It is a century since my mother’s birth – she would have been as old as the nation. Over the decade since her death, I have jotted down these vignettes / memories of a life well lived.
She cycled into the village in 1947 with her new husband by the light of a flash-lamp in the darkness of a September night. They left behind the wedding celebrations, the barrels of stout and the wild dancing three miles away in the townland of her birth. For the next 60 years, this village would be her place, centred on the soon- to-be constructed yellow pebble-dashed bungalow. She came to know every inch of the village road: walking with a basket of eggs to the local shop; cycling in the opposite direction to Mass and sodality in the parish of Bekan; waiting for the bus to take her and her neighbours on their weekly Bingo outings; watching out for cars to come into view around the corner; seeing grandchildren tumble indoors for treats of floury chips and apple tart. My mother would be in her 100th year if she still lived. In the final months of her life, she retreated little by little indoors, her only movements outside to place food morsels for the birds on the feeder at the front window. I stayed with her the night before she died. Drinking strong tea and eating brown bread, I looked out into the night and watched the lights in the village extinguish one by one. In a few days, we walked behind the hearse carrying her coffin, over the village road, around the corner until the yellow house was lost to view. She took her leave of the village.
There were seven of them – six girls and one boy – in my mother’s family. The 1922 sepia photo the only one we have of them all together. Lizzie, the baby of eighteen months, in her mother’s in America. Big ribbons tying back their hair at odd angles. 1922. Ireland, a new nation. A new beginning for the country. A new beginning for Maria, the eldest of the clan, about to set out for the States. A half-century later, in 1974, while working on a J1 visa in the US, I visited my aunt. I remember hauling my case up Pittsburgh’s Bessemer Street, a cobbled street of uneven red brick. A covered porch, white rocking chair on the veranda. The woman in the doorway wore an open-eyed, slightly startled gaze, a hazy impression of trauma in the features that I came to learn was her normal appearance. She ran her home like clockwork, trained in the grind of years of service in the homes of the Pittsburgh wealthy. A hot press packed with starched table cloths and impeccably folded bed linen. ‘You must come back’, I said, ‘to see them all.’ She did return, just once, in her 80th year. I collected her at the airport and drove west. Was I imagining it or did her expression relax as we neared our destination? My mother waited in the doorway. For the first time in 60 years, the flesh of sisters touched.
I cannot resist a cookery book. I have rows of them, seldom opened these days as, more often than not, I grab menu suggestions from the internet on my iPad. Now, a lifetime of my mother’s recipes rest on my kitchen table, gathered inside a sheet of folded cardboard held together by a thick elastic band. Her finger prints on every page. Selotaped notes on the cardboard covers. Odd pieces of paper hold jotted down recipes. A used Christmas card has instructions for beetroot with apple and red jelly. The back of a bank letter gives step-by-step instructions for a lemon cheesecake. A note on vivid green paper suggests adding pineapple juice when making marmalade. Then there are the cookery leaflets she collected over the years: Woman’s Own Guide to Success with Cakes and Pastries; Supervalu’s Pancake Sensations; McDonnell’s Good Food leaflet, I bake it better with Stork. Jam-making took my mother’s fancy and I thumb through advice for folding bramble apple, blackberry, gooseberry and a medley of autumn fruit into sweet delicious sustenance. Then I find what I am looking for. The hand-written notes for Nine Flighty Butterflies from One Easy Recipe. I am back in the kitchen of the yellow bungalow. Slicing the tops off buns freshly baked in the Stanley range. Spooning thick cream whipped from separated milk taken from our cows that morning. Licking fingers. Cutting pieces of sponge and placing them on top of the syrupy cream. Watching, open-mouthed, as butterflies spread their wings, ready for flight.
My latest notebook, a gift, is fancy. It has a green ribbon page-marker and a document pocket tucked snugly inside the back cover. I love the pristine feel of its fresh clean pages. It joins my numerous notebooks and journals on the shelf: strong, indestructible spiral-bound ones; another with a stylish Orla Kiely design; an elegant, china-blue notebook with leather covers made in Italy. Then there’s my collection of tiny pocket moleskins in vivid hues – cerise, navy blue, turquoise – that hold my travel jottings from journeys to Cape Cod, Camino de Santiago, Tehran, Berlin and Achill Island. But the book I now hold is tattered and discoloured, the black leather cover rumpled into grey streaks. The diary cover, dated 1950, is embossed with the name of an insurance company from Clinton Street, New Jersey. There was once a blank cream page to be filled in for each day of that year. For my mother, however, this would have been an entirely wasteful use of paper. And so, in sparse, precise language, she packed that diary year after year for over half a century with the ritual details of a rural life in an east Mayo village. Notes of crops sown and harvested; calves born, cattle sold at market; turf saved; village births and deaths. No inner musings. No stream of consciousness meanderings. No statements of emotion. I look for her words on the death of her husband of 55 years – my father. She wrote, unusually in red biro: ‘Pake died 8th November, a Saturday. Buried on the 11th.’
The project traces the place lore of pathways that criss-cross the landscape where I grew up and rambled in the East Mayo Parish of Bekan. A wonderful achievement in public art where a community is engaged in reliving its history.
In a recent interview in the Financial Times, Irish novelist and film director Neil Jordan was asked what his current favourite word was. He gave a surprising answer. ‘Dinnsheanchas,’ he said. ‘An Irish word, meaning “the lore of place”.’ On the day this interview was published, the output from an innovative Dinnsheanchas initiative was presented in Claremorris, County Mayo. En Route – A Public Art Project, commissioned by Mayo County Council, produced by Aileen Lambert and comprising a book, two CDs and on online version http://www.enroute.ie , was launched.
The project is supported under the Percent Art Programme by Mayo County Council whose public art programme has to be one of the most innovative in the country. (The North Mayo Sculpture Trail, comprising fourteen individual pieces of sculpture across the North Mayo coastline is their most high profile effort.) The concept behind En Route was to explore old landscape routes in the hinterland of Bekan, Southeast Mayo. It became, not just a collection of maps and a pulling-together of historical information, but a creative gathering of personal and community stories about the disused and forgotten pathways. While some of the routes such as the disused Ballindine railway had a documented history, many had a life only in local memory and oral tradition.
The thrust of Aileen Lambert’s artistic practice is tracing the ‘body’s presence on the landscape’. In En Route she sets out to examine how a community leaves its mark on the environment in the form of old routes and pathways. In the first project phase, she did her research of the locality in libraries, on the internet and through the Ordnance Survey. There then followed the innovative phase where locals were invited to walk the network of shortcuts and rights of way while their stories and memories were documented. ‘In the rural landscape there are names for every lane, gap, stream, wall and bend in the road.’
En Route brings to life the oral history and place lore of the area I grew up in: the Lisheen burial ground at Reask for unbaptized infants; leaba Dhiarmada agus Ghrάinne near the ‘high crossroads’; Johnston’s route from Erriff to Greenwood by the ‘fόidin mearaí’; the house of the Burke landowners near Bekan Cemetery; the ‘pόirse’ down to Lios Bawn fields and Cathairín Hill. As the psycho geographer writer Iain Sinclair wrote, in tracing the Essex journey of poet John Clare: ‘We re-lived their history and remade our own.’
A quarter of a century ago a ground-breaking local history study, Béacάn/Bekan: Portrait of an East Mayo Parish (1986), edited by Father Michael Comer and Nollaig Ō Muraile, covered a largely similar physical territory to this project in a scholarly series of essays. In En Route we witness the community of Bekan re-living and remaking that history as they walk the network of paths and routes that criss-cross their local landscape. Perhaps we have in En Route a model for others in bringing dinnsheanchas and oral history alive for the enrichment of communities.
1) Cover: En Route – A Public Art Project by Aileen Lambert
2) Map: Bekan, County Mayo
3) Entrance to Castlemagarret Estate
Photos by permission of En Route project.
I was back in my childhood places – the village of Greenwood and the parish of Bekan – in East Mayo at the week-end and heard talk of a strange walk the previous Sunday when about 60 people gathered, I’m told, and made their way through fields and paths in Larganboy, Lassany and Lissaniska. It’s part of the En Route public art project coordinated by Aileen Lambert and supported by Mayo County Council. They walked and told stories of personal memories and associations with these local tracks and ended the trip on the old school route from Lassany to Bekan.
It all got me thinking of my own walks to Bekan School – on roads, not tracks – in the month of September when we started back, lucky if we had pristine new school books to be carefully covered with wallpaper left-overs; but more often than not it was hand-me-downs with the finger-prints of older brothers and sisters on the pages. We gathered in Greenwood and set off for the first meeting point at the end of the road where we met the scholars from Riasc near the lake where we fished for perch with bamboo sticks and wriggling worms; then on to the low crossroads to be joined by the strollers from Cullintra on the Knock Road where we had gathered in the summer to watch the cars speeding on their way to Knock Shrine; then up ‘the hill of the wood’ to the high crossroads and a convergence with the meanderers from Erriff and Knocknafola before the final run-in to Bekan, feeling resentful that our classmates in Spotfield had such a short distance to walk from home.
After school in those early weeks of September it was a quick change of clothes and down the lane at the side of our house that connected Greenwood to Riasc and Larganboy; the fields all had their names – our’s were Ait Abhaile, Craggach and Lios Ban – and it was at the end of the road that we gathered fists of blackberries for the jam-making before setting off for home, mouths stained with purple berry juice and the marks of indigo school ink still on our fingers.
Thanks to En route for getting my memory juices flowing.