The other day I took visitors from Galway to the castle cafe for afternoon tea. Afterwards, we undertook a private tour of the castle, as the sky darkened and three young girls beamed at us, the Americans, in excitement. The castle had been partially rebuilt, like so many castles and other fortified houses around Ireland.
In the Burren my ex studied in the shadow of a tower house built by a local, still-present family, and we lived a ten-minute walk from another tower house. These houses were testimonies to history and change, to destruction and renewal. Both had been destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s men during the 16th century English reconquest of Ireland. The English often destroyed fortified houses by knocking out stones from the foundation, causing the weakened structure to crumble, incurring much injury and death, and finally surrender or worse. Ruined in this manner, my Burren tower houses had been preserved to varying extents. The former had been fully rebuilt. Its slippy circular stairwell had a blue fisherman's rope nailed into the wall in lieu of a side rail, improvised in that modestly ingenious way I have come to expect of rural communities. At each cold dank level was a huge fireplace, which awaited a spark to wake it up, and a storyteller to recall old ways and old, much darker times. The latter stood by the sea, surrounded by houses built during the Celtic Tiger. Seeming whole and solid from afar, it yields a gaping wound on closer inspection, its ribcage exposed to the elements and worried by ravens that exploded into the sky with your approach. Confined by a manicured lawn, the ruin was an eerie reproof to the housing estate.
Now the castle in my present locality was built not by the Irish but by a Scotsman and royal courtier brought over during that terrible century of conquest to replace the banished local clan chief. A psychopath, he was well suited to the task of brutal occupation that typifies the early stages of colonialism. He killed every Catholic he discovered, sometimes inviting them to dinner before despatching them in a nearby field, where they were hung from a tree and left to rot as a warning. These deeds gained such notoriety, they entered contemporary accounts as particularly awful. Violence made this place, said Pat.
The castle, the scene of many a hanging, was also the scene of resistance. He never knew a moment of peace, said our guide as we stood in the ruins of the castle, burned down in that century by the people whose kin, friends, and neighbors he had murdered. Wind sung between broken windows, the glass long-gone over the centuries.
In the unfinished gallery, our guide showed us found artifacts (including a child’s small leather shoe), mannequins in contemporary clothing, and a lit diorama of a contemporary scene of the castle, displayed in a plexiglass box. Made in the 1990s, the diorama discloses a model of the castle with its four towers intact, a great field, and in the foreground, a group of local rebels, the ancestors of friends and neighbours, conspire in the husk of a ruined cottage.
In the felt field was a twig-and-dyed-foam tree, from which hung a miniature effigy, a 3-D likeness of a human being. I wonder if people had been hung from any of those trees in the field just beyond the castle walls, great big trees that have endured the storms of ages, trees I have come to regard as friends after a summer of evening walks around town. The guide is wry when I ask. The diorama is a model, childlike in its simple reduction of the world. Innocuous in itself, a dummy nevertheless represents all the human bodies that were wrung of life. By setting it in a 3-D scene, what is made plain, in its artless way: this place is made by violence, where every stone and tree and field has known the cry of the oppressed.
Finally we leave, exiting that shattered, raven-crowned place through the castle's cafe, which is disorientating after our history lesson: bright and warm and modern, with its staff of happy children and upstairs yoga/conference room. Afterwards we take a brisk walk around the town, passing houses and fields haunted by the ghost of another, more bloodier century.