Loss, ruins, and the spaces that we see ourselves through.

All over Donegal there are abandoned, overgrown cottages. Some of them are shells built from crumbling stones and others are intact with vases and bottles of holy water rotting on windowsills and brambles creeping into crevices.

Often, they are run-down family homes. Their newly built replacements stand beside them, freshly plastered and insulated with flat-screen televisions winking through the double glazing. Others seem much more desolate, as though a lonely old person passed away and their families live too far away to make returning worthwhile. When I first arrived here I was puzzled by these houses, rusting in the wind. I wondered why they weren’t demolished. I thought that it was better to get rid of old things, rather than letting them loom in the present like mournful relics.

The answer is space. There is so much space here that there is no need to reduce old things to rubble. There is sentimentality somewhere in the history and there is something important in observing the way that nature takes over. At first, I thought that a reluctance to relinquish the past was a refusal to acknowledge the passing of time. Now I understand it more as a symbol of temporality and a reminder that there are layers of lived experience criss-crossing the surfaces of our lives, invisible to us. There is room for everything here. There are traces of the past in the present and there is space for the future, too.

Jessica Andrews, Saltwater, (Sceptre, 2019) 129.


I recently read Jessica Andrews’ spectacular Saltwater which follows Lucy – its narrator – as she criss-crosses between Sunderland, London, and the west coast of Ireland, and across time and memories. This chapter on ruins in Ireland, which touches on the rental crisis in Ireland, also explores the nature of memory and forgetting.

It reminded me of the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre which took place in 1944 at the hands of members of the Nazi SS. After 642 men, women, and children were murdered in Nazi-occupied France, President Charles de Gaulle ordered that the village be maintained as a permanent memorial to the horrors of war and a way of uniting France in the aftermath of the Second World War. Michael Foley and the Irish Times recently published an article on the subject. Watching Chernobyl and seeing the, still now, uninhabitable city of Pripyat, continued this musing on ruins, memory, and how space (inhabited and uninhabitable) serves to impact our everyday lives today.

Pripyat is known as a ‘ghost city’.


In 60 Degrees North, Malachy Tallack writes:


Death is at once an ending and a continuation. A breath is given back to the wind, just as ice returns to the sea. It finds new shape. But a life, too, lives on through stories and through memories, joyful in their retelling and their fleeting recollection. Loss shapes us like a sculptor, carving out our form, and we feel each nick of its blade. But without it we cannot be…It is the space through I have come to see myself most clearly.

Malachy Tallack, 60 Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home (Birlinn: 2015), 51.


On the other hand, Guy Beiner writes that we should actually be considering what is forgotten by communities. It’s actually the spaces in those memories that we should be focusing upon in our historical endeavour, after all:


Social forgetting can be regenerated and transmitted over several generations. Rather than leading to amnesia, it is a way of preserving under the radar sensitive memories, which cannot be openly remembered.

Guy Beiner, Forgetful remembrance: social forgetting and vernacular historiography of a rebellion in Ulster (Oxford, 2018), 41.


Whether we focus on the spaces that we see, or those that we don’t, the histories of the environments which surround us can’t help but influence how we see the world and how we see ourselves. Just as empty houses and re-purposed orphanages serve to remind us (or at least, should remind us) of the the past, we are also impacted by reminders of what is no longer there to decline in front of our eyes.


I will continue to muse on this…


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