‘Oh, look honey,’ drawls a man walking in front of me, pointing to something across the street, ‘isn’t that quaint!’ Matching his wife in a Stars n’ Stripes tracksuit, they stop short to gawk at the Georgian buildings that line Dublin’s pint-sized D’Olier Street. The windows. The brickwork. Evidence of human life long before any of us. In doing so, they clog the foot traffic flowing down the narrow footpath linking Trinity College with the River Liffey. Office workers, clearly accustomed to the annual summer influx, sidestep right to dodge the obstacle without breaking stride. I step left, into Books Upstairs. A repository of calm.
The manager, in her early twenties I guess, smiles brightly at me. She’s right on-trend in the nineties-revival fashion that reminds me of my childhood. But the cuts are better these days.
‘G’morning!’ she stops feeding Margaret Atwood’s latest offering to a shelf, ‘What’s tha story?’
As her only customer, she’s got time for the craic.
‘It’ll all make more sense after coffee…’ I smile.
She flashes a knowing look. ‘I’ve not had a coffee either and I’m dying!’
Wafts from the cafe upstairs seems to mock us.
‘We need to fix this, urgently,’ I joke as I aimlessly pick up, flick through, and place back books onto neat stacks that glow in soft light permeating the stained-glass windows.
‘That book’s brilliant, by the way…’
I fold the pages closed to see the cover of the book I selected absent-mindedly. Lynn Davies’ Can’t and Won’t. She guides me to her favourite micro story, where a deceased hiker’s body is discovered with an unsent postcard found in his jacket pocket that praises his trip. As we bask in the dark humour, I rest Lynn under my arm. She’s coming with me.
‘Now, are’ya after anything in particular?’
Scanning the blurb of the book in my hand, Collini’s What are Universities For?, I know – full-well – it’s not what I’m here for.
‘Well…’ I begin, with reticence, ‘I’m curious to learn about The…’ – pause – ‘…The Famine…’ I feel heavy, sort of like asking a German, Pole or Hungarian for a book about the Nazis. Not necessarily an endearing gesture.
She wears a strange expression. For her, the agricultural crisis that started in 1845, that turned political and by 1852 had devastated Ireland, came out of left field. I concede, it’s not the hippest topic.
‘Why?’ her brow creases, ‘D’ya need cheerin’ up?’
My eyes flicker to my right for a beat, then return to meet hers. I’m accustomed to the Irish brushing painful topics away with humour. It takes deft skill – and certain qualifications – to converse about deep cultural wounds. The Republic is one hundred years old, but the damage from the The Troubles are still felt, and some accents still make people bristle. Australian is fine.
‘Not exactly,’ I place my bag down. ‘It’s just, I was on Achill Island last week and–have you been?’
She shakes her head. ‘But I’m cycling out there next week!’
‘Well…’ I smile. ‘There’s a village that was deserted during The Famine…’ It’s time to explain my morbid interest. ‘Nana’s family were rebels in 1916. They left Dublin in the ‘20s, but Grandad’s family left in the 1850s, so I’m curio–’
‘Oh!’ she looks closely and smiles, ‘so you’re one of us.’
She’s all ears.
Achill is 290 kilometres west of Dublin – in County Mayo, where an estimated 11,000 people speak Irish in Gaeltachts. At about 150 square kilometres, it’s Ireland’s largest island. Home to just under 3,000 people, it has an ancient aura of pagan mystery, complete with megalithic tombs approximately 5,000 years old. Its shocks of vibrant wildflowers dot the rugged bog lands at the base of craggy mountains. Smoke curls from chimneys as peat is burned, even in summer, to offset the temperamental Atlantic climate.
One Thursday in July, at about midday, I stand alone at the base of Slievemore Mountain, guessing to myself how much of the 650-metre high beauty is swallowed by fog. About halfway up, a farmer roams through gorse and heather, tending to his scruffy sheep who behave like lawnmowers. A dot-figure in a red jumper, rather like somebody is pointing a laser beam. The long stretch of rugged green-grey land eventually meets a pebbly beach. And when it ends, the mountains continue. Aside from occasional bleats and a gentle breeze, the deserted village is peaceful. Like a cemetery. Unlike at busy, advertised, highly controlled remnants of bygone societies with a high-profile, Machu Picchu for instance, I am completely uninterrupted. I passed no ticket booth or impatient queue. No tour buses or garish signs. The place can sit in quiet dignity.
Archaeologists date Slievemore Village back to the 1200s. Rows of humble cottages – sixty, at a guess – were constructed with dry-stone walls and thatched roofs. The bumpy ground served as a floor. There was space to harvest food outside each lot. Once a village of buildings, eight-hundred years on dozens of uneven walls sit alone. Roofless rectangles. Stones have either fallen away or been repurposed. Weeds – with yellow and pink flowers – push decoratively through the cracks. If the thatch wasn’t set alight by English rulers to push the Irish off their land, then it returned to nature when nobody was left.
Ducking to enter an intact doorframe, I sit where people of Slievemore once ate, slept, cooked. Lit fires, made clothes and babies, played. Spoke Irish, not English. With closed eyes, I absorb the serenity. Black ‘47 – Lance Daly’s Famine revenge-fantasy, depicting a similar village in 1847 – comes to mind. People lived here for about six hundred years, until the land failed them and like millions of others, they went searching for food. And, like millions of others, they never returned home.
Walking down the street, a short blonde-haired woman in her forties – a school teacher from Cork – approaches me.
Her greeting cuts straight to the point, ‘Haven’t we a tragic history in this country?’
I slowly nod.
‘See those little mounds there?’ she points to orderly rows of bulging earth, beneath the blades a sheep is nibbling. ‘They’d be failed crops.’
At a bar that claims to be Europe’s most westerly – out towards Keem Strand, Europe’s most westerly beach, a misty, mountainous landscape, home to more sheep than people – it’s jarring to process Slievemore’s haunting past while enjoying a hearty stew.
The shop manager guides me to the Irish History section, a showcase of Ireland’s trilogy of modern tragedies. The 1916 Easter Rising. The Troubles. And, arguably the root cause of both, The Famine. She tells me the thing that disconnects young Irish people from their history is the school system’s dry rendition of it. Luckily, plenty of authors and artists are now providing more illuminating accounts. I flick through academics’ research, portraits of different social classes at the time, and political essays by historians and journalists.
You don’t need to be Irish to have heard of the Potato Famine. The Great Famine. The Great Hunger. Or, more locally, an droch-am, the ‘bad times’. It’s now possibly as culturally synonymous as Riverdance and factional terrorism. It has certainly inspired many Irish folk tunes – like The Fields of Athenry, beautifully covered in 2019 by musicians Glenn & Ronan – but is also a throw-away joke about the Irish people’s love of ‘pot-ay-toes’.
Growing up as a member of the diaspora in Australia, I vaguely knew a potato crop had failed – leaving the rural poor with literally no food – but knew nothing of the forced prostitution and, in some cases, cannibalism. Or the workhouses, where countless thousands were crushed in squalor, forced into time-consuming and exhausting – but ultimately useless – manual labour projects in return for some scraps. The roads leading nowhere are still, to this day, dotted around the country. I didn’t know that becoming a petty criminal became a lifestyle choice to become a convict. As depicted by Jennifer Kent’s film The Nightingale, women were sent to Van Diemen’s Land, men to Barbados, where they were tortured by the same ilk of the rulers who willfully turned a blind eye to their plight in Ireland. They would never again see their families or home. But it was a safer bet than staying, where death was inevitable. Spiritual death, of course, was a different matter. I didn’t know that famine refugees – who dragged themselves across harsh, expansive countryside in search of something, anything, to eat only to die trying – now lay in mass graves across County Mayo.
Walking through Dublin’s neighbourhoods of Stoneybatter and Smithfield, historian and podcaster Fin Dwyer pointed out the old workhouses and prisons to the American visitors and I on his walking tour. An office block, that was once a slum where the first-reported Dubliners died of starvation. And Collins Barracks – pre-Independence, it was Royal Barracks but now it honours the revolutionary Michael Collins – where the Government-of-the-day enjoyed a decadent dinner to celebrate their short-lived Famine relief strategy: to feed soup to the starving, so long as they converted from Catholic to Protestant. It dawned on me that Ireland’s most horrendous scar is termed incorrectly. As historian Tim Pat Coogan writes, somewhat controversially, in The Famine Plot a famine is an absence of food, but there was an abundance of food in Ireland during the 1850s. The problem was, it was either fed to the ruling English class or shipped to England and sold to people who could afford it.
In recent decades, since ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair apologised for past wrongs, Ireland began a public reckoning through documentaries, public works and memorials. Rowan Gillespie’s emaciated bronze people have walked, frozen, along the Liffey since 1997, eerily juxtaposed against the glossy eastern end of Dublin, where tech giants including Facebook and Google set up home to get a good tax break. In 2006, a muralist in Belfast declared on the side of a house that the Famine era was ‘Ireland’s ‘Holocaust’. A fair comparison, considering that a population of roughly eight million reportedly halved – possibly even quartered – with equal numbers perishing and emigrating. And even more perishing on ships, while emigrating. The search for food spread lucky Irish people to New Zealand, Canada, the United States and Australia, reshaping the English-speaking world, establishing what is thought to be the world’s largest diaspora. The luck of the Irish, they say.
I need to work my way up to the dense tomes, so opt for Thames & Hudson’s illustrated account with digestible morsels. Approaching the counter, I lighten the mood while rummaging in my bag for some Euros, ‘I’ll have to stop here because I’ve got to cart them back to Sydney.’ After a bit of Black Books banter, the manager smiles, ‘You should head up, enjoy a coffee and read all about the Famine.’ She still thinks it an odd choice of holiday read. As I climb the stairs, she calls after me, ‘Be sure to try the brownie!’
Photographs: Keira Sinclair, 2019
BIO: Keira Sinclair is an Irish/Australian writer and editor from Sydney. Her short story ‘Selfie Swipe’ was nominated for the 2020 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. As a graduate of anthropology and creative writing, her passion is travelling and writing about it.
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