AN AITIUIL: AN ANTHOLOGY
with the martello journal
by carmel mcmahon
A poem can root itself in the mind. In Nayyirah Waheed’s Lands, she says her mother
was her first country, the first place she ever lived. Maybe this poem engendered the line of
thinking that brought me to be sitting here at this desk, looking out over the bog-brown fields of
North Mayo, and wondering why, after having lived in so many different landscapes, this is the
one that has welcomed me home.
I moved here in November 2021 after a long emigration in the US. My partner and I
found a house on the opposite coast from where I grew up in Ashbourne, Co. Meath. It was built
as a cottage in 1860 as part of an older homestead, but the many generations who lived here
after kept adding extensions, so now it is rambling and impractical and lovely.
The Céide Fields are a short bike-ride up the road. They are a field system that has been
preserved under a blanket of bog for 6,000 years. A local man, while cutting turf in the 1930s,
uncovered stones he knew to be very old. An archeological site was formed and a visitor centre
opened in 1993, the year I left Ireland, a broke and anxious twenty-year-old, for New York City.
My parents moved to Ashbourne from Dublin in the early 1970s, when it was a village
with a population of 400. No one had any money. My mother hung bedsheets on the windows,
until curtains, not as necessary as food or fuel, could be saved up for and bought.
In my memory it rained every day. We children were always outdoors and always
seeking shelter; in the half-built houses of a new estate, in the sheds behind the old school, in a
ditch in a field. We could not wait to be sixteen, the unofficial drinking age, when we could sit
inside the warmth of the pub. We could not wait, really, a whole generation of us, to leave this
damp and dead-end land.
Once a year, while living abroad, I visited my family. Taking vacation from my
waitressing, and later, admin jobs to spend a week with them. Over a quarter of a century, I lost
touch with my hometown. My mother continued to tell me about all the latest changes: the new
houses, schools, chain-stores, pubs, restaurants, cafes, clubs, hotels, bus stops, banks,
playgrounds, hanging baskets, benches, clinics, gyms, bike paths, a cinema, a bowling alley and
a theme park. All good things, she would say, though you wouldn’t recognize a soul in the street
We walk the back roads of North Mayo. Our eyes follow the lines of dry stone walls,
blue/grey lichens, green/brown moss, yellow gorse. We talk to the neighbors about their sheep
and cows. What, they ask, is our purpose in moving here? Do we have family connections to the
place? They are surprised to hear we do not. They already think us touched for buying that old
house, so we do not push things by telling them we have never felt at home in the world, but we
dreamed of this light, these sounds, this sky.
At the Céide Fields Visitor Centre, I learn that it rains two days out of three in North
Mayo. The rain keeps the bogs healthy and forming. They are essential for the environment, not
only to nurture their immediate ecosystem, but the greater ecosystem of the planet. While bog
lands cover only three percent of the earth’s surface, they store twice as much carbon as all the
rain forests combined.
We stop to read wall text about the people who arrived here during the early Neolithic
period. They built stable dwellings, raised animals, grew crops and buried their dead within the
lines of their dry-stone walled enclosures. I pick up an earpiece and listen. It is a recording of
Seamus Heaney reciting the poem he wrote after visiting the site in 1974. Through his voice, I
descend on soft, round vowels deep into the bog and far back into the past. He identifies what
has been preserved in the peat, the stones and their metaphors, a troubled history, a tough land,
and a line of tenacity connecting the people who lived then and the people who live now.
Outside on the hill, we find what we have come to see, the bog peeled back revealing
ancient walls, a continuation of the walls we see drawn all over the landscape of North Mayo.
The sketches that assemble a portrait of the people.
Back at the old house, we prepare supper. Fusilli from the Lidl in Ballina. Afterward, we
look for a documentary on Netflix. We find Reflections about the Swedish artist, Karin Broos.
The film was made by her daughter, and it traces the complexities of their relationship; the
impact of traumas, and the distance between them. While painting a cast of her likeness, Karin
says it is strange that you can create an accurate reproduction of a person’s features but, the
resemblance might not be there, yet, a simple sketch can capture it all. I am thinking about the
parts that assemble a mother, a country, a home. And what lines might connect them to draw an
authentic resemblance to the fore?
The climate changed in Ireland around the year 3200 BCE. It became colder and wetter.
Rigid agricultural systems could not adapt, and the people left the hill. I have returned to this
country and find myself looking for their stories in the soft bog. I stand on a fragile ecosystem
that both preserves their homes, and protects our collective home for the future. This is a home in
the world where we are not connected by blood, but by the hand we accept from those who have
gone before us, and by the other hand we extend forth, to the fragile dream trying to root itself in
the minds of those yet to be born.
Carmel Maria Mc Mahon earned an MA in Liberal Arts (Biography & Memoir track) from the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. Her writing has appeared in The Irish Times, Longreads, The Humanities Review and The Roanoke Review among other places. Her first book, In Ordinary Time, will published by Duckworth Books in Feb, 2023. She lives in North Mayo with her beloved and their dogs.