The Scarred Country

Rushowen, a village, with a small population of about 875, lies tucked away between the undulating hills of the most beautiful countryside in Ireland. Its name is derived from a compilation of two Gaelic words, rush from rois meaning wood and abhainn meaning river, and reveals its natural environment. However, Rushowen was once a bustling town, a summer getaway for the gentry and nobility of the capital city, were as now finally it is left to slumber in forgetfulness. As I walk through the surrounding woodlands and hills I pass many great houses, some still inhabited, and ooze the history and arrogance of their past residents, while others remain just empty shells, ruins without souls, forming silent witnesses of their violent pasts. At one time Catholic gangs targeted these houses, and tried to burn them to the ground, hoping to deter other potential immigrant landowners. In fact, this area has always been in the middle of conflicts, ever since King Henry VIII converted Ireland to Protestantism and Catholics began to fight for their religious rights, equality and independence. However, they had to resort to extreme measures, risking their lives they tried to achieve better living conditions for themselves and their families. Traces of these bloody battles remain, and still dapple the countryside like painful scars.

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Even now, as I wander through these deserted parklands and fields, I notice these details, these wounds. For instance, the lay of the land, the so-called lazy beds, empty ridges where potatoes were once cultivated before the crop so devastatingly failed in the nineteenth century and as a result caused the deaths of millions of people who relied solely on the potato as their food source. Similarly, the high stone walls, which separate the fields from the roads, become frightening reminders of when the Black and Tans (mainly heavily traumatized First World War veterans) were recruited as a special police division to keep the insurgents at bay and to protect the people. But, bored and insane as they were, they held shooting expeditions to pass the time of day, shooting at labourers working in the fields for pleasure. Consequently, high walls were erected separating the fields from the roads,  and so landlords tried to keep their farmers safe.

I wonder if Edmund Spenser, the great English poet, who too wandered these exact fields in an era when the English plantation acts had just been enforced, and, despite the hardships, found inspiration in these fields, these parklands to write his most famous work: The Fearie Queene. He surely must have witnessed the cruelty inflicted on the native Catholics by their Protestant rulers at that time, however, chose, just like so many writers before and after him, not to register them on paper, he chose instead to look the other way, and write about a fairy, and an English queen at that. If he had known what was to come, would he then too have chosen that same Fearie Queene to write about? Or, would he have taken the time to familiarize himself with the real Irish, the Irish speakers, and their Irishness, their stories about their chieftains, fair ladies, magical swans and immortal souls, and maybe through these stories could have found the courage and the vision to write about what was actually happening.

With the gentle smell of burning turf and the promise of spring on the crisp, minty air, the soft thumps of my feet on the frozen grass, I too can easily overlook these reminders and leave the violent nightmares to the past.

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© Anita Salemink 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Anita Salemink with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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