Throughout the Irish countryside in fields and along forgotten lanes, behind ramshackle gates and buried in brambled ditches there are houses long abandoned. Some are mere skeletons, just a chimney breast and some tumbled stones, some look like with just a little bit of work they could be habitable again.
One old house might be hard by a shining new bungalow, an island in a black tarmac driveway attended by shiny SUVs and like the mounds of ancestors in some ancient encampment these ruins speak of the graves of ancestors kept close and families mindful of their roots.
Another house might stand alone staring in blank eyed shock onto a new road as if the road, like a river, had only just swept away its inhabitants in a rushing torrent of asphalt leaving it alone to rot, a discarded link in the chain of ancestry.
Still another may be stumbled upon in a wood on a mountainside, a mere heap of mossy stones soft edged in the dappled light, the trauma of abandonment long softened by natures creeping embrace, the need for a house to be in such a lonely place lost in the mists of time.
Whenever these homes were built they still have a pull for many of us for they speak of our own history. They tell us that while we will be remembered, however vaguely, we will one day also be forgotten. These broken shells of old lives are as curious to some of us as dinosaur fossils or Machu Picchu are to others and so when the new owner of an old house I used to pass on my walks, its gable end to the road, invited me to go in and take a look I didn’t hesitate.
It is mired in the mud of an old farmyard, two barns still in use at right angles opposite it. It has been occupied until relatively recently, within the last three to four decades I mean. I imagine the last residents had been my grandparents age, their descendants moved on to places more modern possibly to those newer houses across the road or maybe further afield.
The slates from the roof are all gone and the ground around the house littered with broken tiles, black plastic tubing, a kitchen chair seatless on its side and everywhere flakes of white plaster gleaming like shards of bone.
The windows of the cottage are small and low and set into thick walls except for the one high on the gable. On the ground floor the front door is set in the middle, one window to the left, two to the right. The small gabled porch has been mostly knocked away and is topped by a cap of ivy.
Walking in there is a passageway running from left to right. To the left a large room, a low ceiling of silvered planks, the wall a flaking green showing yellow beneath. A bedroom judging by the heavy old wooden bedsteads whitened with dust that lean against the wall. There is a small fireplace and in a corner stands an old wooden chair its thin arms curled, its leather seat still intact. It is turned companionably to a white plastic lawn chair with a puddled seat as if sharing stories of the past.
To the right along the passage, a living area, its rough plaster walls lime washed in blue, a colour that would be surprising if you didn’t know that it was believed back in the day that blue repelled flies. Maybe it was hoped that the flies would think it was the sky and as such couldn’t be depended on for firm fly footing.
I have heard that earlier in the last century when house paint was discovered in Ireland-or at least made available to the masses-everyone went a bit mad and painted everything in reach. Bare wood became a sign of poverty and backwardness. Often in these old abandoned houses one finds every surface has been painted, a jolt for those who spend much of their time in faux aged pubs and houses, the panels and doors of which are deadened by lime dipping, and imagine they know what the past looked like. In this old cottage all the wood work and the doors are painted brown.
The living area is defined by a massive fireplace, its breast tapering to the rafters, which must have made the room under the roof cosy. In the blackened hearth there are still two pans hanging from the swivelling fire hooks. It must have been dark in here, the only light when the roof slates were on coming from the low small window. On the deep window sill two upturned saucers catch the watery sun, beside them a china mug on a saucer, a pot, familiar and friendly, a ghostly invitation to tea.
To the right there are two small rooms piled high with teas chests and general debris. Above them in the wall another doorway but no clear way to see how anyone would have climbed up but there’s a line in the paint where a small landing might have been.
There are strands of ivy hanging right down to the floor from the gaps in the roof, tangled like a witches hair and tickling the pile of debris that spills across the room from a pile in the corner. The room is littered with debris. Basins, cardboard boxes, a roll of linoleum, mismatched crockery, plastic containers and drums of some farming provenance, pieces of pipe, iron parts from some long ago machine. There are tea chests full of old books, in fact there are books in every room in the house even strewn in the passageway beside an old fishing box jumbled with objects. One on the royal family lies cover up, spine broken.
I suppose some of the rubbish was dumped here after the house was abandoned but some looks like it belonged here, the books, the bedsteads, the chair and the pots and pans, the cups and saucers. It could be little melancholy I suppose seeing all these things discarded, uncared for, the detritus of lives lived but it feels more like the ones who had left had no need of these things in the way a person taking a holiday to the sun would leave behind their household goods and their winter clothes as they headed for the open door, barely pausing before rushing out into the light.