Thursday, April 23rd. My first day alone on the Trail for some time and exactly one week since I shouldered my pack and stomped off across the boggy uplands of the Kerry Way at Waterville. Kerstin dropped me off early at the point at which we had left the trail the previous day and, trusting her iPhone navigation assistant entirely, disappeared in the vague direction of Cork, the aim of arriving at Dublin airport in time to catch her lunchtime plane back to Germany. And off we stomped, head full of the conversations and inspirations from the last days.
My goal today was Bweeng, final stop on the Duhallow Way and the start (or finish, depending on which way you are travelling) of the much longer Avondhu Way. The walk was gentle, starting on a muddy track that led me between peat fields and scrubby, straggy copses until it turned on to a very quiet lane that in turn led me past the usual semi-delapidated houses all of which have at least one dog yapping in excitement in the front garden or yard, but never a sign of any human life. A strange, or least noticeable feature of the Irish landscape to the novice eye is the marked difference between new houses belonging presumably to better situated owners and older shabbier ones. The new houses – almost without exception – are displayed (and I can’t think of a better word to describe their appearance) on a large square of concrete which is sometimes framed by a perfect square of gravel or of lawn. On the concrete slab there is nothing: no flower pots, not ornaments, no colour, nothing at all to break the sterile monotony of the grey frame in whose centre the house is displayed. This is is marked contrast to the garish pinks, yellows, mauves and light blues in which the houses are painted (monochrome, not all of those colours at once, of course). I assume that these obviously newer and more expensive houses are lived in, but you wouldn’t know it. There are no curtains, no colours or decorations visible through the windows, no backs of photograph frames which you might expect to break the line of sight of a cursory observer. Nothing. Just clinical cleanliness, no sign of human life, except, the yapping dogs – usually small, always running around outside and visible behind a low wall, usually ungated and generally quite depressing. This almost obsessive reduction of any decorative elements and clinical, antisceptic presentation of the home is such a prevalent and uniquely irish feature, that it must be an expression of a cultural value that I have yet to uncover.
I am going to hazard a guess though: I am reminded of an aspect of italian middle class culture that I learned of in the days about three decades ago when I regularly spent time in Florence. I remember being irritated by the fact that many italian diners in the restaurants we visited left half or more of their bottles of wine on the table and half or more of their food on their plates. Having being brought up to finish what was on my plate, under the admonition “waste not, want not” (does anybody still say that?), I could not help, but notice (judgementally, it has to be said) this systematic waste. My friend explained to me that in Italy (or was it just Florence?) leaving food on your plate and wine in your bottle was a sign to your contemporaries that you were well-off and able to afford not to scrape every last carbohydrate and protein off your plate, as poor people would have to.
Applying the same logic to the superclean, objectless concrete arrangements around the houses of the more affluent, I could imagine that, not having your yard and the space around your dwelling full of junk, was sign of prosperity, especially when I contrast that with the piles of rubber tyres, broken farming equipment, heaps of flagging stones, plastic buckets, sheep dips and coils of fence wiring that take up the majority of the yards and spacing around the older, usually agricultural dwellings. Poor people have their yards full of stuff, the affluent middle class deliberately clear their houses of every last vestige of moveable objects to demonstrate their wealth. That of course changes as you move up the social ladder, where the houses and gardens of the very wealthy and land owning squirearchy are again to be found filled to the brim with decorative paraphenalia, assembled over centuries from trips around the world. Society is not a pyramid, it’s a horseshoe. If anyone has a better explanation (like: All these houses were built before 2009 and nobody had any money left to decorate the outside of the house after the Tiger died; Or: Nobody wants to put any signs of life outside the house, so the bailliffs will think there is nobody living there), I’ld love to hear it.
My route took me through a forest, on what should have been a good track and therefore should have been a pleasant enough walk, but it wasn’t because for the next 5 or 6 kilometers, as I have written previously, there was an incessant, thundering procession of trucks and roadmaking vehicles, hammering their path through the woods. Michael came to pick me up at the pub in Bweeng, where I was engaged in various conversations with the small, but multi-faceted crowd of locals who were gathering at the oasis on that sunny lunchtime.