Kevin Whelan, ‘Reading the Ruins: The Presence of Absence in the Irish Landscape’, in Howard B. Clarke, et al. eds., Surveying Ireland’s Past: Multidisciplinary Essays in Honour of Anngret Simms (Dublin: Geography Publications 2004).

Anngret Simms was a gifted and caring teacher, nowhere more so than in her frequently organised fieldtrips. These offered relief from the brutalist modernism of the grey Belfield campus, as we radiated into the Pale - Kilteel, Duleek, Tara, the Hill of Slane, Dowth, Moone, Monasterboice, Newcastle Lyons, Trim … We often ended up on one of those hills which command such surprising vistas over low Leinster, and which were frequently topped by ruins. The profusion of these ruins was surprising - the gaunt verticality of a battered towerhouse, pot-bellied mottes, sombre medieval churches, graveyards alive with grass and nettles. Sometimes too there were monuments of startling beauty - the cubist clarity of the High Cross at Moone, the brutal hulk of Trim Castle, the vernacular masterpieces crafted on Glendalough gravestones, the silhouette of a round tower … And then there was the landscape itself - acquiring a sudden sheen after rain, ever-changing under a mobile sky, the trees condensing into solidity in the twilight, the raucous black swirl of confetti crows wheeling above. As we learned to love the landscape, we also learned to see it rather than to merely look at it. Anngret taught us to read the ground - a submerged roadway, the trace of a vanished monastic enclosure, the fugitive track of a vanished town wall. All the time too, we were encouraged to link text and territory, merging the paper landscape into the material one. Over two decades later, this meditation on ruins is offered in gratitude for Anngret’s gift of a life-long love of the Irish landscape.

The classic English ‘prospect poems’ - Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’ (1616), Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton House ‘ (1633), Denham’s ‘Cooper’s Hill’ [1642], Pope’s ‘Windsor Forest’ - present landscapes of repose, a Virgilian, neo-classical idyll. Within these Apollonian landscapes, ruins serve to show that the deep past has been conquered, that the current political/ social regime is unchallengeable, natural, inevitable ... The moral core of the country house poem lay in the consolidation of property relations, under a stabilised political system, a harmonising aesthetic which naturalised property.[1] In the English sensibility, ruins represented nature reclaiming culture: ivy-enshrouded ruins proclaimed a deep past, the work of nature and culture harmonised. Ruins healed the hurts of history, representing a resolved history, domesticated, organicist, unified. Wordsworth contrasts Tintern Abbey, immersed in the settled continuity of the English landscape, with the turbulent upheavals of the French Revolution. Ruins were envisaged as shells deposited on the shore when the sea of living history had receded. The enlightenment viewed ruins as evidence of vanquished earlier formations, recalling the cultural childhood of the mature state. There is also a neo-classical sub-current here. The eighteenth century developed a profound, and often anxious, sense of Britain as the inheritor of Roman imperium. Hence the obsession with ruins as the detritus of empire - Robert Woods, Ruins of Palmyra [London, 1753]; Johann Winckelmann [1755] on Roman antiquities; Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Le Antichita Romane (Rome, 1756); and James Stuart & Nicholas Revett, Antiquities of Athens [London, 1762]. Few passages of eighteenth-century literature were better-known than Edward Gibbons’s melancholy musings on Roman ruins. [2] Ruins could also rebuke the vanity of human wishes, the transience of human achievement, as in a classic romantic poem like Keats’s “Ozymandias”.

Ruins in the landscape
These considerations became profoundly disturbed once transferred into an Irish context. The R. I. A. deepened this interest. Under the auspices of the Earl of Charlemont (1728-1799), [3] who himself had been deeply involved in the search for classical ruins in the eastern Mediterranean, the Royal Irish Academy encouraged the exploration of Irish ruins, but this project quickly hit political reefs. Talk of Romans invariably brought Irish minds to bear on the fate of the Carthaginians. [4] Romans and Carthaginians could rapidly metamorphose into Saxons and Celts. Irish ruins therefore revealed not an organic, harmonious relationship, but a disrupted narrative. One needs then to attend to a profound difference in Irish and English view of ruins. [5] Consider the failure of ‘achieved’ Irish topographic poems in this mode. [6] Consider equally the failure of Irish painting of ruins by Gabriel Beranger (1729-1817), Austin Cooper (1759-1830) and others. [7]

There was thus a contrast between the standard Enlightened view of ruins and the anti-colonial Irish perspective, which tended to see them as a traumatic tear in the fabric of time. Thus P. J. Kavanagh’s comments in his introduction to Simon Marsden’s eerie photogaphs of Irish Big House ruins are egregiously wrong: ‘This, I take it, is the real pleasure of ruins: a delight in the way that nature, of which we are a part, has had her way at last and nobody could do anything about it.’ [8] Thus P. J. Kavanagh’s comments in his introduction to Simon Marsden’s eerie photogaphs of Irish Big House ruins are egregiously wrong: ‘This, I take it, is the real pleasure of ruins: a delight in the way that nature, of which we are a part, has had her way at last and nobody could do anything about it.’ [9] From Seatrun Ceitinn on, Irish commentators challenged the baleful binary of tradition and modernity, the Hegelian view that all that is lost to history is well lost. This involved a refusal of the Scottish Enlightenment paradigm within which that which is sacrificed to progress is retrieved imaginatively as nostalgia.[10] This attitude generated a wistful, rear-view mirror of history, where the past stayed firmly in the past, drained of political import and available merely as sentiment. Romanticism, in the form of modernity’s nostalgia for its vanquished others, becomes a political placebo, a cultural sedative to soothe the harshness of history and to establish the comfort of distance between past and present. By contrast, Irish commentators insisted that violence rather than tranquillity underpinned the distinction between tradition and modernity. Tradition was not just a site of atavism and violence, but a necessary defence against a deliberately ‘torn’ culture, fully exposed to an intrusive and rapacious modernisation.

In the Irish case then as in other colonial situations, tradition and custom were not based on continuity but on violence, instability and discontinuity. Tradition was not anterior or antecedent to modernity but absolutely incorporated into and sustained by it. The ‘levelled lawns and gravelled clay’ of W. B. Yeats were built over blood. Medbh McGuckian pithily says that ‘Every inch of this land has been paid for with the blood of a man.’ The high monuments of Anglo-Irish culture were brutal petrifications of violence, stained with ancient blood which insisted on resurfacing. Oral tradition retained versions of this motif: in 1798, the corpse of a man killed by a local landlord had been laid by his mother on the doorstep of Coolgreaney House in county Wexford: ever since a bloodstain had reappeared on it, even when the stone was turned upside down and then replaced on many occasions.

In geological terms, the Irish cultural landscape displayed igneous or metamorphic rather than sedimentary historical layering. Each historical layer had not been laid down uniformly over its predecessors, smoothly and quietly accumulating, with each earlier layer completely buried beneath its successor: instead, the cultural topography was unconformable, with layers abruptly impinging on each other. Tremendous stresses and strains wrenched settled geological formations asunder, reassembling them in violent unions and then juxtaposing them in unpredictable combinations. The underlying geology remained unstable: old forces rumbled away deep in the substrate and at any time volcanic stresses in the bedrock could be suddenly released by unstoppable eruptions which pierced the brittle surface. In a country like Ireland with a troubled history, the seemingly quiet surface was a deceptive crust, which offered only a temporary stay against the flows of unfinished history seething beneath it. As James Connery observed in 1836, these manifestations had become naturalised in Ireland:

And it is as impossible to suppress those ebullitions of public indignation as to extinguish the flames at the crater of Mount Aetna or Vesuvius, which, if subdued for any time, like those furnaces of nature, will create an inward burning in the bowels of the body politic, and end in an earthquake, such as Captain Right, White Boys, Hearts of Oak, John Doe, Caravats, Shanavests, Captain Rock, Terry Alt etc, and swallowing thousands of the human race in the chasm until brought to a level surface by the musket, sword, spear and gibbet.[11]

In such circumstances, there could be no easy partitioning of the past from the present in Ireland. The landscape itself was a palimpsest, containing contested narratives of history and culture. Its monuments and traces reached from the present down into earlier layers from which they derived their power and presence, their aura.

The Wild Irish Girl
This is the version of history coded into The Wild Irish Girl, an 1806 novel by Sydney Owenson ( c.1776-1859).[12] In this novel, ruins figured as the scene of the historical crime, the return of the repressed. It is politically explicit in its treatment of ruins as materialisations of the colonised’s defeat, the presence of absence, in which the long-term effects of historical trauma have become fixed in place. Colonial guilt haunted these multiple layers of time sedimented in space: ruins were mausolea of memory, the site of rupture rather than aesthetic rapture. For Owenson, the Irish landscape was saturated in history, still shuddering under the impact of historical forces. Rather than the complacent erasure of history, the past leaked uncontrollably into the present from the original and unstaunched wound, still raw and chafing. This is the realm of the Irish Gothic, in which time is a revenant, eerily repetitive. Owenson’s reading of ruins was heavily influenced by The ruins or a survey of the revolutions of empire by Constantin de Volney (1757-1820).[13] This was a deeply influential radical text in the 1790s, with its allegorical reading of the twin trajectories of priestcraft and despotism, its Deist espousal of toleration and internationalism, and its insistent message that the ruins of earlier civilisations showed that no empire ever endured.

Owenson used her novel to insert Irish antiquarian scholarship into British debate. The Wild Irish Girl was studded with footnote references to this literature and its controversies. From Charles O’Conor (1710-1791), through Sylvester O’Halloran (1728-1807) to Joseph Cooper Walker, William Crawford and Charles Vallancey, the second half of the eighteenth century witnessed a vigorous effort to recuperate in the English language that version of Irish history embedded in Irish language sources. This was a nationalist history whose political acceptability markedly improved with the explicit cultural nationalism of the Volunteers, and later the United Irishmen. But for those wedded to the British connection, and its colonialist narrative of the advances of Ireland under British tutelage, this cultural project was a thinly disguised and malignant political attack on Britain, whose false claims about Irish antiquity acted as a stalking horse for sedition and separatism. This was the argument advanced by Edward Ledwich and other conservatives as Irish politics polarised under the impact of revolutionary politics.

A paradox was at work here. Elsewhere in Europe, this essentially Burkean project of retrieving ‘our antiquities and our monuments’ was notoriously a form of counter-revolution. The uniquely colonial nature of Ireland in modern Europe made this protocol inoperative in Ireland.

Competing narratives of the Irish past underpinned the Irish political divides of the revolutionary period. Owenson recast the nationalist version as an Irish example of ‘the ancient constitution’ and used this as an explicitly anti-colonial strategy. The ancient constitution and ‘the Norman yoke’ occupied a privileged position in English Whig and radical rhetoric. In Ireland, the seventeenth-century author Seatrún Céitinn [Geoffrey Keating] (c.1570-c.1650) had written a precociously anti-colonial text Foras Feasa Ar Éirinn (A true basis of a knowledge of Ireland), which established in intricate (albeit pseudo-historical) detail the pre-conquest history of Ireland. Pre-Norman Ireland, ‘the island of saints and scholars,’ had achieved a high level of civilisation, evidenced by its attainments in the fields of scholarship, craftmanship, literature, and specially its system of codified law (the Brehon laws). Céitínn abruptly terminated his narrative of this high Irish civilisation and the ancient constitution of its polity with its catastrophic destruction by the Danish and Norman invaders and their imposition of the ‘Saxon yoke.’ Drawing on translations of Céitinn available since 1723 and on amplifications by later scholars (O’Conor, Halloran, Walker), Owenson smuggled this Irish ancient constitution into the framework of English Whig historiography to devastating anti-colonial effect. The conquest had not advanced civil liberties in Ireland, but had brutally extinguished them. The sheer temporal depth of Irish civilisation, stretching well back beyond the conquest, warranted the adoption of a Burkean argument for legitimacy, and furthermore it sanctioned the almost inevitably elegiac view of Irish history as a decline and fall narrative, with the fall occasioned by the colonial intrusion.

The belief that a ruin or a ruined civilisation can be restored underpins the very concept of translation, especially from the Irish or Scottish native languages (as in the work of Macpherson or Brookes). These translations are appropriated in English as emblems of antiquity, surviving into modernity. As such, their ‘barbarous’ or unpolished features are made as audible as possible. In order to function successfully in an Irish context, translation must simultaneously estrange by its invocation of a ‘tribal’ past, and appeal by the pretence that it has now (via the alchemy of translation) been assimilated.

Owenson deepened Irish political time to include the pre-colonial ‘Milesian’ past, narrating the Irish nation as one which had regressed rather than advanced under colonialism. This strategy neatly inverted the standard barbarism/civility tropes, claiming parity of esteem for Gaelic culture. It also refused the Scottish model of cultural convergence under the Union as represented by James Macpherson (1736-1796) and especially Walter Scott.[14] Owenson argued in her Patriotic Sketches that ‘the devoted enthusiasm of the Irish to letters, to the arts of poetry and song, ’ ‘left them ill qualified to oppose an hostile and savage enemy.’ [15] Attaching them to the cultural authority of ancient Greece, she described them, like the Greeks beset by the Romans, as ‘a polished nation sunk beneath the daring inroads of such barbarians.’ Politically disempowered, Ireland was then subjected to ‘calumny and defamation’ which systematically obliterated its ancient record as ‘the most enlightened country in Europe.’ [16] Owenson allied herself with the late eighteenth-century scholarly retrieval of Ireland’s cultural precedence, thereby buttressing Irish claims to enhanced political autonomy.[17]

The English response to these Irish claims was to appeal to the authority of texts – caricatured by Owenson in The Wild Irish Girl:: ‘But while your days and nights are thus devoted to Milesian literature ... what becomes of Blackstone and Coke? ’ [18] Owenson had then to face the contentious question as to why ‘so few monuments of your ancient learning and genius remain? Where are your manuscripts, your records, your annals, stamped with the seal of antiquity, to be found?’ The priest (representing Irish scholarship) replies:

Manuscripts, annals and records, are not the treasures of a colonised or conquered country ... it is always the policy of the conqueror (or invader) to destroy those mementoes of ancient national splendour, which keep alive the spirit of the conquered or the invaded.[19]

As a result, ‘we are now obliged to have recourse to our memories, in order to support our own dignity.’ [20] Owenson claimed that her aim in writing The Wild Irish Girl had been ‘to authenticate the questioned refinement of ancient habits by the testimony of living modes.’ [21] The voice for her was an ontological source of historical verity, ‘the corroboration of living testimony.’ [22] Similarly Irish ruins gestured insistently back to that pre-colonial integrity which had been shattered by the colonial intrusion. Tradition and the material traces of ruins together constructed a counter–narrative to the standard ‘enlightened’ or ‘colonial’ versions of Irish history.

The colonial response to ruins
After the repeated upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the Irish landscape seemed littered in ruins. In 1620 Luke Gernon (ob. 1673) reported of the typical village that he had seen in Limerick:

It looks like the latter end of a feast. Here lieth an old ruined castle like the remainder of a venison pasty; there, a broken fort like a minced pie half eaten ; and in another place, an old abbey with some turrets standing, like the carcase of a goose broken up. [23]

A century later in 1726, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) fulminated on Irish ruins as he surveyed the scene between Drogheda and Dundalk:

This is the modern way of planting colonies - et ubi solitudinem faciunt, id imperium vocant. [24] … When I arriv’d at this last town [Drogheda], the first mortifying sight was the ruins of several churches batter’d down by that usurper Cromwell, whose fanatick zeal made more desolation in a few days than the piety of succeeding prelates or the wealth of the town have in more than sixty years attempted to repair ... Examin all the eastern towns of Ireland and you will trace this horrid instrument of destruction, in the defacing of churches, and particularly in destroying whatever was ornamental, either within or without them. We see in the several towns a very few houses scattered among the ruins of thousands, which he[Cromwell] laid level with their streets. Great numbers of castles, the country seats of gentlemen then in being, still standing in ruin, habitations for bats, daws and owls, without the least repairs or succession of other buildings. Nor have the country churches, as far as my eye could reach, met with any better treatment from him, nine in ten of them lying among their graves, and God only knows when they are to have a resurrection. When I passed from Dundalk, where this cursed usurper’s handy-work is yet visible, I cast mine eyes around from the top of a mountain, from whence I had a wide and a waste prospect of several venerable ruins... [25]

In 1694, Sir Francis Brewster explained the lessons of Irish ruins for the English colonists:

The ruins of demolished towns and fortresses in Ireland and the vast heaps of bones of slaughtered men in many parts of that kingdom are but too sensible monuments of their [Irish Catholics] villainy, and cannot when we see them but make us reflect upon their behaviour to us. And remember how four years have passed since they were, by downward dint of sword, beaten into good manners. [26]

In 1707, Molyneux described the bones still strewn on the site of the battle of Aughrim - ‘Eachroim an air’ – and the piles of human skeletons at the adjacent Franciscan friary of Kilconnell.[27] A century later during the 1798 rebellion, John Giffard exulted over the massacre of surrendered rebels at Mullaghmast on the Curragh and the reduction of Kildare to a heap of smouldering ruins, inflicted as a reprisal for the earlier killing of his son by rebels:

Oh my darling Sally, love my soldiers: they did not leave my hero unavenged. 500 rebels bleaching on the Curragh of Kildare, that Curragh over which my sweet innocent girls walked so pleasantly with me last Summer: that Curragh was strewed with the vile carcasses of Popish rebels and the accursed town of Kildare has been reduced to a heap of ashes by our hands. Had they spared my darling young soldier, the town would at this moment be flourishing, and perhaps not a soldier would have been sacrificed to his memory but extermination is now the cry; the soldiers are by no means satisfied with what has been done.’ [28]

Ruins in the colonial imagination summoned up the sheer military and economic effort required to subdue the country as well as the need to reconstruct its landscape on more acceptable lines. This frequently began with a cartographic survey. [29] These maps ignored the earlier landscape, often being devoid of content within the legal, proprietorial boundaries. Here we can see the transition to the new language and landscape of fact which reached its apogee with William Petty (1623-1687).[30] Petty’s political arithmetic (the origins of what we now call economics) was itself a deliberate response to the upheavals consequent on the Reformation: he sought to rescue ‘facts’ from the murderous anarchy of theological disputation, which threatened to rip Britain apart in the mid seventeenth century. By elevating ‘facts’ generated by mathematical protocols over the partisan wrangling of theologians and politicians, Petty sought a new common ground of reason. Facts, separated from and prior to any theory of value, were stripped of any attachment to language and text-based contexts of knowledge. Petty also therefore advocated the ‘plain’ style, shorn of rhetorical excess and promoting transparency through brevity. This would produce a language of reason, not of passion, based on observation and measurement, not feeling. Thus facts would be divested of narrative, of any intimacy or rootedness in culture: they would become the domain of expertise rather than of experience, the outward sign of an inner instrumental reason, eminently suited to ‘reasons of state.’ ‘Knowledge is power’ in the words of Francis Bacon, whose Great Instauration inaugurates these new protocols.

Viewed in this light, Petty’s cartographic innovations - based on mathematical mensuration, precise instrumentation, bureaucratic efficiency - can also be seen as an effort to strip the inherited Irish landscape of meaning and narrative. Its depiction as a transparent plane, reducible to numbers, prefigure efforts to reduce its existing culture and inhabitants to a similar transparency. Petty advocated genocide as necessary to a new beginning: his maps, devoid of inner narrative and with the native presence erased, are of a piece with that project.

This colonial imagination drew explicitly on the authority of the Bible: the inability of the natives to exploit fully the natural resources justified the colonial incursion. As Richard Cox observed: Nature has formed this island one of the most fruitfullest spots of the earth. It would indeed be a pity if by the laziness of its inhabitants that great advantage should be lost. [31]

This lack of development was routinely ascribed to incorrigible deficiencies in the native political and cultural dispensation. Rev. William Henry argued in 1749:

This condition put a stop to all arts and science, to husbandry and every improvement. For to what purpose was it to plow or sow where there was little or no prospect of reaping, to improve where the tenant had no property? This universal neglect of husbandry covered the face of the Kingdom with thicketts of woods and briars and with those vast extended bogs which are not natural but only the excresences of the body, occasioned by uncleanliness and sloth, the reducing of which may yet be the labour of more than a hundred years. [32]

Henry sees bogs as a fact of culture, not of nature, the visible and outward sign of the interior slovenliness of the native Irish character.

Such arguments often fused a biblical and economic language of improvement. In a sermon to the Methodist conference during the 1798 rebellion, Rev. A. Hamilton preached:

The venerable men who first contributed under God towards the late revival are nearly all gone to their reward. Those who drained the bogs, cleared the woods, and built the bridges not only at the expense of ease and worldly comfort, but often at the hazard and sometimes even at the loss of life have nearly all taken their flight to the church triumphant. [33]

As late as the 1990s, Rev. Ian Paisley justified his political stance by repeating a crude type of this settler rhetoric: ‘We made this province which was nothing but a bogland before, with bog dwellers.’ [34]

Ruins could symbolically as well as materially recall the prior political order. One of the classic enlightened paintings of the formal planter landscape is a mid eighteenth-century perspective view of the Cosby estate at Stradbally in county Laois. The view is framed by an unimproved landscape(the distinctive limestone reef-knolls) in which the ruins of Dunamaise, the centre of Gaelic power in the area, feature prominently.[35] The ruin functions like the artificial moles on women’s faces at this time - a spot of ugliness all the more drawing attention to the beauty around it. If ruins recalled the prior order, they could be frightening at moments of political turbulence or agitation. In 1815, the English traveller Anne Plumptre (1760-1818) was so disturbed by a murder in county Tipperary that she could not enjoy the picturesque or romantic charms of Irish ruins:

I came to Cashel to see the celebrated rock and the venerable remains of antiquity with which it is crowned but I could see nothing except the increased suffering which the country has prepared for itself. I became indifferent to everything else and I thought only of quitting scenes which seemed surrounded with nothing but gloom and horror. I saw the rocks and the ruins at a little distance, as I entered the town and as I quitted it, they presented but new ideas of devastation and I passed on.[36]

The reception of the romantic attitude to scenery was delayed in Ireland by the fact that ‘nature’ could only be seen through the distorting filter of poverty. The contamination of the aesthetic by this gross poverty was a cliché of writing on pre-Famine Ireland. This becomes clearer if we compare the Irish with the Scottish experience. The Highland clearances had made the Highlands ‘picturesque’ from the mid eighteenth century onwards; in Ireland, the effect was delayed for a century until after the wholesale Famine clearances.

In Thomas Moore’s (1779-1852) witty performance of 1826 Memoirs of Captain Rock and in the painting inspired by it, Daniel Maclise’s (1806-1870) ‘The installation of Captain Rock’(1834), the origins of Irish secret societies was seen as bound up with ruins [37] Ruins themselves became envisaged as intimately associated with subversion and intrigue. Henry George, the American radical, was arrested as a Fenian suspect in a ruined abbey. He claimed that ‘he had visited the ruined abbey for the purpose of inspecting the ruins.’ [38]

These ‘scenes of devastation’ which so dismayed Plumptre were renewed too frequently to allow the comfort of distance. In the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion, Jonah Barrington (1760-1834) visited Vinegar Hill: ‘Enniscorthy was dilapidated and nearly burned ... The numerous pits crammed with dead bodies on Vinegar Hill seemed on some spots actually elastic as we stood upon them.’ [39] The wife of the captain on board a transport bringing rebels to Botany Bay similarly observed on a shore visit to New Ross: ‘Seven or eight months after the battle, the large graves where the men and horses had been buried promiscuously were still fresh.’ [40] A generation later, Rev. Ceasar Otway (1780-1842) was discommoded by the ruins of the Tyrell mansion near Clonard:

If you approach [the Boyne] by what reminds you of desolation - you see a mansion house ruined in the rebellion of 1798 - a place that recalls all the bitter recollections of that period of domestic fury and fell civil strife. Yes look at the potato garden on the other side of the road opposite the wasted mansion house. Observe that little mound fenced in with gooseberry bushes. There lie in one grave the remains of hundreds who fell in the attack on the dwelling house of the Tyrrells. God keep such evil days and bloody deeds from ever recurring again. [41]

A further colonial response to native ruins was to seek their removal as an all too visible sign of the contested nature of the Irish landscape: Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) made this argument in 1852:

But there are other sights - groups of ruins as at Athenry - staring fragments of old castles, and churches and monasteries, and worse than these, a very large number of unroofed cottages. For miles together, in some places, there is scarcely a token of human presence but the useless gables and empty doorways and window-spaces of pairs and rows of deserted cottages. There is something so painful, so even exasperating in this sight, that one wishes that a little more time and labour could be spared to level the walls, as well as take off when tenants are either ejected or go away of their own accord. [42]

Similar comments were made by J. E. Howard, discommoded by the too obvious clachan ruins of Slievemore on Achill:

In approaching the colony, the road winds along the base of Slievemore. Here the ruins of a deserted village strike the eye unpleasantly and should be removed as they disadvantageously occupy the ground. [43]

This represented a variant on the English liberal view that the Irish obsession with their past itself needed decommissioning: The Standard of 1 June 1867 opined:

Are we perpetually to be dwelling on the memory of those ancient grievances? Are we never to be done with Oliver Cromwell and William 111, 1798 and the persecution of the Roman Catholics? England did doubtless many wrong and foolish things in the past. But Ireland has no peculiar and especial property in wrong-suffering. She was not exactly an angel of light herself at any time. As for rebellions, treasons, stratagems, she has never been without them. These are not things of English introduction but of Irish growth. [44]

Bowen’s Court
Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) inherited Bowen’s Court in county Cork, a house built in 1775, which she sold in 1959: it was demolished in 1960. The family origins were remembered in the portraits of Cromwell and William of Orange on the landing. [45] The book, written in 1939, culminates in the menacing shadow of first World War, a foreboding over disappearance, ruins and cultural extinction. In one sense, Bowen’s Court repeats a pattern of Irish cultural history identified by Seamus Deane; the tendency towards literary efflorescence just preceding the moment of cultural extinction - a historical distress flare? A sense of inevitability permeates the book and this is the much travelled terrain of the ‘Protestant Gothic’ whose sensibility has migrated into her booksThe Last September (1929) and Bowen’s Court (1942). The tendency is to treat the buildings themselves as anthropomorphic: the ruin of Canavane ‘continues to stare blindly at the superb view.’ [46] The space where the house once stood becomes a topochron.[47]

‘One cannot say that the space is empty’ even when it is gone; the house remains ‘very much alive.’ [48]

Bowen invents a cultural history of ruins. She identifies a typology of ruins in the Cork countryside. The first have political or military origins, forcible destructions representing ‘gashes of violence’ and ‘human bitterness.’ [49] The second are abandoned ruins, associated especially with the emigrant, representing personal or casual loss. The third are voluntary ruins, deliberately relinquished to history, as in the closing of rural Protestant churches. The result was ‘a country of ruins,’ ‘a ruin enshadowed land.’ [50] She then traces the origins of this fixation with ruins to the founding generation of her family in Ireland - her stock were Cromwellian settlers from Wales. ‘The Cromwellians were ‘a people of the ruins.’ [51] Their initial experience as ‘settlers’ was of ‘living in patched-up ruins in the tedium and squalor of poor whites.’ [52] The Cromwellians, born in violence and ruins, died in violence, insanity and ruins. Could insanity be envisaged as a cultural response to a colonial situation? Bowen discusses the madness of ‘Big George’ Kingston, of her cousin Captain Bowen-Colthurst in 1916 (who murdered the pacifist Owen Sheehy-Skeffington) and of her father Henry. The problem of historical obsolescence is symbolised by his magnum opus on the Irish land laws which appears in 1916, after the moment for a detailed treatment of them has passed. The experience of dispossession by the Anglo-Irish ironically finally indigenises them: ‘It has taken the decline of the Anglo-Irish to open to them the poetry of regret; only dispossessed people know their land in the dark.’ [53] The Bowens join the Cushins, the dispossessed Catholic gentry whom they displaced in the seventeenth century, as ‘living ghosts.’

Yeats made a similar claim. In his poem “The Curse of Cromwell”, he assimilates the famous complaints of O Rathaille about the Cromwellian displacement of the Gaelic elite into his concerns about the disappearance of the Anglo-Irish:

You ask what I have found, and far and wide I go,
Nothing but Cromwell’s house and Cromwell’s murderous crew,
The lovers and the dancers are beaten into the clay
and the tall men and the swordsmen and the horsemen where are they?
And there is an old beggar wandering in his pride,
His fathers served their fathers before Christ was crucified.
O What of that, O What of that
What is there left to say. [54]

Like the sword of Damocles, ruin hung over the Anglo-Irish class as it hangs over all colonists – the nightmare Spenser scenario. For Bowen, his ghost haunts the Munster valleys. Edmund Spenser had died as a starving refugee in England, believing that the Mellerayn lang=EN-GB style=’font-family: Palatino;color:black’Munster plantation had utterly failed. Personally dispossessed and with Kilcolman Castle a smoking ruins, he died with the bitter aftertaste of a lifetime wasted and an entire enterprise obliterated. Bowen’s interest in Spenser is sparked by the appalled feeling that his fate would be proleptic of that of her own family and class: this feeling imbues the book with a pathos that broods over living and dying in the shadow of historic defeat, displacement and disappearance. Thus in the house and demesne, the past was ‘pervasively felt.’ [55] The terminal generation are gradually dissolved into a virtual reality. By the early twentieth century, the Protestant Ascendancy have become for Bowen ‘a ghost only.’ [56] An entire social class and culture (what she calls ‘Anglo-Irish settler society’) have been rendered spectral – ‘scattered, homeless, sonless.’ [57] By the end of the first World War, their future has already become unhinged from their past, opening them to the vertigineous cultural pathos of inheriting a past that has lost its future. The connection between past and future has been perforated by the war: ‘they had lost their heirs.’ [58]

This personal and family experience was also a general cultural one. Bowen observes the burnt-out ruins of Fermoy barracks - ‘acres of ruins.’ [59] There is a foreboding sense of cultural entropy, of continuous loss and waste. But there is also an inexorable counter-flow of cultural energy from barracks to downtown Fermoy, from Mitchelstown Castle to Mount Melleray . [60] This circuit signals the transfer of power from the landed gentry to the Catholic church, as Big Houses capitulate to institutional use. A fresh crop of ruins sprout in the Irish landscape with the burning of the Big Houses in the early 1920s.[61]

The nationalist response to ruins
Irish nationalists believed that the deliberate destruction of ruins represented an effort to erase the native presence from the Irish landscape. John O ‘Donovan (1809-1861) claimed in 1838 that ‘the half-civilised gentry of that period had a wish to destroy every monument of ancient Irish glory.’ [62] In 1868, William Stokes (1804-1878) repeated the claim: ‘The Irish gentry were without those national associations which would make them careful for the history and monuments of a people still too distinct from them.’ [63] From the eighteenth century onwards, there were frequent flashpoints over the destruction of ruins by landlords ‘improving’ their estates. Similarly, because Catholics sought to retain ancestral burial rights in the old graveyards, there were low-level disputes with the clergymen of the established church. These were especially sharp where the old church ruins were also the site of Patterns, increasingly distasteful to Protestant sensibilities in the nineteenth century. These old sites, secular and ecclesiastical, were protected in the popular imagination by their association with the spirit world. Ruins signified the right to a remembered presence, to visibility and voice, not silence and absence. They were a materialisation of memory in landscape, a constant reminder of the subjugation of the old inhabitants by the intruders and their consequent loss of status in their own land. Pondering the ruined castles of his Cork and Kerry, Aodhagain O Rathaille (c. 1670-1729) linked the fate of the old Catholic families with the fate of the nation in his ‘An milleadh a dimitigh ar mhor-shleachtaigh na hEireann’ [The destruction that befell the great Irish families]:

Griofa’s Heidges, gan cheilg im scealaibh
i leabaidh an Iarla, is pian ‘s is ceasta!
An Bhlarna gan aithreabh acht faolchoin
Is Rath Luirc scriostaithe, nochtaidhe i ndaor-bhruid.[64]

The same sentiments were repeated in the well-known poem ‘Cill Chais.’ Here the cutting of the old oak forest, the abandonment of the castle itself and the absence of both the Butler family and Catholic service become emblematic of the destruction of the entire older order.

Cad a dheanfamid feasta gan adhmad
Ta deireadh na gcoillte ar lar
Nil tracht ar Chill Chais na a teaghlach
‘s ni chluinfear a cling go brach. [65]

dmund Burke (1729-1797) contrasted the Irish political situation with the English one in terms of an opposition between a Cromwellian ruin and a ‘noble and venerable castle’: this analogy acquires an additional density when it is located within this Irish Catholic milieu.[66] So does his image of the rooted oak tree as an emblem of English constitutional and cultural legitimacy, when it is set against the notorious deforestation of eighteenth-century Ireland.

This milieu generated a potent Jacobitism in eighteenth–centry Irish culture, prevalent among the underground gentry of dispossessed landowners.[67] In their perpective, ruins were a constant reminder of their prior status. As Rev. Denis Taaffe perceived it: ‘The face of our country is covered with ruins, the manifest vestiges of exterminating fury.’ [68] But even worse than the loss of status and power was the contumely that accompanied it: ‘We are stript bare and then reproached with our poverty.’ This opprobrium is also the point of Eoghan Rua O Suilleabhain’s (1748- 1784) biting couplet:

Ni ins an ainnise is measa linn bheith sios go deo
Ach an tarcaisne a leanas sinn i ndiadh na leon. [69]

A similar sensibility appears in a mid-eighteenth-century sermon of Rev. James Pulleine (later vicar-general of Dromore diocese) as he recalled the condition of the sacred places of Ulster:

gan le fail ar lorg na naomh ach aiteacha uaigneacha agus ionada folmha, ballai dorcha dubha arna gcaiteamh le haoia agus le haimsir, ag titim agus ag turnamh le talamh. Dun, Sabhal agus Fachairt, longphort Phadraig, Bhride agus Cholaim Cille, gan dion, gan chrann, gan chraobh, muna bhfuil dreas no eidhean ag deanamh foscaidh do bheataigh allta no d’eanlaith uaigneacha an aeir. Broic agus sionnaigh ag tamhan agus ag screachaigh, feithidi agus preachain ag gragarnaigh in ait na n-organ, na psalm, na iomann agus na gcaintici ceolmhara a bhi annalod a seinn sna harasa naomhasa. [70]

Here a specific Ulster Catholic sensibility and a wider one fuse. We may even hear an echo of Shakespeare’s ‘bare ruined choirs / Where once the sweet birds sang,’ often taken as a veiled reference to the poet’s opposition to the stripping of the monasteries, and to his own covert Catholicism. [71]

The self–identification with ruins becomes an additional topos in discussions of Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), for example, or of James Clarence Mangan (1803-1849) who talked of ‘the Pompeii and Herculaneum of my soul.’ [72] Here too was scope for the cult of the fragment - which emits a strong political fume. The fragment, the ruin, gestured back towards a prior completeness – and proleptically forward to a renewed wholeness. The sharp exchange between James Hardiman (c.1790-1855) and Sir Samuel Ferguson (1810-1886) in the first quarter of the nineteenth century shows the politics of culture underpinning these debates. For Hardiman, O‘Carolan’s alcoholism and emaciation were symbolic of and generated by the wider condition of Irish Catholics; for Ferguson, they represented merely personal failings.[73]

The enormous rhetorical weight that ruins achieved in Irish nationalist representation in the nineteenth century is evident in the prevalent nationalist iconography, which incorporated the round tower and the ruined Abbey of Muckross. [74] In the early nineteenth century, the United Irishman William Drennan (1754-1820) mused on the ruins of Glendalough:

Glendalloch or Glyn of the double lake, is situated in Wicklow [...] on the round tower of Glendalloch was often blown the horn of war. Amidst a silent and melancholy waste, it still raises its head above the surrounding fragments, as if moralising on the ruins of our country and the wreck of its legislative independence. We think of Marius when he said to the lictor: ‘Go and tell that you have seen Marius sitting on the ruins of.’ [75]

The biographer of the United Irishmen R. R. Madden (1798-1886) observed at mid-century:

Can we ignore the fact that we are the descendants of saints and scholars, of martyrs and patriots, the representatives of a plundered and a persecuted race? Assuredly no Irishman can. Therefore we cling, like the ivy around our ruined abbeys, to memories of the past and thus remain ever faithful to our country and our creed. [76]

These opinions did not just remain the preserve of the poet and the intellectual. In 1884, J. Pope Hennessy visited a priest’s house near Clashmore in the Blackwater valley on the border of Cork and Waterford. There he found a sixteen year old servant boy who was also a monitor in the local National School. Hennessy asks him about his reading. The boy liked Mangan, especially his ‘The lamentation of MacLiag for Kincora’: ‘When I see the ruined abbeys and castles, I whisper that lamentation to myself.’ [77] Hennessy then discusses the reading habits of the ordinary Irish people as revealed by what they read in the reading rooms (National League in the rural parishes, or the Catholic Young Mens in the towns). The most popular book was Penny Readings for the Irish people edited by Henry Giles. Hennessy cites the introduction:

Ireland is a land of poetry. It is a country of tradition, of meditation and of great idealism. Monuments of war, princedom, and religion cover the surface of the land. The meanest man lingers under the shadow of piles which tell him that his fathers were not slaves. He toils in the fields with the structure before him through which echoes the voice of centuries- to his heart the voice of soldiers, of scholars, and of saints. [78]

Ruins were stitched into the popular understanding of Irish history. This was often linked to a version of Irish landscape, where the natives had been forcibly relegated to the hills and bogs, especially of the west of Ireland. In 1929, Padraig Ó Duinnin (1860-1934) summarised Irish history after 1600:

The struggle of these two centuries, a struggle not merely, perhaps not mainly, for material possessions but also for intellectual belongings and religious freedom left its mark on the face of the country as well as on the character of the people. The country was shorn of its woods; the castles and mansions of the nobility were demolished or allowed to crumble into shapeless ruins and rarely did new buildings replace them; the abbeys and churches fell and tottered to decay; the industrious native population was elbowed to barren hillsides, while the choicest land was usurped by the stranger. [79]

In the 1950s the National School inspector Seamus Fenton took his holidays at Lisdoonvarna where he met Mrs Harton, a professor of history at Harvard. He is quickly drawn into an argument over history, in which ruins become the decisive riposte to her championing of English improvement in Ireland:

She thought, quoting Carlyle, that Cromwell was a benefactor of the Irish people but that he should have completed his work. No, she never read Sir William Butler’s famous essay on the regicide, and the extracts shot at her fairly stunned her, such as ‘ ruins, ruins on his trail, everywhere in Ireland, ruins of churches and castles … a vast historical cataclysm.’ [80]

The living landscape
A living landscape dynamically embraces a spontaneous and reciprocal relationship between a community and their environment. Their relationship of gemeinschaft creates a vernacular cultural landscape, not imposed from outside or above but developed spontaneously, inwardly. A living landscape imbued with authenticity and numen, stitches together seamlessly the individual, the family and the community. Language and landscape are not split which enhances connectivity. The landscape has a dual function: one is secular, pragmatic, functional, social; the second is symbolic, cultural, associational. The environment provides a locus for human affection, imprinted as remembered forms, ways of being, ways of living, ways of knowing. The painter Tony O’Malley borrows the term ‘Inscape’ from Gerard Manley Hopkins to conceptualise this circuit between the material world and the imagination. [81] The landscape connects the outer contours with an inner vision.

The cultural landscape operates as an archive of material practices, symbolic forms, embedded and attached narratives, well demonstrated in Henry Glassie’s study of Ballymenone in county Fermanagh. [82] It functions as a mnemonic, a matrix of memory, an accumulated repertoire of historical narrative, lieux de memoire. Placenames act as the narrative tags, anchors of memory. The living stream of history constantly deposits narrative sediment. That sediment speaks with the eloquence of particularity. It is what is encapsulated in the Irish word – duchas. [83] It underpins the narratives of the nation of townlands - naisiun na mbailte fearainn. Consider the mentalite revealed in the discovery of over nine hundred placenames in the single townland of Cill Ghalligain in Erris, [84] the micro-world of Sean O Conaill (1853-1931) of Cill Realaigh (now an evocative ruin partially restored as artists’ houses) [85] or the imaginative excavations of Tim Robinson of Aran. [86] In all these cases the landscape functions as ‘a stable anchorage of life’ (Joseph Conrad). This version of landscape is embedded in the Irish tradition - the place lore of the dindseanchas, a liber locorum;. This is the sensibility encapsulated in Cathal O Searcaigh’s poem ‘Anseo ag Staisuin Chaiseal na gCorr’:

Anseo ag Staisuin Chaiseal na gCorr
D’aimsigh mise m’oilean ruin
Mo thearmann is mo shanctoir.
Anseo braithim i dtiuin
Le mo chinnuint fein is le mo thimpeallacht.
Anseo braithim seasmhacht
Is me ag feiceail chriocha mo chineail
Thart faoi bhun an Eargail
Mar a bhfuil siad ina gconai go ciuin
Le breis agus tri chead bliain
Ar mhinte fearaigh an tsleibhe
O Mhin ‘a Lea go Min Na Craoibhe.
Anseo, foscailte os mo chomhar
Go direach mar bheadh leabhar ann
Ta an taobh tire seo anois
O Dhoire Chonaire go Prochlais.
Thios agus thuas tim na gabhaltais
A briseadh as beal an fhiantais.
Seo duanaire mo mhuintire;
An lamhscribhinn a shaothraigh siad go teann
Le duch a gcuid allais.
Anseo ta achan chuibhreann mar bheadh rann ann
I mordhan an mhintireachas.
Leim anois eipic seo na diograise
I gcanuint ghlas na ngabhaltas
Is tuigim nach bhfuilim ach ag comhlionadh dualgais
Is me ag tabhairt dhushlan an Fholuis
Go direach mar a thug mo dhaoine dushlain an fhiantais
Le dicheall agus le duthracht
Gur thuill siad an duais.
Anseo braithim go bhfuil eifeacht i bhfiliocht.
Braithim go bhfuil bri agus tabhacht liom mar dhuine
Is me ag feidhmiu mar chuisle de chroi mo chine
Agus as an chinnteacht sin tagann suaimhneas aigne.
Ceansaitear mo mhianta, seimhitear mo smaointe,
Cealaitear contrarthachtai ar an phointe. [87]

The negative landscape
The ‘lie of the landscape’ is what it does not retain: the modern Irish landscape conceals the disappearance of three million people, especially those who lived in the clachans and the cottiers’ mud wall cabins. The Famine deaths - over one million - represent an absolute loss that is beyond redemption, a loss that theory cannot penetrate, that ethics cannot redeem. These spaces of the disappeared created negative landscape, marked by the presence of absence. This is gestured to in the tradition of the ‘fear Gorta - the hungry grass’. This was a spot of ground where a person died during the Famine: when a modern person walks on it, they are seized with horrific hunger spasms, which can only be alleviated by libations offered to the hungry grass itself. The sheer scale of the Famine clearances - close to three-quarters of a million people according to the most recent scholarly estimate - left a mark, especially where the houses were built of stone. In the stone-rich west of Ireland, there was little incentive to recycle the stones, and the mark of the clearances was therefore more visible there. R. R. Madden wrote in 1849 at the height of the clearances:

Nothing is left of the houses of the poor
but desolate gables that point to the skies
destined like obelisks long to endure memorials of efforts to challenge surprise. [88]

The scale of disappearance even in the more prosperous midlands is well shown in Willie Smyth’s detailed study of Clogheen-Burncourt in County Tipperary. [89] The human costs of such displacement is vividly caught in an image from the Derryveagh clearances in Co. Donegal in April 1861. Owen Ward, an old man evicted from Drumnalifferny townland, kissed the walls of his wrecked and unroofed house the day after his eviction, as did each of the six members of his family in turn, before leaving it forever.[90]

Later John Healy (1930-1991) was to write two angry books about the scale of emigration from Mayo.[91] In a poignant moment in Nineteen acres, Healy finally realise why his uncle Jim O’Donnell was so reluctant to leave his house at Castleduff, in defiance of his illness. His house was the last on the hill, and his hearth contained the fire of three emigrated families:

In that way, although the emigrant’s house was closed and the hearth cold, the fire which for so long blazed there, never really went out. There would be continuity… His was the last fire and it had three fires in it, kept in trust for families who would one day come back. If this fire went out, it was the last living thing which bound the neighbours to return, for word would go out that Jim O’Donnell’s fire, the last fire on the hill, was quenched.[92]

Thus the sense of place is shadowed by displacement, the sense of family by brutal dispersion. These ruins entered indelibly on the imagination of local people. Hugh Dorian (1834-1914), recalling ruined houses in Fanaid in co. Donegal in 1888-1889, mused:

The mind takes an ungovernable flight and carries the imagination backwards half a century; a cloud of events and of rapid changes rushes upon the memory which for a while bewilders one’s ideas until they are calmed by reflection. [93]

In his reflections on Conamara, Seamus Mac An Iomaire (ob. 1967) was similarly affected by the ruins around him:

These people have little in the way of earthly comfort but they work away as hard as they can. During Summer and Autumn they labour away but have little to show for it the rest of the year. Having been subject to Penal Laws and tyranny for hundreds of years has left them badly off. As for rent and tax, its hardly worth talking of compared to other worse deeds. The place was once cleared as was done in other parts of Ireland. The people were chased off their holdings and their houses knocked down. They suffered much torment at the hands of the landlords’ bailiffs and from the gang with the iron crowbars whose work is still to be clearly seen; old bare lonely ruins with moss and ivy growing outside and nettles inside. A terrible treachery was done but as the proverb says ‘Treachery brings its own punishment’.[94]

The Australian poet Vincent Buckley talks of the psychological impact of emigration as a way of life:

Every generation of the Irish has as one of its chief signs the phenomenon of interrupted lives and hence interrupted memory transmission. Families become dispersed, like leaves at the end of autumn. The ‘family’ remains, it is true, but as a denuded tree stump, full of stay-put melancholy. [95]

One problem of negative landscape is the difficulty of portraying it cartographically or visually. During the Famine itself, the Illustrated London News sought to display these scenes and James Mahony’s drawings of the ruined clachans of Skibereen in Co. Cork and of Kilrush in Co. Clare remain among the most evocative images of the period. Other visual treatments include Erskine Nichol’s An ejected family (1853). [96] Robert G. Kelly (1822-1910), the Dublin born painter exhibited An ejectment in Ireland in London in 1853 ( also known under the title A tear and a prayer for Ireland; when it was produced as an engraving) .[97] Its display at the Royal Academy was severely cWestminsterriticised, with the painting being vilified in the parliament as a crude political exercise. [98] Elizabeth Butler’s (1846-1933) 1890 eviction scene at Glendalough is another well known image of this kind.[99] During the Land League period, photographs were deployed to illustrate the problem of eviction; the sequence relating to the Coolgreaney evictions in co. Wexford is a fine example as is work from the Wynne studio at Castlebar in Mayo, Glass in Gweedore in 1889 and W. H. Lawrence, who also depicted eviction scenes.[100]

The limit of cartographic representation is well caught in Eavan Boland’s poem on Achill “That the science of cartography is limited”:

- and not simply by the fact that this shading of
forest cannot show the fragrance of balsam,
the gloom of cypresses
is what I wish to prove.

When you and I were first in love we drove
to the borders of Connacht
and entered a wood there.

Look down you said: this was once a famine road.

I looked down at ivy and the scutch grass
rough-cast stone had
disappeared into as you told me
in the second winter of their ordeal, in

1847, when the crop had failed twice,
Relief Committees gave
the starving Irish such roads to build.

Where they died, there the road ended
And ends still and when I take down

the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of

the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that

the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress
and finds no horizon

Will not be there. [101]

Radical memory
Ireland was culturally traumatised in the immediate post-Famine period. The cultural revival at the end of nineteenth century was a delayed second-generation effect, inspired by people themselves born during the Famine. The best known examples include Michael Davitt (1846-1906) and Michael Cusack (1847-1906). The reshaping was necessary to fill out the cultural vacuum hollowed out by the Famine. This raises the issue of the importance of radical memory, for example, in the Land League. Radical memory seeks not for the past it had, but for the past it had not, the desired past; not an actual history but a possible history. It is anti-nostalgic, seeking to bring the past into the present, rather than leave it back there. It deploys the past to challenge the present, to release cultural energies stored in thwarted moments from the past.

Ruins therefore represent the plurality of historical possibilities in the Benjaminian sense: if they had that potential in the past, it could be recuperated in the future. This is radical memory, possessed of a prospective rather than an elegiac nostalgia, a nostalgia for the future not the past. It is a redemptive project intended to harness unreleased potential. Ruins preserved alternative futures that were not realised but are still available. They historicise space and spatialise history, becoming topochrons – a single site containing multiple times. [102] Topochrons secrete laminar history, thereby freeing place from the tyranny of the actual, untethering it from the linearity of history, the contingency of necessity. They therefore enable a form of counter-memory which answers back to history.

In Michael Davitt’s case, radical memory meant an awareness of historic loss and the need to take reponsibility for it.[103] He used his personal Famine experiences as the spur to undermine that Irish landlordism which he blamed for his predicament:

Almost my first remembered experiences of my own life and of the existence of landlordism was our eviction in 1852, when I was about five years of age. The eviction and the privations of the preceding Famine years, the story of the starving of Mayo, of the deaths from hunger, and the coffinless graves on the roadside - everywhere a hole could be dug for the slaves who died because of ‘God’s Providence’- all this was the political food seasoned with a mother’s tears over unmerited sorrows and sufferings which had fed my mind in another land, a teaching which lost none of its force or directness for being imparted in the Gaelic tongue, which was always spoken in our Lancashire home. [104]

Davitt harks back to the message that James Fintan Lawlor had derived from the Irish Famine experience- that the Irish peasantry had to develop a political project which would seek to have them ‘rooted like rocks in the soil of Ireland.’ [105] A cohort of activists, among them Davitt, Jeremiah O’ Donovan Rossa (1831-915), Mark Ryan (1844-1940) and Tim Healy (1855- 1931), had a direct experience of eviction within their family.[106]

Remarkably in a still profoundly agrarian society, Davitt was able to set in train the legislative displacement of an entire landed class, predating the massive upheavals in Russia a few decades later. This achievement was predicated on his ability to fuse the agrarian and the political issue, bringing together under a common umbrella the physical force tradition of Fenianism and the constitutional aspirations of the Home Rulers in a unified campaign. Charles Stewart Parnell also was central to this achievement, advising western tenants in 1879 not to repeat the mistaken passivity of their fathers in 1847: ‘You must show the landlords that you intend to hold a firm grip on your homesteads and lands. You must not allow yourselves to be dispossessed as you were dispossessed in 1847.’ [107] This appeal to general history was also an appeal to personal history: the children of those who had suffered the Famine clearances had fused the personal and political and this steeled their determination in the 1880s. Their memory of the Famine was direct and unmediated, not some spurious invention of tradition derived from folklore and song, some second-hand perversion inculcated through the speeches, newspapers and crude polemical histories of rabid ideologues and nationalist zealots. They did not need John Mitchel to coach them in understanding the Famine. Davitt claimed that ‘The men who made the Land League were the sons of those who went through the horrors of the Great Famine.’ [108] In contrast to the conservative cast of arguments centred on the invention of tradition in Victorian Britain, memory in Ireland was deployed for radical political purposes. It acted as a spur to agency, rather than a prop to passivity.[109] Those memories were helped by the aide-memoire of ruins. As one visitor to the west noted in a chapter of his travel book called ‘The island of ruins,’ everywhere you saw ‘the desolated homes of the poor’: ‘the bare walls of roofless cabins among the hedges or alone on the hills; for each will tell you of hearths now cold and of families vanished.’ [110] These ruins ‘are the solid ghosts haunting our land.’ [111] Hugh Dorian argued vigorously that the very landscape itself offered an inescapable daily history lesson to its inhabitants:

The Donegal peasant has got all the historical learning he requires, he has his ancestors’ history open before him, every day he rises, exhibited in the largest characters, the ocean, the mountain and his own state of poverty and if he reads anything he must read, how it is that he is there and why? [112]

Once the political dispensation changed in 1922, the meaning of ruins altered one more time. The achievement of independence finally allowed Irish people to indulge that nostalgia over ruins.[113] In the south, ruins finally exited politics and entered history: they were consigned to the past rather than the present. They moved from the living realm of memory to the dead past of history.[114] In Northern Ireland, scarred by another generation of political violence, that luxury has not been achieved; the political dispensation there has not enjoyed the legitimacy and therefore stability of the south. Thus ruins retain their dual life there - as in the debate whether it would be better to ‘Raze the Maze’ or to leave the ruins of Long Kesh as a tangible reminder of what has happened. Similar anguished debates have erupted over the fate of the ‘disappeared’ and more generally over the appropriate commemoration of the victims of the Troubles. In the aphorism of Sean O hUiginn, Northern Ireland requires a political settlement with which not just the living but the dead can live. [115]

[1] R. Williams, The country and the city (London, 1973).
[2] J. G.A. Pocock, Barbarism and religion. Volume one. The enlightenments of Edward Gibbon 1737-1764 (Cambridge, 1999).
[3] See C. O’Connor, The pleasing hours: the grand tour of James Caulfeild, first Earl of Charlemont (1728-1799), traveller, connoisseur and patron of the arts in Ireland (Cork, 1999). He made significant discoveries at Bodrum and he was to patronise Piranesi in Rome to the extent that he dedicated the four volumes of the Antichita Romane to him. There was also a spectacular quarrell: see M. Craig, The Volunteer earl (London, 1948), pp 85-96.
[4] E. Cullingford, ‘Romans and Carthaginians: anti-colonial metaphors in contemporary Irish literature’ in Ireland’s others: gender and ethnicity in Irish literature and popular culture (Cork, 2001), pp 99-131.
[5] L. Goldstein, Ruins and empire: the evolution of a theme in Augustan and Romantic literature (Pittsburgh, 1977); A. Janowitz, England’s ruins: poetic purpose and the national landscape (Oxford, 1990).
[6] J. P. Waters, ‘Topographical poetry and the politics of culture in Ireland 1772-1820’ in Romantic generations: essays in honour of Robert F. Gleckner (Lewisburg, PA. 2001), pp 221-44: examples include J. Leslie, Killarney: a poem (Dublin, 1772); W. H. Drummond, The Giant’s Causeway: a poem (Belfast, 1811); J. M’Kinley, Poetic sketches descriptive of the Giant’s Causeway and the surrounding scenery (Belfast, 1819).
[7] Two volumes of Beranger’s drawings (in the Royal Irish Academy and the National Library) have been published: P. Harbison, Beranger’s views of Ireland (Dublin, 1991); P. Harbison, Drawings of the principal antique buildings of Ireland (Dublin, 1998); P. Harbison, Cooper’s Ireland. Drawings and notes of an eighteenth-century gentleman (Dublin, 2000).
[8] D. McClaren & S. Marsden,In ruins: the once great houses of Ireland(London, 1980).
[9] D. McClaren & S. Marsden,In ruins: the once great houses of Ireland(London, 1980).
[10] G. Caffentziz, ‘ On the Scottish origins of civilisation’ in S. Federici (ed.), Enduring western civilisation. The construction of the concept of western civilisation and its others (Westport, CT, 1995), pp 13-36.
[11] J. Connery, The reformer or an infallible remedy to prevent pauperism and periodical returns of famine… sixth ed. (London, 1836), p. 54. The first edition of this remarkable pamphlet had been published at Cork in 1832.
[12] S. Owenson, The wild Irish girl: a national tale ed. C. Connolly & S. Copley (London, 2000).
[13] The book circulated widely in Ireland in the 1790s: K. Whelan, The tree of Liberty (Cork, 1996), p. 78. This is also famously the text that Frankeinstein’s monster reads to appraise himself of human history, in Mary Shelley’s treatment of the grotesque shape that modern democracy could take.
[14] K. Trumpener, Bardic nationalism: the romantic novel and the British empire (Princeton, 1997), pp 128-60.
[15] S. Owenson, Patriotic sketches of Ireland written in Connacht, 2 vols (London, 1807), i, pp 108- 9. This volume is a companion piece to The Wild Irish Girl and lays bare the intellectual underpinnings of the novel.
[16] Owenson, Patriotic sketches, i, p.109.
[17] B. Mac Suibhne, Patriot Paddies: the politics of identity and rebellion in north-west Ulster 1778-1803 (Cork, forthcoming).
[18] Owenson, Patriotic sketches, i p. 99. Sir Edward Coke (1522-16240 and Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780) were famous English jurists.
[19] Owenson, Wild Irish girl, p. 172.
[20] Owenson, Patriotic sketches, i, p. 110.
[21] Owenson, Patriotic sketches, preface, p. viii.
[22] Owenson, Wild Irish girl, p. 77. See the characteristic exchange between Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna (1790-1846) and a Derry Catholic in 1837 over the history of the city. Tonna cites texts (‘History books’) while her carman cites tradition and memory in opposition to what he sees as partisan texts. He accuses her of having ‘bad memories’ and takes her to ‘ the ruins of Columbkill’s chapel’ to vindicate his own claims with details of the miracles performed there: C. E. Tonna, Letters from Ireland in 1837 (London, 1838), pp 350-52. This interchange replicates the wider Protestant/ Catholic split over the rival claims of text and tradition, which had been put in explicitly Irish terms by David Hume’s arguments (in his History of Great Britain from the accession of James 1 to the revolution in 1688) in favour of the superiority of texts in his treatment of the 1641 rebellion.
[23] C. L. Falkiner (ed.), Illustrations of Irish history and topography mainly of the seventeenth century (London, 1904), p. 355.
[24] Tacitus, Agricola, xxx: ‘And after they produce a wasteland, they call it peace.’ The phrase comes from the denunciation of Roman imperialism by Calgacus, leader of the Caledonians:
Plunderers of the world, after they, laying everything waste, ran out of land, they search out the sea: if the enemy is wealthy, they are greedy: if he is poor, they seek prestige: men whom neither the east nor the west has sated, they alone of all men desire wealth and poverty with equal enthusiasm. Robbery, butchery, rapine, they call empire by euphemisms and after they produce a wasteland, they call it peace.
H. Benario (ed.), Tacitus’s Agricola, Germany and Dialogue on Orators (Oklahoma, 1991), p. 45.
[25] T. Sheridan & J. Swift, The Intelligencer, ed. J. Wooley (Cambridge, 1992), pp 87-8. Swift, an Anglican clergyman, reserves his bile for the Dissenter Cromwell. The 1720s witnessed a sharp debate over the seemingly inexorable southwards spread of Presbyterianism from Ulster, and Irish Anglicans had decided to halt it at Drogheda by refusing permission to erect a large Presbyterian meeting house there.
[26] F. Brewster, Discourse concerning Ireland and the different interests therein (London, 1694).
[27] Molyneux, Journey to Connaught, TCD MS 833, 11, f. 15, cited in E. O Ciardha, Ireland and the Stewart cause: a fatal attraction (Dublin, 2002), p. 82.
[28] John Giffard (Rathdrum) to Mrs Sally Giffard (Dublin ) 17 June 1798 in A. H. Giffard, Who was my grandfather? A biographical sketch (London, 1865), pp 47-8.
[29] R. Loeber, ‘Land surveys’ in J. Donnelly (ed.), Irish encyclopedia ( forthcoming).
[30] The following paragraph is based on M. Poovey, A history of the modern fact: problems of knowledge in the sciences of wealth and society (Chicago, 1998), pp 92-143. Compare W. Mignolo, The darker side of the Renaissance: literacy, territoriality and colonization (Michigan, 1995) on the Aztec/Spanish case.
[31] R. Cox, A charge to the Grand Jury of County Cork (Cork, 1740), p. 21.
[32] [W. Harris] Britanno-Hibernicus, An appeal to the people of Ireland (Dublin, 1749), p. 24.
[33] A. Hamilton, Sermon to Dublin Methodist conference 16 July 1798 (Dublin, 1799), p. 19.
[34] Tuesday File, R. T. E., I February 1994. A more sophisticated version of the same trope appears in John Hewitt’s poems: ‘Once alien here’ and ‘The colony’: see S. Deane (ed.), The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, 3 vols (Derry, 1991), iii, pp 164-5.
[35] This painting is now in a private collection: I would like to thank the owner for permission to view and photograph it. See F. Aalen, K. Whelan & M. Stout (ed.), Atlas of the Irish rural landscape (Cork, 1997), p. 197.
[36] A. Plumptre, Narrative of a residence in Ireland of the summer of 1814 and that of 1815 (London, 1817), cited in G. Hooper (ed.), The tourist’s gaze. Travellers to Ireland 1800-2000 (Cork, 2001), p. 24.
[37] This painting (in a private collection) is reproduced and discussed in L. Gibbons, ‘Between Captain Rock and a hard place: art and agrarian insurgency’ in T. Foley & S. Ryder (eds), Ideology and Ireland in the nineteenth century (Dublin, 1998), pp 23-44.
[38] M. Davitt, The fall of feudalism in Ireland or the story of the Land League revolution (London, 1904), p. 143.
[39] J. Barrington, Personal sketches of his own times, third ed., 2 vols (London, 1869), i, p.151.
[40] C. Graham, P. MacIntyre & A. M. Whitaker (ed.), The voyage of the ship Friendship from Cork to Botany Bay 1799-1800 (Sydney, 2000), p. 4.
[41] C. Otway, A tour in Connaught (Dublin, 1839), pp 18-19.
[42] H. Martineau, Letters from Ireland (London, 1852), p. 54.
[43] J. Howard, The island of saints or Ireland in 1855 (London, 1855), p. 171. Elizabeth Butler described these ruins as ‘Achill’s mournful little Pompeii, a village of the dead on a bare hillside’: E. Butler, Her sketch book and diary (London, 1909), p. 17.
[44] Cited in M. de Nie, ‘A medly mob of Irish-American plotters and Irish dupes. The British press and trans-Atlantic Fenianism’ in Jn. British Studies, xl, 2 (2001), p. 232.
[45] E. Bowen, Bowen’s Court (Cork. 1998), p. 68.
[46] Bowen’s Court,, p.17.
[47] See the commentary on pp 00-00 of this chapter.
[48] Bowen, Bowen’s Court,, pp 458-9.
[49] Bowen, Bowen’s Court, p. 15.
[51] Bowen, Bowen’s Court, p. 87.
[52] Bowen, Bowen’s Court, p. 87. The term ‘settlers’ is on p. 17.
[53] Bowen, Bowen’s Court, p.132.
[54] Cuala Press Broadsides, New series, No 8, August 1937. The broadsheet also contains a striking illustration of Cromwell by Jack B. Yeats, set against the backdrop of smoking Irish ruins.
[55] Bowen, Bowen’s Court, p. 19.
[56] Bowen, Bowen’s Court, p. 430.
[57] Bowen, Bowen’s Court, pp 436-7.
[58] Bowen, Bowen’s Court, p. 436.
[59] Bowen, Bowen’s Court, p. 11.
[60] Bowen, Bowen’s Court, p. 12.
[61] Their pathos is well captured in Simon Marsden’s photographs: McClaren & Marsden, In ruins.
[62] Cited in G. Smith, ‘Spoliation of the past. The destruction of monuments and treasure–hunting in nineteenth-century Ireland’ in Peritia, xiii (1999), p.160.
[63] Cited in Smith, ‘Spoliation’, p.160.
64]Whelan, Tree of Liberty, p. 8: To have Griffin and Hedges - my narrative is the unvarnished truth -
In the place of the Earl, is pain and torture.
Blarney is deserted except by wolves
Rathluirc is destroyed, gutted and in deepest desolation.
[65] E. O Neill, Gleann an Oir. Ar thoir na staire agus na litriochta in oirthear Mumhan agus i ndeisceart Laighean (Dublin, 1988), pp180-83:
What shall we do for timber,
The woods have been finally cut down.
There is no more talk of Kilcash or its household
Its bell will never ever be heard again.
[66] E. Burke, Reflections on the revolution in France ed. C. Cruise O’ Brien (London, 1968), p. 121. See the treatment in L. Gibbons, Edmund Burke and Ireland. Aesthetics, politics and the colonial sublime (Cambridge, 2002).
[67] Whelan, ‘ An Underground gentry? Catholic middlemen in eighteenth-century Ireland’ in Tree of Liberty, pp 3-58.
[68] D. Taaffe, Vindication of the Irish nation (Dublin, 1802), p. 9.
‘It is not the constant subjugation that is the worst thing for us
but the insults that follow us in the absence of our defenders.’
[70] Cainneach Ó Maonaigh (eag.), Seanmonta Chuige Ulaidh (Baile Atha Cliath, 1965), pp 36-7: ‘There is nothing left in the wake of the saints but eerie sites, desolate ruins, dark walls crumbling with age and weather. Downpatrick, Saul and Faughart, the refuges of Patrick, Brigid and Colmcille, without roofing, rooftree or rafter, except for ivy as a shelter for the wild beasts and the lonesome birds of the air. Badgers and foxes grunting and keening, insects scraping and crows cawing from the places where once the peals of the church organ, the melodious psalms and canticles were chanted in these holy sites.’
[71] E. Duffy, The stripping of the altars: traditional religion in England 1400-1580 (New Haven, 1992).
[72] Cited in D. Lloyd, Nationalism and minor literature: James Clarence Mangan and the emergence of Irish cultural nationalism (Berkeley, 1987), p. 183.
[73] The Hardiman/ Ferguson debate is covered in J. Leerssen, Remembrance and imagination: patterns in the historical and literary representation of Ireland in the nineteenth century (Cork, 1996), pp 177-86 and S. Deane, Strange country: modernity and nationhood in Irish writing since 1790 (Oxford, 1997), pp 101-9.
[74] These images, so powerful in their day, have now descended into a realm of kitsch, so pervasive that it requires a conscious effort to see them in their nineteenth-century freshness.
[75] W. Drennan, Glendalloch and other poems by the late Dr Drennan, 2nd ed. (Dublin, 1859), p. 279.
[76] Madden, Autobiography, N.L. I. , appendix, ii, p. 286.
[77] J. Pope Hennessy, ‘What do the Irish read?’ in The Nineteenth Century, June 1884, p. 924.
[78] Hennessy, ‘What do the Irish read?’, p. 930.
[79] P. Ó Duinnin, Filidhe mora Chiarraighe. Four notable Kerry poets (Dublin, 1929), p. 2.
[80] S. Fenton, It all happened. Reminiscences of Seamus Fenton (Dublin, 1948), p. 317. Sir William Butler (1869-1930) was the husband of the painter, Elizabeth. The book referred to is Confiscations in Irish history (Dublin, 1917).
[81] T. O’Malley, ‘Inscape: life and landscape in Callan and county Kilkenny’ in W. Nolan & K. Whelan (eds.), Kilkenny: history and society (Dublin, 1990), pp 617-32.
[82] H. Glassie, Passing the time. Folklore and history of an Ulster community (Dublin, 1982).
[83] See the brilliant treatment of the concept of Duchas by Peter McQuillan in his Key words of the Irish language: essays in the Irish ideas of identity and freedom (Cork, 2002).
[84] S. O Cathain & P. O Flanagan, The living landscape. Kilgalligan, Erris County Mayo (Dublin, 1975).
[85] S. O Duilearga (ed.), Leabhair Sheain I Chonaill: sgealta agus seanchas o Ibh Rathach (Dublin, 1948).
[86] T. Robinson, Stones of Aran: pilgrimage (Dublin, 1986) ; T. Robinson, Stones of Aran; labryinth (Dublin, 1995). A similar world is revealed in B. Dornan, Mayo’s lost islands: the Inishkeas (Dublin, 2000).
Here the prospect opens
like a book before me
from Doire Chonaire to Prochlais.
I survey the meagre holdings, up and down
Snatched from the maw of the wild.
Here are gathered the leaves of my community
The texts scribed through their inky sweat.
Now each holding like a verse records
Their supreme achievement in claiming the land.
I can now read this epic of commitment
In the green dialect of their crofts.
And it hits home that I too am only sealing a covenant
When I undertake to tackle the void.
[88] Limerick Reporter 11 July 1893.
[89] W. Smyth, ‘Landholding changes, kinship networks and class transformation in rural Ireland: a case-study of County Tipperary’ in Ir. Geog., xvi (1983), pp 16-35. His map of disappeared houses after the Famine can be found in Aalen, Whelan & Stout, Atlas, p. 90.
[90] W. Vaughan, Sin, sheep and Scotsmen: John George Adair and the Derryveagh evictions 1861 (Belfast, 1983), p.12. The details come from a report by the Poor Law inspector Robert Hamilton [ N.A.I., CSORP, 1861/7273]. My thanks to Breandan Mac Suibhne for a copy of this report.
[91] J. Healy, The death of an Irish town [Charlestown] (Cork, 1968); J. Healy, Nineteen acres (Galway, 1978).
[92] Healy, Nineteen acres, pp 115-6. In Dungiven parish in 1833, one of the informants of the Ordnance Survey vouched for the accuracy of his narratives by observing: ‘I sat where the hearth fires of my fathers had burnt for six generations before me’: J. Stokes to G Petrie, 16 Nov. 1833, in A. Day & P. MacWilliams (ed.), Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland. Parishes of County Londonderry, volume 15 (Belfast, 1992), p. 107.
[93] H. Dorian, The outer edge of Ulster. A memoir of social life in nineteenth-century Donegal ed. B. MacSuibhne & D. Dickson (Dublin, 2000), pp 64-5.
[94] S. Mac An Iomaire , Cladaig Conamara (Baile Atha Cliath, 1938), p. 29. A modern translation is Shores of Connemara (Galway, 2000). Mac An Iomaire’s autobiographical reflections are in S. Ridge, Conamara man (New Jersey, 1968).
[95] V. Buckley, Memory Ireland: insights into the contemporary Irish condition (Harmondsworth, 1985), p. 108.
[96] Now displayed at the National Gallery of Ireland.
[97] For many years in private ownership, this picture is now displayed in the Burns Library at Boston College.
[98] W. Strickland, Dictionary of Irish artists, vol. 1 (Dublin, 1913), pp 572-3.
[99] Now housed at the Department of Irish Folklore at UCD. It is reproduced in Folk tradition in Irish art: amharc oidhreacht Eireann (Dublin, 1993), p. 44.
[100] See examples in G. Morrison, An Irish camera (London, 1980), numbers 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15.
[101] E. Boland, In a time of violence (Manchester, 1994), p. 5.
[102] Here I am inverting Michael Bakhtin’s celebrated model of the chronotope to give it a spatial as opposed to a temporal inflection.
[103] Study of Davitt has been enormously facilitated by the appearance of C. King (ed.), Michael Davitt: collected writings 1868-1906, 8 vols (Bristol, 2001).
[104] Davitt, Fall of feudalism, p. 106.
[105] J. F. Lalor, cited in S. Deane, ‘Land and soil - a territorial rhetoric’ in History Ireland, ii (1994), p. 32.
[106] An important article is T. O’ Neill, ‘Famine evictions’ in C. King(ed.), Famine, land and culture in Ireland (Dublin, 2000), pp 29-70
[107] Cited in D. McCartney, ‘Parnell, Davitt and the land question’ in King (ed.), Famine, land and culture, p. 78.
[108] C. King, Michael Davitt (Dundalk, 1999), p. 10.
[109] One should note here the sharp theoretical difference between this version of memory and that developed by Simon Schama in his well known Landscape and memory (New York, 1995). There is an equally sharp difference between it and the archivally shallow and theoretically anorexic versions deployed by Irish historians, as evidenced in R. Foster, The Irish story. Telling stories and making it up in Ireland (London, 2001) and in I. McBride (ed.), History and memory in modern Ireland (Cambridge, 2001). For a treatment which approaches these concepts in a theoretically sophisticated way, see C. Harris, The resettlement of British Columbia: essays on colonialism and geographical change (Vancouver, 1997).
[110] Ireland painted by A. Heaton Cooper and described by Frank Mathew (London, 1916), p. 186.
[111] Ireland painted, p. 204. While it is now fashionable to decry it as a piece of unmitigated obfuscation, De Valera’s ‘Comely Maidens’ speech was a response to the emigration and disappearance of rural families.
[112] Dorian, Outer edge of Ulster, p. 130.
[114] This draws on the distinction made by Pierre Nora: see his ‘ Between memory and history’ in P. Nora (ed.), Realms of memory: the construction of the French past, trans. A. Goldhamer, 3 vols (New York, 1996-1998), i, pp 1- 20.
[115] Sean O hUiginn, Lecture at Inauguration of Keough-Notre Dame Centre, Newman House, Dublin, October 1998.
Plate: Fieldtrip to Rindown, county Roscommon, June 1978. [Photograph by Ed Buckmaster]. Left to right: Brenda Moran, Seamus Waters, Sara Kinsella, Pat Ring, Kevin Whelan, Katharine Simms, Anngret Simms, Arnold Horner, Niamh Crowley, Máirín Nic Eoin , Michael Kenny.

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