Idle as trout in light Colonel Jones
these Irish, give them no coins at all; their bones
need toil, their characters no less.” Trevelyan’s
seal blooded the deal table. The Relief
Committee deliberated: “Might it be safe,
Colonel, to give them roads, roads to force
From nowhere, going nowhere of course?
from ‘The Famine Road’, by Eavan Boland
The harsh sogginess of western Ireland is in odd places scarred by useless stone roads, often starting in the middle of a field leading up a hill to abruptly end. From nowhere, going nowhere of course. During the Irish potato famine in the end of the 1840’s the British landowners deemed the starving paupers morally unfit for unreciprocated charity. Instead they were forced to work on purposeless infrastructural projects in exchange for money, never enough to keep starvation and its fevers at bay. The peasants died in droves in the harsh winter, the survivors to weak from their futile toil to bother digging graves, leaving the corpses by the roadside.
One of the United Kingdoms least decried genocides, the potato blight affected just 17% of Ireland's food-producing acreage. 83% was producing food at a high efficiency. Had Ireland not been under the control of the British Empire a million people would not have died.
Wet and cold into my bones I'm biking through the ground clouds on the Dingle peninsula, gear in a waterproof backpack, looking for one of these damn famine roads, but can barely see more than 20 meters in any direction. Every pub where I have planned to warm up in front an open fire and a pint is closed, not a single human in sight, I end up eating a dry sandwich in the burnt ruins of a 50’s holiday home, the rain drizzling through the charred roof, the fog impenetrable outside, proper horror film location.
Giving up I start back towards the hostel, I’ll just film whatever old road I find tomorrow and be done with it. After disembarking during an increasingly steep hill I see a gravel road taking of to the right. I follow it, leading the bike, all sound muted in the mist, the ripple of a thousand small streams of water invisible beneath the grass, a pack of sheep observing me from a distance.
A few meandering switchbacks later I decide that this must be a famine road and rig up to capture the bleakness. I stand in the thick wet grass on the steep hillside, like wading through a tilted river, when a few sunbeams break through the clouds and steep the scenery in gold. The mist lift before me and I can see the extent of the landscape I've crossed today, gleaming glowing hills of bronze grass waving streaks of fog in thinning ribbons, a myriad of islands stretching across the Atlantic horizon, each in a scarf of cloud, tiny coastal villages whose dark windows I’ve biked passed this morning, hillside farms with shining roofs, fields demarcated by dry stone fences, some green but most the same colours of intense bronze, copper, brass and gold. I know the images look overtly photoshopped but they really aren't.