For I smell of the earth and am worn by the weather…

These beautiful Roscommon creatures were just so chilled. I couldn’t fit them in my car unfortunately…

 

I knew I was home the moment my little car drove me from Strokestown in County Roscommon to the wild lands of North West County Mayo. It was the smell.

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From Roscommon up to Lough Conn, and 2 entirely different geographies…

 

Smell is extremely important to me. I’ve spoken before about the wild garlic of Northern French hedgerows and the assault of chemical perfumery in the duty free shops at airports. I also get olfactory hallucinations- I smell scents that aren’t there- as one of my symptoms of manic depression. My nose provides cues for safety, danger and remembrances of things past.

The north west of Roscommon was turned over from potato fields in the 1840’s to the more prosperous pasture land for dairy herds. This was another reason for the eviction of masses of people who emigrated either to Canada, the USA or Britain.

 

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Strokestown land and lough.
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No sign remains of my family in these fields in Roscommon, but driving through them I was able to imagine the men, women and children, working the land in all weathers…

 

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A remarkable find… this was worn over the soft shoe protect the foot as it pushed the spade into the peaty earth, hour after hour, day after day…
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Often the men left the family for periods of time, migrating to Scotland for seasonal work. Irish families were matriarchal. And the women worked as hard as the men…

 

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I took this photo in the deserted village of Slievemore, on Achill Island, County Mayo. Here can be seen clearly, remains of the “lazy bed” potato fields and a thrilling glimpse into the past life of my family.

 

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Roscommon and Mayo are full of abandoned farm houses…indicative of the mass emigration over the past 200 years…
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Nephin in the background. Potato cultivation was thrown over for pasture farming…and with it went centuries of subsistence farming and thousands of people.

 

I drove 2 hours from the Strokestown Famine Museum up to Crossmolina. I chose the minor roads in order to take in the beauty of the countryside.

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County Mayo has a Brontesque quality to it… I was almost tempted into a bodice and corset…
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The colours of June in Ireland are staggering and a photographer’s dream

 

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It took much longer to complete my journey due to all the beautiful places I stopped to photograph…

 

The north west pastures of Roscommon suddenly become the wilderness  of County Mayo. And the smell. It was a rich smell of soil, stirred up by a recent rainfall and warmed by the sun. A heady, heavy scent of earth, grass and wild flower bloom. Of cows and manure and mould. A smell I wanted to lie down in and sleep forever. And of course it made me think of Mr T.

Seven years have passed since I laid my beautiful husband in the ground. He will now be a part of the land of Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. An English man from birth to death. To this day I miss burrowing my nose into his warm, musky armpits whenever I felt anxious in the night. It was my safe place.

And I wondered how many people lay underneath the land on which I was walking. Those who fell foul of the hunger, those who weren’t lucky enough to be able to get away. And I wondered if their bones were adding to the thick, rich, dark dank odour of the Irish peat, reminding me that I too, one day, will be a part of this land. Because it was at that point that I decided I need to complete the family circle. One day I will come home.

 


 

There is no doubt that, travelling alone across this land of my fathers, my connection to the land was cemented. I felt the spirit of my forefathers and their strength and determination to survive. The pull that I have always felt, to return to the motherland was not satiated. Rather, it became stronger as I drove from townland to townland, each recorded in church parish records, with details of my ancestors.

Nothing remains of their homelands. No cabin nor caravan. Just beautiful, rich land. And it’s difficult to imagine the vast numbers of people who lived and died in these counties.

 

 

In 1841 the population of Mayo was 388,847, by 1851 it had fallen to 274,830; the number of homes in the county had fallen from 70,542 to 49,073 in the same period. Within 10 years the numbers of families halved.

The same happened in Roscommon. West Roscommon lost approximately 60% of its population in ten years, between 1841 and 1851. East Roscommon experienced less of a population decline however and I wonder whether this explains why the McCarthy’s were able to continue living in the area until the mid 20th century. It is clear however that the Clarkes were caught up heavily in the Great Hunger diaspora. I have only details of the three Clarke cousins surviving the famine. I have no records of what happened to the rest of the family. I fear the worst.


If you go to West Ireland, go in June. And leave the car behind, and preferably any friends and relatives. Go in June and go alone. Fully embrace the sounds and smells of a land virtually unchanged since pre-medieval times. A land rich saturated with colour and perfume, beauty and the most awful tragedy.  A sublime land of glorious landscape and pitiful sorrow. A land from which I defy anybody to emerge unmoved and unchanged. A land I’m proud to call my motherland.

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Country roads, take me home…to Ireland

As a child, Ireland was our guilty family secret. To be fair, the 1970’s wasn’t a great time to be a celtic tiger in mainland Britain, due chiefly to the exploits of the Irish Republican Army, blowing up civilians in my hometown of Birmingham and other English cities.

 

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Whatever is Great Grandfather smoking in that pipe of his?

 

This and the ever present stereotype of the drunken thick, lazy paddy was enough to drive any first generation English family underground. The family name was changed, the Irish relatives were shunned and our heritage was buried. I couldn’t do much about the ginger hair…

My Granny Kate however, couldn’t quite keep her mouth shut. And I’m very, very nosy.

I always knew there was something “different” about her family. And being a fully paid up member of children’s literature, I fantasised that she must have been descended from an Irish King, complete with a treasure trove and a whole county to rule over (she always mentioned some weird places called Roscommon and Mayo like anyone in Britain had ever heard of such nonsense).

Thanks mainly to Ancestry.co.uk and the publication of Irish parish records, I have been able to discover the family secret…

We are Irish Travellers.

So. Not only did I have what is commonly viewed as the worst accent in the British Isles (Brummie), with ginger hair and a rather “common” set of relatives from the most dubious part of town, but I’m also a gypsy! Since Cher likes to put us amongst tramps and thieves, it’s not hard to imagine why my family decided to “bury” such revelations, become settled and start learning all the words to the National Anthem. I was even given a monarch’s name! (Albeit a German one but whatever…)

Somehow I always knew.

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Bit of cultural appropriation here Cher..?

My gran used to sing a strange song about being in a caravan. And she played the spoons. Seriously though, the family worked traditionally with metal, my great grandfather shod horses during WW1 (Irish people did fight for King and Country although some people refuse to believe this). And they were unbelievably poor. I mean, the poorest of the poor. Yet they managed somehow to keep out of the workhouses, instead, living together as family units in one room, fixing stuff.

 

Ancestry.co.uk has enabled me to confirm that my dna is 96%, Irish, although distinct from the settled Irish population. So there we have it. That, plus the 4% Eastern European (Russian Roma), about puts the rather appropriate tin lid on it…

I’ve always been a wanderer. And a lover of camping. And I’m a dab hand at mending things…

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Have backpack, will wander

 

So naturally, I needed to go back to Ireland. To find out where my family came from. And what made them end up in a Victorian slum in the heart of the West Midlands.