Monday, 23 June 2014

Famine houses

One of the experiences on my travels that profoundly moved me was the drive around the peninsulas of the southern Ireland. Bantry, The Ring of Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula. Very special places. I know many Irish people and thought I knew a bit about the history of Ireland, about the troubles and the potato famine. Fiona and I talked of this over wine in Antwerp, of all places.

It seems that was the story the victors told, the English. The potatoes did indeed get blight a few years in a row. The piece not often told is how the soldiers kept the good ones for themselves and to export to England while the Irish farmers starved. I know that is a very simple statement about a very complex history that bears retelling here at some point.

As I was driving around the Dingle Peninsula, I spotted a sign pointing to some famine cottages. I stopped, paid the small fee to enter and off I went up the path. Oh the weight of history, grief and ghosts in those places. Restored, with stories told of the people who had perished here, terrible stories that give me goose bumps sitting here on my couch in Wellington.

The ghosts got to me, I felt their presence as I read their stories. Wept for them and their suffering. As I wandered I looked up and got a fright that left me a bit shaken. The cottages had children in places I didn't expect to see them. Up in the attic looking down, out by the stable door. Not real children of course but feeling spooked as I was, it was disconcerting to look up and find a child looking down on me. I felt compelled to life the tapu of the place before getting into my car.

A friend shared this poem with me and it was all I really intended to include in this space this evening. Rereading I realised that this special poem by Seamus Heaney was a fitting end to the story.


Bet­ween my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Ben­ds low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests
I'll dig with it.

A hard life

No comments: