POLLY DEVLIN’S REMEMBRANCE OF PEOPLE AND TIMES PAST IS TRIGGERED BY HER COLLECTION OF TREASURED ANTIQUES AND THE BACKSTORIES OF THEIR ACQUISITION …
For new readers and seasoned ones … This is the eighth episode in the loose concoction called The Remembering Rope – a series of memories describing the fruits of my travels and my addiction to collecting – an addiction which skewed my life as all addictions do. As I move through my house, past the pictures and objects, I see my past life in geographical detail and in memorable panorama. I try not to be like a priestess guarding a shrine but there’s an element of that in it. So I also try to cull – and it’s difficult. I still slightly mourn the ones that get away …
In my uncontrollable collection of books, the one I treasure most is A Year in the Life of an English Meadow. It chronicles how an apparently ordinary field was turned, without interference but with diligent husbandry and housewifery into one of the best wild flower meadows in England, a joyous riot of over 130 different kinds of indigenous wild flowers. We never planted a single seed. They’d lain under the earth for decades waiting for someone literally to unearth them, to help them flourish. When Howard Carter was asked as he peered into the darkness of Tutankhamun’s tomb “Can you see anything?” he replied with the famous words: “Yes, wonderful things!” I didn’t have to excavate exactly – I just gave our wonderful things the wherewithal to resurrect themselves.
The genesis for all this happened years before, and grew out of one small incident in my childhood. This story is all about seeds – seeds sown there and then and now, both in infertile ground and in my fertile mind.
I am a small girl, standing in the shade of a magnificent copper beech on a corner of a lawn as big as a field, which indeed it once was, beside a little yew bush which had defiantly grown under the tree. A most obliging plant is yew, growing in sun or shade in weal or in woe. It’s 1948. I am wielding a spoon nicked from the kitchen, trying to scrape away the meagre grass growing near the yew. The rest of the lawn is lush and thick but not here – the copper beech absorbs all the sunlight.
Although I had sisters and one brother I was a solitary child, often walking by myself up an ancient disused road to a desolate aerodrome which had been built during the Second World War. So I never knew anything different other than that there should be aeroplanes flying only feet above our house, from a vast secret other future world so near to us but so forbidden.
It is hardly believable now how sequestered our world was, cut off from the world by Lough Neagh on one side and the aerodrome on the other. We lived in a big house with new-fangled gas lights but there was no electricity anywhere and many houses in the district were thatched single-storey cottages, with no running water or privies.
Yet just up the untarmacked road was a sophisticated universe of electrical equipment, canteens, control tower, windsocks, aircraft hangars and aeroplanes ready for the off. You could make a television series about these parallel universes from different epochs a quarter of a mile away but centuries apart. Actually my brother Barry did, in his TV series My Mother and Other Strangers.
In a book I wrote when I was much younger about growing up there – a book which I can’t even look at now – I mourned and railed about how the building of the aerodrome, criss-crossed with runaways like giant scorch marks and surrounded by a huge perimeter had split the parish in two and caused the extinction of a place. Six hundred and forty acres were beaten flat; old paths, roads, trees, hedges, hillocks, all-natural features were destroyed. The highest structure in the district – an enormous wall harbouring a mound of earth – was the Bomb Store. The Bomb Store! Our local larder. Surreal.
The chosen site for this cuckoo in the nest was The Claggan, the heart of the parish, the most populated area, with shops, blacksmiths, even a cobbler. I thought the 35 families who left must have been driven out in a quasi-eviction and was unaware that good incentives were offered to leave. Five pounds was the normal going price for an acre then and I believe that each farmer was offered £50 an acre. £5 is worth around £2,500 now so families must have jumped at the chance to sell up. I wish I knew if that is true. I became so far removed from my cultural roots after I went to London and entered into another staggeringly different lonely planet called Vogueland that it never entered my head – could never have entered – that a valuable anthropological study lay behind me crying out for a social historian. But then again, it wasn’t crying out – there was silence, as there was in bigoted Ulster about our native Irish history, we, the dispossessed.
Now those displaced persons are phantoms, long dead and no-one remembers how the place looked before it was razed. Blank.
The airmen came and went, the RAF first and then the US airmen and it closed down after the war. It had never been much of a success since the dense mists from the lough made landing aircraft hazardous.
But horrifying tragedy stalked the place, though it was so hushed up, so shameful, such a black secret that it was only years later that I heard about it. But it surely, for the local population, it must have changed everything to do with the aerodrome and its personnel.
An Army Air Corps Private called William Harrison Jr, a chronic drunk raised in an appalling family background in Jim Crow’s American south, made friends with a local family and shared meals with them in their house. One day in September 1944 he asked if he could take their seven-year-old daughter, Patricia, into town to help choose a thank you gift for her parents. Instead he took her into a field, raped and strangled her. There is simply no imagining the effect, the shock, the horror and indeed the shame that this would have had on the small rural Catholic community. It still shocks to the core.
It is hardly believable now how sequestered our world was, cut off from the world by Lough Neagh on one side and the aerodrome on the other.
It was five years later when I started wandering up to the aerodrome in search of skylarks and hares. I knew their haunts well. We know about the lark in theory but who has seen it surging upwards? No matter how high it rises, from that astounding vertical take-off, it never disappears. I watched it drilling its way up into the azure transparency and its notes fell like glazed shavings of blue sound and bounced off my ear. Wordsworth said he had been sprung into poetry by hearing the sound of a walnut dropping; such sounds are not heard by many people now and I was blessed to hear them.
I walked through the myriad wild flowers springing in the now perfect environment – the unpopulated unfertilised disturbed airfield and collected seeds although I hadn’t a clue really. I know now – oh, the wisdom of hindsight – that I wanted to heal the place and myself, to make a garden of remembrance although I would never have been able to formulate that impulse; indeed it is only now as I write these words that I realise it. Which brings me back to standing in front of the yew bush as I dig with a spoon and sprinkle the random seeds I had collected and mixed with a packet of lupin seeds I’d bought in glamorous Cookstown.
My mother with her usual impatience – never was a woman more overworked – told me it was a waste of time. Flowers did not grow in deep shade in dry earth. Yet that spring, little sword-like leaves came thrusting up under the yew bush. I watered, tended and talked to them and then yanked them into the front borders with my trusty spoon. All summer long, efflorescent spires of yellow and purple lupins hurled themselves skywards. Beautiful thugs. Not one of the wild flower seeds germinated of course.
Fast Forward. Years and years later, after I was married, we bought land in Somerset and between the jigs and the reels spent 26 years working on our meadows to help them back to what we knew they had been, before the ravages of the wartime command, Dig for Victory, and artificial fertilisers had destroyed nearly all English meadows. More ruination, like the airfield. But just as it had been given a second chance so was our land and our obsession to revivify something that seemed lost resulted in spectacular success.
When I first saw the little orchids and fritillaries pushing gently up after decades in the dark I thought of Derek Mahon’s lines in that poem of poems, “A Disused Shed in Co Wexford”, They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.
When my husband could no longer walk much and we knew we would have to leave, we collected, with the help of a brilliant botanist, one specimen of each flower over the course of a year to make a souvenir album for our children. My husband pressed them and I wrote about them.
One miraculous day a publisher came to tea – on the way to somewhere else – saw the album and asked to publish it. It became A Year in the Life of an English Meadow. I still get letters from all over as more and more people turn semi-dead lawns and fields into wildflower havens.
That first homemade album is a central essential piece in my collection. I look at it often, my lost paradise, my claggan. The child on the aerodrome carried more than seeds and sounds with her when she left Ireland.
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