Ireland: Ancient settlement came to a sad end

This deserted village tells a story of hardship and exile, writes Pamela Wade.

The deserted village of Slievemore, Achill Island. Ruins show 15 people plus livestock lived in a cottage not much bigger than the average bathroom. Photo / Pamela Wade
The deserted village of Slievemore, Achill Island. Ruins show 15 people plus livestock lived in a cottage not much bigger than the average bathroom. Photo / Pamela Wade

There was no time for lunch, so to keep my mutinous sister-in-law quiet, I fed her my cache of biscuits.

That meant I was hungry when we eventually crossed the bridge to Achill Island, on the western edge of Ireland's County Mayo. I was cold, too: the bare landscape gave no protection from the sharp October wind sweeping in from the Atlantic. It wasn't a good start to our tour of the deserted village of Slievemore, but after meeting guide Gerard Mangan I was ashamed of my soft modern self.

We were standing in the roofless ruins of a drystone cottage not much larger in area than my bathroom back home, and Gerard was explaining that 200 years earlier it would have been home to 15 people and three or four cows.

The cattle were a small breed; but even imagining the mezzanine floor where the children would have slept, and grandma tucked into her privileged position in an alcove beside the fire, the logistics defeated me.

"They would all have been inside only to eat and sleep," Gerard said. "The rest of the time they were outside, working."

Out in the weather, that is: tending the sheep and cattle, collecting the manure for the compost heap so valuable for security it was sited right outside the front door, and growing potatoes on the rocky slopes.

Potato: it's a loaded word in Ireland. You can't be there for long without learning about the blight that struck the crop in the early 1840s and the devastating impact on what was already a hand-to-mouth existence for the workers.

The disease was new and not understood, so when the crop failed in 1845 the Slievemore villagers sold all their cattle, boats and nets to buy seed potatoes for the next year, hoping for better times. Big mistake: not only did those plants rot too, but that year the herring didn't come inshore, and it was such a bad winter the lake froze, protecting its fish.

The people were left starving and destitute, forced to abandon the land, evicted by landlords wanting to graze cattle instead.

Gerard stood in the ruins and pointed to the straight road cutting through the peat bogs.

"My grandmother walked barefoot down that road for 100 miles to find work. My father walked to Scotland as a 12 year-old to work in the potato fields there."

All around us, black-faced sheep grazed over the remains of 80 cottages where the same story could be told: the desperate end to a settlement dating back 6000 years to Neolithic times, the people dispersed as far as the United States, New Zealand and Australia, the once-busy village empty and abandoned. It was a scenario enacted all over Ireland, and in his poem The Deserted Village Oliver Goldsmith lamented the loss: "... all the bloomy flush of life is fled". His was an idyllic picture of rural life: in Slievemore things were more basic, and there wasn't even a pub but there were festivals, music and stories to tell squeezed in the cottage at night. Local hero Grace O'Malley, the Pirate Queen who shaved off her hair to pass for a boy to sail to Spain with her father, would have featured regularly.

Cold and hungry, we listened to Gerard's stories and understood a little how it must have been; then we drove to a pub for a steak and Guinness pie.

CHECKLIST

* Getting there:
Cathay Pacific flies from Auckland to London daily:
cathaypacific.co.nz. Fly, drive or take the train/ferry to Dublin, then drive three hours to Castlebar and a further hour to Achill Island.

* Where to stay:
The Westport Woods Hotel and Spa offers a range of activities and more relaxing treatments:
westportwoodshotel.com; or stay at Achill House B&B which will also arrange tours with Gerard Mangan: achillislehouse.com

* Further information:
For County Mayo details plus general information about visiting Ireland go to discoverireland.co.nz

Pamela Wade went to Ireland as a guest of Cathay Pacific and Tourism Ireland.

- NZ Herald

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