‘Not everyone who lives in the country necessarily cherishes it’
My hope is that Lay of the Land reconnects readers to the treasures on their doorstep
Fiona O’Connell: We need to acknowledge that, regardless of deeds, documents or how many generations grew up in an area, the land is only on loan to us, before it is passed on to the next generation
Lay of the Land, as the title suggests, began as a series of reflections on the natural world. But “lay of the land” also means to say things as they are, a dual aspect that adds potency. For the actuality of rural life often negates the romanticism.
On that note, I was born in the city but consider myself less of a blow-in than a country person who finally made it home. Certainly, I have always felt more comfortable when close to nature. My father’s rural roots instilled a yearning in me for the land; visiting relatives down tree-lined avenues in Ireland’s lush midlands fed this desire for a wilder world.
Though my generation was perhaps the last to live in a city that still had green spaces, hedgehogs and badgers roaming the fields around our new estate that was steadily swallowing up their habitat.
Indeed, the elusive notion of “land” has forced me to ask myself some fundamental questions. Because what do we mean by the “land of Ireland”? Do we mean land as God gave it to us? Or land that our ancestors foraged, before they cleared and planted it, and raised livestock on it? Land as property? Land as raw material for agribusiness?
Or do we mean land as recreation, or place of renewal and retreat? Land as home of poets, fount of legend, or seat of the sacred?
And what about all those who live on the land? Not just us humans, but also the flora and fauna, the worm as well as the early bird that catches it, the foxglove and the fox? These too are part of the great hidden web of life and death that binds what we call the land of Ireland.
The concept of land is as complex as that of time, which witnesses and wields changes to the land and those who live on it. While the many pasts have left their traces on it and provide perspective on the present, through their treasure trove of crumbling castles, customs and folklore.
Lay of the Land is at times a labour of love for those who never had their say: the county home boys given away to farmers; the difficult girls who were locked up in laundries; mothers burdened by too many mouths to feed, or the many that were forced to leave these shores.
It is reason for hope that groups such as Farming For Nature practice and promote biodiversity and care of the environment and our fellow creatures. For the fact is that not everyone who lives in the country necessarily cherishes it. A sense of entitlement to exploit it for private and short-term profit is leading to devastating consequences that affect everyone on this island.
We need to acknowledge that, regardless of deeds, documents or how many generations grew up in an area, the land is only on loan to us, before it is passed on to the next generation. We cannot continue to allow the building of monstrosities on beauty sites; the abuse of wildlife, many of whom are critically endangered; or the destruction of their habitat. Real action is needed to address massive issues such as illegal dumping and intensive farming.
Lay of the Land will appeal to anyone with rural roots as well as city folk who love and care about the country. This collection of bite-size snippets is about everything to do with Ireland and being Irish. It has a core focus on rural Ireland, conservation and animal rights but embraces history, biography and folklore, including stories from past decades as well as contemporary tales that have never been heard before. From the sassy shopkeeper with a bullshit bag pinned on the wall, to honesty sheds, or the farmer who retired not just herself but also her herd of cows.
My hope is that Lay of the Land reconnects readers to the treasures on their doorstep, encouraging them to wander down a green road to enjoy their own adventure.
Fiona O’Connell is a writer and columnist. She attended the National College of Art & Design before completing a BA in English and Philosophy at UCD, where she received the Mary Colum Award. She lives on the banks of a river in Co Kilkenny. Lay of the Land is a collection of her Sunday Independent columns and is published by Red Stag