“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” ~ Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi
An Irish judge recently fined a Kerry farmer 25,000 euro for destroying a protected ancient ringfort and souterrain on property he had purchased two months prior. The earthen ringfort, estimated to be 1,000 years old, was identified on the register of national monuments of historic importance. This was the first ruling of its kind to be brought in Ireland based on the 1994 National Monuments Act. It is hailed as a major victory for preservationists.
Did the excesses in building during the Celtic Tiger years, and subsequent loss of landscape integrity in the countryside play a part in the decision of this ruling, and the seriousness in which it was taken? Perhaps. And yet…there was also a recent proposal to de-list any post-1700s buildings nationally due to budgetary constraints. So what to keep and what’s expendable remains an ongoing conversation.
One of the many things I loved from the first moment setting foot in Ireland was the comfort level of people living alongside and sometimes directly within physical references to the past. Fields with signs inviting you to climb over a fence to walk among the ruins of abbeys, farmers with beehive huts, passage tombs, ogham stones, and yes, ringforts in their fields, who left out a small bowl or box with a handwritten sign asking a euro for the trouble of allowing you a closer look, but often just inviting you in. Ancient monuments in the landscape with no fence surrounding them (as Stonehenge has sadly needed), no seeming worry about graffiti or destruction. Once on a work related trip to Dublin, I took a few extra days and drove out to visit friends in the midlands and stopped along the way to find the Loughcrew cairns, having been enticed by Lonely Planet. Driving up a narrow and fairly steep road, I found the small pull-off to park your car, a decent sign explaining the history of this place, and the pathway up. As I climbed the path from parking lot to hilltop, a couple of visitors were descending. An easy climb, it’s only a 713 foot elevation but the vista is open and clear on all sides. It was a cool, windswept November day, and as I reached the top I realized I was the only person there. I was alone on this great hilltop, dotted with passage tombs built 5,000 years ago – I looked out over the same 360 degree view of the Meath countryside that it’s builders enjoyed.
That this space and these monuments had been preserved and respected while, not far below, people went about their normal lives for all those 5,000 years still amazes me. That they have not been commercialized is all the more remarkable. The more extensive site nearby at Newgrange, is preserved and maintained by Bord Failte (Tourist board of Ireland) for visitors – and that’s appropriate – it educates and manages the area around the Boyne river. It is perhaps the most important ancient monument in all of Ireland and a world heritage site.
But Loughcrew, like so many other ancient sites in Ireland – Carrowkeel, Knocknarea, countless abbeys, castles, forts and on and on, is just…there. As vital a part of the landscape as it is a vital part of the culture.
Where I live, just north of Chicago, there is precious little that survives earlier than the 19thcentury. We sit atop layers of history – many of our roads follow trails used by native peoples; names of rivers (as well as states) hint at the tribes who predominated here. But generally, we go about our day and have no clue, or if we do, we don’t think about it.
I’m a particular fan of one little mundane monument, a good walk away from my back door – it’s a little stretch of a few brave remaining wood pilings that keep their heads above water along the shore of Lake Michigan. Dating back to the mid or late 19th century, they once supported rows and rows of piers that stretched out into the lake, welcoming sailing and steam ships unloading merchandise, building materials and people and picking up more to head out once again. I like to visualize the scene 150 years back as I walk along that part of the lake.
When English colonizers first came to our shores, they came for a variety of reasons – religious freedom for some, commercial interest for most. The drive to conquer and plunder was cloaked in the religion-soaked idea of manifest destiny, although that specific term wasn’t applied until later. They were uninvested in the people or the rich cultures that had inhabited the continent for centuries. They saw our first peoples as uncivilized and in the way.
Starting out like that, it’s not surprising that we take a light view of our own physical history. In America, those of us who are not native people are impressed with anything over 100 years old and still standing. It’s all very relative.
Does any of this matter?
We name buildings and developments for what used to exist there – although it has a more official name, a nearby shopping center is still euphemistically called “old orchard.” Because there was an old orchard there before it was bulldozed for the sake of Nordstroms and other consumer enterprises. Here in America, we have a “pave paradise to put up a parking lot” mind-set. Thanks to Joni Mitchell’s prophetic voice, at least we are reminded of what we’re doing. I’m betting on Ireland having a better long range plan. They’ve been at it much longer – and because they were for so long on the losing side of history, rather than the conquering side, they’ve fought to keep it intact.
I have a strong need to know what and who came before me, whether it’s my house, my city, my country or my family. It hurts to see history lost. I’m reminded of a collector of local stories who said, “when an old person dies, it’s as if an entire library burned.” In the end, it’s all about respect – about knowing that we stand in the footprints of others.
We should thank those whose perseverance and vision created and secured America’s National Park System – which has increasingly moved to preserve our historic sites and buildings, like Ebenezer Baptist Church, in addition to maintaining our national heritage areas, places like Yellowstone and Yosemite.
We gain meaning when we see ourselves in context, as part of a continuum that includes all the stories of history and change: the good, the bad, the heroic and the horrendous. Without that I worry that our culture – at least in the U.S. – becomes simply a dialog of marketing.