If Ireland indeed has forty shades of green, they can’t all be found in Dublin. Rather, to get the true emerald experience, one must leave the city behind and head into the Irish countryside. Here, despite the fact that only about 10% of Ireland’s once pervasive forests remain, the greens really begin to show themselves. Rolling hills with bright green pastures are the norm in much of the country, dotted with small villages and broken up only by stone walls or hedges.
This is the Ireland that has inspired the poets, and it is no wonder that a spot here in Ireland’s west, just tucked into County Mayo from County Sligo (and north of that the hills of County Donegal) is home to the one branch of Ireland’s National Museum outside the capital, one celebrating Irish rural life. Here, visitors can learn about small village life during the 19th and early 20th centuries, right smack dab in the middle of one of the greenest places I’ve ever seen. However, the beauty of the area hides a pretty harsh past.
From 1845-1850, Ireland found itself in the midst of one of the worst tragedies in a history full of them, the Irish Potato Famine, also called the Great Hunger. During this period, the rural Irish were basically tenant farmers, scratching by on family farms just large enough to provide sustenance. The principal crop was potatoes, as they are nutritious and can grow on the rocky plots that Catholics were allowed to farm. In 1845, the potato crop failed, the result of a blight that turned them black and rotten. When the same thing happened the following year, the death count began to rise. A third year of blight and the tragedy unfolded.
In all, more than a million Irish died of hunger during the famine, and more than that emigrated from the country. The population went from a pre-famine estimation of eight million to a post-famine six million, with emigration continuing for decades more. (The entire island still has not recovered to its mid-1840s population level.)
What makes the Irish Potato Famine even more tragic is that there was more than enough food. Ireland was – and still is – a country of pasture. (Today, less than one quarter of the farmed land is crop-producing. The rest is pasture, mainly sheep and cattle.) Those animals could have fed the population, but were instead exported by largely Protestant landowners to the rest of the United Kingdom. They and the English government intentionally let the local poor starve rather than interrupt a supply chain and free market. (And before you say that maybe they didn’t know what was happening, knowledge of the famine was so wide that even the American Choctaw tribe donated money, a kindness the Irish repay today with scholarships for members of that tribe to study in Ireland for free.) Queen Victoria, when visiting Ireland during the famine, donated £1000, then spent £2000 on a single banquet for her retinue in Dublin. There is a movement to declare this a genocide, and I’d agree with that characterization.
Next door to the museum is a manor house that one of the ascendency gentry would have lived in. These mainly Protestant landlords carved up the country, each with hundreds to thousands of acres of land. Irish rural life still includes some of these homes; others have fallen into disrepair.
Those who emigrated didn’t have it much easier, as more than one in four perished along the way, sailing from Ireland in what came to be known as “coffin ships.” In the southern part of County Mayo sits the Irish National Famine Monument, a sculpture of a coffin ship, complete with skeletons. It is creepy and somber, a reminder of the famine and its fallout.
After the famine, some land reforms were made, and the museum walks through those. Catholics were allowed to own land, rather than only to lease. Crops were diversified to prevent losing one from resulting in mass starvation. Protections were put into place to make it harder to kick farmers off their lands, leased or not. Today’s rural Ireland descends from that time and those reforms and, while Ireland is a modern country, some people keep the 19th century traditions alive.
On a peninsula outside of Donegal town lives Cyndi, a local hand weaver. She and her sister operate their studio out of a stone cottage with a thatched roof, one that would have housed an entire family only a few generations ago. Here, they produce the famous Donegal tweed using a loom that dates back to the 1800s.
Other locals do similar things, and I meet Tom, a sheep farmer on the rocky hills overlooking Killary Fjord. He has a thousand acres of land, and he supplements his income from farming by providing groups with demonstrations of sheep herding using one of his border collies and shearing, by hand. His family has owned this land and a sheep farm for five generations, although today Irish wool is not used as much, and his income is almost solely from meat.
One of the positives to come out of a tragedy like the potato famine is a true sense of community here in rural Ireland. Each town I pass through, no matter how small, has a GAA Club. The Gaelic Athletics Association was founded in 1884, both to bring Irish traditions back in an organized manner and to provide a community hub for local youth. Today, the GAA is the governing body for hurling, the national sport, and Gaelic football, the most popular. With more than 1600 clubs (including hundreds abroad among the Irish diaspora) it is one of the most popular aspects of life anywhere, but especially in a small rural town. One such town is Ballyshannon, where I visit the Aodh Ruadh GAA Club. The club boasts more than 500 member units (from single adults to full families) in a town of fewer than 2500 total residents.
Gaelic football is a combination of soccer and rugby, with a bit more thrown in. Hurling is sort of like field hockey but more dangerous. I get to try both, and let’s just say my Gaelic sports career won’t be supplanting my writing any time soon. But it’s good fun, and has helped all of Ireland, and rural Ireland especially, keep tradition alive for more than a century.
Driving through rural Ireland is a treat. Rolling hills of so many greens that I sometimes feel forty is a drastic undercount, sheep farms, cute villages, and old ascendancy estates stand in stark contrast to the modernity of Dublin and the other large cities on the island. Here is where tradition not only still lives, but still thrives. It is, in many senses, the “real” Ireland, one that only a few generations ago was left reeling from one of the largest famines the modern world has seen. It is a place worth visiting, a history worth learning, and most importantly, a life worth experiencing.
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