Orality and Agency: Reading an Irish Autobiography from the Great Blasket Island

Abstract

The Islandman (1934) by Tomás Ó Criomhthain is the first autobiography to be published by a member of the Irish-speaking community on the Great Blasket Island. This book, whose author was a member of a largely oral community and a participant in many communal oral traditions, has often been read as the work of a passive informant rather than that of an active author. By examining the critical attitudes towards Ó Criomhthain and his work, particularly those that associate orality with passivity and communalism and deny textual authority to members of largely oral communities, this article identifies a crucial tension between opposing readings of this text: reading Ó Criomhthain as a representative type and reading Ó Criomhthain as an author. By developing the latter reading of the text, the reader may recognize the agency of the author-subject of a collaborative autobiography that has its roots in a life lived largely through orality.

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