Connemara. Few other places in these islands have such an air of wildness, weather-swept at the edge of the Atlantic, J.M. Synge, Ryan’s Daughter and all that. But when you stand and look at the scene, probably leaning into the wind or avoiding the rain in a friendly porch, there is an air of abandonment, of dereliction, that few other wild places can muster. The land is an irregular jumble of hills and hummocks, rocks breaking through thin soil, flat areas where peat grades into dark water. Today, houses are scattered generously, often newly built or repaired, as cheerful and positive as the welcoming Galway people. But stop and wonder why there are so many scattered houses, and the eye is drawn to the surviving ruins of older cottages, to the network of rubble walls subsiding under furze and bramble, and to the realisation that today’s landscape preserves the smaller-than-smallholdings of the 19th century, and the landscape of The Hunger.
Whatever one’s feelings about the historical debates that still rage over those woeful years of blight, famine and emigration, it is difficult not to see the empty fields of Connemara without recalling images of rib-thin, beshawled women and matchstick children, too exhausted to weep as their sole crop rots in the fields. The land is uncultivated and empty today because it was emptied then. Today’s relative prosperity, although it has put houses back in the landscape, has not put people back on the land. And so large areas of Connemara are not wild countryside but brown land, a cultural landscape of formerly productive industry now crumbling and overgrown. Just as the transnational economics of the Corn Laws exacerbated the famine and desertion of the 1850s, so the globalised economics of today have no use for Connemara other than to preserve it as a relict landscape: wild, inspiring, but ultimately tragic.
Is that the best that we can do with our wild places? Or is there an economic model that can conserve Connemara and places like it by investing to put people back on the land, not just to run B&Bs and cafés for the seasonal tourists, but to work the land, to make it productive again, and to bring the derelict landscapes back to life? There are some parts of Britain and Ireland that are perhaps better left devoid of people, but when a place has been populated and worked and changed, and then depopulated by disease and economics, where is the merit in conserving a landscape of wild dereliction?
© Terry O’Connor September 2011