Landscape as Witness - Field Trip: Day 26
As I mentioned yesterday, I had arranged to have a recorded conversation at 13:00 with a man in Kilnaboy. I had spoken with this man previously, and his passion for history made me particularly keen to record what he had to say. He was on the phone when I arrived, but invited me in to make myself comfortable, as it had been pouring down for most of the morning. After he finished, I briefly explained what I was hoping to do with the various recordings and images that I was collecting over the course of my field trip, all of which he seemed very enthusiastic about.
We began by discussing the subject of famine in general. He mentioned that a man by the name of Frederick Douglass (a former slave from the US) had visited Ireland in 1845, at the beginning of the Great Famine. Apparently Douglass was shocked at the conditions in which the peasants in Ireland were living in, stating that they were worse off than the slaves in the US at the time.
As we continued talking, I mentioned the fever hospital outside Kinvara that I had visited last week. He had also come across this building, and was able to tell me about a similar construction that had since been turned into a functioning hospital on the road from Ennistimon to Lahinch. He also informed me of a famine memorial that was located just across the road from the hospital itself, something that I will hopefully get a chance to see over the coming weeks.
Regarding Kilnaboy, he was able to tell me about a burial ground that was locally known as Gort na Marbh. As the Kilnaboy cemetery was overflowing during the famine years, this small stretch of land was where a huge number of people were buried. He had been driving up the road a few years ago, and had spotted a local farmer bulldozing this land. Upon being notified of the significance of the area, the farmer stated that the history of it hadn't been passed down to him, even though his family had lived there for generations. I was also told about a smaller burial ground, this one located next to the old church in the area. During the famine the church refused to bury children who had not been baptised, so instead they were buried in this unmarked mass grave.
He also mentioned various myths and legends relating to the famine that he had heard growing up. One that stood out in particular was that of the Hungry Grass. His father had told him that if one stood on a patch of grass where a person had died during the famine, they would suddenly be overcome with hunger and be frozen to the spot. The only way that one could be released from this spell would be to eat something. For this reason, people were known to always keep an apple, some bread, or a bit of cheese in their pockets, just in case they ever stood upon a patch of Hungry Grass. This man's father chose to carry around oats in his coat pocket, and did so for his entire life. Years after he passed away, some of his old clothes were thrown out. His coat ending up lying at the foot of a wall, and soon the a plant appeared from the oats that were still inside its pocket.
After recording for about 40 minutes or so, we decided to have a look at the famine village that was just down the road from his house. When he was younger he had been able to play amongst them with his siblings and friends, however the area in which they were situated was now incredibly overgrown. Because of this, we were only able to access 2 of the 6 houses in the area. Even then, these houses were completely hidden from view. Trees now grew up from their foundations, with ivy and moss covering almost every inch of stone. This village was deserted during the famine years, although it may have only been built in the early 1800s. He told me that he had felt an overwhelming sense of sadness whenever he made his way towards two of the houses in particular, so much so that he had since stopped visiting them.
We discussed the poor conditions that these families had lived in, but also the strong sense of community that must have been there at the time. Back then there were 3 shops in the area, as well as a forge, and most people were self-sufficient when it came to food. The house where he grew up was also a place where people from all around the area would come to socialise, playing cards, sharing stories, and listening to music. Nowadays there are no shops in Kilnaboy, with the majority of people doing their weekly shop down in Corofin. That sense of community has also been lost to some extent. The introduction of electricity, television, and cars has meant that the communal spaces around the area, of which his house had once been, no longer exist.
After driving around Kilnaboy and pointing out the locations of various houses that have since been knocked down and removed from the landscape, he drove us back to his house. On returning, he very kindly gifted me a signed copy of a book that he wrote on one of the local healers in the area, Mariah. While his father (and his father before him) was a healer of animals, Mariah healed the people of the area. Her practice was frowned upon by the church, who did their best to ostracise her from the community. She had written a book containing an entire collection of carious remedies, however the whereabouts of this book is unknown since she passed away. When she was born, legend has it that a tree in the area had been struck by lighting. Because of this, Mariah stated that she wished for her book to be buried beneath this tree before she died. Unfortunately this tree has long since been knocked down, leaving no trace of where this collection of ancient remedies could be buried.