Annie Birney and Eoin Boyle were recently chosen from thousands of applicants to manage the quaint hostel on the Great Blasket Island just off the coast of Kerry.
The Great Blasket Islands, now abandoned, draw tourists from all over the world every year. Many scholars encouraged some of the islanders to write down stories about their lives and these books are the main reason for which the island is famous. In 1953, the Great Blasket Island was evacuated by the government when extreme weather left the islanders cut off from supplies and emergency services. According to both the government and the islanders, this evacuation was necessary in order for them to survive.
Visiting the Great Blasket Island Today
It’s a steep climb to the village ruins which were once the home of more than 150 people. At the top of this village, the old home of Peig Sayers looks out over “An Tra Ban” and across some beautiful turquoise waters to the mainland. This house is now converted into a hostel and just like the old days, there’s no electricity. Next door, a small cafe is where visitors sit outside and listen to the cries of grey seals, while watching the sun go down.
But that’s just part of the story because the Great Blasket Island is also home to more than 1,100 acres of unspoiled beauty. Sheep, hares and rabbits inhabit this tiny landmass and many grassy paths zig-zag throughout the village. With heather and wildflowers everywhere in between, the island is a picture of paradise and a truly wild haven to visit.
Unfortunately, much of the local folklore is missing and the islanders took everything with them. But you can still explore the remains of the village, and imagine the ghost of Peig Sayers roaming the island after dark. This lack of physical remnants also means the heritage of the Great Blasket Island is tied up in folklore, and songs, and stories and “things you cannot touch”. That being said, this absence provides fuel for the imagination.
Tomás Ó’Criomhain was one of the most famous authors from the island and wrote as though he knew this life was coming to an end. “Ni bheidh ar leithéidí arís ann” translates as “For the like of us will never be again.” which was a reference to the life and times that were about to disappear. One cannot feel sad about this truth but memories of the Great Blasket live on and the locals have left behind such a truly magical island for us to explore.
Just recently, Annie and Eoin moved down here from Dublin and I wanted to ask the new “caretakers” about their life and experiences on the Great Blasket Island…
Interview with the “Caretakers” of the Great Blasket Island
Derek: Annie and Eoin, thanks so much for taking this time to chat with me. You must be over the moon that you were chosen to run the hostel on the Great Blasket Island. What drew you to the island or what was it about this opportunity that interested you the most?
Eoin: We couldn’t believe our luck when we were chosen, especially with the sheer volume of applicants! The island had a pull on us for a very long time and once we became aware that this was a job that existed we knew we had to apply for it.
Annie: I had a very lucky childhood in that each summer my Mam and Dad (Des and Jane) piled us into a campervan and we travelled all around Kerry, Cork and Clare. I remember visiting the Great Blasket when I was a teenager with my family and it has stuck in my mind ever since.
Derek: Interesting. The Great Blasket seems to have a magnetic pull for many people I ask about their interest in the island. What does the actual job entail?
Eoin: The actual job isn’t all that romantic. We are not really the caretakers of the island, just managing the accommodation on the island. The cafe is closed this year due to Covid-19 but we have a whole extra layer of cleaning to do because of that too. When guests check out we have to clean the cottages from top to bottom and ensure they are not only clean and presetable but completely disinfected too. We also have to make sure the guests are not left wanting for anything during their stay.
Derek: It’s great that you always prioritise the safety of your guests – especially given the circumstances. So what does a typical day look like for Annie and Eoin?
Annie: Check out is at 10am and check in is 2pm. Some days we have all 3 houses to get changed around for new guests and the mornings can be quite hectic. We have started trying to get in a small walk in the morning before this. When the new guests are dropped off at the pier we have to be sure that the houses are ready and we need to check them in, giving them a quick tour of the houses and some tips on island living. The evenings are usually ours to go for a swim or a walk, or just read in front of the fire. And we have to be sure to get our dinner made before the darkness sets in as there is no electricity here.
Derek: This way of life must seem quite unusual. Do you mind me asking what you both did before moving to the island?
Eoin: I worked in Airfield Estate, Dundrum. I headed up a pilot program for adults with disability to gain work experience. It was in collaboration with an organisation called WALK.
Annie: I worked in the Education Department of the National Archaeology Museum of Ireland, before that I worked in the Education Department of Glasnevin Cemetery Museum. I was lucky in my jobs- I had the opportunity to meet and work with some wonderful people.
Derek: I recently discovered that many people dream of living in a small isolated cottage in Ireland. What do you most appreciate about your new lifestyle?
Eoin: I think that what I most appreciate is the space. The space to let the senses roam, listening to the sounds and just enjoying the immense views. It definitely makes a big change from Dublin.
Annie: I agree with Eoin. The space and views here are amazing. I also really appreciate the history of the island – to be able to see a view each day that is essentially unchanged since the authors of the island wrote their books.
Derek: That sounds so romantic and like such a nice way to star/finish each day. Do you think this lifestyle has benefited your mental or physical health? And if so, why?
Eoin: I think mentally anyway, more so than I thought it would at the start anyway. I have always been active but there is a definite freedom one feels when the Atlantic opens up in front of them from the front door. I feel at ease here and, once work is over, a comfort with doing nothing. It is nice to not always feel that I need to be doing something.
Annie : My sleep has really improved since I began living on this island. I think it is partly to do with the absence of artificial light. I am also getting fitter thanks to the many hills!
Derek: I think just about anyone reading this interview will want your job now. How does it feel to have no electricity on the island? Does that mean lots of candles and cold showers?
Eoin: It has definitely been an adjustment. Plenty of candles, a few battery powered torches and getting used to navigating in the dark help around the houses. We have a small turbine to keep the phones charged but that is the extent of it. And there is gas to cook with thank god! The biggest issue is that there is no fridge so we have had to be creative and really plan when it comes to food and meals on the island. The cold showers took a while to get used to and definitely still a challenge on some days!
Derek: What about cell service on the island? And how do you charge your phone?
Eoin: There is a surprisingly good signal on the island. There is a signal tower on the mainland and there is no interference between us and it. Visitors are surprised when they expect to be totally removed. We have a wind turbine which keeps the phones on so our parents don’t get worried.
Derek: I still think it’s good that you have signal. Visitors can turn off the phone and explore or read, if that’s what they really want to do. How do you get supplies?
Annie: Billy and Alice run the accommodation and sail the Peig Sayers. We get a delivery of food from them every few days as it is hard to keep most foods for any longer.
Derek: Does it get lonely out there and how do you cope with such times?
Eoin: It is a surprisingly social job with people coming and going all the time, from the overnight guests to the day visitors to the island. And Annie is great company! We have great chats every day so we haven’t had a chance to get lonely.
Annie: Right back at you Éoin! I think that we’ve learned so much about each other these past few weeks- we’ve seen each other in such unusual situations and definitely surprised each other at times ! The signal is good on the island and I think this really helps to have a phonecall with friends or family every so often— we don’t feel too far away.
Derek: What do you most like to do with your spare time?
Eoin: At the moment I am really enjoying going down to An Tráigh Bhán and getting in to the Atlantic. I also love going to parts of the island I have not been to yet and looking at all the nature that exists here.
Annie: I’m really enjoying dipping my feet in the Atlantic, always being careful of course as there are strong currents at an Tráigh Bhán. I brought my concertina with me so I’ve been enjoying playing a few tunes in the evenings!
Derek: Is there anything at all that you miss about life on the mainland?
Eoin: There is not a lot that I miss at the moment. Isolation was ideal practice for getting used to not going to the shops or the like. But having said that it would be nice to go for a coffee that someone else makes or get some takeaway.
Annie: Our days are very full here so there is not a lot I miss, apart from friends and family! There was a fantastic library service where I lived in Dublin (Dun Laoghaire Library) – I suppose I miss getting a new book and poring over it in a café. In the meantime however I’m really enjoying reading all the islanders books again.
Derek: Tomás Ó Criomhthain once said “the likes of us and our people will never be seen again”. What do you think he meant by this statement?
Eoin: When Tomás O’Criomhthain wrote those words there was an incredible community of people living here. I think that he saw people leaving the island to go to the mainland or America and was worried about that community. The season for us finishes at the end of September because the weather gets unpredictable thereafter and you could be cut off from the mainland for up to several weeks. It would be hard to be here through times like that without that strong community around you.
Derek: Can you both share your most favourite moment/experience from the island so far?
Annie: On the first night that we spent alone on the island, as we watched the boat sail back to the mainland a lovely rainbow broke out over the Blasket Sound. I hope that it was a good omen for our time here!
Eoin: For me it is an easy choice. The view from the front door. Every time you open it you are greeted by a view of the mainland, Beginis, and the Blasket Sound. It is a view that changes daily, if not sometimes hourly too. I don’t think that I will tire of it somehow.
Annie and Eoin, thank you for sharing your experience with our readers.
How to Visit the Great Blasket Island
You can organise either a boat trip or self-catering accommodation by visiting the Great Blasket Island website. The Office of Public Works also operate a free tour every day at 12pm, 1pm and 2pm. The Blasket Centre in Dunquin is also worth a visit and has a wealth of information about the island including photographs and letters belonging to the islanders. It’s worth remembering there are no supplies or services on the island and you will need to take everything needed for a comfortable stay. This includes food, proper walking shoes, warm clothing, rain gear, a head torch and sun screen.