Wednesday, 5 September 2018

A swiftly tilting land

I take the bus to my day job in Dublin every morning, and most days that means I study, read or write articles. On the days when Liam is driving, though, I stand at the front – unlike most bus drivers, he’s chatty, and I know I can talk to him and hear everything that’s happening around the neighbourhood.

He knows that I like to interview elderly people in our area, people who grew up here in Ireland before it became modernised, and ask about the details of everyday life. I’ve told him that they represent a vast and unappreciated resource – among the last people who grew up living a low-energy life, keeping to an older set of values, and part of an organic community rather than as atomised individuals staring at screens.

That culture is disappearing quickly here in Ireland – the last few years have seen one tectonic political shift after another, mostly funded by the technology corporations that have come to dominate the economy. Pope Francis visited the island last weekend, and while he got a sizable crowd, it was much reduced from previous visits – and disproportionately elderly.

I’m seeing fewer and fewer of the old men and women who still garden their own plot, repair their own tools, bicycle to church and can join in old songs at the pub. The younger generations here, I find, have no country but social media, and their grandparents feel like aliens in their own birth-village.

“Have you talked to the local historical societies?” the bus driver asked.

I have, I said, and they have been of some help – but their interviews often asked about family genealogies or big historical events, and I’m more interested in the minutiae of life. My elderly neighbours usually insist there’s nothing interesting to say about their lives, or they try to turn the conversation to whatever was in the newspapers at the time. I’m more interested in how often they ate, what dinner was like, how they courted, what they wore to swim in the river, and how long the washing took. 

I want to hear how they kept silence as they walked past a bend in the path where a man had died a hundred years’ prior, how they and their school-mates walked across the fields in deep night to a school dance, and how they pricked their fingers and wiped their cheeks with blood to give them a flush.

 “You know who would have been great to talk to is my Auntie,” Liam said. “When she was a young Irish girl she somehow became the hand-maiden of a French duchess, and met all the nobility of Europe.”

That would be a great story, I said – but she’s gone now?

“Yes, we took care of her in her final years, and the doctors told us she was getting senile. ‘She seems to be delusional,’ the doctor said, ‘She's telling wild stories that she used to be hand-maiden to a French duchess.’”


If my neighbours don’t recognise their country’s culture anymore, neither do they recognise the weather. This past spring we got a metre of snow, in a country where we never get more than a light dusting of snow once a year. Thankfully our bees survived, but many other beekeepers in the area say their hives did not.

A hard winter alone doesn’t doom the crops or animals here, but then we got one of the hottest, driest summers in recent memory. The result was lovely and comfortable for me, but not great for our neighbours; the lack of rain meant far less grass for the cows to eat, and far less grain to harvest for humans. As a farmer friend of mine told me the other day, they won’t have silage for the winter either.

Here in the bog, moreover, a hot, dry summer brings dangerous fires – not of trees or other above-ground vegetation, but of the ground itself. The very land below our feet is made of peat, which we and other Irish use for fuel, and which burns slow and hot like coal. I was talking with one of my neighbours about local history when our neighbour Jack drove by on his tractor, shouting, “The bog’s on fire again!” and sure enough, we saw the column of smoke in the distance. Thankfully, the bog was still damp enough that no fire spread very much, but any drier summers ahead could bring genuine catastrophe.  

Even now, in September, we have felt an unseasonal warmth, and everything is delayed. Butterflies cover our mint plants, and my bees are as busy as they were in May. I haven’t harvested any honey from them yet, instead letting them have their fill while they can.

The swallows have still not left the rich feeding grounds for their usual winter holidays in Africa. On the other hand, I am seeing more of the predatory birds that almost disappeared from Ireland, which I take as a good sign for the local ecology. The other day I was walking to the woodland when an explosion of small birds burst out of the trees, followed by a goshawk, expertly weaving through trees in pursuit.

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