Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Mapping famine

I'm not quite sure what I was supposed to be researching, but I ended up with one of Eavan Boland's (many) great poems.

For those unfamiliar with famine roads, they differ from the altruistic work of New York debutantes: when most of Ireland was being devastated by famine in the 1840s, the then-Government was fearful that charity might encourage laziness. Thus, the famine victims were given the opportunity to work for their alms, and were set to building roads: roads that weren't actually planned or needed, you know, but they kept everyone busy while they were dying. First-hand accounts describe the 'living skeletons' working these often pointless roads that started at a random point and went nowhere in particular.

Those famine roads remain today - as Boland says, "so powerful in their meaning and so powerless at their origin". It's a remarkable feeling, to follow one to its abrupt end in the middle of a field. It just suddenly disappears, and you realise: everybody died. They all died, and then there was no more reason to try to help, and therefore no need to force the dying to labour so that they wouldn't become greedy, lazy, good-for-nothings. A neat ending.

That the Science of Cartography is Limited

-and not simply by the fact that this shading of
forest cannot show the fragrance of balsam,
the gloom of cypresses
is what I wish to prove.

When you and I were first in love we drove
to the borders of Connacht
and entered a wood there.

Look down you said: this was once a famine road.

I looked down at ivy and the scutch grass
rough-cast stone had
disappeared into as you told me
in the second winter of their ordeal, in

1847, when the crop had failed twice,
Relief Committees gave
the starving Irish such roads to build.

Where they died, there the road ended
and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of

the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that

the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon

will not be there.

Eavan Boland

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