The Annals of the Hundred Islands
What will the capital look like years, centuries, even millenniums from now? Dublin in the Coming Times invites the people of the city to imagine how their home will change. Sebastian Barry begins the series imagining the Dublin of the future
Photograph: Steve Bloom/Image Bank/Getty
From The Annals of the Hundred Islands (Dublin, 6016)
One thing we cherish most in these dark times is the numbers we have kept from our little wars and plagues. What keeps us safe is the seas that heretofore we deemed disastrous. Our hundred islands ringed by these soft waters teem with the red-skinned fish. By dint of law we keep the 50 queens and 50 kings in excellent balance and no one is allowed by sharp decree ever to lust after another’s acres. Each of our favoured islands bears crops and fruits enough to feed the islanders. The bountiful corn is emperor of all the roots. Some say that once in this region there were better days but at the same time it is recognised as true that we were not alive in them. You have to put glory into the days you know.
However our chronicles can be read in the designated places and there you can see the truth displayed that we were not always islands. Once it is almost miraculous to say it was all joined together in a clement city. Yes the heart may call back to those times when we think of a place so desirable. But we must be careful too and make some democracy in the tyranny of facts. Many other districts of the world were lost as far as we can tell. A thousand years ago the seas rose and engulfed many happy lands. It took whole countries inch by inch and then in the famous deluge there was a year of terror. Whole peoples too poor to run were swallowed in a time often referred to as The Year Leviathan. These are just chronicled matters. Then the air got hotter year by year and the climate of our new islands changed. The fishes changed and the very land itself. Old things could not grow and then new plants appeared. This was called the Coming of the Corn. All this you can read for yourself.
Some say the earth is a giant and we are the nits and lice that live on it. But these people are in error. Things have been somewhat unchanging for hundreds of years and our real enemies are sorrow and regret. The people that come to our islands in their boats we accept as the bounty of the unknown. Many are gentle, true and kind and if we struggle with a common language it is a helpful struggle. We speak that lingo universal to these seas and soon we give it to them. They add many words that are useful to us. Without the new people we cannot endure. They bring strange faces but their love is just the same. Those that come with violent intent we fight on the shores. We wrestle and stab and bludgeon them until they are no more.
We have good numbers and yet also when the islands become too populous famine soon ensues. Then there are famous times of horror and then something settles as if we were subject to unknown laws. Then for a long time all is in strange balance. We toil and seek and fret just the same as all human creatures. We curse all change and pray for continuity.
It has been clear for a thousand years at least that in essence we are alone. The Gods that people spoke of have long departed. Nothing keeps us only the pleasing corn. If we have disputes among us we find only bloodshed and terminus. We have set up and sheltered our laws so this happens only in the wildness beyond our will. Where angers boil and teem and conquer all civil sense. Terrible gatherings take place and people gird for battle. Weapons are fashioned from what were peaceful things. Our eyes are inflamed by hatred and we lust to hurt and kill. We wish to tie down our neighbours whom now we hate and crush them into death. Then after wounds and burials we remember our commonality. We return to the study of our laws and they return us to ourselves. We look at the shallow blue seas and think ourselves fortunate. We eat side by side again and think of other things. Our beautiful children and the shortness of our lives.
On the highest places stand the ancient rings of stones. Whichever island did not have one of these built one anew. This is where we creep in the times of storms. Vast acres of ugly blue enlarge the sky and raging lightnings tear against our places. Huge thunders rend our ears. Everyone creeps into the stones and talks against the fear. Waves running in remorseless fury from the deeps cover our farms with violent intent. Rain falls in infinite deluge and the rivers try to crack the lands apart. Everything is water for a while. Some are dragged away and are never seen afterwards. When the winds subside we hold our ceremonies of gratitude. Then we go down on to the flatter grounds and begin to remake the fields. We take famine for a cousin and nurse the corn again. Many fall down into the pits of hunger. Then slowly all is remade. We feel the rewards of fortitude. We are clement again in our hearts and all is excellent and right. In this way we demonstrate that it is still possible to endure.
Endurance without happiness would not be desirable. But we are a curiously happy people. We have music and songs and dances. Everything around us feeds and clothes us in these easier times. Then we forget the horror and the terror and rise again. We want for nothing and our bellies get all they need. Then under starlight in the darks of our summered world we lie contented.
We record these things so that in the coming times they may be read by our descendents. History is important not just to those that live it but also to those that never did. It is surely a pleasure and a warning to read of former times. Our present times therefore we must allow will some day be former. Our faces and our fervent desires will be forgotten. All that we did will pass into silence. But what we write here will be seen as long as the forts last and the skins we write on are not torn away. Time is our ally in all things but also our foe.
Time is the two-faced creature that we feed from the hand of life. Hoping it will not bite off our fingers.
We see with great clearness that life in itself is a good. We wish to hearten the future people with this stern belief. Do not lose heart, you future hearts, because we have got through much, and many terrible things duly passed. All places move from hells to paradises and back again and much of this will stem from our actions and much from mere chance. You may think of the world as a teeming, moiling cat with enormous claws but oftentimes the claws are withdrawn into the digits of the paws and so remain. All matters tend towards clemency and peace. There is an outward story in which we seem to play a part without ever reading the words of it or seeing the bundled skins. The world has vast goodness and what is dark is shone by it. Like a jewel brushed bright by moonlight. These things we wish to communicate in case your souls are faltering. In case you gaze on adversities unknown and wonder how mercy will be shown to you. But all annals declare that, unless you are entirely fallen, with great trouble taken you can make a possible world. The human person loves the stars and moon and fears the pitch darkness. But she chooses between things. She takes into her dwelling place the matters that suggest life and leaves to their own dark devices the matters that are to do with death. Every human person is the queen of these discriminations, or the king. That is how everything is ordered. Chaos dismays us but is followed by order. It is this immutable law that comforts us and gives strength to our arms when they are lifted against travails. And it is important in a chronicle to itemise successes of the past. Because from this grows the corn of hope. We respectfully say this in our annals in order for you to check this against your experiences in the future and so be ever constant in your constancy.
We know from all surviving histories that the earth was once resplendent and delightful. Everyone believes this. The narrowing came and the plenitude was no more. The earth everywhere was expansive and beautiful, so we read. There were nations and cities unknown to us in their majesty and perfection. The only earth they inhabit now is in our dreams and thoughts. The earth can never be this again and we must not wish for it. It is in that respect ended without recall. The famous expanses and peoples that only the annals remember can never be drawn back from the hand of the past. It just is not possible. Nevertheless we may mourn this famous paradise. When peoples were linked by mutual chains of love and everything flowered up in a constant way. When great ships went off into the heavens and looked for new earths. When it seemed for a thousand years that the creation was of one mind and that mind was burning with love. That time passed as we have described and because it is gone forever it is useless to mourn.
There is one story always hard to shuck off. It nestles in its husk of myth and we can never say enough against it so that it vanishes from our hearts. This is the story of the Golden City that lies to the east. We know it cannot be true and yet at the same time truth keeps leaking back into it. We speak of it like we would of the news of a newborn child. We seem to know all the streets of that city and it astonishes us to imagine anew its glistening roads and the towering castles that make a gloom in sunlight around the markets. We see in our mind’s eye the lovely citizens in their apparel so unlike our own. Their clothes are not made of the spun husks of corn but of other stuffs all the more rich for coming to us from stories. A hundred colours in them and there is talk of huge looms and the spindles gathering the gold threads. There is a talk of rubies and diamonds and many things not seen for a thousand years. This is the impossible city where governance was strict but benign and where when the citizens were in error there was just punishment and, when not, great reward. For lives were lived long and in unlikely clemency. The girls were beautifully arrayed and the boys were handsome and strong. Beauty was a great normalcy and not the brief season it is for us. But is this city of the past or of the future, or just an imagined city that never did, nor does, nor ever will have currency? Is it not part of the human dream that we might have had, or see in the future, such a place? What infinite weave of endeavour and achievement is necessary for such a city, what infinite expansion of science and wise government? Could there be one such city surviving somewhere to the east after the fall and destruction of all the others? But we know it is impossible. We know from our newcomers that to the east lies the terrifying waterfalls and the great drear waste of salt-ruined lands. We know that nothing grows there and that all animals are absent and the days are short and dark. It is in this desecrated and rescinded place that the site of the city of gold is posited. It cannot be. And yet while we move among our few allotted days we ask you never to lose sight of this city in your minds. For it is by your faith in this vision that the most concrete of your goals will be attained. That peace will come at the greatest length ever known to these islands. Because you will have kept faith with a shimmering miraculum on the horizon of your dreams that can never be true.
Dublin in the Coming Times: How the project works
In his 1893 collection, The Rose, WB Yeats included the poem To Ireland in the Coming Times. Borrowing its title, Dublin in the Coming Times is a free, citywide programme of creative writing in which Dubliners, young and old, can create their own stories and poems as they look to the future of their city as it goes through another phase of evolution and renewal.
To get the ball rolling, Roddy Doyle invited some writers and artists to contribute short stories reimagining the city. Their work will be published in The Irish Times over the coming months, beginning with the pieces on this page by Sebastian Barry and Aoife Dooley, aka Dublin Hun.
Free creative-writing workshops will run over the course of the year for adults in six Dublin public libraries, starting in Donaghmede this month. Other participating organisations include Fighting Words, Science Gallery, Little Museum of Dublin, Axis Ballymun and the Ark.
Operating in partnership with Dublin Unesco City of Literature, the project is intended to enable Dublin’s citizens to participate in illustrating a vision of the city as a place that, although it might change and adapt to new circumstance, will continue as a living, creative environment and a place for the storyteller and poet. We hope to publish selections from the stories that are created.
Executive director, Fighting Words
See dublincityofliterature.ie, dublincitypubliclibraries.ie, fightingwords.ie
Dublin in the Coming Times is one of six projects being promoted by Dublin’s Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development, a Dublin City University programme with the UN University; email email@example.com