Perhaps some of the best moments in a book-lover’s life are when you chance upon something that turns out to be a real find. The first of many such discoveries for me was a well-used Penguin entitled Twenty Years A-Growing, which I came across nearly sixty years ago, in the back room of a junk shop. I bought it for a penny, read the whole book that day and loved every word of it. I have it still and often revisit it.
First published in 1933, the book is a lively and lyrical account by Maurice O’Sullivan of his early years on the island of Great Blasket in the far west of Ireland – so far west, indeed, that the church in Dunquin, the nearest town on the mainland that served the island’s needs, had listed as its closest parish to the west ‘Boston, America’.
It tells of a life of virtual subsistence in a hard place, where the weather, the money earned from selling mackerel and lobsters on the mainland, and the treasures to be found on the beaches should a ship founder at sea dictated the pace of life. The outside world could only be reached by rowing across two and a half miles of open sea in a curragh, a flimsy coracle made of wood and tarred canvas. A hard place, yes, but also one of freedom and adventure. To me as a small boy living in suburban North London it seemed a paradise.
Great Blasket’s inhabitants burned turf for fuel and ate everything from fish and mutton to puffins pulled from holes in the ground and thrushes caught in caves at Hallowe’en. They even scaled sheer cliffs to look for gulls’ eggs. There were whales and porpoises in the sea and huge flocks of gulls and other seabirds on the rocky cliffs.
For entertainment they made music, danced and listened to stories in the original Gaelic recounted by old men and women, often illiterate, who had heard them at the feet of their forebears and had committed them to memory. It was a place largely untouched by the outside world.
At the start of the book O’Sulli
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