Country Sights and Sounds
Some time ago James introduced me to a friend of his, a man who left his home decades ago to build roads abroad and returned to find the world he had known changed more than he liked to see. Staring fiercely through his heavy brow with his powerful fist clenched around a glass, he told us plainly how he saw it.
“This land is ours. It has always been ours. Our roots are here, firmly entrenched in this rocky ground. Our ancestors are buried here, close by. Their blood and their sweat wet this land as they fought for it. Their toil shaped it, made it what it is now, what it has become. Their labour formed the hedgerows. It was them who built these stone walls that divide one field from another; them who apportioned plots and stripes into farmsteads for families, real families made of real people.”
He gestured through the open door to the mountain beyond. “Countless hours it took, lifetimes of backbreaking work, to drive back the gorse and heather of the moor to the hilltops, from where it still stretches bracken fingers each spring, trying to take back that stolen from it.
“This land has been both slave and master, always, it seems, taking back more than it ever gave. It gave us life, that is true, but in return it takes our lives, takes us back to itself, back to the clay from where we’ve come. And should we give it up?
“We belong to this land, and this land, with its changing face and stony heart, belongs to us. We belong to this land, and this land, the waters that run through it and the sky that hangs above it, this land belongs to us, to my father, to my brothers, to me. The birds that feed on our grain, the beasts that eat our grass, that share winter feed with our livestock, the fish that swim our rivers and streams, they are ours too.’
He paused then, took a long draught from his glass and continued. “For many years now, faceless men in some far away office have been telling us how to live on this, our land. Our ways never suited them, although they know nothing of our lives. They tell us we must change. And should we? Ought we?
“They have great cities built in which they hide away, and vast industries to poison not just the rivers but even the ocean itself. And then they turn to us, to stop us eating the fish we have eaten for generations – the salmon and trout that reach our waters only after the moneyed man’s season for angling is over.
“They tell us we can no longer take the eggs of birds when we happen upon them, forgetting it is they, in their syndicated shoots, who have brought these same creatures close to extinction. They breed for themselves a weak and contemptible pheasant just for sport, not caring about the spread of disease or the weakening of wild birds through bad breeding with their own cage-reared strain. They say it is we, who take a pheasant for the pot when we find him, and not they, who shoot them by the score for mere amusement, who are responsible for the lack of wild birds in the woods today.
“Now we have appointed for us such men as river keepers, bailiffs brought in from outside and given power of arrest and detention. Such men we receive hospitably, as is our way, but they are harsh and ill mannered. Their laws make us thieves and scoundrels because we choose to live the way our forefathers did. We respect the land and are happy on it. It belongs to us, though they try to wrest it from our hands. I fear they may succeed.
“We were just a part of the way things were, no more; these other men see themselves as a reason why things should be different.”
A long silence followed before he went on, subdued. “Our young people are leaving to live and work in the cities, selling their souls, they are, and for what? When they’ve saved enough they’ll come back to stay just long enough to tell us how lucky we are to have such peace. But who’ll look after it when we’re gone?”
I never saw him again. As he travelled back to the smoke of city streets, perhaps he dreamed of the next time he would be home in the hills of west Mayo.