Walls are for climbing, at least when you’re young. Perhaps you remember a wall of your own which was just crying out to be climbed? My wall, on top of which I spent a great deal of time as a child, was 10 or maybe 15 feet high. Built from good quality stone, almost completely covered by ivy, it formed one side of a big cobbled-stoned quadrangle flanked at the far end by the cottage in which I lived; then by a series of stables and sheds, and finally by another, much lower wall with a gate in the middle of it.
The gate opened onto a long avenue at the end of which was a pretty pink lodge and the big wrought iron gates which led onto Knockalisheen road. ‘Knockalisheen,’ is derived from the Irish cnoc na lisheen, meaning ‘the hill of the fairies’. From the top of the wall I could see that hill although, in truth, it was only a hillock. To the right of it was an ancient cutaway peat bog which, when the river Shannon overflowed its banks, turned into a picturesque lake dotted with the flowers which grow in bogs – asphel, yellow tormental, sedge and lichen ling, sundew and moss and bog cotton. Beyond it stretched the western outskirts of the city of Limerick and the soaring spire of Saint John’s cathedral.
But I was oblivious to the view because, when I was on top of that wall, nestling down peacefully into the ivy, I was in a different world, one in which I’d become a member of the fantasy family I had created. A family in which there were three little girls. A happy family…
I didn’t know then what I know now – that my wall was all that remained of what would once have been a substantial country house. Built, I would say, in the early 18th century, it stood on land which, although subsequently owned by my maternal grandfather, belonged then to the powerful Delmege family to whom the impoverished tenants of Knockalisheen were forced to pay rent. After the potato famine of the mid-18th century in which 1,000,000 Irish people died of starvation, typhus and other famine related diseases, most of them couldn’t afford to do that and they were evicted.
It’s sobering to look at the records which list the names of all those who lost their homes in that era. And, for me, it’s equally sobering to consider that the man who carried out those evictions would have lived in the house I’ve been talking about. For that house almost certainly belonged to the Delmeges’ agent. His was the power to destroy happy families – to force them to live on the side of the roads, or to take refuge by hiding in trees.
I might still remember those three little girls but now when I dream of the wall of that house I think of the children who lived on the roads.
N.B. The Irish evictions feature in several of Joy Martin’s novels, including A Wrong to Sweeten, A Heritage of Wrong and Ulick’s Daughter.
Next week: In the Gypsy Caravan