Emigration

The Great Blasket lies at the rim of Western Europe. Looked at from a different perspective, it is not much further from America’s east coast as the Hawaiian Islands are from its west. As generations of young Islanders contemplated prospects of a better life, they looked in both directions before making their choice. Some took the short three mile trip across the Sound and settled in Dún Chaoin, Ballydavid, or Muiríoch. Others looked west and took the 2,000 mile trip to America.

Those who opted for America faced a challenge not much different from those other Europeans – Russians, Hungarians, Ukranians, Greeks, Italians, Germans and Jews – for whom English was not a first language. Like many of these groups, they came to settle in specific areas where they could offer each other mutual succour and support. The vast majority of Islanders headed for the town of Springfield, Massachusetts, and a great many of those settled in the part of it known as “Hungry Hill”. It is still possible in that town to happen upon a group of men and women speaking in fluent West Kerry Irish.

America, the land of spectacular success and failure, was no less so for the Islanders. Some adapted heroically to their new surroundings, while others shaped by the intimacy of belonging to a small island community, could never quite adapt to the pace and impersonality of the New World. However none of them could forget the culturally rich environment of the Great Blasket, and most of them have returned, as visitors or home-comers, to the place where they were born.

…Since the great potato famine of the 1840s….the Blasket Islands have had a much more intimate link with the west, with that next parish, in the form of the American city of Springfield, Massachusetts. Springfield, and the neighboring Connecticut Valley cities of Hartford, Connecticut and Holyoke, Massachusetts seemed much nearer to them and their Island home than their own capital city of Dublin, or the cities of London and Liverpool, each of which attracted large numbers of Irish emigrants as permanent residents and migrant laborers.

Today, Blasket-Americans conjecture that it was the building of railways which brought the first Islanders to Springfield. That might put them there in the 1830s or 1840s, but no trace of them then can be found. Today, an Islander in Holyoke with a long memory claims that the first Islander to come to the area was a Guiheen, and that he came before the Civil War.

Also, the role which kinship plays in emigration of the Islanders to Springfield cannot be underestimated. Whoever went first, they soon sent back for a brother or a sister, lending the passage money, and taking care of the initiation when the new arrival appeared on the steps of the old railway terminal on Main or Lyman Streets.

Professor Tom Biuso, native of Springfield, Professor of English in Colby Sawyer College, New Hampshire

Next day Maura wrote to her aunt for the passage money. Kate Peg was constantly coming to the house now and she and Maura talking of nothing but America. They would run across to the wall where pictures from Springfield were hanging. “Oh,” Kate would say, “We will go into that big building the first day, Maura.” Then the two of them would run out on the floor dancing for joy.

—Twenty Years A-Growing; Maurice O'Sullivan

I was inside with an old widow a few night ago, that grey woman you used [to] see in the middle of the village, always outdoor when you are passing, well she had three lovely rooms in her house, her children are all in America only one son that’s a man here, but not in her house. Imagine her sitting in the corner alone thinking and looking at her empty house [in] which her grand-children should be playing and she know that will never see her dear ones again.

— 'Letters from the Great Blasket' by Eibhlís Ní Shúilleabháin

In 1911 45% of the population were women, but by 1936 that percentage had dropped to 42% and to approximately 29% in 1946. The population increased between 1946-47 but this trend was very short lived. According to the Census of 1951 (two years prior to the evacuation) 27 people were recorded as living on the Great Blasket. Therefore there were only approximately 3 women to every 10 men living on the island in 1947.

On 17 November 1953, on the official date of evacuation there were 21 people living on the island: 4 women (who were getting on in years) and 17 men. The only explanation for this decrease is that more women than men left during this period. The women had no other choice but to leave if they wanted their lives to improve. A life of poverty and hardship as servant girls on the mainland is what was ahead of some. Better by far was to emigrate to Springfield, where family members had gone before. According to many accounts life was much better there. As a result of this life many enticing accounts were sent home.

The eldest girl always went first because she’d have spent a year or two working in Dingle or somewhere in the countryside near it or some place she could earn a few pence. She was always anxious to go. She’d also get help from her parents at home and the fare wasn’t a whole lot at that time. I think you could get from Cobh to New York for six pounds. When she went to Ameica and thought of her brothers in one another’s way at home with nothing to do and nowhere to earn a penny only sit in the corner, she’d send the fare over to them one by one as soon as she had earned it. And when the first fellow went over he’d return the money he was after getting from Máire or Cait or whoever, and she’d then send that home to yet another member of the family. That’s how the youth and vigour of the islanders were destroyed. They went to America.

—Leoithne Aniar; Seán Ó Criomhthain