So many of the stories which come to us out of Ireland are, quite simply, sad. From Joyce’s “The Dead” to McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, we read of people who are, if not figuratively, then literally, impoverished. It is a lovely surprise, then, to come across Twenty Years A-Growing by Maurice O’Sullivan. In this memoir of his childhood and coming of age on the Great Blasket Island off the Southwest coast of Ireland, the only reason a reader might be inclined to put the book down is to board the jet to go there.
Shortly after his birth in 1904, O’Sullivan’s mother died. His father, unable to care for the infant, places him in an orphanage on the mainland until he is six years of age. Upon O’Sullivan’s return to his island home, the child begins to learn not only his way around the small island he now calls home but also the Irish language itself. His account of his next fourteen years circles around days of fishing, hunting,and general boyhood mischief. But O’Sullivan writes just as the Irish storyteller, or shanachie, speaks, having acquired this rare gift while growing up at his grandfather’s side. The reader sits, as Maurice does, as a young boy at his grandfather’s hearth for the first time and listens to the old man sing a song in Irish to a hushed room. Along with Maurice, we go out on a dark Halloween night to hunt puffins on a treacherous cliff ledge, listening in the moonlight to the huge rollers coming in from the Atlantic and crashing into the wall of rock. And we leap with joy at the schoolmaster’s announcement that there has been yet another shipwreck and take off across the hills “leaping with delight” to claim what bounty we might. The shanachie’s craft of putting the listener right into the story is Maurice O’Sullivan’s own.
What sets this apart from other Irish stories is that this memoir was written in Irish and then painstakingly translated by Moya Davies and George Thomson for the English reader. This work is a piece of creative non-fiction which is an extended example of “crack”, which in the Irish idiom means entertaining conversation. A Blasket Islander would compliment someone’s abilities at crack by remarking that “He is very good at shortening the road.” Interesting turns of phrase are found on every page in Twenty Years A-Growing. For example, when exhausted from one of his late night romps around the island and asked if he wants to go to bed, O’Sullivan proclaims “I wanted no more than the wind of the word, for I was blind with sleep.”
The importance of this book, however, goes much further than a simple good read with interesting language. The last 23 inhabitants of the island, which was once home to over 300, were relocated to the mainland in 1953. Massive immigration had left only a dwindling number of elderly residents who could not be cared for properly on the island. Blasket Islanders are no more. All that remains of the vibrant little village O’Sullivan describes in such detail are its ruins. Twenty Years A-Growing , O’Sullivan’s only piece of published work, gives us a picture of a way of village life in Ireland that is no more.
But while it was there, for O’Sullivan, there was more joy than sadness in it. There was no poverty on the island; in fact, the Irish language, which was spoken exclusively on the the Blaskets, does not even have a word for poverty. The Irish islanders “would never let anyone want here.” The author leaves the island himself to become a policeman on the mainland, but he returns for a visit two years after his departure, and he takes the reader back with him. In this way, he closes his memoir with the scene as he opens the door to his father’s house one more time.
“When I returned home the lamps were being lit in the houses. I went in. My father and grandfather were sitting on either side of the fire, my grandfather smoking his old pipe.”
They will always be there, just like that, for O’Sullivan, who has told his story so well that these people will remain equally embedded in his readers’ minds.