Ireland's Blasket Islands are an uninhabited tourist destination of crumbled-down stone cottages. Before emigration and attrition dwindled their population to a handful--until a final evacuation ordered by the Irish government in 1953--the Blaskets had been a vibrant, nearly self-contained settlement of around 150 hardy, Irish-speaking souls. The still-Celtic Blaskets had long been romanticized, yet the people of the islands made their most lasting cultural contributions in the last decades before their own culture's demise. During that period, as Robert Kanigel recounts in On an Irish Island, a steady procession of writers and intellectuals visited the island, encouraging residents to put pen to paper. In his clear-eyed yet admiring chronicle of that fertile time, Kanigel charms us with visions of this disappeared world, while raising intriguing questions about how even the most loving, respectful visitor can forever alter a remote destination.
Did the visitors, who came seeking linguistic research or sometimes personal edification, take more from the Blaskets than they gave in return? Did their coaxing of literary works from the residents of the Blaskets preserve a remnant of an already dying culture--or rush it out of existence by broadcasting it to the wider world? Kanigel turns his admirable trove of research into a surprisingly jaunty read, entertaining all these complicated and sometimes troubling possibilities with wisdom and no small amount of warmth. Readers will wish they would have been able to visit the inhabited Blaskets--yet perhaps also wish that no one had. --Cherie Ann Parker, freelance journalist and book critic