I went along on a wonderfully scenic drive on the narrow, twisty roads of Maghery near Dunfanaghy. Mount Errigal rose in the distance like an ancient ghost guarding its territory-omnipresent-ever there. When I saw it, I understood why the Druid tribes in 50 BC would have thought it a living being-a great silent god who watched. It is said that the Druids took their vows by observing nature. For the high priest, the chief druid, his strength came in the form of silence, like Errigal, the majestic silent one. Druids had no books, no missionaries, no one to tell them that a greater power existed in the Universe, yet they knew. For me, they are the original masters of the universe. They held secrets of magic (a timely clap of thunder could work wonders) on the non-believers, of life, of birth, and of death. But most of all, they worshipped-and most often found-beauty in all things.
Every once in a while, during the drive around Maghery, we'd meet a car coming in the opposite direction. With few pull offs on these winding roads along the cliffs of the seaside, there were times when I couldn't see the beauty of anything because my eyes were shut tight and my hands white knuckled in a death grip against the seat.
We passed an ancient tower, one side in crumbling ruins. Our friends in the car ahead of us stopped and pointed. "This is the tower at Maghery. No one knows what it was but isn't it beautiful?" Yes, despite the decrepit state on the one side, the other is well preserved and stands proudly as a mighty giant.
Stony hillsides rose hundreds of feet along one side of the road, sheer cliffs over the other, the hallmarks of the exquisite Sheephaven Bay. Then we took an inland turn onto an even narrower road dotted with large stones that made driving around them quite a challenge. We stopped and got out of the car, headed for our destination: The Famine Walls of Maghery.
During the Plantation of the 1600s, the British took land owned and farmed by the Irish for generations. Suddenly, the families became tenants. They were forced to pay rent to British landlords for land they'd owned and tended for years. Some landlords evicted the families outright, forcing whole communities off their lands. One (John Adair) was the infamous landlord who noted for evicting 66 families in the dead of winter. Many of the women, children, and elderly died by the sides of the roads.
But there were others who were more compassionate. They created work for tenant farmers (former landowners who, with a single pen stroke, lost everything). When the blight destroyed the potato crops, there was no food to sell to earn rent money. No potatoes meant no food for human or animal. One landlord devised a plan to provide income for his tenants. He put them to work building walls....walls that served no purpose except to provide a penny a day to those who worked. The walls are 8-10 feet high, 3 feet wide, and stretch for 300 yards. Along each wall there are periodic holes built into the structures. Records say that these holes were of ancient tradition and designed to hold one thing...fingers, the fingers of tribesmen, chieftains, families of the betrothed...fingers from both parties (both sides) would be slipped into the holes to touch those of the other. In this manner, pacts were made, agreements formed, and contracts made legal.
I slipped my fingers into one of the holes. It was hard to see beauty in work that must have been so back breaking and all for a few pennies a day. The energy surrounding the walls is palpable, humbling, almost sacred, as if those who built it are standing, watching like Errigal, reminders of the beauty of the indomitable human spirit.
Written by Joy Davis - Summer of Travel 2007