PALACE OF DREAMS
In my houseless years during the closing decades of the 20th century, I harboured dreams of owning a thatch cottage. I was not in the market however for some mock-Tudor replica the likes of which were beginning to appear in forced clusters in dubious locations around the country. What I wanted was the ‘real deal’, an authentic cottage in the middle of nowhere with a huge fireplace that you could sit in and cook on, and a roof of thatch that I would learn over time to repair myself. I even had a friend with similar fantasies and after a while realising we had no money and could not afford to buy the palace of our dreams we thought, what the hell, we’ll just have to make one! So instead of looking at cottages for sale, we turned our attention to looking at fields of quality mud, concentrating our efforts in and around Counties Wexford and Waterford, the heartland of traditional mud and clay building in Ireland.
But one day in the mid 1990’s while out walking in Co. Tipperary (not on house or field hunting duties I might add) I stumbled across the cottage above and everything changed. Initially, I was awe struck at the raw beauty of the building, feeling it almost alive as it sat comfortably nestled under its thick roof of thatch with windows like eyes peering out at you. With no obvious signs of electricity, running water or indoor toilet, the cottage appeared unchanged for decades, and although built of stone with an exterior of lime plaster, it was undoubtedly the ‘real deal’.
Having met the man of the house earlier, I was invited inside and while I recall the massively thick walls and giant fireplace which had my heart pounding with excitement, the exact layout eludes me but it comprised no more than two, possibly three, rooms at most. The 1911 census records twenty houses in the townland, of which at the time eight were thatched. Only two of the eight had just two windows to the front, and it is possible the cottage was one of these.
But what I remember most was the darkness. Even after my eyes had adjusted to conditions inside, visibility was no more than a few feet as shadowy beams emanating from the windows like tunnels, dissipated in direct proportion to how far one strayed from the openings. I have no idea how many years my host had already lived here, or how many he stayed after my visit, but to this day I recall his eyes which bore the reality of his living conditions with no mercy.
A search of revision books in the Valuation Office in Dublin identified my host by name, but the loss of books for the townland spanning the end of the 19th into the first few decades of the 20th century meant that I could not trace him, or his home, further back. A cyber fly-by on Google Earth did not locate the cottage either and I have no idea if it still stands today. Perhaps it is occupied by some other dreamer siting by the fireside waiting for rural broadband to rollout and connect them with the world outside. I doubt it though; it was positioned far too close-for-comfort to the Lisheen Mine development of the late 1990s and it is far more likely to have been engulfed in the name of modernity or, simply just disintegrated, its component parts returned to the earth leaving no footprint.
The photograph was taken less than 25 years ago, but it might as well be 100 years ago or more. For me, it was a fleeting glimpse into a past way of life I will never forget and maybe more importantly a lesson learnt – careful what you wish for!