by Hugo Hamilton

Reading the Ruins: How Ireland is Losing its Memory

October 19, 2009 | by Hugo Hamilton

THE IRISH LANDSCAPE is losing its memory. It no longer has the ability to recall the past. Like an old man in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, it has gone into a profoundly disoriented state, unable to find its way back, hardly even conscious of its own place in the world. Bewildered. Illogical. It seems to ask the same tormented question over and over again as though it has forgotten its own name.

Connemara? Where is that?

The Irish artist, Pádraic Reaney grew up in Connemara, in the Irish speaking, gaeltacht of Carraroe. In his fifties now, he has recently mounted an important exhibition of photographs at the Galway Museum which tells the story of Ireland’s accelerated memory loss. The exhibition shows the ruins of cottages in the neighbouring district of Ros a Mhil between 1979 and 1983. One hundred and eighty eight of them remained at the time, he told me. Now there are fewer than forty left.

Back then he was awarded a grant and decided to buy a camera with which he went around putting together a very moving series of black and white images of indigenous dwelling houses – stone ruins, some with thatched roofs still intact, some with sunken roofs, many without windows or chimneys going back to a time under British law when such architectural features were heavily taxed by landlords.

At the launch of the exhibition in July this year, Pádraic told me that there are people still alive today who can remember all the names and biographies of those who once lived in the cottages. But the task of gathering such information now seems beyond the needs of Irish society. No less than the physical existence of the ruins themselves, which have been disappearing rapidly under deliberate planning incentives by which permission is often granted for new dwellings only on the undertaking that the existing ruins are razed to the ground.

This confirms what a German architect told me some time ago, when a number of families from Hamburg bought a cluster of stone cottages on Achill Island with the intention of faithfully restoring them and settling there on the edge of the Atlantic. Their application to amend the cottages could be granted only on condition that they got rid of some older ruins which also existed on the land, and which they eventually managed to retain after a long running battle with Mayo County Council.

The archaeology of Ros a Mhil was not so fortunate. Apparently, the logic in planning offices goes along the lines that each dwelling house, no matter how ancient, has the potential to be inhabited. In order to grant permission for a new one, an old one must disappear. As though some long lost emigrant from post-famine times might still return from America and move back into one of these nineteenth-century homes.

In some cases, Pádraic told me, it was sufficient for the chimney to be knocked off as proof that an old cottage was beyond habitation. And slowly, the physical shape of memory keeps disappearing under a policy of active neglect in which successive governments seem determined to erase Irish poverty from the landscape. Not present day poverty, mind you, but all the remaining signs of destitution from the past, until the landscape belongs to a more prosperous, successful Ireland with all the apparent cosiness of modern living.

And perhaps this is the key to Ireland’s extraordinary memory loss. Unlike the German architect, Irish people are seldom interested in holding on to the ruins. Who wants to remember the past here? Who wants to be reminded that we once lived like people do now in third world countries in conditions which we have only recently left behind?

Much of what we have been doing is in denial of the past. In the rush to place the history of famine and emigration behind us, our gleaming new houses bear no resemblance to the truth of our origins. With balustrades and illuminated driveways, they convert parts of Connemara into a suburban landscape, as if the map is out of register. Even the separate garages for new cars are several times larger than any of the old cottages. And it must be years since the sound of a braying donkey was heard in this part of the world.

Which is fair enough. Nobody is asking anyone to live in stone ruins. Nobody wants us to live in a museum for aesthetic reasons. We can only celebrate Ireland’s economic success. It takes a certain amount of prosperity for a country to relax and examine its own past fully. And maybe it should also allow us to stop marshalling history to suit our immediate consumer needs.

The Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney has been raising the urgent issue of “de-sacral-izing” the land around the famous Hill of Tara where permission has been granted for a motorway. The decision to build a motorway right through the heart of this sacred terrain, layered with archaeological knowledge, takes no account of the impact on the spiritual connection to our distant past and must be tantamount to placing a golf course next to the pyramids.

In a heated debate, one local councillor actually put forward the argument on radio that the absence of a motorway was destroying families and causing divorce because husbands were taking such a long time in getting home after work. The Hill of Tara is useful to the Irish in terms of tourism. And the notion of “de-sacralizing” the landscape is a poetic construct which has no currency in the mind of the electorate any longer.

The Irish used to live more in the imagination, in their songs and stories and freedom aspirations, but now they have become a people who understand the value of their properties. We resent the cost of our heritage and we have become skilful at erasing the uncomfortable parts of ourselves. Every nation has a certain amount of self-hatred, some of it very necessary and positive in the pursuit of cultural renewal. But our new found self-confidence is often quite unforgiving.

For decades now, there is one woman we hate more than any other person on earth. No – not Queen Victoria. Not Margaret Thatcher either. The person at the top of our hate-list is, in fact, an Irish woman by the name of Peig Sayers. She is long dead now but we hate her all the more because she once wore a black shawl and lived in some of those tiny thatched cottages until the famous Congested Districts Board set up by the British government after the great famine provided more solid housing with slate roofs.

She is hated because she left behind a memoir in the Irish language, that derelict language which was once spoken in those derelict cottages and associated ever since then with the reek of poverty. Her memoir was force-fed to children in Irish schools. The word ochón remains imprinted on every child’s memory, a kind of wailing word that we don’t have any use for in Ire-land any more.

You could say it was the first of the Irish misery memoirs. A cruel life on the Great Blasket, a small rocky island off the west coast where Peig Sayers lived in the early part of the twentieth century with no TV and no cars and no shopping centre. Life on the island was made up mostly of waiting and talking. Waiting for fishermen to come in off the sea. Waiting for husbands and sons who never came home. A life of grief and loneliness and extreme poverty. Cut off from the world until the Irish government decided that life was no longer worth living out there and the inhabitants were finally brought in to the mainland in 1953.

The problem was that her story became a sensation, an archetypal narrative of a dying culture, a version of ourselves as victims. No wonder that we began to laugh at this poor woman’s troubles. Her story has been mocked ever since it was first published, beginning with Flann O’Brien who satirized the ideological sanctity to which her sad autobiography had been elevated by Irish language activists.

Get over it, is what we’re saying to ourselves. Get rid of the misery and all the little miserable cottages and all the snivelling, bronchial echoes that come out of them to this day. Every time we laugh at Peig Sayers, what we are really expressing underneath is “Thanks be to Jaysus we are no longer poor and oppressed and without mobile phones and predictive text”.

Laughter is a natural Irish virtue for which we are famous and envied by people elsewhere. But our laughter can also be a form of denial, the ultimate distancing effect by which we turn our backs on the truth – colonial, Catholic, or simply capitalist corruption. A lingering state of immaturity, often reinforced by writers and commentators who enjoy the prestige of mocking anything that might be perceived as backward. At the heart of this Irish self-mockery lies a deep, unresolved guilt. The unique Irish survivor guilt of laughing at the people behind us.

I try to explain this to myself by saying it was how we were shaped by history. We laugh at our own failure. The failure to understand the past because we still fear being dragged back there. We mock the cottages and the poor woman’s language precisely because we feel guilty about abandoning that memory. We blame the language itself. We say it was beaten into us. We say it was all Peig Sayers’ fault and laugh the guilty laugh of betrayal.

Instead, we have begun to admire the more contemporary female icons. In a recent TV interview, the first Irish page three girl – famous for having received a first class degree in sociology from Trinity College and for having a “brain as big as her bust” – claimed that she posed nude for the Irish tabloids in order to demonstrate finally that we were not lagging behind Britain any more.

We are catching up at last. We no longer live in the past. The ruins of Connemara from which people fled into emigration will not stand in the way of our planning objectives. They have become symbols of inertia in Ireland, before the great building boom.

But this betrayal also reflects a deeper dislocation. A lingering inferiority which can been seen in our conflicted definitions of public and private. We don’t feel comfortable sharing public space like the Euro-peans do. We mistrust public transport. We don’t take picnics in public parks like the immigrants from Poland and Romania do. In general, the landscape is not seen by us as a collective space but as something to be owned and exploited by individuals.

Perhaps it is the new immigrants coming into Ireland who have now begun to make our own public/cultural space more acceptable to ourselves. In a new demography of plural ethnicities – it’s hard to say multicultural – Ireland, with it’s many new languages and people coming from more than 180 different countries, with more people speaking Chinese than speak Irish, there may be a sudden recognition of our own failure and our own potential recovery.

It has become trendy to send children to Irish language schools, of which there are now over 190 in Ireland. Apparently the Irish government is now taking seriously the idea of granting tax-free status to remote places like the Aran Islands in order to encourage families to go back and live there. And perhaps there is still a chance to rediscover the true map around west of Ire-land, even when the physical memory has been fully erased.

From this Issue

A Life of Loose Ends

by Rodge Glass

Peace Work

by John D Brewer

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