The sadness..................

I've told you about the joy embedded in the landscape and people of Ireland, now I need to tell you about the polar opposite, an all pervading feeling that is just as powerful........... the sadness. There is a sense of melancholy if you scratch the surface in Dublin. The "Celtic Tiger" that held so much promise of a better life, has been caged by the GFC (Global Financial Crisis), before it could truly roar. Cranes are being pulled down, the unemployment rate has leaped to 12%, government appointments have been frozen and the optimism that a few years ago was pushing the economy along, has all but gone (or so I was told by all of the cab drivers I spoke to, and these are the guys who know). Despite all of this, the Irish people I met, still have a aura of "it can only get better" about them and I guess this is because their history is painted with shattered dreams.

I had read much about the terrible famine of 1845-1850 that resulted in half of the Irish population either dying from starvation or emigrating to America, Australia, Canada and other "new world" countries in search of a better life. I thought I was prepared for the mark that this (and all of the other assaults that had been made on the country throughout it's history) would have made on the landscape of the country, but my first encounters in Dublin took me by surprise. The Famine Memorial on the banks of the Liffey, is one of the most poignant memorials I have ever seen. The sculptures of starving people, dressed in rags wandering aimlessly along the river make your heart ache (or they did mine). I had the same feeling when I visited Kilmainham Prison, originally a debtor's prison where you can still see records of people (including children) imprisoned for stealing food to survive. This is also where the republican heroes of the 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867 and 1915 uprisings were imprisoned (and many of them executed). The last prisoner to be released from here before the prison was finally closed in 1924 was Eamon de Valera, who later became president of the republic.

I always find old prisons sad and melancholy places but believe we need to remind ourselves of how previous generations struggled to create a better life for us, no matter where we are from.

Once on the open road, Phil and I travelled through much lush and fertile land. The stuff of myth, the green rolling hills of the "emerald isle", but then as we headed north west the landscape changed and with it the energy of the place. We travelled through progressively more rugged, desolate and cold landscapes covered in huge boulders, rocks and mountains. The lakes were huge, cold and black. The air was thick with melancholy as we drove from Delphi thru the Doo Lough Valley, the landscape telling the story of the 600 starving people who had walked this path from Louisburgh to Delphi Lodge in 1849, hoping to get some food from their landlord, only to be turned away. On the walk back 200 people died of starvation and exhaustion along the way and the spirits of those poor souls are tangible as you sit on the rocks by the freezing water of the lough, looking towards the black clouds encasing the mountains. There is a sadness here that makes your heart feel as heavy as the boulders that lie all around. This is a harsh and unforgiving land. It is cold, dark and lonely. I can't imagine how those remaining poor people didn't simply die from the despair that must have enveloped them as they walked this path amid friends and relatives who died one by one alongside them. Phil and I stayed here for some time, lost in our own thoughts. For me, I just let my heart ache and hoped that in some way the souls of those starving victims of an unjust world, may gain some small comfort from my remembering them. Before we left we both placed a small rock at the base of the Memorial Cross at the side of the road, alongside the rocks placed there by other travellers who had driven this dark path (by design or by accident) and who, like us, had felt moved to leave a little piece of something to acknowledge the power of the place and the strength of the people.

There are lots of monuments in Ireland to the victims of war and famine, not least of which is the amazing "Coffin Ship" sculpture at the foot of Croach Patrick, that commemorates the thousands of starving people who embarked on long, treacherous journeys over the sea in search of a better life in the mid 1800's when the famine was at its height. But for me, the most poignant memorials are the multiple deserted stone cottages that sit in this lonely landscape as stark reminders of the pain and hopelessness of the people who once lived there. Broken down, no rooves, ivy creeping in between the stones that once made up the walls that protected the family who lived within. It's not hard to imagine the desperation these people must have felt as they closed the door to their haven and took to the road hoping to find redemption from their hunger. Such a sad reminder of the invisibility of the poor, something we in the western world still seem to maintain to this day.

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