Irish people place great importance on ownership of land and property: their one certainty in life, ensuring stability for future generations. And yet, alongside our illusion of permanence, reminders of transience abound in the plentiful lonely, crumbling cottages, along the western seaboard, abandoned during the Great Famine, the silent shells of once-substantial farm dwellings and castle ruins that stand like skeletal stone sentinels surveying the changing landscape. Ireland is a place where history is literally written in stone.
With a combination of mercantile and agricultural heritage, I have only memories and stories from which there is no escape, immersed as I am, in a landscape riddled with remnants of my distant and not-too-distant past.
In recent years I have recorded some of these and in July, 2015, Ireland’s Own Magazine, itself in existence for over a hundred years, selected one of them for publication.
A Past Preserved, A Past in Decline
Oh, have you been to Avondale,
And lingered in that lovely vale,
Where tall trees whisper and know the tale,
Of Avondale’s proud eagle?
Some years ago, I was helping a friend to search for a property to purchase in County Wicklow. On one of our excursions, we happened upon a parcel of land on which stood a semi-derelict, two-storey farmhouse with expansive views over the surrounding countryside. It reminded me of a house in Rathdrum where I had spent much of my childhood. I could see potential for reconstruction and development but my friend was adamant that it should be levelled and a new house built on the site. “You would never be granted planning permission,” I told him. “Why not?” he asked. “Because you’re not a native.” Still disbelieving, he drove to see the estate agent. “Where are you from?” the estate agent asked. “Dublin,” my friend relied. “You haven’t a snowball’s hope in hell.” Looking at me, he enquired as to where I was from. “Born in Rathdrum, where my mother was from, grew up in Glendalough, seven miles away, where my father was born, spent all my school holidays in Rathdrum,” I told him. “So, who are you related to in Rathdrum and Glendalough?” I rattled off the names of my ancestors, as well as living relatives.” He threw back his head and laughed. “Ah, sure we can trace you back to St. Kevin!” Turning to my friend, he said. “There ye are now, your wife will have no problem getting the planning permission!” My friend opted for a modern dwelling in Wicklow Town, and settled in. With the end of the Celtic Tiger fast approaching, I guessed that the old farmhouse would be left to die, like the house that filled my memories.
Just off Rathdrum’s street, located at the entrance to ‘The Pound Lane’, ‘Bryn Avon’ was a hub of music, laughter and chiming clocks. It was filled with smells of sweet new milk, baking bread and ripening apples. An orchard, a paddock that swept down to a babbling brook, a two-span hayshed, a row of outhouses, a yard, and a cowshed were our playground. We watched our aunt and uncle milk the cows, strain the milk and yoke the pony and gig to carry the milk cans to the crossroads from where they would be collected for the creamery. Two generations of nieces and nephews still remember herding the cows every morning after milking, up through the town to their grazing land, and herding them back for milking in the evening. In the course of this perambulation, copious amounts of steaming, aromatic dung were left behind, but no-one seemed to complain.
‘Bryn Avon’ is silent now, the outhouses, the orchard and the yards slowly crumbling back to Nature. The songs and the music and the stories and the prayers of several lifetimes have left through the gaping window frames and the holes in the roof. Peering over the wall along the laneway, I spot a platoon of white geese making their way down to the brook, where they have a splash and then waddle up the other side, appropriately enough, into the old farmyard. The sky is heavy with rain clouds. I have lingered, lamenting, long enough. I am eager for a walk among the tall trees at Avondale. Everywhere I look I am reminded of my vanishing history. From the road to Avondale, I can see the land across the river that was once in my great-grandmother’s family, bought in 1888, courtesy of the success of the Land League, founded by their neighbour, whose birthplace I am about to visit.
At Avondale, the tall trees stand majestically, as they have done for nearly two hundred years, and a vibrant new green canopy descends from the multitude of younger varieties. From the corner of my eye, I catch sight of a grey squirrel, unperturbed by my presence. And then the famous circular lawn and the house where he was born: Avondale’s ‘proud eagle’. Dubbed, ‘The Uncrowned King of Ireland’, Charles Stewart Parnell is remembered in song, in history, in monuments, bridges and street names throughout the country. His home in Rathdrum, modest by some standards, is solid, unpretentious and happily, preserved. His legacy, the lush arboretum that I now enjoy.
A small rabbit lingers for a moment and then dives into the undergrowth. A robin calls out from a budding Forsythia. Overhead, a feeding frenzy among clusters of crows’ nests, waving precariously among skyscraper, spindly branches. I am reminded that it is after lunchtime. A few drops of rain are beginning to fall. I might just make it back to the town before the shower. I wonder how many cousins I am removed from St. Kevin?