In 1896 W B Yeats famously counselled John Millington Synge ‘to give up Paris’ and go to the Aran Islands. Yeats advised his friend to ‘live there as if you were one of the people themselves’ and ‘to express a life that has never found expression’. Synge took the advice and made his first journey to Aran in 1898. In the three months leading up to the trip, he read Pierre Loti’s Iceland Fisherman and took a copy with him as he made his first crossing to Aran. In 1917, another copy of this book was carried to another island off the Irish coast. It was taken to the Blasket Islands by Brian Ó Ceallaigh and given to Tomás Ó Criomhthain. In the story of the genesis of the Blasket texts, it is commonly said that Iceland Fisherman was offered to the old fisherman in order to persuade him to write his autobiography, a task for which he showed a certain reluctance.
This paper will briefly consider the changing critical fortunes of Loti’s text before examining its relationship with the politics of Irish culture at the turn of the twentieth century. It will also discuss the suitability of Iceland Fisherman as an autobiographical and ethnographic prompt.