I’ve picked up a virus. I’ve not just brushed against it, but I’ve bagged it, brought it home, and moved it in. It has been a year, almost to the day, since I’ve felt like this. Maybe it’s to become a fixture – clear the decks for the February-flu. Everything in my brain is hazy. Like driving a car on dirty roads with no windscreen wash in the squirters, the landscape is blurry and indistinct, and you have to just pull in to the side of the road and wait for the rain to wash it clean. That’s where I am, on the hard shoulder, of a quiet road. It doesn’t feel too stressful to be here. I’m not aware of lots of speeding cars rushing past. In fact, I might even be in the ditch of a forgotten laneway, a boreen. And while I wait for the rain to come and splatter the view clear, I look at the walls and daydream, I nod off and sleepdream. I turn the radio on, not to listen to, but to zone out to. I read six paragraphs of a book about Renaissance Italy and not one word leaves the smallest imprint on my brain. Nothing registers. In my addled state, reading – like the radio – is merely an adjunct to dozing or thinking.
It is July 2013. I’m in a car, driving from Louisburgh to Leenane along Doo Lough. Ireland is radiant. Mweelrea rises ahead of us, Croagh Patrick is disappearing behind. It’s evening, quiet, there’s no rush. We drive slowly, taking in the view, wary of wandering sheep, some of them deposited in lumpen slumbers on the verges. Along the side of a dark Doo Lough we move from fuchsia hedge to bog cotton, tall grasses, bent hawthorn and spent whin bushes. We’d have missed it had we not pulled in for a moment. For a photograph, or maybe a stretch of the legs. But there, at the side of the road, was a small, modest stone cross. A famine memorial, engraved with the words, ‘Doolough Tragedy, 1849’.
Here’s what happened. On 30 March 1849 officials were to come to Louisburgh, Co Mayo, to inspect those in receipt of outdoor relief, to verify whether or not they should continue providing it. For whatever reason the inspection didn’t happen and the officials travelled on to Delphi Lodge – close to Leenane, over the County border in Galway. All those who had missed the inspection in Louisburgh were instructed to appear at Delphi at 7am the following morning if they wished to continue receiving relief. The weather was bad, the terrain challenging and many people, already starving, dropped along the twenty-mile route. An unknown number, in the hundreds, died on that very roadside, on those very shores of Doo Lough on which we were driving on the softest, most peaceful evening imaginable. It made me weep that we had almost driven past it, unaware. Moved as I was at the time, I forgot about it until stillness and lassitude brought me back there yesterday when I cried for them again.
Field Day, by W. R. Rogers
The old farmer, nearing death, asked
To be carried outside and set down
Where he could see a certain field
‘And then I will cry my heart out’, he said.
It troubles me, thinking about that man;
What shape was the field of his crying In Donegal?
I remember a small field in Down, a field
Within fields, shaped like a triangle.
I could have stood there and looked at it
All day long.
And I remember crossing the frontier between
France and Spain at a forbidden point, and seeing
A small triangular field in Spain,
Or walking in Ireland down any rutted by-road
To where it hit the high-way, there was always
At this turning point and abutment
A still centre, a V-shape of grass
Untouched by cornering traffic.
Where country lads larked at night.
I think I know what the shape of the field was
That made the old man weep.