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Looking on the bright side - reflecting on the hell of post-Famine evictions and workhouses

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Roses flaunted themselves and quiet little edelweiss blooms were heading towards their pure white flowerings in the Kilrush garden I sat in the other afternoon amid scenes of unbelievable summer beauty on the Clare coast.

I sipped an espresso from the small cafe behind me and looked down the floral path leading into the center of a walled garden that has become a major tourist attraction in the West Clare town. It was a long time before the reality of where I was, in historic terms, struck me like a bucket of cold water.

Down that very path, into the very same garden, the cruel Lord Hector Vandeleur walked with his agents away back in the post-Famine era, when his family owned the town, and planned the mass evictions of sick and starving tenants from his estates in an episode which is indelibly marked not just into Kilrush history, but nationally too.

In savage strikes against a peasantry stricken with cholera and hunger and plague, he walked down that path of beauty and planned the evictions of no less than 20,000 tenants in two or three years.

Given the subsequent horrific mortality rate in the Kilrush Workhouse, Lord Hector effectively murdered tens of thousands as his lovely garden bloomed inside the sun-warmed walls.

History strode forward a long way since then. At the entrance to the Vandeleur Gardens on the

edge of Kilrush there is now a plaque dedicating the development of the walled garden to the memory of the victims of those evictions.

The people own the garden again through their local authority, Lord Hector has long since stood before his Maker (and clearly been evicted into hell!), and peace on a summer day in 2011 comes dropping slowly and warmly and sweetly as small children play among the trees and flowers, and an old man at the next table says to me, in relation to the evictions, that we might be in a recession but we don't know at all what real suffering is like.

And, says he, the sun is free.

And, says he after another while, maybe there is even a brighter side to recessions like this one.

"We had lost the run of ourselves once we got a few bob in our pockets with the Celtic Tiger. We have had to get our feet back on the ground again and a lot of that is good,” he said.

“In the good times we got selfish. We forgot about our neighbors. We lost our sense of
community. We went crazy altogether.

“We are learning our lesson now. I had to close my business and I lost money but damn, I'm not starving either. I'm a lot better off than the poor bastards that had to take to the coffin ships in those times if they did not die of hunger behind a hedge before that!"

As he went away, still a sprightly man, he left me with the reflection that he spoke a lot of truth.

Things are hard now here, unemployment, rising emigration levels, deep bitterness against both the banks and the politicians. Everybody is feeling the pinch except the very wealthy like Lord Hector who are always insulated against recessions.

But, in truth, in social rather than economic terms, people have become more caring and neighborly towards each other. There is a growing sense of the necessity to pull together for the common good.

The grass roots are stronger. Like him, and about everybody else, I've lost a lot of work in the last couple of years but, thank God, I'm not starving either.

Cloth is being cut to the measure everywhere nowadays in Ireland. In the countryside there is a growing sense of being just about able to cope.

And there is a strange kind of satisfaction in that too. And in helping others in the small ways that matter between Monday and Friday.

Meanwhile, heading into the summer in Clare and the region generally, the countryside is unbelievably beautiful. Some of the luxuriance is likely due to the sun-drenched spring that made us forget the harsh winter before that.

It’s as if the resilient Mother Earth is showing us how to recover and thrive again. And all of that is free. Just like the sun.

There are brighter sides. A neighbor who loves his pint told me lately that he now visits the pub only once a week rather than the twice or thrice of the good old days.

And he says he drinks only two pints now instead of the three or four he used to have.

And he said he relishes those two slow pints far more nowadays than the careless ones he drank before! And he has stopped smoking!

The western summer circle begins again. The great fair of Spancil Hill is almost upon us again.

The Willie Clancy Summer School is only a good long blast of reels away. The hurling and football championships are well into their stride.

Kerry and Dublin and Cork footballers are looking good. Tyrone is on a winning run up in the North, the beautiful pod of dolphins are now enchanting all the visitors to the Shannon Estuary as they gambol and play where once the coffin ships sailed.

Can I please go away for my pint now?

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