care for their families.
Give them strength and wisdom,
tenderness and patience;
support them in the work they have to do
protecting those who look to them,
as we look to you for love and salvation,
through Jesus Christ our rock and defender.

The Blessing:

The Lord God almighty is our Father:
he loves us and tenderly cares for us.

The Lord Jesus Christ is our Saviour:
he has redeemed us and will defend us to the end.

The Lord, the Holy Spirit is among us:
he will lead us in God’s holy way.

And the blessing of God almighty …


584, Jesus calls us! O’er the tumult (CD 33)
666, Be still my soul: the Lord is on thy side (CD 39)

‘Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm’ (Mark 4: 39) … boats in the calm waters at Mesongi on the island of Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

Material for Father’s Day from Common Worship © The Archbishops' Council of the Church of England, 2000-2004

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
22, Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice

Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice … first built as the private chapel of the Doge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During this time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

Today is the Third Sunday after Trinity and Father’s Day. Later this morning I am planning to preach at Morning Prayer in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, and to celebrate the Parish Eucharist in Saint Brendan’s Church, Tarbert, Co Kerry. Later today, I hope to be present as Precentor at the installation of new members of the chapter in Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, Co Clare.

Last week my photographs were of seven cathedrals in Italy. This morning (20 June 2021), my photographs are from Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice, introducing a week of photographs of churches in Venice.

The west façade of Saint Mark’s, above the main entrance (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mark is the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Venice, the most famous church in the city, and one of the finest examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture. Originally, Saint Mark’s was the chapel of the Doges of Venice, and it has been a cathedral only since 1807. Before that, the Patriarchs of Venice were seated at San Pietro di Castello.

Because of its opulent design, its mosaics and the wealth of its decoration, outside and inside, Saint Mark’s has become a symbol of Venetian wealth and power, and it is often known as the Chiesa d’Oro or Church of Gold.

The first Church of Saint Mark on this site beside the Doge’s Palace was built in 828-832, after merchants from Venice stole the body of Saint Mark the Evangelist in Alexandria. The present basilica was built from about 1063 and was completed in stages, and its basic shape includes a mixture of Italian and Byzantine features. The supposed but lost body of Saint Mark is said to have been rediscovered in a pillar by the Doge of Venice, Vitale Faliero, in 1094.

Although the basic structure of the building has not been altered much, its decoration has changed greatly over time. Inside, there is a dazzling display of gold ground mosaics on all the ceilings and upper walls. But there are spoils of classical and Byzantine buildings too, including the ninth-century Pala d’Oro from Constantinople, installed on the high altar in 1105, that were plundered or pilfered during the Crusades and other wars, including mosaics, columns, capitals and friezes.

In the 13th century, the church changed from being the private chapel of the Doge and became the state church and the venue for great state and public ceremonies, including the installation and burial of Doges.

The exterior of the west façade is divided into three registers: lower, upper and domes. In the lower register of the façade, five round-arched portals, enveloped by polychrome marble columns, open into the narthex through bronze-fashioned doors. The upper level of post-Renaissance mosaics in the lunettes of the lateral ogee arches depicts scenes from the Life of Christ, culminating in a 19th century replacement Last Judgment. Mosaics with scenes showing the history of the relics of Saint Mark fill the lunettes of the lateral portals, some of the mosaics dating from the 13th century.

Above the large central window of the façade, under Saint Mark, the Winged Lion who is his symbol and the symbol of Venice, holds a book quoting Pax Tibi Marce Evangelista Meus (‘Peace to you Mark my Evangelist’).

In the centre of the balcony, four bronze horses face the square. They were installed about 1254, but date from Classical Antiquity – some accounts say they once adorned the Arch of Trajan.

The horses were long displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople, but in 1204 Doge Enrico Dandolo sent them to Venice as part of the loot sacked from Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade. They were taken to Paris by Napoleon in 1797 but returned to Venice in 1815. Since the 1970s the originals have been kept in Saint Mark’s Museum and the horses on the façade today are bronze replicas.

The narthex or porch, dating from the 13th century, prepares the visitor for the gilded interior, with Old Testament scenes from Genesis and the lives of Noah, Abraham, Joseph and Moses. On the wall above and at the sides of the main doorway, the Four Evangelists and saints are depicted in 11th-century mosaics, the oldest in the building.

The porphyry statue of the Tetrarchs at the south-west corner, removed during restorations, represent the four co-emperors introduced in the third century. This statue too was taken from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

Inside, Saint Mark’s is based on the design of the Emperor Constantine’s Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.

The lower levels of the walls and pillars are covered with polychrome marble slabs. The upper levels are covered with bright mosaics covering an area of about 8,000 square metres. The earliest surviving work, in the main porch, probably dates from around 1070. The main work on the interior mosaics was complete by the 1270s, but most of the mosaics were replaced in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The large mosaic of Christ the Pantocrator, seated above the patron saints of Venice in the main apse, is a 15th-century recreation. The East dome over the high altar has a bust of Christ in the centre surrounded by prophets, the Virgin Mary and the Four Evangelists. The Ascension of Christ is depicted in the central dome and Pentecost in the west dome.

The marble floors of the basilica date from the 12th century.

In Saint Peter’s chapel in the left transept, the Madonna Nicopeia is the best-known Byzantine icon in Venice, also taken to Venice during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The treasury holds a collection of Byzantine objects looted from Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade and later in 1261.

The walls and domes inside Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 4: 35-41 (NRSVA):

35 When evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

Christ and the saints depicted in a dome in Saint Mark’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (20 June 2021, Trinity III) invites us to pray:

Eternal God,
Bless us with the spirit of unity.
May we embrace difference,
And work with each other,
To put our faith into action.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The apse and dome above the high altar in Saint Mark’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org