On yesterday`s cycle, I meandered through sixteen miles of glorious Irish countryside. And I didn`t meet a sinner.
Up and down, over hill and dale, past fields of ripening maize, barley and wheat, and pasture with grazing cattle and sheep, on and on I went.
Sure, there were a couple of people taking advantage of the late evening sunshine, as they sat and sipped beer outside a village hostelry. But, beyond that, there was nobody out walking, running or cycling the roads. Nothing unusual about that in modern Ireland.
At one point, I wheeled down a boreen, the sort that has a stripe of grass permanently embedded in the middle. In its entire two miles, it contained one inhabited house. But, scattered behind it`s overgrown hedges, I caught glimpses of tumbledown stone cottages, old sheds and lean-tos. There were maybe six or seven scattered along the lane, all at an angle, this way and that, to the boreen.
It was a glimpse of the past, of another era, when neighbours were essential to the task of farming the land. To when the survival of one depended on the co-operation of others. To when no man could be an island if he wanted to survive. And to where the ability to connect with others was essential if he wanted to thrive.
A former bedroom in the ruined cottage
They reminded me of Dad`s homeplace, that little cottage set in a magical oasis of green field and bogland, of Shannon waters, and moody skies. I visited there last year, on a summer evening`s such as yesterday`s. Dad`s homeplace too, is now a tumbledown cottage. The thatched roof has long since caved in at the middle. But two bedrooms, with tiny windows and sheeted roofs hold secrets of nine siblings and their parents, and of their ancestral families.
Stand now, where the kitchen table once stood. Face out through the doorway and let your eye take you past the flourishing nettles to Ireland in 1935. There is a constant stream of movement. Hens and geese, scatter as the family busy themselves about the work of the day and neighbours come and go as they share the necessary tasks and tools to get the day`s work done.
Children are long home from school now and are busy with whatever tasks their parents have set them. The cows have to be milked, a lost sheep has to be recovered and my Dad, aged eleven, is loading up the cart with turf in readiness for the next day`s market.
Chimneybreast and hearth in Granny`s cottage
Turn to your right now and look at the hearth. Two hundred years after the cottage was first built, it is still clearly visible, the chimney being the strongest part of the build and the hearth being the social hub of the little cottage and indeed, beyond.
Tonight a group of neighbours will gather there, just as they do most nights. Smells of turf smoke and tobacco will mingle with strong tea and home made soda bread, as they settle themselves by the fire for a chat.
Fianna Fáil, the local hurling team and the Catholic faith, all demanded a lifetime of loyalty back then, and it is within the framework of those certainties that everything would be discussed. The day`s newspaper will bring news of a discontent on mainland Europe while a neighbour will bring news of the latest hurling scores from the one radio in the locality.
There will be news too of other neighbours, of their work and their needs. What corn needed cutting, perhaps, where a meitheal might be needed to take the potato harvest in, or what expectant mother would soon be in need of Granny`s self taught midwifery skills.
Voices will softened to whispers as secrets are shared, or will rise again in laughter at some going`s on along some other boreen. As the turf fire is banked up with damp sods, the neighbours will return down the boreen and back to their homes and the web of shared work, secrets and laughter will be spun out along the townland for another day.
That was how the whole fabric of rural Ireland stayed glued together for hundreds of years. The arrival of newspapers and the radio, only strengthening those bonds.
Now eighty eight, Dad recalls those days with great fondness:
“Sure the road was never quiet. There would always be a crowd on it, what with horses and carts bicycles or some on foot. And maybe the odd car too.”
But it only took a handful of decades to dismantle it all.
I grew up in rural Ireland too, but already, by the 1970s it was a different world from the one of Dad`s youth. By then the whole network of social interaction was considerably weakened. Cars,televisions, the move from an agricultural to a more industrial based economy, even the abandonment of the well for domestic running water, contributed to that disconnect. It was perfectly possible to sit at home for days on end not meet a sinner, nor have any need to venture forth.
This one`s specially for my sister!
Condemned to staring at Donny Osmond on our bedroom walls, and dreaming of having landline connection might actually improve one`s social life, we were the disconnected ones. We were the ones who benefitted from Ireland`s move towards a broader economy but could while away our leisure time licking our wounds and delving in the murky waters of existentialism. Life can swiftly lose its meaning when all one`s physical needs are easily met and where connecting with others is more by choice than necessity.
As I cycled down the boreen yesterday, I wondered about the effects of that loss on my generation. Never having experienced it, how can I judge how great that loss was? But I am inclined to think, that set adrift in our own individual little worlds, we have become more depressed and lonely and less inclined to think of the general good, but more of our immediate self interests. And that the loss of connectivity means the loss of that healing balm that soothes the lonely spirit.
But while I meander about the countryside, the next generation are busily getting on with changing the world. Back at the Chook House, the Three Teens are working hard, without of course, realising it. One is flitting between TV and iPad, another learning new guitar moves from youtube, while the third is tweeting, while his ipod cranks out what he calls music. Changes in degree of connectedness and learning are as swift as the changing cloudscape in an Irish sky. There are now a myriad of new ways in which to connect with other. And yet, those ways in themselves are just a modern day version of sitting around the turf fire, having a chat.
Instead of organizing meitheals around the turf fire, Facebook events lets them invite people to their next gathering. Random meetings along the boreen, are replaced by tweeted comments. Musings on the state of the nation,are now blogged about to a wider audience than any Irish cottage could ever dream of holding.
So high on the saddle of my bike, I am pedalling alone, but I happy in my own skin. I am well practised in being less connected with the outside world than my Dad was and than my children can ever be. As Teen Two pointed out “Mum, I`ve been on the internet for most of my life”. Connectedness is a given and he has grown up feeling inextricably connected via the world wide web.
Dad, on the other hand, is perhaps, worst off. He must surely feel the ache of sadness as he knows only a fireside of whispers and laughter and chatter. But the hearth is an empty black hole in a tumbledown cottage now and Dad`s web of connection is down to a silver thread or two.
So you`re on your own today. Your laptop or iPad`s cranked open on your WordPress Reader as you catch up on other people`s worlds. You can learn so much about everything, especially if you read with thought and care. You can comment or indeed, launch into a whole conversation, with random, often faceless strangers. And are free to ramble on uninterrupted, on whatever topic takes your fancy. You can chime in too and offer your own opinion on whatever you want. You might even be liked: liked in the modern day sense of the world, and, if you impress the wordpress community, you might even be really, really liked.
The ping of an email, a comment or a tweet, might even lift your spirits: you are feeling connected. No, it`s not the same as a face to face meeting, or the challenge of welcoming a stranger into one`s home. Those connections too need a place in our lives if we are to stand true and real for what is needed for us all to thrive.
And our children too, still need to get out there and mix in the real world. But with all of those tools for connectivity, their future seems to me to be an exciting place.
Dewdrops on a web
Indeed internet access makes it an exciting world right now, for like glistening dewdrops on a spider`s web, we can connect if we choose to and take all the benefits of that.
And I can wheel around the countryside and not meet sinner or I can linger at home and meet the world.
Isn`t it grand?