Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The sadness around the monuments and how nothing is created unless something else is destroyed

Sadness. Now there's a word. A word full of power, and so appropriate for the story of the monuments, especially those that are damaged or decaying in the landscape. I've been dealing with this sadness for a long number of years. Whenever I am alone at one of the many ancient and sacred places of this land, there's always a sense of sadness. Not that I'm always sad. And not that it's always a dominant emotion. Sometimes, (quite often, in fact) I'm ecstatic. These places are capable of enrapturing me and bringing me to a state of numinous awe. But the sadness is always there, somewhere. It never fully goes away.

The remains of Cairn U at Loughcrew, a "lost world" which is over 5,000 years old, with storm cloud.

I used to think it was just a sadness for a lost world. A lost tribe of humanity, of my ancestors. A people who lived and died in the blinking of an eye, and whose presence here would go totally unrecognised were it not for the presence across the landscape of so many of their ancient monuments and sacred structures.

But then I remember when I was younger, and I'd see a bulldozer at work, ripping up the earth and making a mess of it. And I was sad then too.

I was sad when the diggers came and took down all the trees that used to grow "down the back", a wild field behind the house where I grew up, a place full of briars and old ruins, the decrepit remnants of an old and forgotten urban world - a Drogheda on the Boyne that has been and gone. There, in among the thorns, was "the cave", an ancient wine or food cellar, its old ceiling inlaid with a decoration of cockle shells, set into a sandy cement that formed a rough curving, arched ceiling. Like the candlelit Newgrange of the old days, before the excavations, "the cave" was both fascinating and terrifying. It had partly collapsed at some stage, leaving a hole that we used to enter in through. While in there, in the darkness, we did not know if the whole thing was going to collapse in on top of us. Of course, that didn't stop us from going in!

And one day, the bulldozers arrived and took it all away. And I was immensely sad. I have no photographs of it. All that's left of it is what I remember, and even that's not much.

I was sad the day our apple tree was cut down. And I was said when, years after my siblings and I each planted a tree at the end of the garden, mine had been choked by the growth of many others, and withered away and died.

The house I grew up in (left) and the view towards Laurence Gate. Photo: Google Maps.

I was also confused. When I was young, in my early teens, Drogheda was a run-down place. A decaying old town, crumbling to bits. And I wanted it to be renewed, and rebuilt. And I wanted it to be bigger. And I wanted it to have the biggest port in Ireland, and the busiest railway, and the best shopping centres, and I wanted it to have a big population. That would make it important. That would make people sit up and notice my old town.

And when some of that did happen, in those crazy Celtic Tiger years, I was sadder than ever. More of the green fields were ripped up. In their place was built concrete and asphalt and steel and glass and brick and slate. The land that had been green forever was maimed and scarred. And I was sad.

I never realised that within me was this environmental fundamentalist, bursting to get out. I hated to see new roads being built. I hated to see the bulldozers, ripping up the sods. I hated to see concrete being poured into a green field. It made me very, very sad. And even when old, decaying, derelict and sometimes dangerous, roofless old houses or buildings were knocked, to make way for new ones, I would be sad. How do you explain that? People cannot live in derelict, roofless houses. And yet I was sad, because another part of the old world was being torn up. Of course I would rarely vocalise this urge to preserve everything, perhaps because I feared ridicule because of the apparent futility of my position.

It got to the stage that I wanted to keep the old bits, and I didn't want the new bits. A generation of Drogheda people remember a part of the town - the area of James' Street, Bull Ring, and John Street, that was torn out by the metal monsters to make way for a new dual carriageway that carved its ugly pathway through one of the most ancient parts of the town.

Even today, the traffic winds its way under the ancient archway of Laurence Gate, an ancient barbican, and the most impressive remnant of the walls of the town that were first erected in the 13th century. I grew up on the street that leads eastwards away from the great barbican. I passed by it, and under it, pretty much every day of my life for 20 years. And sometimes a lorry goes under that arch and clips off it, scraping it, and occasionally knocking a chunk out. There's a campaign to close it to traffic. That campaign has been running for at least three decades. The traffic still flows underneath, and the ever-present danger of a catastrophe is there. I wonder if I will wake up some day to the news that the thing has collapsed in a ruin because it has been struck by the truck of ignorance. Or maybe, to save ourselves from all that pain, we should just bulldoze it now?

Aerial view of Laurence Gate. Photo: www.closethegate.org.

No wonder, then, that I make my escape from the post-Tiger concretised Drogheda, out into the Boyne Valley and beyond, to visit places that are away from this unfettered craziness that we call urban civilisation.

Even Newgrange was rebuilt. This is what it looked like in 1890 as depicted in George Coffey's book.

I'd go to Newgrange, and I'd be sad.
I'd drive to Monasterboice, and I'd be sad.
I'd visit the Hill of Slane, and I'd be sad.
I'd climb Loughcrew, and I'd be sad.

Why was I sad? I don't know if I can explain that in one blog post, but one of the reasons I was sad was probably because I realised that, in order to build something, something else must be destroyed. In the world view of a committed environmental fanatic, Newgrange would never have been built in the first place. 


  1. Yes, Anthony. I'm resonating. "truck of ignorance"

  2. I understand completely the sadness.

  3. I understand the sadness but not sure about the conclusion.

    1. Thank you Janetto. This article is the first of a series addressing the issue of sadness, and it is meant to also represent a cathartic experience for me. The conclusion reached above is one that I am not happy with either. I will endeavour to fully explore it in future posts. Bear with me!!

  4. I most definitely will! Thank you Anthony. I will try to contribute about my own experiences and feelings too if time and opportunity.