ON AN IRISH ISLAND

Awarded Michael J. Durkan Prize, American Conference for Irish Studies, 2012


Review Excerpts


"A remote setting, a handful of young visitors, a collection of colorful locals, an ancient language and a story that spans half a century: These are but a few of the elements that make Robert Kanigel's On an Irish Island an exuberant and delightful book...[It can be read] as an erudite primer to the [literary] works of the islanders; as a beautifully assured ensemble biography; and as a large-scale portrait of a remarkable time in the history of Great Blasket and the wider world. Yet it is, above all, a compelling tale of ordinary -- and often enviable -- lives in an extraordinary setting." -- Wall Street Journal

"The portraits in this book are classic Kanigel: lively, sympathetic and thoroughly engaging...A mesmerizing interplay of lives and socio-historical contexts." -- Kirkus, starred review

"Scholars and literary types fell in love with Ireland’s Great Blasket Island in the previous century, just when it was in its twilight. The doomed love affair, the dying—what could be more Irish?" -- Malcolm Brown, The Daily Beast

An "impressively researched, greatly inviting history." -- Booklist

"Deliciously homes in on the 'singularly severe glory' of the Blasket Islands off the west coast of county Kerry." -- Boston Globe

"An unexpected combination of characters, all treated with dignity and sensitivity." -- John L. Murphy, New York Journal of Books

A tale of “hardscrabble but joyful life.” – Rachel Nolan, San Francisco Chronicle.

"Robert Kanigel's history weaves a ribbon around your heart...Part literature history, part Irish history, and a liberal dash of encroaching modern times make On an Irish Island an escapist magical journey that will crawl into your psyche. -- San Francisco Book Review

"Perceptive and well-balanced" -- Columbus Dispatch

"On an Irish Island might be the next great Irish story...A fascinating collection of tales." -- Portland Book Review (Oregon)

"In his clear-eyed yet admiring chronicle..., Kanigel charms us with visions of [a] disappeared world, while raising intriguing questions about how even the most loving, respectful visitor can forever alter a remote destination....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." -- Cherie Ann Parker, Shelf Awareness

"Kanigel rewrites his literary fieldwork into a chronicle that is alive and kicking on every page; his writing conveys the flavor, scent, and sound of life on a remote Irish island...[On an Irish Island is] a story rich in color and texture, and is viable as a work of cultural anthropology in its own right." -- Janette Van Gruisen, The Independent Scholar Quarterly

"Shortly after the turn of the last century, a handful of scholars started making pilgrimages to Great Blasket Island, a storm-wracked lament of granite, bog, and pasture about three miles out into the Atlantic off the west coast of Ireland, home to some 150 souls and a lovely strain of the Irish tongue. The scholars, linguists from the mainland and from the Continent, came for the language but soon found themselves beguiled by the people and their island life. There followed for thirty years a fruitful exchange between the residents and the scholars, which Robert Kanigel artfully and empathetically chronicles in On an Irish Island...In passages that have a wonderful, ecstatic quality, Kanigel traces [George] Thomson's notion that Homer had come alive on Great Blasket." -- Peter Lewis, Barnes & Noble Review

"Kanigel tells a fascinating piece of history...[Nowadays], what's gone is the whole concept of village life, without television, iPads or Beyonce. There's no point in posing questions about where such a life went, or whether we can get it back. But now, at least, we've got this lovely book." -- Carolyn See, Washington Post


Review Excerpts, Irish heritage publications


"Kanigel captures the wild bleak beauty of the island while weaving an intricate tangle of [human] relationships...Beyond being a fascinating slice of history, Kanigel's riveting narrative prompts one to question what we may be missing that the islanders, in all their simplicity, found." -- Sabina Clarke, Irish Edition

An "immensely readable and passionate exploration" of the Blasket story. A "masterful study...This book is literally spellbinding." -- Irish Central

"Kanigel is a gifted storyteller in his own right. Rather than offering a typical historical narrative, [he] makes sure that his chronicle of Great Blasket Island is both entertaining and informative. The place comes alive." -- Irish America

The author "places a solid literary stamp on a rich Irish legacy. Readers quickly sense in his text a passion not only for the wondrous historical tale he unveils but his own love of the written word....A wild ride on the Blasket Islands literary rollercoaster." -- Desert Shamrock, Phoenix, AZ



Full text, Kirkus starred review of On an Irish Island


"A richly detailed biographical study of a group of early-20th-century intellectuals whose shared love for a dying insular culture helped save it from extinction.

"Kanigel displays his abundant erudition and narrative finesse in this story of how four European intellectuals—classicist George Thomson, British Museum curator Robin Flower and linguists Carl Marstrander and Marie-Louise Sjoestedt—found their lives forever changed by encounters with the people of Great Blasket Island, off the coast of Ireland. The four traveled to this remote island at different times and for different reasons. Thomson followed the suggestion of his friend and fellow Celtophile Flower and went to Blasket for the “Gaeltacht,” the Irish culture which had already enchanted Flower. Marstrander, a Norwegian, sought to examine the linguistic links that bound the Vikings to the ancient Celts. The sophisticated Parisian Sjoestedt sought the opportunity to study one of the most complex linguistic systems in the world. Although the islanders lived in "primitive" conditions, all four visitors became enthralled by the rich island culture. Interwoven among these overlapping, sometimes intersecting biographies are other stories, including that of playwright John Millington Synge, who went to the island to learn spoken Irish; and those of the men and women the four scholars befriended, loved and inspired. Thanks to their influence, dialect-rich folktales and life histories that would otherwise have perished found their way into Irish literary history. The portraits in this book are classic Kanigel: lively, sympathetic and thoroughly engaging. Yet what makes the narrative so affecting is the loss that permeates the text. As cultures like those on Great Blasket continue to be destroyed by the march of progress, so too are our connections to a simpler, more personally fulfilling way of living.

"A mesmerizing interplay of lives and socio-historical contexts."