According to the radio and the results of a recent survey, the average Irish woman, noted for ruling the roost, would rather have a clean and tidy house than sex.
Set in large plots, some with grand gates and sweeping drives drives, most homes are modest or grandly understated. Even when they cluster around shops and pubs lining the roads, the impression of life is still low pressure, spacious and meandering.
Of course, being English I watched it all from the car window musing on what I would install to fill the space. Rows of vegetables, flowerbeds, an orchard and maybe a greenhouse. Any number of things that would add clutter and fill a day with more work. Later, travelling east to County Laois through horse racing country, it occurred to me that, enviably, to the Irish, the ‘rat race’ is more likely to be seen as something different to bet on.
The Irish people take a lot of things very seriously, yet still give the impression of being outwardly eccentric, even innocent in their outlook. The short lived economic boom of the 1990’s spawned reports of ‘irrational exuberance and naïve financial indiscretions’. These are perhaps easy to understand after a long history of conflict, troubles and grinding poverty. The history of County Mayo goes back way into prehistory, from Neolithic, early Christians, Clan kings, the Reformation and Oliver Cromwell to English empirical arrogance.
Still, its unbeleivably sad when you happen across evidence of the reported ‘irrational exuberance’. The rural countryside is home to building projects abandoned mid build and whole estates of new housing that stand little chance of being occupied. Dispossessed would- be gardens overgrown with weeds front houses that stare like empty eyed lepers. The padlocked temporary fencing denying access to the footprint of untarmaced roads leading nowhere. If not just because of the optimistic price tag in a seriously depressed housing market and an economically depressed populace who can’t find work, much less a mortgage, I couldn’t help but wonder who would be brave enough to be the first new occupant.
But, supported by an unmovable faith, the people remain stoically warm and welcoming.. Southen Ireland is predominantly a Catholic country though ‘the other lot’ have a foothold here too. For the remains of every levelled house, quietly and unobtrusively reminding passers- by of the wretchedness of the potato famine, there is a pristine road side shrine to Our Lady benevolently smiling.
The Irish may lampoon themselves with schoolboy glee in the media and gift shops, but they take religion incredibly seriously. The incense aroma of burning peat filling the air with serene assuredness, creates the effect of an open air cathedral. Even as a heathen, tree hugging non-believer, I can’t avoid the feeling that the Irish are extraordinarily blessed people.
Reigion in rural Ireland is, quite literally, as old as the hills and dates back to the Druids. The landscape is littered with abbeys, convents, churches, shrines and holy mountains. Many have taken on iconic status with much recounted stories attached to them. County Mayo is overflowing with sites to fascinate even the most hardened nonbeliever.
Millions of pilgrims visit to walk in the footsteps of the likes of Saint Patrick, Saint Joseph, John the Evangelist and the Blessed Virgin Mary whose effigy is everywhere.
You don’t have to be religious to put your hands on a structure that was considered sacred in 400AD and be moved by the experience (though I’m sure it adds a deeper dimension). It’s the fact that the land and its people have preserved them even when others have tried to pull them down that makes Ireland and the Irish singularly remarkable. And it is all done in a quiet and modestly understated way. Like a collection of beloved ancient
relatives snoozing in the family living room, the religious structures, like the levelled homes, are preserved in the landscape. Levelled homes sit happily in the grounds of homes and farms, sometimes re roofed to become barns and stores. They could have been pulled down as eyesores, but they’re not. Desecrated abbeys, convents and churches stand as tended monuments with towns and villages growing around them. Or as centre pieces for graveyards, the locals clustering around them keeping them company with their own monuments, marking their brief stay on earth.