Cole Moreton,
Hungry for Home:
Leaving the Blaskets:
A Journey from the Edge of Ireland

(Penguin, 2001)

Pico Iyer,
The Global Soul:
Jet Lag, Shopping Malls,
and the Search for Home

(Vintage, 2001)

The Great Blasket is an island off the far west coast of Ireland that today lies uninhabited. It was not always so. The final evacuation was a day in November 1953 when a boat left carrying a group of the last islandman accompanied by Irish government officials. Thus ended the history of human occupancy, what had begun a thousand years ago with a group of monks of the Celtic Church landing on a desolate island. That final boat trip (not, as becomes clear in the book, a sorrowful one for the islanders) meant that no living community remained to bear witness to the story Cole Moreton wishes now to tell in Hungry for Home: Leaving the Blaskets, the story of the island's recent history and the circumstances of its abandonment. Of necessity therefore the book leans less towards anthropology, in the tradition for instance of Hugh Brody's Maps and Dreams, and more towards social archaeology.

The author's task is a difficult one -- first to gain for himself insight into the life of a vanished community, and second to convey this hard-won insight to readers whose life experiences are likely to be rooted in a contemporary urban environment. That he largely succeeds in this is the more remarkable for the fact that he is not himself Irish or of Irish decent, but an English journalist who, on holiday in County Kerry (that region of Ireland closest to the Great Blasket) became intrigued as to how and why the island community died.

Of course there are people still alive who lived on the island and who were willing to tell him stories of the old days (in their native Irish language -- Moreton used an interpreter). The everyday life of the islanders, its hardship and joys, is told in passages of "faction" -- real events told from the imagined viewpoint of real people. Also, drawing on the several past autobiographical works of islanders themselves he shows how the Great Blasket was recognised as the last remnant of an Irish culture untouched by the ravages of colonialism and the subsequent fight to be rid of its yoke. But Moreton brings an interesting perspective to this, showing how the islanders lived precariously balanced between a poor, emerging Ireland and the wealthy United States of America that was to welcomed many of them as immigrants.

It is from those sections of the book dealing with the experiences of islanders in America that the book derives its title. It is clear that to those born into the harsh life on that storm-tossed piece of rock jutting from the sea at the edge of Europe, it occupied a place in heart and soul that the word "home" does not come close to describing or encompassing.

Moreton tells of a hunger rooted in place, ultimately in geography. In contrast Pico Iyer's search, related in his book The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home, is conducted in the world of today where the question "where are you from?" is becoming for more and more people more and more difficult to answer.

Iyer's search is less focused on geography and more on race/culture. This is understandable given his own Indian-American-British multicultural upbringing. He takes us on a circuitous route through our post-modern world (Los Angeles International Airport, Hong Kong, the Atlanta Olympics, England, Japan) in an attempt to find a place whose resonances match his own to the extent that he can call it Home. And this is the point. The Blasket islanders' hunger for home was doomed to remain insatiate because it looked always to a single place, a place that was distance firstly only in miles but which eventually became unreachable when erased by time.

Moreton, in retracing the train and boat journey (as far as it remains possible today) of the islanders to the new land of America attempts to recreate their sense of disorientation, wonderment and loss. Iyer, too, in Toronto meets an emigrant from India who, while lauding Canadian life, longs for his far less salubrious (but home) country. Nevertheless, Iyer argues, this sense of loss belongs to the past, as ethnic communities recreate "place" in new locations. Today home is only secondarily related, if at all, to community, monoculture or attachment to place; it can instead be a personal construct, a somewhere that each individual needs to experience and when necessary re-experience in order to feel at ease in the world.

The Blasket islanders lived in a close community where interdependence in the face of harsh conditions bred fierce loyalties -- Moreton describes how three young men risked their lives journeying in a small boat in rough seas so that a fellow islander who died might have the dignity of a timber coffin. To such people, to "feel at home" is to feel something very strongly indeed. Iyer is one of the growing band of what he terms Global Souls, those who have grown up straddling cultures (often several) and race. After a personal odyssey he at last discovers his personal home, a place, as he describes it, where his mind and body can be present at the same time, and where a flower added to a room can help concentrate the mind and consecrate the room.

There is no denying that the modern world is a fast changing one where the opportunity and time to forge membership of a strong mono-cultural community (traditionally "home") is diminishing. Hungry for Home shows what might be lost in such a headlong rush, while The Global Soul shows the global pressures fuelling the changes and what new ways are emerging to satisfy the basic human need for a sense of "home." These two books give the reader an understanding of the old and the new and allow inventory to be taken of what is being lost and what maybe is being gained.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]
Rambles: 17 November 2001

Click on a cover to buy it from