A Thig Ná Tit Orm: The Last Picture Show

Part three of an archaeo misadventures trilogy. Part one is here. Part two is here.

*****

A deserted country lane in deepest darkest Roscommon.

The brooding crest of a drumlin ridge overlooking seven early medieval ringfort enclosures.

An ancient cup-marked standing stone, tapering upwards in hushed red hued glory, still fulfilling its original function. A prehistoric boundary marker. Thus far shall thou go and no further.

Me. A few years ago. On the trail of a 7thC Irish Bishop and his textual landscapes. The earliest contemporary historical reference to an early medieval Irish lios or lis – denoting ‘the space about a dwellinghouse or houses enclosed by a bank or rampart; a ringfort, or circular earthwork’. When he had first written it down, 1300 years ago, he had helpfully qualified it as ‘ardd senlis’, i.e. a placename which suggested an early medieval enclosure, probably situated on an ard, or height, and already considered sen, or ‘old’ in his day.

Hence the reason for my being there. On the crest of a drumlin ridge. In a townland littered with seven early medieval enclosures. Looking out towards two of them in a field beyond a field situated on its highest point.

Standing awkwardly on the grassy bank at the side of the country road, I took the picture above – electing to exclude the barbed wire and electrified fence I was carefully leaning over, with its repeated ‘Please Fuck off Keep Out’ Signs strung out along the property line.

Thus far did I go. And no further.

I trudged back along the country road to a more friendly looking gate on the other side of the lane. No barbed wire. Tied only with string. Half sagging from its neglected hinges. A recent ‘Land For Sale’ sign hanging off it.

I had done my homework beforehand. Pouring over desktop maps and aerial photographs, I had come up with alternative targets in the event of the above. This gate overlooked the opposite side of the drumlin, and the almost imperceptible remains of a ‘ghost road’ – a grassed over boreen on one side of the field – leading down towards a sleepy river valley. Hidden somewhere down there in white-thorny overgrowth was a medieval church ruin.

“I’m interested in this land for sale”, I thought to myself. And vaulted the gate.

Rural Ireland can at times seem pretty isolated and removed. But one is never really that far away from modern life. Nevertheless, there are hidden pockets in the landscape still to be found. Tracts of soggy lowlands and hillsides that have somehow slipped through the net of bungalow blight, land improvements and road frontage. Half forgotten field systems within field systems, bypassed long ago by patchworked secondary road networks and rendered largely inaccessible by modern vehicles. Saved from modern (re)development by never having had any in the first place and little reason anymore for modern feet to tread.

Traipsing down a ghost of a green road, I was now entering one of those pocket places. A soft quilted, tree pimpled river valley, halfway between nothing and nowhere. A unnamed gap in space and time. Halfway between the medieval and early modern.

I ambled off the ‘path’ for a bit and wandered idly across the rest of the field, just because I could. Overgrown grass to my knees and waist in places. Wild flowers brushing past, coating me in sticky stems and pollen. Rousing sleepy insects perched on the edges of cow parsley and buttercups.

At the end of the field, I followed the green road through a gap in the hedgerow, heading towards a further cluster of trees along a low stone wall. The roof of an old dilapidated hay shed, peeping over trees in the distance – one of my waypoint markers from the aerial photographs. Somewhere beyond it, near the bottom of the valley, lay the medieval church ruin and somewhere beyond that, a forgotten Holy Well.

The green road narrowed around a curving hedgerow, plunging through another clump of trees. I rounded the corner and stopped in my tracks. Parked in front of me, the hulking rusting skeletal frame of an old horse drawn hay rack, its wheels partially sunk into the ground. Patiently waiting for someone never coming back.

I hadn’t expected to find anything like this and so proceeded with caution in case I wasn’t entirely alone as previously thought. The dilapidated hay shed loomed out of the trees ahead of me, holes in the roof, corrugated sheet skin flaking and peeling off. I rounded its corner, slowly, and found myself standing in front of an otherwise hidden and long abandoned homestead.

Despite a relatively modern coat of render and a rusting corrugated roof, the house was obviously much older. Nineteenth century vernacular three roomed Irish Cottage type, with a twentieth century walled front garden slowly being eaten by weeds and vegetation.

How had I missed this on the aerial photographs? Clumped together, in close proximity to the hay shed, with similar roofing, I had obviously mistaken the house as nothing more than an ancillary shed or something. And yet, here it was. A forgotten piece of Olde Ireland, nestled away in a river valley, rotting from the inside out.

I cast around for any signs of life. Nothing.

I let archaeo-eyes adjust. The original shape of the space about a dwellinghouse, a modern day lis, began to materialize under the overgrowth. Enclosing bushes and hedges, once hacked and kept in line, now stretching their gnarled branches towards the house in revenge.

A little bit away, facing the front door, a single towering fairy finger of Fox Glove [or (Fairy) Folk’s Glove] standing sentry. Warding off the Sidhe but never ever brought over the threshold. For fear of what it could inadvertently bring inside.

I stood for a while. Listening to nothing. Looking at broken snarling shards in the windows. The bright open doorway and darkness within. I had come in search of the remains of a long abandoned early medieval homestead, after all. Maybe I had just arrived a few centuries layer than expected.

Dropping my backpack, and carrying only my camera, I stepped quietly inside.

Standing in the doorway. The central room. Bright red walls halfway between disintegration and evaporation. Cracked and heaving under the weight of their own dampness. Open gashes, exposing the very stone bones of the older house underneath.

A closed down open fireplace. Metal accoutrements still in situ. A chimney bleeding black soot and dead feathers. An old hearthstone smothered by modern breeze blocks. A battered blackened votive kettle. Left in pride of place.

Bright red blight. Seasoned by damp. Mouldy memories, left behind, still hanging from warped wooden shelves.

Into one of the bedrooms. Past a drooping dresser with a wilting door. Stepping over animal droppings and windblown dirt. Gap-toothed tiles in a hard baked floor that was once swept clean every night.

The eerie emptiness of a bedroom without a bed. A solitary antique armchair made lumpen by cold winters and morning mildew. The ghostly backside impression of former occupants.

I returned and stood in the kitchen and tried to shake off an overwhelming sense of angry emptiness. A dead house. Still standing. Hollowed from the inside out by the elements it once protected from. Abandoned, maybe by death, and overcome by isolation. Outpaced by the modern world and the sound of combustion engines on nearby roads that would never arrive.

I tried to imagine how things may have been. With freshly coated paint and straw on the floor. Casserole stock pots and drying socks at the fire. A childless couple, who never grew up. Silent and happy. Rocking each other to sleep in a single chair.

And then I left. Closing the door softly behind me.

I eventually found the medieval church ruin. Old stones spouting branches and clothed in soft moss. A green ghostly apparition in itself. After a long while stamping around underfoot in heavy overgrowth, I even found the old holy well – now thankfully dried out – by falling into it up to my waist and almost loosing a boot to its soggy bottom.

That night, uploading the pictures of the day to my computer, I noticed something odd.

I had been shooting on digital auto, and every picture before and after the abandoned house, was completely normal.  Yet the ones taken inside, as above, were all blurred.

Maybe I had hit a button accidentally. Maybe it was the dim light within. Maybe it had something to do with dampness.

Whatever it was, I have left them as is. Unaltered.

**********

A few months later, catching up on survey admin, I got around to logging the site visit on a googlemap project. I brought up the location and recorded the relevant details and was about to move on, when, for no particular reason, I decided to cross reference it with Bing Maps, who generally have more up to date Irish landscape imagery than google.

The Location of the House and Shed -2011 (Screengrab/Googlemaps)

The Location of the Shed – 2012 (Screengrab/Bingmaps)

Sometime after I had been there, probably within a few months of the ‘Land for Sale’ going through, the entire area had been obliterated from the face of the earth. Hedgerows uprooted. Trees cut down. Single smallholding fields amalgamated, ploughed out and replanted over. The house, originally included on the 1st Ordnance Survey (c.1840s), now swept away by its new landowners, as if it had never been there.

As if I had never been there.

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