Little House in the Forest
I often talk of my grandparents house and my memories of it. But the house I knew as a child was never home to my Dad or his brothers and sisters. Home to them is the house they were born in. A little stone house, much higher up, by a river with a great tree for climbing. A pretty place that now sleeps in deep forest.
Dad goes to see it often, he knows the mountain like the back of his hand, and sometimes I go with him…
Follow the path. Leave it.
Fuchsias. First sign of Nanny, ‘she planted the mountain with them,’ says Dad.
‘Come on Jane,’ he says while laying his coat on a rusty wire. Just as he’s always done. There never are dangers when he’s around.
Getting close now…
The forest is the quietest place I’ve ever been. The only sound’s the nearby river, but the light is astonishing. The atmosphere warm, closeting, friendlier in the interior.
Dad took my picture…
‘This,’ he tells me, ‘is a Primus Stove, for cooking.’ He tripped over it one night coming from a dance, hung it here and here it’s stayed since. He tips it in greeting, smiles, and moves on.
First glimpse of what’s left of the house…
‘The wall was stone up to a point, it was mud after that with a thatched roof. Even when living here the thatch was hard to maintain. Blackbirds were the biggest problem. They would tear a hole and the rain would come in.
We were always trying to catch and kill them, no one cared for their song then. They were too big a problem. I killed one with a stone once from a good distance, my uncle was very impressed with my aim.’
If you were lucky enough to live by a lake you could thatch your house with reeds, more durable.
He showed me the stones.
‘The black ones are wet, from the river bed. Always black, always wet, not good for a house but the people, they had to use what they could get.’
Dad stands by the fire with his hand on the mantel and talks about them. The kind old uncle, the children, their games, the young mother…
You can just about make out the doorway here…
The dividing wall’s moss covered, starting to fall
The remains of the chimney and hearth still hold court…
When my grandparents left here it was to a better house, close to the road. But it was never home. And Dad was gone to England by then.
Here from the moss he uncoverd the lintel…that was the large stone from over the fire, or door.
And this is what they called the ‘wallco’, a wall-cove perhaps? A little inbuilt press of some sort. I wonder what nanny kept there? Dreams probably.
It seems very her. I put my hand in and conjure her, who is so easy to conjure.
Nanny the young mother or the old granny, with her ‘wallco’ and her fuchsia’s, and her fire.
I don’t feel sad here. I feel the sadness of generations, of Irish people who left places like it, knowing they’d never return, but to me in my privileged world it’s something magical, grounding, and peaceful. Life was hard, for the mothers especially, too hard. But I love the impressions they left. Perhaps my greatest privilege is being able to feel them here, to see something with my own eyes. They don’t often leave markers you know, the wild places. The unbuilt world.
Here a river runs through it…
And if this tree could talk it would talk not of forestry, machines, or of men, but of children, nine of them. Mary, John, Josephine, Anna, Eithne, Tommy, Bernadette, Brendan and Margie Gilheaney. And the lovebirds, very young, at the start of their journey, beloved Madge and Tom.