Palimpsest

15/03/2021

This essay was published in Dark Mountain: Issue 16 - REFUGE


I was certain I was going to crash into the sea. I had already been driving into nothingness when a storm arrived with the kind of wind that the west of Ireland knows best: blowing in all directions simultaneously, buffeting the car with playful ferocity. In the infinite darkness, with raindrops darting everywhere at once, all sense of direction evaporated. My headlights gave me nothing. Left, right, up, down? Who could tell? So I kept the steering wheel level for as long as possible, waiting for some break in the vortex, hoping not to meet a watery end.

When daylight arrived, I looked at a map and was embarrassed to discover that, though bound for one of Ireland's most westerly islands - Achill, County Mayo - I hadn't yet been anywhere near the sea when the winds began. This landless, featureless nothingness was an effect produced by the road being raised high, safely out of reach of the all-consuming bog which coats these parts. There had not been a single visible light or landmark, not because I had been teetering on a cliff at the edge of the Old World, but merely because vast expanses of this corner of the country are characterised by what, to the civilised eye, is sodden nothingness. No trees, no shrubs, no buildings, no lights, no other roads. And no people, for that matter. Just bog, a quagmire of decay. The city of Dublin and its surrounds have a population density of about 3,677 people per square kilometre; County Mayo has just 22.

The end of the future

It's November. Every muscle of my body is tense, braced against the damp cold. The everywhere-wind hasn't left, but in the morning light I crawl out of bed in an icy hostel and head out anyway. The spaciousness of Achill's yellow-grey landscape is enchanting. It's closer to Alaska or Mars than the green rolling fields of the Ireland I am from. However, I'm not here to be enchanted. I am instead hunting out an imprint of humanity: a concrete ruin which I've been hearing stories about, and which I promised myself I would one day see in person.

Turning right after the church in the village of Pollagh, on the south-west corner of the island, I take the car as far along a bouncy bog road as I can. A few hundred metres up the hill, and with the underside of the car scraping rock, I'm forced to continue on foot, guided by the anonymous kindness of hand-painted signs. I've been waiting more than a year, and now Achill Henge stands before me in all of its brute monumentality. A blot on the landscape. A hole torn into the hillside. I don't care. I love it.

The builder of this 100-metre diameter concrete replica of Stonehenge was a bankrupt property developer, Joe McNamara, who grew up on the island. Facing financial ruin in the wake of the 2008 crisis, he called in some last-minute favours to have it constructed in November 2011. Built over just two days, the Henge's 30 enormous concrete pillars were raised as a symbolic tomb for the Celtic Tiger, Ireland's construction-led economic 'miracle' of the 1990s and 2000s. The richest country in the world, economists raved at the time, although the reality was always somewhat less lustrous. It was a case of Father Ted meets The Wolf of Wall Street: dodgy dealings seemingly harder to turn down than Mrs. Doyle's cups of tea. Oh, go on! Meanwhile, it took a comedian called Tommy Tiernan to adequately capture just one example of the absurd new dynamics of daily life: Irish people, carried away by what are colloquially called 'notions', suddenly began appearing on the ski slopes of Europe, dressed in the finest discount Aldi equipment. You just knew something was wrong.

The landscape of every county became a flurry of activity, building sites on every corner, apprentices hired by the dozen. When the global financial crisis turned miracle to mirage, the cranes became still. Thousands lost their jobs and Ireland defaulted back to being a place which people left to find livelihoods elsewhere. In the aftermath, the nation appeared not just angry at having to foot the bill of speculative greed, but spiritually lost, unsure of its place in the world. Ireland was bestially downgraded from a Tiger to one of the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain). A whole way of life had crumbled, illusions evaporating seemingly overnight, to be replaced by a decade of bewilderment and cultural trauma. The capital-wielding class was protected, of course, but the rest of the island was left to pray to the economic gods that growth and prosperity would return.

The Henge was a protest; a record, in concrete, of this collapse. A symbol of a 'prosperous' national future which never arrived, it is a contemporary ruin and perhaps the world's most prominent commemorative monument to economic collapse and the fallacies of a growth-based economy. If you stand in the centre of it and clap, you hear sharp echoes of a time that saw so many grey, concrete, unfinished property developments abandoned. For years, these uninhabitable 'ghost estates' would haunt the landscape of every county on the island of Ireland. The future foreclosed before the moneyed existence these houses were supposed to be a part of could ever arrive. The Henge, too, is unfinished. After the outer circle was completed, the local authority intervened. McNamara had previously run into legal trouble after driving a cement truck into the gates of the Irish parliament, raging against the role of the banks in the crisis. He ended up in prison for refusing to take down his latest creation, subsequently fleeing to England. He argued that it was a contemplative ornamental garden, and thus exempt from planning permission.

The 'Jared Diamond' ruin

If you head across the swing bridge that links Achill to the mainland and travel north, you come to a halt at some of Europe's grandest sea cliffs. Dún briste, the broken fort - a 50-metre-high sea stack - emerges out of the sea, telegraphing 350 million years of indifference. The sight is an unexpected bonus. I cross the empty road and head towards a modernist interpretive centre jutting out of the bog, shaped like a pyramid, the only visible sign of Céide Fields.

In the 1930s, a local schoolmaster, Patrick Caulfield, had been cutting turf in this area. As he sliced deeper into the earth's skin, he noticed conspicuous lines of stone. His discovery was first excavated by his son, Seamus, with the scale of the agricultural community that was discovered being startlingly vast. These early inhabitants were using around 1,000 hectares of land to graze dairy cows and grow ancestral wheat grains. But I expected something grander from what is often described as the 'most extensive Neolithic monument in the world'. The site is comprised of a series of newly constructed wooden walkways over the blanket bog, with poles indicating where the submerged boundaries of fields lie. An occasional open excavation reveals the footings of Neolithic dwellings; unlike the Celtic Tiger's ghost estates, this site had been well-inhabited for centuries.

While visual displays and information panels attempt to stir interest in the daily lives of these distant ancestors, my gaze is instead drawn to a brief paragraph on the decline and subsequent abandonment of this once-thriving community. I think about Jared Diamond's book Collapse, which famously presented numerous striking parables of societal collapse induced by environmental short-sightedness; the figure of an Easter Islander caught up in a culture of spiralling competition is perhaps the most famous. Cutting down the island's last tree, he or she acts without thought for how the community will survive in the future. What better parallel for the ecocide perpetuated by industrial civilisation? While Diamond's book was acclaimed, the simplicity of its examples have since been questioned by other scholars. For the sake of a moral tale on Easter Island, for instance, Diamond neglects to mention the unintentional introduction of rats, a species whose voracious appetite for palm nuts may have played a role in the decimation of the island's ecology. Diamond blames human volition and short-sightedness when the underlying factors may be more complex and uncertain.

If we want a clear-cut parable, perhaps we can think of Céide Fields - apparently peacefully inhabited over centuries, before ecological change played an enormous role in bringing its way of life to an end. As has happened on every inhabited landmass, farmers arrived and cut down existing forests to make room for their precious domesticates. This exposed the area's soils which, given the intense rainfall characteristic of this corner of Europe, became leached and acidic. Ultimately abandoned, blanket bog would swallow up the remains of the community, leaving no visible trace that it had ever been there. Trees would never re-establish. This community of early Irish inhabitants left only two things behind: stone walls buried under blanket bog which hid what may be the earliest known field systems in Europe, and a landscape that would never be the same, even millennia later.

The collision

It's 1950. Having set off from RAF Aldergrove in Belfast, a World War II-era Halifax bomber was conducting a survey down the west coast of Ireland. Completing its task somewhere off the coast of Kerry, the craft returned north, flying at 1,800 feet, when heavy fog came in off the Atlantic. The navigator became disoriented, believing they were 148 miles further south than they actually were. The plane crashed into some of Europe's highest sea cliffs, where a mountain called Croaghaun (Cruachán,translating as 'little stack')rears out of the sea on Achill's coast. Locals thought the noise was an almighty crack of thunder. All eight crewmen on board perished, and today, all that's left at the site are the plane's engines, too large to be removed from this mushy, treacherous terrain.

This is a different wreck from either Céide or the Henge, invoking an entirely different reading of decline: as unforeseen, rapid, inevitable. A complex machine soars through a cloud of ignorance, soon to be wrecked on the mountainside, detritus of the past. As worlds end, the weathered metallic remains of the Halifax on Achill are a reminder of that common story. The end, this narrative tells us, is a specific data point on the timeline of ruination. The Day After Tomorrow. One day life is normal, and the next we are bereft, amidst decaying machines. As in many a fictional portrayal of collapse, what remains are ruinscapes filled with incongruous civilised materials, no longer fit for use.

A walking guide suggests that I visit the remains of the crash, lying on the far west of the island. It seems that my trip is quickly turning into a tour of wreck and folly. Fog rolls in, however, and any possibility for a visit is ruled out.

The unknown

As Achill would show, again and again while I traversed its lonely beauty, we're always already amidst the ruins. Just a mile from Achill Henge, at the foot of the island's second-tallest peak, Slievemore (Sliabh Mór, 'big mountain'), sits the 'abandoned village' - a string of around 80 rectangular stone huts, roofless and long-since abandoned. Heinrich Böll, who would go on to win the Nobel prize for literature in 1972, visited and lived on Achill at various times in the 1950s and 1960s. Wounded in World War II, he wrote evocatively about the village in his Irish Journal:

No bombed city, no artillery-raked village ever looked like this, for bombs and shells are nothing but extended tomahawks, battle-axes, maces, with which to smash, to hack to pieces, but here there is no trace of violence; in limitless patience time and the elements have eaten away everything not made of stone, and from the earth have sprouted cushions on which these bones lie like relics, cushions of moss and grass.

As you walk through the abandoned village, the cushioned outlines of 'lazy beds' become clear; a form of traditional potato cultivation using raised ridges to make the best out of this sodden landscape (sloping downhill, of course, to spirit away the infernal rain). The catastrophic Great Famine of the mid-19th century is the first thought which comes to mind to explain the village's abandonment. Even in Böll's time on Achill, however, more than half a century ago, there was confusion about what had happened to the place and its people. 'No-one could tell us exactly when and why the village had been abandoned', he wrote.

While the famine did bring utter desolation to Mayo, which was one of the worst-hit areas, it seems that the decline of this village can be attributed to more recent factors: rent dissatisfaction, land redistribution, emigration. Used for summer dwelling in some of Ireland's last transhumance agriculture, these eerie stone boxes appear to be the legacy of multiple abandonments, deserted and reinhabited at various points, an ebb and flow of possibility and collapse which continued right up to the 1930s. In the end, nobody appears sure of what occurred.

Suffocation

Today, ten years after the economic collapse, Achill remains at a crossroads. Each year, more people die on the island than are born. Even those babies christened there are often brought by their parents to keep a link with the place that is their familial and spiritual, if no longer actual, home. Where Achill workers used to migrate for work a few months a year - to Scotland, for instance, or elsewhere in Ireland - they now leave and never return. As with much of rural Ireland, a death spiral is in motion. The island's abandonment intensifies each year, a process most visible during these dark winter months. This is a self-fulfilling pattern of decline. People move out; pubs, shops and schools close; other people move out for lack of pubs, shops and schools; more crucial services close; repeat ad infinitum. Death delivers further death, a bad infinity. What use are beauty, cliffs and salty wind in 2019, when Facebook and Twitter are recruiting in Dublin, 180 miles to the east? This is the way things are ending at capitalism's periphery: social asphyxiation, a slow, prolonged death.

Writing about Paul Klee's artwork, Angelus Novus, the critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin noted:

Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

When you live with progress, apocalypse pushes in on all sides. It breathes down your neck. We can sense it these days, perhaps more than ever, amidst plagues of heat and hurricanes and floods. Yet, visiting this remote and barren corner of Ireland, speaking to those who persist, told me something about the extended and overlapping times and places of human endings, of collapse and renewal. Only in the capital-H history books has life ever been a linearity of events. Endings are always beginnings too, with the etymology of 'apocalypse' residing in the Greek apo-kaluptein, to reveal or uncover. We need to make peace with the fact that our dominance will end, that all lifeways ultimately push up against barriers, albeit at different paces.

As the sage Irish saying goes, 'When God made time, he made plenty of it.' What is to be done in the time bestowed upon us? Fatalistically give in to our decline, and curse our stupidity? Or do we huddle together through the dark nights and move at dawn? Appreciating our ruins is crucial and the Henge seems more necessary than ever if we are to reach more humble points of renewal. Ten years after the contagion of global crisis tipped a house of cards in Ireland, so little appears to have been learned. Mayo's palimpsest shows that in spite of the clamour to keep things as they are - the clamour to keep the project of human domination on its tracks - endings, large or small, are the refrain of history. They are always coming. Böll, too, learned this cosmic lesson from his time on the island:

... the Atlantic persistently carries away piece by piece the Western bastion of Europe; rocks fall into the sea, soundlessly the bog streams carry the dark European soil out into the Atlantic; over the years, gently plashing, they smuggle whole fields out into the open sea, crumb by crumb.

Stuck out on the edge of the world, Achill is a testament.