If you ever wanted to see what the world might look like after
the apocalypse, you could do worse than see the Burren land of County Clare,
Ireland. Other regions of Ireland are as lush and green as the postcards, but
the Burren has too little soil for that; instead, its exposed limestone forms a
stark moonscape of pale hills. Cows and sheep graze on the plants that peek out
of jigsaw patterns in the stone, and the occasional tree does nothing to slow
the screaming wind coming in from the nearby sea.
Living here, you might think, would be like being marooned
on an alien planet, and raising children unthinkable. It would not seem very
thinkable now, when your house might have central heating and a television set;
in the 1930s no one here had electricity or cars, and life was similar to what
it had been in the 1830s, or for that matter the 1830s BC. Dersie Leonard, who
grew up in the Burren then, later wrote that she and other children walked
miles a day in all weathers, to school and church and home, barefoot and wearing
clothes made from flour sacks. Modern American kids, dependent on cars and
electronic devices to function, would struggle to picture a more depressing
Surprisingly to them, then, Leonard wrote joyfully about her
early life, saying she and her friends had “lakes and rivers, good land and bad,
bog and rocks, not to mention fairy rings and forts – in fact everything a
person could wish for.” They spent their days exploring the countryside, playing
games, singing and telling stories, immersed in the adventure of childhood. Here
she describes the day when she and her friends accompanied their fathers to the
bog to dig turf – compacted peat, dried and burned for fuel:
“As children we loved this day of days. A turf fire was set
and lit and a kettle placed over it. The tea always tasted of heather and was
slightly smoky. When the tea had been made the fire was put out, because if it
spread, hundreds of acres of bog and turf would be in danger. Then we set off
to our picnic spot in the nearby forest where we set up a shop under some
trees. By this I mean a make-believe shop. We picked wild violets, heather and
primroses and sold them for old broken delft which we called “chanies.” To this
day I can remember that spot and know exactly where it is, although I haven’t
visited it for forty or more years.”
Of course, you might think that Leonard really was miserable
at the time, and nostalgia colours even the harshest of memories. Or perhaps
she was an unusual case, and few of her peers handled poverty so well. Yet a glance
at old school-papers from that era – thousands of them have been saved in
national archives – show that most Irish of that generation seem to have been
as cheerful then as children as they are now as elders. Nor is Leonard unusual;
I’ve heard or read hundreds of interviews of people her age saying the same
“What kind of upbringing did I have?” said Tom Shaw, who was
born in a one-room hut in 1935. “Brilliant – you couldn't have wished for
better.” Shaw, interviewed by Irish radio, said that he had “no electricity, no
running water, no central heating, no indoor toilet,” but that “under any
circumstances, it would be a great youth -- we got to spend a lot of time with
my mother and father, and they were disciplinarians, yet we had total freedom
to run around.”
“We were real happy children, never bored,” said Jenny
Buckley, who grew up in County Offaly in the 1930s. She described working hard
at farm chores and school, her loved ones pitching in together, so that they
were almost entirely self-sufficient.
“Our farm kept us going; we bought nothing but tea, sugar,
rice and sultanas,” she said. “Now our pocket money was that we had a hen each
and collected her eggs and sold them.”
“...we didn’t walk through fields to school, but travelled
the then-rugged and stony way which was up hill and down dales,” remembered
Bessie Byrne Sheridan, who grew up in County Wexford in the 30s. “No
tarmacadamed (paved) roads in those days of sparse cash but healthy living.
Making ourselves happy with very little was the norm for us all. Those times were
known as the ‘hungry thirties,’ which I think is a misnomer because there was
plenty of home-produced natural food available everywhere,” and if anyone
didn’t have enough of something, all the neighbours shared with them.
“…it was much more a children's world, for few people
remember anyone who would harm a child, nor were there any media around that
could corrupt them,” said Irish radio producer Tommy Ryan about Irish village
life. “Children ran everywhere freely and safely. There was less hurry to get out
of childhood and into adolescence.”
Most of the children ran barefoot in those days, but that
wasn’t the hazard it would be today, for roadways were not lined with auto
parts, broken glass or discarded needles. “There a picture somewhere of my last
school year, and half of the children were in their bare feet,” said Jack, an
elderly man I talked to. “And it was quite usual at that stage that when the
summer holidays were coming on, you’d get your shoes or boots taken away, and
you trotted down in your bare feet for a few months.”
You might think of such children as deprived, but Jack said
that everyone looked forward to the bare-footed seasons. “Shoes were something
to get used to, and unwillingly,” and they stretched it out further than they
were supposed to, Ryan said. “We took our boots as far as the stile, hid them
there, went to school barefooted, and on the way home put them on again. Our
parents didn't want us to go barefoot until May, but we had it going from
Many elders emphasize how safe the world was for children
then. “Twenty years ago you could leave your bike on the footpath and nobody
would touch it,” said Con Moloney, who grew up in County Laois. “Everybody had
the time to talk, and you didn’t have to jump out of the way of lunatic drivers
behind the wheel of fast cars.”
Village children in those days rarely had to worry about
strangers, for they knew everyone around, everyone saw everyone else, and
gossip was a powerful tool for keeping people in line; if a stranger came to
town, everyone knew. Nor could children get away with much either, not with so
many eyes on them, connected to people who talked to their parents every day. Perhaps
it’s not a coincidence that crime in rural Ireland was a small fraction of what
it is in the USA today, and most doors were open or unlocked all the time.
“I pity the country children of today,” said Nancy Power of
County Kilkenny. “The journeys to and from school were an education as valuable
as any we managed to imbibe at school.”
I don't take many pictures in Dublin -- I just work there, and most of my focus is on the traditional countryside that interests me. Most people who visit Ireland go to Dublin, and some never go anywhere else -- but honestly, most of it is a normal city, and many parts are quite grimy.
Admittedly, though, you can come across sights in Dublin that you can't see anywhere else, and in honour of St. Patrick's Day, I decided to share some.
Walk through the cobblestone alleys near the Guinness brewery, look up, and you see these words fifteen feet above the sidewalk, written in Gaelic and English: STONE UPON STONE UPON FALLEN STONE. I've no idea why it's there; it's just there.
Down the road from there, in the Liberties neighbourhood, a butcher -- as far as I can tell -- advertised his wares this way:
1.) He took three legs off of the pigs he was butchering;
2.) He painted them the colours of the Irish flag;
3.) He hung them in front of his shop;
4.) He took a photo of them; and
5.) He had the photo painted on the wall next to the shop.
I say "he" -- of course, it could be "she," but I suspect not.
When I first happened upon this monument in someone's front yard in Dublin, I thought it said "DEE-ging." It was a while before I realised it said "de-AGING." It reads "MCDERMOTT AND MCGOUGH," and above that, "THE DISCOVERERS OF DEAGING AND LIFE EVERLASTING." You'd think, though, that if such a discovery had been made in a small Dublin home, we would have heard about it.
Linoleum in the UK and Ireland is called "lino" for short. I'm sure this linoleum tiler - or whatever you'd call the job -- was named Richard, and the pun was too good to pass up.
I also saw another neighbour – we’ll call her Ava -- who
rides her bike back and forth to the village, rather than pay for a car. We can
see each other’s houses in the distance but our paths only cross every few
weeks, so when they do we catch up on our lives and relatives.
“It’s amazing the number of people around here who have died
lately,” Ava said. “Mick went into the canal last year, Tommy up the road died
of cancer, my cousin across the canal died last month, and his wife died a few
weeks later – they’d spent their lives together, and she didn’t want to live
“I knew your man died,” I said – locals say “your man” to
mean “the man.” “I didn’t know he was your cousin – I’m sorry.” It wasn’t that
much of a surprise to me, though – everyone here is related.
“You’re seeing the closing days of this area,” she said.
“All the people are dying off, and they are the last ones who remember the
place as it was.”
It was true – a lot of people had died lately. It reminded
me of something Dmitri Orlov had said, that after his country had been through
a time of stress he looked at his high school class photo, and realised that
many of them were dead. Each death was isolated and natural, and didn’t seem
part of a larger pattern. But you look back one day and see that a whole
generation was gone.
Of course, in his case, his country had been through a time
of collapse, and many of the deaths were from stress, drinking, drugs or other
problems. Across my part of the USA, I can see this happening among the class
that one writer calls the Unneccessariat, as people are increasingly
demoralised. Here, it’s not quite the same – most of our neighbours were
elderly, and it was their time. But the death and transformation of a community
still creeps up on you.
“Won’t their children or grandchildren move in?” I asked. “That’s
what most people here do.” All along the canal, family farms have been broken
into lots, with a home for each of the children.
“It won’t be the same with the younger people,” she said.
“The whole country’s changed. When I was a child, no one had anything here, and
you wouldn’t believe how happy people were. But since the boom, people have
actually been poorer than before, and a lot less happy.”
“Most people wouldn’t say they were poorer,” I asked. “Back
then they just had a few possessions, and now they have big televisions and
video games and such.”
“I think that’s what’s making them unhappy,” she said.
Let’s say we've lost most of the self-reliant skills and classical education that our forbears posessed. Let's say we have replaced them with a culture of buying and discarding things we don't value, and staring at glowing screens. Let's say you want to try to rediscover an older way of life, believing we will need such things again.
And let’s say you have a daughter.