I heard the first chainsaw just after the rain stopped. In Ireland, the chainsaw is just one of many instruments in the rural orchestra and over time, I had become decidedly tone deaf to most of them so I took no notice. I threw on my coat, pulled my battered old bicycle out of the equally battered old stable and set off on my daily pilgrimage to the village to buy a newspaper. The sky was a tired dirty gray, the clouds long, pink and wispy, like strands of old candy floss clinging to their discarded stick. The rain had stopped and steam was rising from the puddles in the black tarmac.
I hadn't gone far when I spotted an unfamiliar van parked in the field next to ours so I stopped to indulge my curiosity. The chainsaw started up again. I leaned my rusty steed against the hedge and one of the men in the field made his way over to me. We exchanged pleasantries until I managed to steer the conversation around to what they were doing in Ned Fitzgerald's field. He told me they were cutting the trees out of the 'lios' (an old Irish word pronounced 'liss') as Ned was planning to bulldoze it tomorrow. I maintained a calm exterior, but inside a terrible uneasiness grew as the man spoke.
A 'lios' is the site of a dwelling dating back around fifteen hundred years to the Iron Age. There are still many left in Ireland today. Some are impressive stone structures, but most are nothing more than a mound in the middle of a field. They are usually covered with impenetrable blackthorn and ancient twisted trees, (usually Rowan trees). The Rowan was very sacred to the pagan Irish and it was forbidden to cut one. The tradition continued over the centuries and even to this day a farmer is reluctant to cut a Rowan but can't tell you why other than to mumble "tis fierce bad luck"
A typical 'lios' was a roughly circular earth bank with a stone wall and a stout wooden fence on top. Inside the circle sat a group of round, stone houses, each one built over a stone lined pit and covered with a tall conical thatched roof. There would be a small grain store, a cattle pen and sometimes, even a well. Entry to the main house was through a low door, down into a single stone room where everyone lived together. The smaller houses were for the extended family. After they were abandoned in the early Middle Ages, the sacred trees, and a belief that the mounds were the fortress of the 'Si' ('shee', the fairies, or 'little people') kept the sites safe over the centuries.
The Irish have always been sensitive to superstition and they simply farmed around a 'lios' rather than court disaster.
As a child I used to play in a 'lios' on my grandfather's farm. My grandmother implored me to stay away from it and in a low whisper revealed the penalty for disturbing the sleep of the 'Si' was "to be snatched away to live with them beneath the ground forever". I went in mortal dread of the Si as a child and the apprehension lingered long after I grew up, but times change, television replaced storytelling, and sneering at the simple ways of country folk became fashionable. Respect for the past was now replaced by greed for a few miserable yards of farmland gained by flattening these precious relics.
I politely took my leave of the chainsaw man, retrieved my bike and turned for home, any thought of buying a newspaper gone. All I could think about was my Grandmother's warning which rekindled those long forgotten childhood fears. Destroying a lios was still powerful magic to many, and would have greatly disturbed Ned's neighbors had he told them of his plans. It also explained his unusually quiet demeanor at the weekly gathering of neighbors in Davey Joe Gorman's shed the previous Sunday.
As I cycled along I decided I would talk to Ned, try and reason with him, or at least find out what was prompting the action. I pedalled hard, shooting past my own gateway and giving a brief wave to a puzzled looking Davey Joe who was in his shed next door, as usual, tinkering with his perennially broken combine harvester.
Ned was in his yard as my bike slithered to a tentative halt on the combination of wet concrete and loose cow manure. He tried to dodge into the cowshed but I perceived his intentions and called out to him as he vanished into the dark interior and after a second or two, his head, wearing a curious leather hat with wooly earflaps reluctantly appeared in the doorway.
"Oh, errr.. tis yerself Dan, I didn't see you there.. how's things..?"
He mumbled, his watery blue eyes darting around the yard as if hoping something or someone would turn up and rescue him from my presence.
"Not too bad Ned, not too bad at all thanks. Yourself.?" I began the usual tedious business of tiptoeing round the subject of my visit until all the proprieties had been covered. I asked about the farm, he asked about Geraldine and the new baby, we both commented on how dry the summer had been and it was about time we had a bit of rain and what to make of the new curate, singing at mass with a guitar.
"Sure..sure.. did you ever see the like?" Ned stammered, "Jaysus.. a guitar...wh..what.. next?, We'll all be playin' fuckin' tambourines when they take up the collection is it ?"
He was getting more and more agitated and the curate's guitar wasn't the reason. He knew what I had come about. I was the only neighbor that had a border to his field and could see what was happening to the lios. I decided to tread carefully and opened with an innocent enquiry.
"I see you're doing a bit of clearing up in the field behind the house?"
"I am, and what of it.?" Came the sharp reply..
No reason Ned, no reason, I just wondered why that's all."
"Why... Why? Ned thundered. "Can a man not do as he pleases on his own land now..? Is that the way of it.?"
I could feel the conversation rapidly swinging from neutral to hostile and no amount of verbal ballet would avoid a confrontation so I decided to come to the point before Ned got any worse.
"Look Ned, I'm not saying anything of the sort, you have the right to do what you like on your land of course, but we both know that's a lios, an ancient monument thousands of years old, it's protected by the government, you can't just flatten it, it's against the law if nothing else."
Ned had been holding back and now he let me have it. I was told in no uncertain terms what I could do with my law and my 'English ideas' and how Irishmen had fought hard for the freedom to live as they liked on their own land and no law or nosey neighbor was going to tell him what to do or when to do it.
"Now I'll ask you to get out of this yard before I lose me temper altogether"
I made one last appeal, against my better judgment but I had run out of ideas., "You know those places are cursed Ned, no good will come of it." I ventured as I picked up my bike from the concrete floor and brushed the wet manure off the saddle.
Ned paused, a haunted look crossed his face briefly and then the steely resolution returned.
"The fairies is it? He roared with laughter "You're threatening me with the fairies?
"Go 'way and grow up for yourself man, those things are for children. I'll get a clear acre out of that place and almost a hundred a year from the EU for keeping it farmable, what fairy is going to give me that kind of money? Now be off with you."
"Suppose I bought it off you?" I said surprising myself with my comment..
"What?" said Ned turning back from the cow shed.
"I said, suppose I bought the field and leased it back to you? You'd get money and the lios would stay where it is"
"How much.?" Said Ned, all the animosity in his face gone, replaced by a much more disturbing sly grin.
"I don't know, what do you think is fair?" I muttered beginning to get a sinking feeling worse than an elephant in a swamp and regretting I had mentioned the subject at all.
"Well that's five acres of prime dairy land, t'won't be cheap but as you're a neighbor ,.. I'd take five thousand, not a penny less, and I'd want it leased back to me for twenty years at fifty an acre "
" Fifty an acre, even the EU is paying more than that." I grumbled.
"Well they aren't as bothered about a heap of stones as much as you are, and that's my price"
"I'll need time to organize the cash" I said casually, but mentally wondering what method Geraldine was going to use to kill me when I told her I'd just spent five grand we didn't have.
Ned walked away without another word, I was left standing in the yard desperately hoping it would all work out.
As I cycled home I decided I wouldn't tell Geraldine what I'd done just yet, there was no need to say anything until the details had been worked out ... (and I had time to arrange a one-way ticket to Brazil or choose a nice spot to be buried for when she'd finished with me)
I went to visit my secret purchase that evening after dinner. The chainsaw crew had packed up for the day. I was distraught to see they had cut most of the ancient trees on the little mound leaving it bare and exposed but the bulldozer remained on it's trailer unused.
I stood and watched the tired sun sink behind the mountains across the valley. It's last feeble rays finding a brief welcome in the raindrops clinging to every blade of grass, turning the field into a shimmering sea of silver then gold, and finally, as it slipped below the horizon, dark green velvet. I waited alone in the twilight, listening to the fading birdsong, my heart racing, still not really knowing why I was so anxious about "a heap of stones" as Ned had put it. I scrambled up the newly exposed earth bank, surprised at how robust it was after a millennium. Standing on the top and looking across the mound, I could make out four distinct circular depressions inside, each about fifteen feet across, classic Iron Age dwellings. Around the houses, the severed stumps of their former guardians shone naked white, bleeding the last of their sacred lifeblood into the ground. As darkness closed in, I lowered myself into the largest pit. The stone lining had collapsed inwards over the centuries, and had filled the space almost halfway to the top. I seated myself on a large moss covered stone. My eyes grew tired and heavy as the dusk increased. I offered no resistance, and they closed gratefully as I sat quietly in the stillness. I breathed slowly in an effort to calm myself. The smell of fresh sawdust mingled with rotten vegetation and the rising funk of centuries without sunlight filled my nostrils. I began to relax, breathe more easily, as if certain that there was nothing to fear now. I felt a deep inner calm, followed by a feeling of constancy, a sense that life had been lived in that place for longer than I could ever imagine. There had been pain and sorrow and joy. The primogenitors of my race... my people, lived and died there. They worshipped their gods, ate their crops, conceived their children and mourned their dead in those same stone houses.
A window somewhere deep inside me had opened briefly and I experienced a great longing for something I knew was long gone, and far away. Slowly, I opened my eyes and stood up. It was raining and I was soaking wet and shivering. I felt both exhausted and elated. I felt something else too... I felt ashamed. I was ashamed that a simple people, who knew so much about the afterlife, but so little about the world around them, had left us this tiny monument. They trusted us, their clever children, who know everything about our world, and nothing about an afterlife. They gave us the only thing left to mark their passing, and we were going to destroy it. I felt sick to my stomach as I fumbled for my flashlight, turned it on and made my way home.
I sat up half the night, unable to sleep remembering the desecration of the trees. I decided to show that I at least cared, and would leave an offering to apologize for our ignorance and ask for forgiveness. I knew it was a silly gesture but for some reason it gave me consolation. I promised myself I would plant new sacred trees, Rowan, Oak and Mountain Ash. The spirits would understand and all would be well.
I still couldn't sleep and I decided to visit the lios again. I threw an overcoat over my pajamas, stepped into my wellingtons and set off for the field. It was still dark as I left with the gift under my arm...a small bowl of apples. My grandmother had told me long ago, that apples had special healing significance to the ancient Irish. I looked up at the lightening sky and decided I would leave the offering in the main house on the rock where I had sat. Dawn broke and as I reached the gate into the field, my spirits had begun to lift, until I saw the bulldozer.
Three men stood in a tight group in front of the giant blade of the metal monster, their shoulders hunched against the chill of dawn. The blade's dull steel glint reflected the first light of morning into their faces and I saw they were not the same men I met yesterday. I bent down and hid the bowl of apples by the gatepost on my way into the field and ambled over to the group.
"Well men, how's it going?' I asked in a half-hearted attempt at conversation.
"Ah sure, I've been worse" came the equally half-hearted reply.
I didn't recognize any of them and it dawned on me that they would have to be strangers, as no local would risk the wrath of his ancestors with a desecration of that magnitude.
"Is Ned Fitz about?" I asked casually.
"And who might you be?" came the usual reply.
I'm his neighbor, I live over there" I waved vaguely in the direction of the house, unwilling to be more specific for some reason.
"He said he'd be along directly but we could get started without him" a small dark man with a wickedly pointed face in green overalls said to me between rolling a cigarette and repeatedly spitting on an old oilcan that was lying in the ditch and happened to be in range. He finally hit his target with a dull metallic thud, looked over at me and then pulled himself up onto the running board of the yellow metal monster and opened an inspection hatch over the engine.
"Did you speak to him this morning" I managed to ask doing my best to hide my horrified expression.
"We did", the man said, "Sure we're only after havin' the breakfast with him"
"And did he not tell you he sold the field to me yesterday? I asked impatiently.
He opened the oil cover, inserted a battered tin funnel, and emptied a large red plastic container of oil into the depths of the engine. The sickly smell of the new oil was making me nauseous but I determined to wait for an answer.
"Indeed and he did not then" said the pointy faced man as he threw the empty container into the ditch to join it's comrades, his tone clearly indicating he didn't like what he was hearing.
"We're here to do a job and you're in our way mister" said a burly man in a black reefer jacket. He was meticulously sharpening the teeth of a chainsaw, and spoke without looking up at me. Things were getting awkward and I felt I wasn't being taken very seriously. (The fact I was standing in the middle of a field at the crack of dawn in striped pajamas and wellington boots may have had something to do with that however.)
I began to explain that Ned had sold the land to me and the clearance would not now be happening but my words fell on deaf ears. The three men continued their preparations in silence. Finally one of them turned and pointed behind me saying, "Lookit mister, I'm not the man you should be talking to, that's him there".
I turned to see Ned Fitz crossing the field towards us, his hands in his pockets and his head hunched deep between his shoulders. Ned's steps grew shorter when he spotted me, as if hoping to delay his eventual arrival long enough for me to depart.
"Well Dan, ye're up early" he declared with as much enthusiasm as he could muster when he finally arrived.
"Just as well by the looks of it Ned" I replied with equal disdain.
"How so?" said Ned, turning to the group of men and gesturing to them to get started.
"It looks like the men here didn't get the message that the digging is off."
"Is that the way, and where did you hear that now?" said Ned tugging idly at the chains holding the bulldozer onto the trailer.
"You agreed to sell me this field yesterday don't you remember?" I said anxiously.
Ned grunted, "I remember some wild talk about five thousand pounds and then some more about needing time, but no handshake or checkbook so I decided I'll keep the land and do what I want with it."
"So there's nothing I can do or say to make you change your mind? Surely you know it's against the law Ned." I pleaded.
He turned to face me, looking squarely into my eyes, his jaw clenched tight and without saying another word, he dared me to make a fight of it.
I knew it was pointless to go any further. I would lose the argument and turn a good neighbor against me with nothing to show for it.
"There is nothing more to be said, 'Tis my land, and I'll have no one, not you or the government or anyone telling me what I'll do or won't do with it. You can report me to the law if you like. He gestured towards the lios with his grubby thumb, "I'll flatten this thing and then pay the fine, 'tis all the one to me. Now, that's all I've to say about it so if ye wouldn't mind stepping to one side these men have work to do."
He looked me up and down, "And I'm sure your missus wouldn't want ye standing around here all morning in your pajamas, a man could catch a fierce bad sniffle dressed like that."
He was right of course, there was nothing I could do. The fine in those days was 100 pounds. The management of historic structures by the state was virtually non-existent. Ancient heaps of stone were all over Ireland, thousands of them, the only thing protecting them was superstition, now that was on the wane and nobody missed a pile of stones in the middle of a field. Besides, the EU subsidy he would get for the extra acreage would easily cover the cost of the fine.
Nowadays the fine for destruction of a listed monument is over ten thousand pounds.
One of the benefits of EU membership for Ireland was the imposition of listed monument legislation and hefty fines for any damage caused to any structure on the national list. Sadly it came too late for the little dwellings in the field behind Clifford.
The bulldozer started up, and with a cloud of blue smoke jolted it's way off the trailer and clanked across the field to squat throbbing at the base of the lios, it's vast horsepower waiting to be unleashed. I turned and walked away, unable to bring myself to watch the destruction. As I reached the gate, I saw the little bowl of apples, and scooping them up I turned and sprinted back to the lios. The stone wall obscured my movements. Ned and his men saw nothing as I clambered up the crumbling stonework and dropped into the main house again. I placed the bowl on the large rock in the middle of the room and only managed to croak "I'm sorry" before the grinding roar from the bulldozer told me the destruction had begun.
I jumped from the wall and stumbled away not once looking back, stopping only to try to wipe the mud from my torn pajamas and wonder how I was going to explain the state of them to Geraldine.
The lios was destroyed, the stones used to fill in a ditch and within a month the ground had settled leaving no sign that anything had ever been there. The neighbors were horrified, but in keeping with the code of solidarity between farmers, nobody ever dared to mention it to Ned's face. However In private, the talk was of dire consequences for Ned and his family for such wanton sacrilege. Time passed and a year or so later Ned suffered a particularly nasty stroke. Not enough to kill him, it left his face partially paralyzed, his mouth drooping on one side and his speech slurred for the rest of his life.
I had left Clifford by then, but from what I could gather, the general consensus locally was that Ned had paid the price for "not leaving well enough alone" and I certainly couldn't argue with that.