Ireland: The Skeleton of a Human Settlement

Suddenly we saw it: the skeleton of a deserted village. We had reached the top of the hill and there it was, lying on the next slope. Nobody had said anything to us about it, nobody had warned us: there are so many deserted villages in Ireland. The church and the short-cut to the strand had been pointed out to us as well as the shop where they stocked tea, bread, butter and cigarettes. They had shown us the newsagent too and the post office and the little harbour where at low tide you could see the harpooned sharks lying in the mud like capsized boats, black backs uppermost, unless it happened that the last surge of the incoming tide had upturned a white belly from which the liver had been hacked out. All of them had been worth a mention but not the deserted village and its grey, identically shaped gables of stone that we saw at first without any perspective in depth as though it was an amateur's painted backdrop for a ghost film. With a catch in our breath we tried to count them – at least forty – and there must surely have been a hundred. The next bend in the track gave us another view and now we could see it from the side. Bare structures that seemed to be waiting for the carpenter. Grey stone walls, dark spaces for windows, not a piece of wood, not a scrap of building material, nothing in colour. It was like a body without hairs, without eyes, without flesh, without blood: the skeleton of a village.
There was something frightening about the clarity of the structures. There was the main street. On the bend, where the small round 'square' was, there must have been a public house. There was a side-street, then another. Everything that wasn't made of stone has been gnawed away by rain, by sun, by wind and, as it trickled patiently through everything, by time. There are four and twenty large drops of it every day; it is an acid which, like resignation, corrodes everything almost unnoticed…
If one tried to paint it, this skeleton of a human settlement, where a hundred years earlier five hundred human beings may have lived, where there was nothing now but grey triangles and rectangles on a green-grey mountainside, should one paint in the girl with the red pullover who just happened to be going down the main street with a creel full of turf: a dab of red for her pullover and a dark brown for her face? And if one perhaps also put in the white sheep who lurked like lice among the ruins, one would be regarded as an unusually insane painter. The reality was as abstract as that. Everything that wasn't stone had been eaten away by the wind, the sun, the rain and by time and the skeleton of the village was now spread out beautifully on the dark slope as if for a lesson in anatomy. There — "Look there, just like a spinal column" — was the main street, a little stooped like the spine of someone who had worked very hard. Not a single small bone was missing. The arms were there: their bones were the side-streets. And there, having rolled a little to one side, was the head: the church, a somewhat larger triangle. The left leg was the road that went eastwards up the slope, the right was the one that went down into the valley: it was a little shorter than the other. So the skeleton was that of someone with a slight limp. That is how the exposed skeleton of the man whom his four skinny cows were driving past us to the meadow (they just let him think that he was doing the driving!) might look in three hundred years time. His right leg had been shortened in an accident, his back was bent from the hard work of footing turf and his weary head would roll a little to one side when they laid him down in the clay. He had already overtaken us, had already murmured his "Nice day!" before we had drawn enough breath to answer him or to ask him about this village.
No blitzed city, no village after an artillery bombardment had ever looked like this. Bombs and shells are really just bigger tomahawks, axes and hammers with which people smash and hack away. But here there was no trace of force to be seen. With unending patience time and the elements had eaten up all that was not stone and cushions of moss and grass on which the bones were resting like relics were growing out of the ground.
Here nobody would try to knock down a wall or remove timber — which is so dear in this country — from an abandoned house. In Germany we call that 'clearing out'; here nobody clears anything out. No, not even the children who come in the evening to bring the cows home from the fields above the deserted village, not even they try to knock down walls or doorways. Our children though, the minute we reached the centre of the village, tried to flatten it all out straight away! But here nobody tries to flatten anything out, they simply leave the soft parts of abandoned dwellings to provide food for the wind, for the rain, for the sun and for time. Then, after sixty, seventy or a hundred years just the basic structures, on which no carpenter will ever place his floral wreath at a topping out ceremony, are left. And so that is what a human settlement looks like when it is left in peace after its death.
Feeling increasingly oppressed we wandered along the main street between the bleak gables and crowded into little side-streets. The oppressive feelings grew less as we saw the way the grass was growing on the streets and the way moss had spread itself over walls and potato beds and had climbed away up the walls. The stones of the gables were neither cut nor brick-shaped but were simply loose stones which had been washed down by streams from the mountain to the valley floor. Stone lintels drooped over doors and windows and the two flagstones sticking out of the walls where the fireplaces had been were as broad as shoulder blades. The chains for the iron cooking pots had once hung from them when the pale potatoes would lie in brown-coloured water…
We went from house to house like hucksters and again and again, after we had passed under the narrow shadow in the doorway, the blue rectangle of the sky loomed above us. It was bigger in houses that had housed the better off, smaller in the houses where the poor had lived: now only the size of the blue rectangle set them apart. Moss was already growing in many rooms and there were plenty of doorsteps which were awash under brown water while the hitching pegs for the cows could still be seen on the front walls here and there: thigh bones of oxen to which the chains would have been fastened.
"The stove stood here!" — "The bed was there!" — "The crucifix hung over the mantelpiece here!" — "There's a wall cupboard here!": two vertical stone slabs into which two horizontal slabs had been wedged. In this wall cupboard one of the children found an iron wedge. It crumbled away in the hand when we pulled it out leaving only a solid core the thickness of a nail. On the instructions of the children I placed this in my coat pocket as a souvenir.
We spent five hours in that village and the time flew by because nothing was really happening. We shooed a few birds into the sky. A sheep fled before us through an empty window and and headed away off up the hill. Blood-red flowers hung on fossil-like fuchsia hedges. On the blossom-covered furze bushes hung a yellowness like that on old corroded coins. Gleaming quartz stuck out of the moss like bones. There was no dirt on the roads, there was no junk in the ponds and there wasn't a sound to be heard. Maybe we were just waiting for the girl in the red pullover and the creel full of turf, but she never did come back again.
As I made my way home I put my hand into my pocket to have a look at the iron wedge but all I had in my hand was a dusty mixture of brown and red. It was the same colour as the bog to the left and right of the track and I flung it away into it.
No one could tell us exactly when and why the village had been abandoned. There were so many abandoned houses in Ireland that you could count them off on any two hour walk you liked. That house there had been abandoned twenty years ago, that one fifty or eighty years ago — there were even houses where the nails used to fasten boards over the windows and doors had not yet rusted through, where the wind and the rain still could not get in.
The old lady who lived in the house next to us was unable to say when the village had been abandoned. When she was a little girl around 1880 it had already been emptied. Of her own six children only two had stayed behind in Ireland. Two were living and working in Manchester, two had gone to the United States, one daughter had got married here in the village. That daughter also had six children. It appears that two of them had gone to England and two to the States…
The old lady's eldest son had stayed at home with her. From the distance, when he was bringing the cows home from the field, he looked like a sixteen-year-old. Then, when he turned the corner into the village street, we felt that he must be in his mid thirties. Finally, as he went past the house and grinned shyly in through the window, we saw that he was fifty.
"He doesn't want to get married", said his mother, "isn't it a disgrace?"
Yes, it was a disgrace. He was industrious and neat. He had painted the door red. The stone buttons on the wall were also red while the window frames under the green mossy roof were completely blue. His eyes were alive with wit and he was as gentle as could be when he tapped the donkey on the back.
In the evening when we went to get the milk we asked him about the deserted village but he had nothing to say about it. Nothing. He had never even set foot in it. They had no field there and their turf bank was in another direction, to the south, not far from the memorial to the Irish patriots who had been hanged in 1799 — "Have ye seen it yet?" Yes, we had seen it —
And so Tony set off again, a fifty-year-old. At the corner of the village street he became a thirty-year-old. Up on the hill, where he was petting the donkey as he went along, he was a sixteen-year-old. Then, as he paused for a moment by the fuchsia hedge — just for that moment — before he disappeared behind it — he looked like the young boy he once had been.

The German author of this account of a deserted village in County Mayo, Heinrich Böll (1917 – 1985), was born in Cologne. He visited Ireland in the early 1950s with his wife and children. His account of that visit, 'Irisches Tagebuch ('Irish Diary'), published in 1957, tells of an Ireland none of us will ever be able to see again, an Ireland which has gone, as they say over there, "like the snow last year". Mainly known for his novels and short stories he was a Catholic and had served as a soldier in the German army during the Second World War. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972.
Translation ©: Wales Famine Forum, 2002.

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