The Beginning of End

It’s 60 years since Great Blasket Island, off coast of Kerry, was evacuated. Born in 1920, Mike Carney is oldest living islander. He left in 1937 to seek a better life in Dublin and joined millions who emigrated to America where he now lives. Here he describes event that “broke will” of islanders.

 

My younger brother Seán died on 9 January 1947, at age of just twenty-four. His death signaled end for island. Seán got sick just before Christmas in 1946. There was very bad weather on island with gale-force winds and high waves. He was sick for only a couple of weeks. I got a note in Dublin from my sister Cáit that Seán had flu. But, in reality, he had something much more serious: meningitis.

The weather worsened and they could not get him to mainland to see doctor, and doctor could not get to island to see him. The battery-operated telephone provided by government was not working at time – again. It had been out for about a week. Seán had a really bad headache. He thought his head would blow off! Cáit put a heated sack of flour on his head to try to ward off temperature, but it did no good. He started to vomit too.

Mike Carney at 24 (Great Blasket Island)

Mike Carney, c. 24 years old

After being sick for over two weeks, Seán’s condition got worse. Then one day, Cáit found him dead in bed in our house. Since there was no priest, she whispered an Act of Contrition in his ear in case he was still alive. Then she had to tell my father. It was devastating.

When I arrived home, Seán’s body was still in our house on island, poor man. He could not be buried in small graveyard on island because it was not blessed. And there was no coffin on island anyway. We needed to get his body to mainland. Three young, strong and brave islanders fought fierce ocean to go and fetch a coffin from mainland. They were best boatman on island at time. The conditions were such that they could easily have drowned. Their great courage was very much appreciated by my family.

After landing in Dunquin, they got a coffin from Dingle but they could not get it back across to island. The water was just too rough and weight of coffin made navigating a naomhóg back to island too much of a risk. We had to take coffin from Dunquin to Dingle so it could be bought to island by lifeboat. When we got into island, poor Seán, I couldn’t look at him. He was lying dead on bed in my father’s bedroom. Everybody was crying. We put Seán in coffin and nailed lid shut. There was no wake; there was no time. The lifeboat was waiting.

We then went back to Dingle on lifeboat with Seán’s body in coffin. The waves were still high and it was a very rough ride, and my father came with us, poor man. It was a heartbreaking thing.

Three cousins (Great Blasket Island)

The three cousins who braved Sound to bring a coffin back to Great Blasket Island, pictured in 1972

When we got to Dingle, medical people said they had to determine cause of death. My father told them to write down that government killed him. He was very angry and so was I. We felt that government should have installed a better radio system or provided a motorboat – anything to improve safety of people living on island. This was just kind of situation we warned could happen.

The funeral and burial were held very next day, four days after Seán died. I was a pallbearer. Seán was buried next to our mother in old cemetery next to church. It was all so sad.Our family doctor, Dr Patrick Scully was there but, of course, there was nothing he could do. Dr Eilís O’Sullivan, Kerry County Medical Officer at time, had to examine body and make a finding on cause of death. It took a couple of hours but her finding was that Seán died from meningitis. Then we had to take body another 12 miles back to Dunquin where Seán was to be buried. We left coffin in St Gobnet’s Church overnight and that evening we said rosary for him.

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