At Málainn Bhig on the northwest coast of Ireland, the landscape tells a story of something infinite, yet finite. Watching the sea here, our lives appear meaningless.
On Donegal’s westernmost tip, the landscape seems ancient, lying where it does from a time long before people arrived. As I stood on Silver Strand, a narrow inlet at the bottom of a steep descent, I wondered how the rocks happened to lie as they do; layered by volcanic rock and centuries of trees and plants and animals, angled at forty-five degrees to the beach on which I stood. My son and I discussed how there must have been major geological changes in the past that formed the land around this beautiful little beach.
All the while the beach continues to change ever so slowly, but sometimes dramatically. There are areas where large sections of the surrounding cliffs have collapsed onto the beach, and eventually, no matter how beautiful it is to us, someday it will all be gone. There will be no sign that this beach, my children, or my wife and I were ever here.
On the extreme edge of the peninsula, there is a tower. It was built by the British in 1805 to keep watch for the French fleet after the 1798 Irish Rebellion. France was at war with the British at the time and had aided Wolfe Tone and his fellow Irish revolutionaries in the unsuccessful rebellion. After its failure, the British built eighty lookout towers such as this one. To the best of my knowledge, they became derelict shortly afterwards when the French-British war ended.
As I walked the fields and along the cliff edge out to the tower, the wind blew hard. I wondered what it must have been like for the people who lived on this peninsula two hundred years ago and for those who built this tower. What must it have been like in winter? Some must have died during the construction, it’s just too wild here to expect that nobody did. They obviously had limited technology and needed to horse and cart the materials to the site, then build it in all weathers.
I wondered what must it have been like for the locals living under British rule. You know, it was illegal to speak and to teach the native Irish language at the time. For those who were caught, the punishment was execution. The people of Ireland, to the British ruling classes, were mere slaves for the crown. This way of oppression still exists today albeit more subtle, but no less brutal. I reckon had I been alive then, I would have been a fighter for Irish freedom. In fact, I know I would.
About a mile away in Glencolmcille, there’s a visitor’s centre where we viewed replica cottages. The above pictures are typical of the homes Irish people lived in on the peninsula about one hundred or more years ago. The above would have been considered comfortable homes. In reality, the average local would have led a simpler existence.
The staple food at the time was the potato. All other foods such as wheat were grown and harvested by locals on behalf of British landowners. The foods were then shipped out of Ireland to feed British army deployed abroad, and of course the gentry across the pond in Britain. Without the potato, the Irish people would starve. Which they did in the mid-1800s. The Irish Potato Famine killed or removed through emigration, over half the eight million population.
When I was about 12 years old, my parents took us to see my father’s aunt Sis in Co. Carlow. The cottage in which she lived was almost exactly depicted in the above images. She prepared us a meal of bacon, potatoes and large green beans and everything was cooked over the open fire. That way of life is all but completely gone now.
As I walked the beach at Narin this week, my little girl Cara (6) asked me how the giant rocks at the rockpools got there. We talked about the sand — how one day the rocks and even the people would turn into sand, and then would become people and mountains and trees again.
Every one of us passes on — the people and their ideas, the cottages, the beaches, the fields and the cliffs. The ocean seems to be the most enduring. It seems to consume everything. The wind too is enduring. As I stand on the cliff edge staring at the ocean and the wind blowing hard, I realise that the constant too-ing and froing of the waves last forever. Even while the drama of my life ensues, the tide keeps coming in and out. The sea erodes it all, it takes no prisoners and doesn’t care in the slightest about me.
Yet at the same time beneath this apparent indifference, there seems to be a recognition of what I am. It feels like there is a common ground between us — me and the sea. There is peace in that. All the competing thoughts that run through my mind seem to go quiet. There’s no struggle for identity and there is no pretence. In that place, I could disappear and it would be fine.
All the battling between people and nations disappears there. The sea seems to mock all of that. We seem so juvenile in the face of what the wind and the sea endure. Our struggle is meaningless in the face of these everlasting things.
Maybe this is simply our role in the game.