In his Memoir published in 2005,1 the year before he died, the writer John McGahern began by describing the physical geography of the Irish county he was born in and to which he eventually returned. “The soil in Leitrim is poor, in places no more than an inch deep,” is McGahern’s opening sentence, comprising facts that as a part-time farmer he had good reason to know. He goes on to explain how the bands of clay and dense gravel that lie underneath have created, with the help of western Ireland’s heavy rainfall, a landscape clotted with lakes, small fields, and high hedges. “The very poorness of the soil saved these fields when old hedges and great trees were being levelled throughout Europe for factory farming,” McGahern writes, “and, amazingly, amid unrelenting change, these fields have hardly changed at all since I ran and played and worked in them as a boy.”
Some of McGahern’s great appeal as a writer lies in his evocation of a way of living—rural, poor, insular, morally tutored by the Catholic Church, stripped of its energetic young by their migration to Britain and America—that was slipping into history even as he looked out at it from his farmhouse window in the last decade of his life. Like many country people in Ireland, he lived with a powerful sense of the absent, and perhaps nowhere in Ireland was this sensation stronger than in Leitrim, which has the smallest population of any county in Ireland and none of the grand scenery and Atlantic seashore that bring tourists and their money to nearby counties such as Mayo and Galway. In 1841, before the famine and the collapse of its handloom industry, Leitrim could count a population of 155,000. Today its 613 square miles contain fewer than 30,000 people. After 1841 the population went down and down—until 2002 when, for the first time since the potato blight, the figure showed a small increase. A larger increase was registered in the census for 2006.
That was the year the Celtic Tiger leapt highest, and here, among McGahern’s poor fields, is where the beast has left some of its most visible paw prints. Bright signs stick above the dark hedgerows: “Luxury development of highly distinctive homes” and “€100,000 off original price.” Behind each of them lies a cluster of two-story houses with pitched roofs and carports that could just as easily belong in the suburbs of London or New York. Very few are occupied, some are unfinished, dandelions sprout on lawns that have run wild. Who was expected here? They look like houses built for junior executives with two children and two cars, but how many of them could the Leitrim economy possibly have supported even when the boom was at its height? They add…
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