Nothing scares me more than the distances between me and my family
I left the midlands because I felt I was missing out. But I keep returning now
Ian Maleney: When I get nervous, I overcompensate
It was a filthy wet day in October, and I had spent the afternoon at Lough Boora Parklands, a unique bogland nature reserve near my parents’ house. I was there to interview one of the men who had helped to make the parklands a reality, as part of a feature on the area for a glossy rural affairs magazine. I had a bit of time to kill when the interview wrapped up, so I decided to wander around a bit while I waited for my lift home – my mother had taken my grandmother to the hospital to get her bloods done, and she was picking me up on the way back.
I walked down past a birdwatchers’ hut and around a small lake. The only people about on that dreary afternoon were a handful of fishermen, clad head to toe in waterproofs. Beyond the lake there was a clearing, with picnic tables, portaloos and a strangely shaped pavilion made of repurposed materials – mostly long ESB poles of pitch pine and bolts of scrap metal from the Bord na Móna workshops nearby.
Beyond that again, if you followed a certain path through the woods, you would stumble across a site where the remains of 14 ancient campfires were found buried in the silty clay of Boora’s vanished lakeshore. The remains were 8,400-9,000 years old. The site itself is an unremarkable patch of barren land, with little more than some small, upright stones and an information board to show you that this was indeed the place where, with a single discovery, the accepted date of human habitation of the Irish midlands was pushed back by more than 3,000 years. I hadn’t time to walk out there that afternoon, but I would come back several times over the following months.
Bridging the divide
My mother collected me from the visitors’ centre, and Nana was in the car. Everything had gone well at the hospital, and Nana was in a good mood, chatty and inquisitive. As a young girl she had often passed by Boora as she cycled through the countryside around Rahan, the village where she grew up, but she hadn’t seen the place in many years – not since before it was turned into a park. She couldn’t believe how much it had changed. Boora immediately became something beautiful in her mind, despite the greyness of the afternoon.
The direction my life has taken so far has led me away from the people who raised and formed me, the places I have known and loved the longest
I had spent most the previous five years in Dublin, scraping by as a writer, freelancing for various magazines and newspapers, occasionally collecting the dole. When I did come home, I had to answer the inevitable question about what I did for a living. I developed a straightforward reply: I write for a newspaper. This wasn’t strictly true, but it suited everyone to keep things simple. My grandfather’s Alzheimer’s had been getting worse – John Joe could rarely remember who I was, never mind what I did for a living – and I think even Nana found it difficult to grasp the shape of my days. Lacking as I did any kind of position or routine, it was understandably hard for them visualise my life. To settle any concerns they had, I would seize upon events or details from my work that I felt could bridge that divide: a location I’d visited, a historical fact I’d come across, or even just meeting someone they might have known from television or radio.
When I got this gig with the rural-affairs magazine, the work became so much easier to explain. I came down from Dublin to profile a fiddle-maker who lived in the mill up the road from our house and I could tell them about it immediately, knowing they would understand. I talked to farmers with flooded farmyards; I assessed the state-of-play at Irish dairy co-operatives; I even wrote about cattle marts. Nana found the latter particularly amusing because she knew exactly how little I knew, or cared, about cattle marts. She thought it strange and fascinating, too, that someone like me, someone who had been to college and lived in a big city, would be writing about these kinds of things, the kinds of things she knew and cared about – they were too ordinary, too boring, or just not very smart.
As we drove the few miles home from Boora that October evening, I sat in the back and listened quietly to my mother and grandmother as they talked about the parklands and the surrounding area, about the hospital they’d come from, and about the rivalry between our town’s two undertakers – it looked like Nana’s man was winning out. The sky cleared a little and turned an ardent red, softened by the fogged-up rear windows. Then it deepened into an inky blue, and night fell. It took no more than half an hour.
The distance between us
When I get nervous, I overcompensate. I fill all the gaps I see with information. I use any facts I can find to close the distance between me and what scares me. Nothing scares me more now than the distances I sometimes feel between me and my family, or between myself and the place where I was born. The direction my life has taken so far – my work, my friendships, the education my parents gave me; an education they never received – has led me away from the people who raised and formed me, the places I have known and loved the longest.
I left home because I felt like I was missing out on something I could only find elsewhere; a more diverse and cultured world. It was a good reason to leave, and a true one. But I keep returning now because I’ve realised that what I have at home is something that cannot be found anywhere else. By watching my grandparents fade, by listening to their lives and the lives of those around them, by watching my brothers grow up and leave in turn, I have been drawn back to a place that I recognise now as being on the edge of disappearance. I have a grim sense that the family and the life I was once so eager to outgrow might some day soon be gone, and there will be no one around to tell people what it was like to be there. My fear is that, in time, even I won’t remember; that I will let perish something that cannot be replaced.
Short of giving up my current life and moving home, my strategy for staving off that destiny has been one of research and writing. I have tried to pay closer attention to my family’s lives than I did when I lived with them. There aren’t any secrets I hope to uncover, or family history I want to drag out into the revealing light of day. But I imagine I might, by accumulation of stories and points of reference, stitch myself back into the fabric of the place that I’d so desired to escape. I find myself looking for a conception of the place I come from that dissolves the distinctions I feel within myself, a story I could tell in order to feel singular, native, whole. I’m looking for roots, origins. I want to be from that place, and only that place; to be of those people, and only those people. I want to speak and be understood; to think along their lines. When everything around me seems arbitrary and directionless, when I have no idea what I’m doing, I dream of a great chain with a solid iron weight at the end, descending into the black. In writing towards my parents and my grandparents, in writing about the place where they live, I attempt to take them inside myself again, as it was when I was a child, when I knew nothing else. But writing does not grant me that kind of intimacy; writing, in the end, keeps us apart.
When I find myself in Boora, looking out across the absent lake and thinking about the vanishing point of human habitation – campfires in the dark and the vast, unknowable silence – I know that I have gone too far in my search for reconnection, that I have become lost and must turn back.
Quietness and darkness
On Saturday evenings, Nana would go to Mass with a neighbour. While she was gone, someone would sit with my grandfather in their kitchen. If I was at home I would usually volunteer.
Our houses are down a dead-end bog road barely wide enough for a single car, a few miles from the nearest town. The quietness and the darkness of a winter’s night there – when the lonely iridescence of the Sacred Heart in my grandmother’s kitchen is visible from 200 or 300 yards away – has to be felt to be believed. Sitting beside the black iron stove in that old but comfortable kitchen, there was only so much work I could make for myself. I could boil the kettle and put more turf in the fire. I could search in the biscuit tin or, with rare luck, wash a few dishes. John Joe, murky with Alzheimer’s, wasn’t overly fond of the radio or television at that point, and we were not intimate enough to simply be quiet together. At times like this, you become painfully aware of how important the art of meaningless conversation can be, how a simple story can make the minutes fly, but I was never much of a storyteller. John Joe and I would talk about how good the new stove was – the previous relic having recently been consumed in a chimney fire – or where I was living in Dublin. There was always the weather, but I could barely squeeze more than a sentence or two out of that. I developed the dreadful sense that nothing I might say would interest him in the least.
He was there to work; he wanted to get the job done as well and as quickly as he could
It was in this setting that Boora became something of a life-saver. When I told John Joe that I had been working there that day in October, he took it to mean that I was working for Bord na Móna, as he once had. For a time, this misapprehended fact became the sum total of my identity in his eyes. One evening he was sitting silently in his chair by the fire, observing from some distance a small family gathering. I was sitting at the table, the nearest to him. Someone – probably Nana, because she often did this kind of thing – asked him if he knew who I was. He looked up at me and said, simply, Boora. I was happy to be recognised at all.
A meagre pension
On our Saturday evenings together, John Joe would happily talk about his memories of working, for almost two decades, with Bord na Móna in Boora. John Joe’s work there was seasonal; every summer the teams of local men would be given a quota of peat to produce. If the team met the quota by the season’s end, they would be rewarded with bonuses. John Joe told me that I would make good money if I kept my head down and worked hard. To keep the conversation going, I said I’d use the money to buy a car. He told me to get a big one, a Merc, and run all the other fuckers off the road.
The money John Joe had made each year at Bord na Móna had got his wife and six children through some tough times – then as now, our small farm was not enough to really live on. He’d even got a meagre pension out of it after he retired. He didn’t mind the bosses, he said: they were good men and they wouldn’t mess you around. He asked me about people he had worked with, wanting to know if they were still around. Even though I didn’t know who he was talking about, I knew they weren’t there any more. They were as old as him or older, all his old and vanished friends, and long finished with their working lives. Many were dead. I just told him I didn’t know.
He spoke with particular vigour about his colleagues who weren’t interested in work at all. These men – I can picture them so clearly – were always messing and breaking things, throwing things at each other in the workshops or playing practical jokes out on the cutaway. They were like class clowns; the boys who never grew up, never took anything seriously. These blackguards and friggers would resurface in his chat every few minutes. He liked a joke as much as any man, and possessed a beautiful, musical laugh, but he had no time for that nonsense. I don’t think his anger towards them had anything to do with quotas or targets – it was just that he was there to work; he wanted to get the job done as well and as quickly as he could.
In truth, John Joe never worked in Boora. He worked in Blackwater, a bog near the banks of the Shannon, 12 or 13 miles west of Boora. But at this remove, the distinction is of no consequence. The shapes those places took in our imaginations were momentarily aligned, and they opened up a tenuous connection. We could talk as adults about work, and this felt like a miracle.
Minor Monuments is published by Tramp Press. Ian Maleney will be appearing at the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival on Sunday, March 31st, with Anne Griffin and Sarah Davis Goff; mountainstosea.ie