Jachelt, the old Scots word, describes trees that have grown in the direction of the wind. Irish lacks a similar word for the knotted snarl of black branches that separate the sea from land along the west coast. Despite the sturdy trunks, those hawthorns are little more than shrubs, most bare of leaf or berry. Hunched and carrying a hundred years of curses each, the long procession look like humans who have lost something, spinsters with no wool.
For a few months of the year a gorgeous profusion of yellow gorse softens the view, and in March festive bunting quivers on the stiff breezes of Spring the length and breadth of the country. Strung across roads and along the sides of premises, striped green, white and gold, the pennants hem back the harshness of winter, promising warmth and better weather with the passing of Le Fheile Padraig.
The water is always close, closer in autumn and spring when the equinox tides hurl the surf higher than the streetlights. Situated on a promontory shaped like a hand, the village of Killehan nestles in the palm with five fingers of rock stretching out into the Atlantic, clawing back promises that were never kept. Inlets, rivers and flooded fields are a constant reminder that it won’t take much to submerge this island. Hybrasil, Atlantis; Ireland is steeped in myths. Even those who come from abroad to visit the famous scenery can taste the sorrow mingled with the salt that drifts in off the sea. With the tang of tears it seasons the land and the lives of the people. Killehan has done its best to dispel the worst of history and build its own legends. Not that its inhabitants chose to disregard the past but if anything, priding themselves on modernity, they elected for disruption.
Far from famous, far from everything, reverberations of incidents that occurred here have been felt far and wide. Small things, most of them, such as the mother who took her son out of national school in 1993 when he was smacked by the principal for a recusant attitude towards prayers, only for most parents to follow suit in solidarity until the teacher was removed. By 2003, the number of children making their first Holy Communion had dropped by 70% and by 2023, there was no one left for mass on Sunday mornings.
There were the teenagers who filled their parents’ obsolete mp3 players with golden era showtunes and audiobook classics, delivering them to the Seaview retirement home with careful charging instructions to the carers, a simple act of kindness reported online that quickly went viral, prompting a million more playlists and the resurgence of Big Band as a popular genre.
Then the farmer O’Carroll who got so fed up of crooked local politicians, he took to repairing the roads around the village himself, filling in potholes caused by heavy tractors like his own with a mixture of gravel and tar. Spurred on by his actions, fellow landowners whose fields fronted the road began to clear the litter from ditches that were dumped out of car windows. Individuals gave their time in making small repairs around the place as needed, without reason. Neighbours began to paint the doors and windowsills of derelict houses beside them, tubs of cheap flowers appearing wherever a drab spot of space stood void. A small stone barn on the outskirts of the village was fitted with heaters, stools and an old pool table, a couple of slabs of beer showing up at the weekends, an out-of-work club where ideas were shared. Hardly revolutionary, a sense of pride sprang up however, not just for the slightly improved aspect of Killehan but amongst the villagers themselves, who found the reward greater than a Tidy Towns award. People began to ask what more they could do and word spread further afield, comparable efforts firing up in nearby towns and villages that were moved by Killehan’s motivational force.
There was no room for politicians to hide from the more serious concerns of the agricultural community and the ever-growing number of young unemployed who could no longer find work in administration, manufacturing, even marketing, once a realm of riches for any smooth thinker, now a cold, automated matrix of algorithms. When transport schedules shrank, libraries, banks and police stations closed, and levies rose on stand-alone energy systems, the crooks found they lacked the aces that had marked the polling cards of previous years. Come election time, the smaller, concerted efforts of dedicated independent candidates found themselves top of the polls. A new government was formed.
Criticised for depoliticising the smaller issues of their communities, those towns and villages of Ireland were hailed as saviours who repoliticised and reprioritised the state of the nation. In a short space of time, necessary overhauls were already underway. Religious orders were stripped of their assets, the lands and buildings returned to the district where they were repurposed for the use of the community. After convening on an old orchard and graveyard that looked over an additional sixty acres of farmland, an ecovillage with its own restaurant and farm shop was set up, with a five-year goal to draw subscriptions in return for fresh produce. The clubhouse, which over time had been plumbed and proofed against the weather to encompass everything from a meeting space, drama group, crafts club, parent and baby spot to yoga studio, was moved to the practically-sumptuous, spacious setting of the old convent. Instead of celebrating Easter each year, the praxis shifted to annual remembrance of the 1916 Rising, the Am-Drams redeveloping the centenary production that in 2016 had been mildly agitating but over time, became accepted as the norm; the failure of James Connolly’s vision for a socialist state, the wholesale robbery of Ireland’s natural resources, the dereliction of duty in cherishing all children of the nation equally, the sequestered horrors of the vulnerable shunted into homes, women’s struggles with barbaric maternity laws and the widespread failure to protect men from a rising tide of suicide.
Those who learn from history are not doomed to repeat it. Easter is a time of transformation, imbued with vitality and hope, spiritually and culturally. There are more changes still to come, of course, and what was once shocking now brings with it a thrill, a shiver of pleasure in the power of transformation.
In Killehan, under the snap and flutter of the flags, the villagers gather at the end of town where the old church stands, awaiting the arrival of the younger O’Carroll’s tractor. Granite hewn from the same rock that bolsters the roots of the hawthorn and gorse in the gullies by the sea built the church and spire that once threw a longer shadow than any other structure in the village. The shade and size make for a sympathetic conversion to apartments, fitting social housing already paid for many, many times over.
Once, the tricolour represented the unification of the Gaelic state and the House of Orange but that history has become irreversible, the symbolism faded to insignificance in the face of progress. Green grass, gold gorse, the people think of now, with one steadfast, unswerving constant: white for hope. Every nation should have hope in its heart.
Iron nails drove Jesus to the cross but a steel cable looped around the base of the crucifix in the courtyard is being used to take it down. Cold air, bright eyes, scents flung far out to the Atlantic on the wind, people chatter as they hold back dogs and children in a wide circle as the relic falls to earth. The clang is not deafening, doing little to disturb the cheerful flutter of flags. The day of national pride has passed but there is hope. New promises are made. Perhaps one day this place will be a town where people flock to live, bearing a name that fits; new words are yet to come and this place is special, a place where they bend with the breeze.