THE scribe had borne down hard, his pen strokes reversed in high relief amongst the pinholes dotting the back of the card. Lana Pedersen’s fingertips explored the Braille-like bumps as she read:
To Let. Drumcarroll. 2-storey stone & slate farmhouse, orchard & out-building, on 6 acres. Shared access to peat & pond. Negotiable. Ring D. Carroll on:
She compared the punctured handwriting to the message on a board that hung askew on a gatepost guarded by a large clump of thistles. Below the words ‘To Let’, the telephone number matched.
Just like Brigham Young said, ‘This is the right place.’ But that dang donkey blocked the way.
Tourism adverts notwithstanding, this was the only donkey she’d seen – Ireland having leapt out of the Third World while riding the back of the Celtic Tiger. The creature had been peering over the top of a stone fence when Lana stopped her bike to check her Ordnance Survey atlas, and she couldn’t resist stroking the animal’s shaggy forelock. When she stopped petting it and walked her bike to the gate, it had followed her on emphatically thumping hooves. Now, its barrel shaped body wedged the gate shut.
Lana slapped the donkey’s rump. “Get up, Eeyore!”
The animal just stared at her reproachfully.
She tried shoving the gate. “Shoo, Benjamin!”
The bolshie beast still refused to budge.
Spoiled rotten. Must be somebody’s pet.
Lana was out of polite names, and it was getting late – soon she’d have to pay for another night’s lodging in town. She scanned the fence for a gap to squeeze through, but it was intact. Nettles and briers reinforced the thistles, on both sides.
In photos that she’d seen of the west of Ireland, fields were interlaced with miles of drystone fences, but in this eastern county, most farms were enclosed with impenetrable hedges, interspersed with mundane barbed wire. This farmstead followed local custom, but it also had a stretch of stone fence fronting the road. Part of the fence had been set in mortar, making a wall, with sharp rocks set on end in the top row, like bared teeth – an effective deterrent to climbers. The gate stood in the middle of this section.
Gates used to be rare in stone fences. To pass from one field to the next, you dismantled a section of rocks, you drove your sheep or cows through the gap and then you rebuilt the fence behind you. It sounded like an awful lot of work.
Lana had learned this when she’d stopped at a newsagent with the name ‘K. CONLON’ in big white letters across the shopfront. She’d asked the proprietor about lettings outside of town. He removed a layer of cards from a cluttered notice board, and then handed her one that had been poked full of holes.
“Here’s one. Drumcarroll. Historic but homely. The new house was built after the Great Hunger, about eighteen-fifty.”
It amused Lana to hear what Europeans considered ‘new’. “I suppose it’s been in the family forever.”
“Not really. The family’s only been here since nineteen-thirty-five. They were colonists.”
The newsagent seemed delighted to enlighten her. “The colonists were from Connemara, where people still spoke Irish. The Government wanted to ease crowding and promote the language, so it acquired land in this County and organised three Gaeltachts. Each family who resettled got twenty-two acres, a horse and a pig, and money to build or improve a house and farm buildings. Drumcarroll was part of an estate that was broken up into holdings – it’s the part with the original buildings. It’s on the edge of the smallest Gaeltacht.”
“But I don’t speak Irish.”
“Not a problem. It’s compulsory in the schools, but everybody’s bilingual. You’ll hear Connacht Irish in the village. There are Ulster and Munster dialects, too. If you live here long enough, you’ll learn to tell the difference.”
Lana had already begun to detect differences in the Irish-accented English she heard. She was amazed that there should be such a variety of pronunciations of the same language on an island that was only as big as the State of Indiana.
“The acreage is let to a farmer, but the house is empty,” the shopkeeper continued. “The owner closed it up after his wife died.”
“When was that?”
“Em … back in ’ninety-five, I think.”
“’Ninety-five!” Was it derelict? She’d seen such places online, at the national inventory of historic buildings. Picturesque but primitive. In her youth, she’d often slept rough, but she was getting a bit old for that, now, and she preferred having a roof over her head that didn’t leak. The man behind the counter noticed her doubts.
“It might be a bit dilapidated, but himself isn’t the kind to let it go completely. He and his wife refitted the house back in the ’eighties – all the mod cons except central heating. But turf warms the place well enough.”
I could live with that. “Where would I get turf?”
“You can buy it from a hardware shop, or cut it, yourself. The farm has its own bit of raised bog. It’s just about the last bog that’s left in the County.”
“I see. Is it far to Drumcarroll?”
“Right up the road, it is.”
That, she’d learned, meant it was at least five kilometres away, but once you got there, you couldn’t miss it.
The proprietor followed her out to the footpath. “You’ll see a stone fence with a gate across the boithrín through the orchard. He built it to keep livestock out. Stray pigs were coming in through the wire fence after the apples, and swine are that hard on tree roots, there’d have been no orchard left. If the gate’s locked, you’ll have to knock down the fence to get in.” He went on to explain in detail how to do it.
The gate had no lock, but that fat donkey made a good substitute. Lana untied her mackintosh from behind the saddle of the bicycle, unrolled it and fished in a pocket for her last apple. Taking a large bite, she waved the juicy remainder under the animal’s nose, and when she had its attention, she pitched the fruit as far away from the gate as she could. The greedy beast ambled away to find it.
No sacrifice was too great, if Drumcarroll turned out to be the right place.
The wide board gate was heavy, and the dense weeds growing against both sides made it difficult to move, but she managed to open it wide enough to drag the bicycle through. Then she resettled her rucksack on her shoulders, mounted the bike and pedalled along the lane’s twin ruts.
A blizzard of apple blossoms blew across her path. Many downed limbs lay amongst the tufts of coarse grass under the trees. For the time being, there’d be plenty of firewood. Lana stopped and picked up a short, sturdy piece of branch.
When she emerged from the orchard, she saw that the trees ended on the right, where a rough hillock sloped upwards. To the left, they swept round a semicircle of lawn and stopped shortly beyond a stone house that looked so rooted to the landscape, it might have sprouted from the ridge upon which it stood. A colossal oak tree guarded one front corner of the house – a sentry for centuries.
She scrutinised the roof … no slates missing on this side, at least. She’d noticed that thatched roofs were rare; most Irish houses were roofed in utilitarian tile or slate. Slate wasn’t as appealing as thatch, but it was better than the rusty corrugated metal roofing she’d seen on a lot of decrepit old vernacular houses – cabins, she’d heard them called – that were still in use as sheds and barns.
But this was a ‘three bay’ farmhouse, not a humble cabin. Two large ground floor windows, like eyes, flanked the wide, flat nose of a door, and three dormers wrinkled the forehead of a roof above three first floor windows – all the features slightly off centre, like a Picasso face. The denuded mast of a television aerial, fastened to the side of one chimney stack, leant at a rakish angle, like a pen tucked behind an ear.
Lana laid the bike down in the grass and mounted the broad front stoop. Unlike others she’d seen, this house was not limewashed, and she reached out to savour with her fingertips the surface of the irregular golden stones of the rustic wall beside the doorway.
The front door was divided in half across its width, like what she’d grown up calling a ‘Dutch door’. She’d seen enough of these in Ireland to begin to think that ‘Dutch’ was a misnomer. The wood was badly weathered, but it sounded solid when she rapped on it with her stick.
Descending the stoop to the right, she waded through tangled dead stalks in what once must have been a flourishing flower border. She leant upon the stone windowsill, and peered through a hazy pane.
The flagstone ground floor appeared to have been overlaid with hardwood floorboards. Opposite the front window were French doors in the back wall. A fireplace in the end wall faced bookshelves that were built into the side of a central staircase. There was a closed door to the right of the shelves.
A look through the other big window revealed the kitchen. Another back door filled the corner between the end of the kitchen worktop and the staircase wall. An old-fashioned enamelled iron cooker stood on the hearth in the end wall beyond ...