Ireland: Forgotten Desolation
Heavy is the ground that carries lost souls. Heavier still the voice of a man whose family is buried there.
I met him walking up Cairn Hill, past low slung pastel houses with chipped paint and wildflowers growing in the front yard.
“Do you know where the famine graveyard is?” I ask. He’s smoking a cigarette and standing beside a small coup. A dog’s taking a shit nearby in the road.
“It’s just up that hill,” he grunts, scratchy voice dripping Ireland. “Follow it along about five minutes. Can’t miss it.”
I turn to go. Then, “I’ll join you. Heading up that way myself.” He stamps out the cigarette.
We fall into step, boots crunching gravel, and talk about the weather and work. He’s a Dublin school teacher who grew up on the Dingle Peninsula. I don’t ask his name, he doesn’t offer it.
The road narrows, hedged in by rough stone walls, grass running down the middle. Ahead, green pasture rises into gathering dusk, sectioned in hedges guarded by barking farm dogs. Dingle is behind, a coastal city with a bar on every corner featuring live music and Guinness.
Sheep graze as far as the eye can see. Crows squak at us; black clouds roll in from the west.
“This has changed dramatically from when I was young lad,” he says, sweeping a hand back toward Dingle. “It was incredibly quiet. No tourists. No restaurant in town.”
“Sounds idyllic,” I say.
Even now, despite the touristy-vibe, Dingle is a fairytale place. Red Fuchsia wildflowers line Slea Head Drive, edging towering cliffs through rolling hills around the peninsula. Quaint farmhouses and prehistoric ruins overlook endless blue sea. Sheep and cattle range across it all. Modern Dingle is a snapshot of rural life as it was. But it can’t capture everything.
Famine ravaged Ireland between 1845 and 1852: one million people dead in eight years. The island’s population declined about 25 percent. It was caused by ‘phytophthora infestans’ – potato blight, a staple crop that nearly a third of the country depended on.
“Desolation,” the man says, pausing in the road, his accent suddenly bitter. The gravel stops crunching.
“We had no control of our destiny. We were ruled from Britain, and didn’t have any rights. The people who survived the famine went to America,” he continues, grey hair tossed in a breeze that kicked up just then.
My family was among the survivors, I say. They settled in South Boston seeking a better life; not far from where I grew up in Northampton. His went to Hartford and never came back. We step on into the wind, trudging up Cairn Hill.
At the top, an iron gate blocks our way into a small stonewall cemetery. There are no tourists here.
Far below, Dingle’s lights twinkle on. Boats drift at anchor in the bay. Night has come. He points over the city to a tower barely visible on a distant hill. A “famine relief tower” he says, built by starving people.
“You didn’t work, you didn’t get fed. A lot of them died doing that. They would crawl to those places,” he says. Just across the bay is another tower, Hussey’s Folly, a solid structure that looks like it’s from the middle ages. We enter through the creaking gate.
Boney hands gripping dirt, crawling up the hill; mothers clutching dead children to their chest in nearby quarters, a square yellow building. Screaming. Hundreds of people crammed inside, rotting.
I see it as clearly as white barley rustling in the wind. It surrounds dozens of unmarked graves and chipped black stones sticking up from the cemetery’s uneven ground. A single white cross stands in the middle. My feet sink into the soil. If I were to stay I fear I’d become a stone.
“Leaders believed this was God’s fate. The famine,” the man says, voice now thick with emotion. I can’t see his tears but I know they’re there. I can feel them like stones dropped into the bay. His ancestors are here.
“There were about 3,000 people buried here in four years. A lot were open graves. There might have been 20 people buried in one,” he says. Then turns toward Dingle: “You ask the youth of society, they don’t know anything about it. We’ve collectively forgotten. That’s a tourist town. All these people here? They’re not local people. The locals are gone.”
We stand silently in the gloom. A mist floats across distant hills. Black clouds now suffocate the sky. Rain comes watering the graves; a cistern poured from inky blackness. I ask what I can do.
“Best thing you can do is come back here tomorrow. Bring someone, sit down here,” he says, pointing to a bench. Then he leaves, just like that; walks away hitting the black stones with a strand of barley.
“I’ll write about it,” I call after him.
“You do that,” the man says, without looking back. His gait is weary. I sit on the bench, watching him go; a speck moving down Cairn Hill toward Dingle’s blinking lights.