Change is the only constant, so the philosophers are fond of telling us, and certainly time has not stood still around this country town. Just as change was happening long before I happened upon it, with older locals remarking on the many years it’s been since they’ve heard the call of the corncrake that was common during their childhood.
It reminds us that some changes are the result of our shifting priorities, especially with the focus on so-called progress, with its twin pillars of economics and efficiency, the latter a word I have come to distrust because of the devastating consequences it invariably wreaks on the land. There are now noticeably fewer of the little fields that were once so characteristic of this country, as they are steadily replaced by massive swathes of land that seem to stretch as far as the eye can see, perhaps because they have swallowed up the hedgerows that used to divide them in the process.
It is a view echoed by writer and broadcaster Manchán Magan in the titular essay in Thirty-Two Words for Field — essential reading for anyone who cares about Irish culture and surely a candidate for immediate inclusion on the Irish school curriculum. He laments how “our landscape now looks like an increasingly anonymous expanse of indistinguishable fields.”
The domination of the ever-expanding dairy industry has been a major factor in the flattening of our fields, with beef farmers selling land off as sites for McMansions. But Magan proves this dullness can be dispelled “once seen through the Irish language” where “each field has its own word, depending on its characteristics and function”.
Some are straightforward, with geamhar the name for a field of corn grass. Others recall a co-operative era, such as cuibhreann, the name of a tilled field that was worked in partnership with a neighbour.
Other names conjure up a form of farming that now exists only in marketing campaigns by what is very much an industry, like tuar, a night field for cattle, or buaile, a field for keeping cattle before milking. Some words evoke a powerful sense of the physical effort inherent in a pre-industrial relationship with the land, with buadán a hillside that once had gorse growing on it but has since been cut with a scythe or hook, leaving only stumps.
Perhaps my favourites were those names that lie behind the still common expression “having a field day”, with réidhleán translating as a field for games or cavorting, while bánóg is a patch of ground levelled out by years of dancing.
However, our fields do not forget the darker days of our history, for they too are hidden in their names, with Magan’s inspirational grandmother pointing out the still visible cultivation ridges left by her great-grandparents’ generation during the Famine in the 1840s. As he poignantly elaborates “some were more visible than others, as they had been left undug; my ancestors either were too weak to dig them or, having noticed the blight-rotted potato stems, had realised that there would be nothing but a slimy mush beneath the soil”.
It is easy to share Magan’s awe at just how far back folk memories about fields stretch, captured in a proverb (or seanfhocal, literally “old word”) that his grandmother taught him which translates as “three times the life of a whale is the lifespan of a ridge, and three times the life of a ridge is the lifespan of the world”. A whale was thought to live for a thousand years, so it was known that the cultivation ridges that we see in fields could be up to 3,000 years old.
Archaeologists agree there are ridges of that age still visible in such places as the Céide Fields in Co Mayo and Slievemore on Achill Island. The span of three cultivation ridges would amount to 9,000 years, taking us back to the time when significant numbers of humans are thought to have first arrived in Ireland — “the beginning of our world”.
Let us hope those ‘for sale’ placards that you pass with their generic and impoverished description of land as mere fields are not a sign of its ending.