Echoes of a long lost way of life

The Last Blasket King: Pádraig Ó Catháin, An Rí

by Gerald Hayes, with Eliza Kane

(The Collins Press, €12.99)

John Wyse Jackson

Can there really be a need for yet another book on the Blasket Islands? As I picked this one up, I wondered.

Since the beginning of the last century, life on the Great Blasket has been repeatedly chronicled – among the islands of Ireland only the largest of the Arans has generated a comparable library. A good number of these books are familiar to the general reader – in particular Ó Criomhthain’s An tOileánach (The Islandman), Ó Suilleabháin’s Fiche Bhliainag Fás (Twenty Years a-Growing), and the ubiquitous Peig by Peig Sayers. With a population that in historical memory never topped 200 souls, what more was there to say about the island?

I had no need to worry. This is a fascinating book and it is the very multiplicity of sources, with which the two authors are very familiar, that allows them to present a completely fresh view of Pádraig Ó Catháin, the man who for some three decades was undoubtedly the most prominent Blasketeer.


While the stories of earlier kings are lost to history, the ‘reign’ of the last incumbent coincided with the initial flowering of writing about life on the island, at first by visitors and then, magnificently, by the islanders themselves.

There may be only two of these Irish kings left now: Patsy Dan Rodgers of Tory Island and Mike Lynskey of the Claddagh in Galway. A hundred years ago there were over a dozen, most of them living on islands in the west – an early chapter in this fascinating book gives a useful list.

Evidently, though the terms ‘King’ and ‘Rí’ were widely used, in reality there was little monarchical about any of them: kings did not usually inherit the ‘throne’ and there were no formal elections or coronations.

As the authors explain, in most cases the honour was something more than a nickname and something less than a formal appointment. Instead, from time to time, senior members of each community settled on a dominant individual to be called ‘An Rí’, who would act when necessary as spokesman or chieftain.

Pádraig Ó Catháin was a wise and attractive man. The earliest account of him was written by John Millington Synge, who in 1905 stayed in his house (or ‘palace’, as the playwright liked to call it.) Synge and An Rí liked each other, and they had long, wide-ranging conversations.

The writer grew particularly fond of his recently married daughter Máire: there was inevitable gossip. Soon enough, she would be recognised as the model for Pegeen Mike in The Playboy of the Western World.

An Rí built an extra bedroom for visitors, and brought in some extra money every summer by offering B&B. This room doubled as a classroom and he lent it during the day to Tomás Ó Criomhthain (a friend and relative) for conversational classes in Irish with the scholars and linguists who by then were flocking to the island.

Pádraig Ó Catháin was King until 1934, when he set his face towards eternity. There were to be no further kings, and 20 years later the island was empty, a kingdom of sheep and rabbits. If you can possibly do so, pay it a visit. If you can’t, read this moving and authoritative book. The Last King of the Great Blasket will make you feel welcome.