Shelter

Ian Maleney

 

 

1

 

I was standing on Hiney’s Corner and it was raining black and loud. Trying to keep one eye on the street, I sheltered in the window set into the front of Hiney’s pub. The recess was about eighteen inches deep, usually enough to keep you dry, but the rain was coming down sideways and I was getting drenched.

It was a familiar spot – I’d worked behind the bar for a couple of years during secondary school, and used to spend my breaks standing in that recess with friends or customers, watching the street and breathing in other people’s cigarette smoke. The pub had changed hands a few times in the seven or eight years since I’d finished school and left for university. There is an awkwardness to knowing a place better than anyone there knows you. On the rare occasions when I found myself back in town, I would sometimes feel a strange embarrassed thrill from being served without recognition in the local Centra by someone I’d spent years sitting beside in class.

As I stood soaking on the corner, I had occasion – not for the first time while on assignment down the country – to reflect on the embarrassment of being a journalist who doesn’t drive. My mother had dropped me off on the way to the hospital with my grandmother – Nana was getting her bloods done – and I was waiting for Tom to come pick me up. Tom was the father of a guy I went to school with; he was also one of the people behind a local amenity known as the Lough Boora Parklands. I was writing about the Parklands for a glossy rural-affairs magazine, and I’d arranged to interview Tom at the site. Of course, I’d had to ask him for a lift too.

By the time I got into his car, wet all the way through, I was sure there was no way this man was going to take me seriously. Tom was about sixty and he spoke in a calm nasal drawl. I explained the work I was doing, and why I was interested in writing about the Parklands. I knew that the whole area had once been underwater: the bed of a lake that covered much of Ireland’s central plain. Then, in the aftermath of the last Ice Age, lake mostly gave way to bog. Much later, from the beginning of the twentieth century, most of the water that remained in the bog was drained away by the machine labour of industrialized peat manufacture. The sodden earth of the bog became dry, milled peat, which was drawn across the bed of the vanished lake in thin, beaten-up trains and used as fuel in the adjacent Bord na Móna power station.

The bog’s usefulness as an energy source has now been exhausted, at least in Boora. One of my earliest memories from growing up around there is of being with my father in his van and watching from some distance as one of the power station’s two giant chimneys was demolished by controlled explosion on a December morning in 1999. The chimneys were broad and round at the bottom, and curved gracefully upward to a height of eighty metres. In such a flat landscape, they had dominated the horizon for miles in every direction. If we happened to drive past them, I would crane my head out the rear window of the car, struggling to take in their immensity – for quite a long time, perhaps until they disappeared, they were the biggest structures I’d ever seen. When I began to work in Hiney’s some years later, there was a series of three large photographs hung along one of the walls: the first depicted the chimneys in the moments before the explosion, the second captured the collapse, and the third showed just one chimney next to a void of smoke and rubble. The remaining chimney would fall, in a similar way, a few months later.

By the time the power station was torn down, Bord na Móna was already looking for new uses for the land. They secured government funding to create a number of artificial lakes for anglers. Encouraged by this support, Tom and his team put together an ‘integrated land-use plan’ that would include ‘farming, forestry, amenity, and recreation’. In the years that followed, they gradually developed the park to meet their vision.

I first visited the Lough Boora Parklands as a teenager on a school trip, three or four years into its formation. Tom had been our guide that day too. Back then, Boora still felt like an industrial bog. Tom led the effort to plant forests, install cycle paths, and establish a sculpture park. In time, the area became a haven for rare birds and insects, and packs of joggers swarmed through it on weekend mornings. What had been, for the guts of a century, an open-air industrial site for the production of milled peat was now a place for art, exercise, and wildlife. It was one example of what a post-industrial Irish landscape might look like, hinting at how the twentieth century’s strategies for economic expansion might be picked apart safely in the twenty-first. Or at least that was the pitch I’d made to the glossy rural-affairs magazine.

 

Tom and I had our chat in the visitors’ centre, which had just opened. It was a small, clean building with white walls, plate-glass windows and well-marked exits. We had a cup of tea in the café, and looked out across a small lake known as Loch an Dóchas, or ‘Lake of Hope’. It was hard to see much through the horrible weather, but in the middle of the lake I could make out a tangle of metal rising from a clump of reeds.

Often when I’m speaking with someone like Tom, someone with a wealth of practical experience in a field I know next to nothing about, I’m worried that I will sound ignorant, arrogant, or childish. To counteract this, I tend to over-prepare. I do extensive research, and make long lists of possible questions. The more nervous I am, the more work I make for myself. With Tom, I tried to get into every aspect of the Boora project. I wanted to know the full history of the place. I asked him about every group and organization that used the Parklands for their activities: astronomers, entomologists, boy scouts. I wanted to hear about the funding strategies, the environmental issues, the commercial relationships, everything. I sensed that Tom wasn’t really used to being asked the kinds of questions I was asking him – and he confirmed as much a few weeks later, when he and his wife bumped into my parents in Hiney’s – but his enthusiasm for the whole project was obvious. He’d been working on it for almost twenty years.

After the interview wrapped up, I had a bit of time to kill. The rain had eased to a drizzle and I decided to wander around while I waited for my lift home. I walked down past the birdwatchers’ hut, and around the far side of the smaller lake. The only people about were a handful of fishermen, clad head-to-toe in waterproofs. Beyond the lake there was a clearing, with picnic tables, portaloos, and a strangely shaped pavilion entirely constructed from repurposed materials – mostly long ESB poles of pitch pine and bolts of scrap metal from the Bord na Móna workshops.

Some of the works in the sculpture park were designed to be permanent, weathered landmarks. Others were conceived as temporary, and many of these pieces were left to disintegrate naturally under the assault of wind, rain and plant growth. The last time I’d been to the park, there had been a great round tangle of willow branches arranged by an American sculptor, Patrick Dougherty. The light would come through the branches in soft bursts and the smell of the woven bark, ten tonnes of it rotting imperceptibly, hung in the air. I wanted to walk through it now in the gentle rain, circle around within it, the wattled walls bending always inward, tricking the eye and closing in gently on my body. But the piece was gone – Dougherty’s creations typically have a built-in time limit, and this one had been taken down some weeks before I arrived.

Walking around in the drizzle, it seemed to me that the remaining sculptures had grown roots: compared to the first time I had seen them, ten years before, they were now more like outgrowths than implants. As time had passed, it had come to feel as though they belonged. Surrounded by trees and watched over by stone-grey clouds, Eileen McDonagh’s ‘Boora Pyramid’ – an accumulation of large granite slabs, stacked in a pyramidal structure about twenty feet tall – had the air of a monument raised by some extinct race to long-forgotten gods. Like so many monuments of stone, it felt anonymous and implacable and timeless.

 

My mother collected me from the visitors’ centre and Nana was in the car. All had gone well at the hospital, and Nana was in a good mood, chatty and inquisitive. As a young girl, she had often passed by Boora as she cycled through the countryside around Rahan, the village where she grew up, but she hadn’t seen the place since it had been turned into a park. She couldn’t believe how much it had changed. Boora immediately became something beautiful in her mind, despite the greyness of the afternoon.

I had spent most of my time since college living in Dublin and writing about music for various magazines and newspapers. I talked to second-rate indie bands who were passing through Dublin on tour, and dissected the minute differences between German techno records which, to the less discerning ear, might seem identical. I would occasionally meet people whose work I really respected, and these connections, along with the need to pay my rent, were enough to sustain my interest in a job which, though sometimes boring and often frustrating, nonetheless gave me an identity and a voice in my adopted city. It afforded me access to a cultural scene that I had longed to experience while still a pretentious, disaffected teenager in the countryside.

Most importantly, when I did come home, I could answer the question about what I did for a living with a simple enough reply: I write for a newspaper. This wasn’t strictly true, but it suited everyone to keep things simple. My grandfather’s Alzheimer’s had been getting worse – John Joe could rarely remember who I was, never mind what I did for a living – and I think even Nana found it difficult to grasp what I did with my days. It was hard for me to offer them the kind of information that would settle the issue in their minds, so I would seize upon any event or detail from my work which I felt could bridge that gap: a location, an historical fact, an encounter with someone they might know from television or radio.

When I got the gig with the rural-affairs magazine, the work became so much easier to explain. I came down from Dublin to profile a fiddle-maker who lived in the mill up the road from our house: this was something my family could understand. I talked to farmers with flooded farmyards; I profiled dairy co-operatives; I even wrote about cattle marts. Nana knew exactly how little I knew, or cared, about cattle marts. She thought it amusing and fascinating, too, that someone like me, someone who had been to college and lived in a big city, would be writing about these kinds of things – to her mind they were too ordinary, too boring, or just not very smart.

As we drove the few miles home from Boora that October evening, I sat in the back and listened quietly to my mother and grandmother as they talked about the Parklands and the surrounding area, about the hospital they’d come from, and about the rivalry between our town’s two undertakers – it looked like Nana’s man was winning out. The sky cleared a little and turned an ardent red which was softened by the fogged-up rear windows. Then it deepened into an inky blue, and night fell. It took no more than half an hour.

 

 

2

 

It was only when I stood up that I realized my foot had gone to sleep. I took a step forward, stumbled, and collapsed. While falling, I was more concerned for the safety of my laptop, which I was holding, than I was for myself. I hit the ground shoulder-first, laptop successfully protected, and moaned in pain. I had done something to my foot; perhaps it was broken.

A few days later I found myself limping around Boora with my parents. It was evening, late spring, probably a Sunday. I had arrived the previous day, on the way back from a literary festival on the west coast. My dad was breaking in a new pair of runners and they were cutting his ankles. My mother just wanted some fresh air. It was her birthday that weekend, and we’d all had a bit to drink the night before. We passed through the clearing with the picnic tables, past the sculptures and down the newly paved paths which cut through the managed forest of Downy Birch and Scots Pine.

We followed the signs and trail-marks to a surprisingly desolate spot right at the heart of the park. I had wanted for some time to visit the site where the remains of fourteen Mesolithic campfires were found buried in the silty clay of Boora’s ancient lakeshore. The remains were between 8,400 and 9,000 years old. Fires burned in those hearths less than a thousand years after the end of the last Ice Age, when the bog we were walking through had yet to be formed. The people who lit those fires were hunters. Game of any size was rare on the island then, and the larger birds that lived around the lake were a rare source of meat. The archaeological evidence suggests they spent the summer in Boora, and perhaps lingered into autumn. When the birds began to fly south, the hunters returned to the woodlands near the coast and prepared for winter. The cold was less extreme nearer the sea, and in the forests they could stockpile the nuts, berries, and grasses on which they would survive through the harshest months of the year.

The wind blew hard around the barren site. My foot was swollen and throbbing inside my boot. There were some small upright stones and an information board to show you that this was indeed the place you were seeking: the place where, with a single archaeological discovery, the accepted date of human habitation of the Irish midlands had been pushed back by over three thousand years. I was standing where some of the earliest human inhabitants of this island had once kept themselves warm, on the shores of a vast and now-vanished lake, and my father was muttering to himself about runners he’d bought in Aldi. It had been a long walk.

Tall trees soaked up the noise of the road and blocked the sight of the wind turbines beyond. With my back to the information board, looking out over what was once the lake, it was almost possible to imagine that no one had set foot in this place since those ancient hunters had extinguished their fires and departed for the coast. Although the landscape was now so different from the one they left behind, it felt to me as though the place was waiting for them to come back.

I have always liked to imagine the age when the island was dark and no more than three or four thousand people walked its still-uncertain paths. I am drawn to the quietness of it, and to the idea of a wilderness that is both extensive and bounded, and largely unknown. How wide the lake must have seemed when they set out in their boats, how deep and mysterious the forests which then covered most of the island. I like to think of the ancient wild cat whose remains were discovered between the hearths. I long to hear the voices of those first hunters, and to imagine the conversation at the fireside. They were the first people to make lives for themselves in this part of this country, when everything was new. I wonder who was the first to be born here, the first to live their whole life and die here.

I’ve tried writing the early hunters into stories, but the stories don’t come off because I cannot close the gap between those strangers and myself. I don’t know, and can’t really imagine, their dreams, their desires. I find myself hovering somewhere above them, observing them, without ever being able to get close. I ask only the big dumb questions with no answers: what did they feel when they landed on the shore of this unmapped island, previously only glimpsed from across a narrow sea? Did they make each other laugh? How did they communicate joy and fear and hope? Did they feel safe here? Would what I mean by the word ‘home’ make any sense to them at all? I can push the figures around the board, but I can’t put words in their mouths. They never talk back.

*

When I get nervous, I overcompensate. I fill all the gaps I see with information. I use any facts I can find to close the distance between me and what scares me. Nothing scares me more now than the distances I sometimes feel between myself and my family, or between myself and the place where I was born. The direction my life has taken so far – my work, my friendships, the education my parents gave me, an education they never received – has led me away from the people who raised and formed me, the places I have known and loved the longest. Like so many before me, I left home because I felt I was missing out on something I could find only elsewhere; a more diverse and cultured world maybe, a life of connections, ideas, and expressions. It was an old and true reason to leave.

But as I’ve got older, as I’ve watched my grandparents fade, I have found myself drawn back to a place and a way of life which I recognize now as being on the verge of disappearing. I feel that the life I was once so eager to outgrow might soon be gone, and there will be no one around to tell people what it was like. I worry that one day I’ll realize that the place and its people have slipped from my grasp while I was paying attention to something else.

Short of giving up my current life and moving home, my strategy for staving off that destiny has been one of research and writing. I have tried to pay closer attention to my family’s lives than I did when I lived with them. There aren’t secrets I hope to uncover, or family history I want to drag out into the revealing light of day. But I imagine I might, by accumulation of stories and points of reference, stitch myself back into the fabric of the place that, as a younger man, I so desired to escape. I find myself looking for a conception of the place I come from that dissolves the distinctions I feel within myself, a story I could tell in order to feel singular, native, whole. I’m looking for roots, origins. I want to be from that place, and only that place; to be of those people, and only those people. I want to speak and be understood; to think within their limits. When everything around me seems arbitrary and directionless, when I have no idea what I’m doing, I dream of a great chain with a solid iron weight at the end, descending into the black. In writing towards my parents and my grandparents, in writing about the place where they live, I attempt to take them inside myself again, as it was when I was a child, when I knew nothing else. But writing does not grant me that kind of intimacy; writing, in the end, keeps us apart.

When I find myself in Boora, looking out across the absent lake and thinking about the vanishing point of human habitation – campfires in the dark and the vast, unknowable silence – I know that I have gone too far in my search for reconnection, that I have become lost and must turn back.

 

 

3

 

On Saturday evenings, Nana would go to Mass with a neighbour. While she was gone, someone would sit with John Joe in their kitchen. If I was at home, I would usually volunteer.

My grandparents’ house is next to our own, down a dead-end bog road barely wide enough for a single car, a few miles from the nearest town. The quietness and the darkness of a winter’s night there – when the lonely glow of the Sacred Heart in my grandmother’s kitchen is visible from two or three hundred yards away — has to be felt to be believed. Sitting beside the black iron stove in that old but comfortable kitchen, there was only so much work I could make for myself. I could boil the kettle and put more turf in the fire. I could search in the biscuit tin or, with rare luck, wash a few dishes. John Joe, in his dementia, wasn’t overly fond of the radio or television at that point, and we were not intimate enough to simply be quiet together. At times like this, you become painfully aware of how important the art of meaningless conversation can be, how a simple story can make the minutes fly – but I was never much of a storyteller. John Joe and I would talk about how good the new stove was – the previous relic having recently been consumed in a chimney fire – or where I was living in Dublin. There was always the weather, but I could barely squeeze more than a sentence or two out of that. I developed the dreadful sense that nothing I might say would interest him in the least.

It was in this setting that Boora become something of a life-saver. When I told John Joe that I had been working there that day back in October, he took it to mean that I was working for Bord na Móna, as he once had. For a time, this misapprehended fact became the sum total of my identity in his eyes. One evening, he was sitting silently in his chair by the fire, observing from some distance a small family gathering. I was sitting at the table, the nearest to him. Someone – probably Nana, because she often did this kind of thing – asked him if he knew who I was. He looked up at me and said, simply, Boora. I was happy to be recognized at all.

On our Saturday evenings together, John Joe would happily talk about his memories of working, for almost two decades, with Bord na Móna in Boora. John Joe’s work there was seasonal: every summer, teams of local men would be given a quota of peat to produce. If a team met the quota by the season’s end, they would be rewarded with bonuses. John Joe told me that I would make good money if I kept my head down and worked hard. To keep the conversation going, I said I’d use the money to buy a car. He told me to get a big one, a Merc, and run all the other fuckers off the road.

The money John Joe had made each year from Bord na Móna had got his wife and six children through some tough times – then as now, our small farm was not enough to really live on. He’d even got a meagre pension out of it after he retired. He didn’t mind the bosses, he said: they were good men and they wouldn’t mess you around. If you did your work, you got paid. Simple as that. He wondered if Tom, who’d been my guide, was the same Tom who’d been there in his time. I told him I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t think so. He asked me about other people he had worked with, wanting to know if they were still around. Even though I didn’t know who he was talking about, I knew they weren’t there any more. They were as old as him or older, and long finished with their working lives. Many were dead. I just told him I didn’t know.

He spoke with particular vigour about his colleagues who weren’t interested in work at all. These men – I can picture them so clearly – were always messing around, throwing things at each other in the workshops or playing practical jokes out on the cutaway. John Joe called them blackguards and friggers. He liked a joke as much as any man, and possessed a beautiful, musical laugh, but he had no time for that nonsense. I don’t think his anger towards them had anything to do with quotas or targets. It was just that he was there to work; he wanted to get the job done as well and as quickly as he could.

 

In truth, John Joe never worked in Boora. He worked in Blackwater, a bog near the banks of the Shannon, twelve or thirteen miles west of Boora. But at this remove, the distinction is of no consequence. The shapes those places took in our minds were momentarily aligned, and they opened up a tenuous connection. We could talk as adults about work, and this felt like a miracle. Better, in this case at least, to remember something incorrectly than not to remember anything at all, a fate to which John Joe was rapidly succumbing.

It didn’t take long for the association to fade. The following February, Nana contracted pneumonia and spent a week in hospital. Though I passed many hours in the kitchen with John Joe during that week, I don’t recall Boora ever being mentioned.

 

 

 

 

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