It was a tithe cottage, perched on its own hillside, five or six acres of land spilling down to a rugged stretch of shoreline. A small wild, beautiful, isolated ruin dating to pre-Famine times, late 18th century at least, with foundations that likely went back much further.
The road in from Reentrisk to Allihies was narrow and full of twists, a boreen built with horses in mind, and when the house came into view below and on my right the noon-time light seeped momentarily chalky through the bluish knots of rain-cloud, and the ocean beyond the fall of land stretched off into the distance as a soft, dusky blanket pocked with the dapple of an entire submerged galaxy.
My world capsized.
I parked on the verge, and took the steep incline on foot. The cottage was last occupied some time between the wars, and had stood empty and abandoned to the elements ever since. It had never been wired or plumbed, and there was clear evidence along the gable end of structural collapse, possibly at foundation level. Conditions were beyond bad, with crumbling plaster, smashed windows, and the stench of things dead and rotten. But I didn’t care. I moved from room to room, anxious and thrilled. I could feel the stones breathe with stories. Above me, nests of young rats, disturbed by a human presence after being allowed to get by for so long without, screamed and chased frantic circles in the remaining thatch. And in the small back bedroom, the one that looked westward out onto the ocean, the whitened remnants of something bigger, dog or fox, lay as a kindling of bones splayed in the natural order of its undisturbed slump.
The work involved in returning this place to some habitable state was a daunting prospect, but I could see beyond the problems. As far as I was concerned, its true worth went higher than mere stone and mortar.
Out here, you really did feel cut off from the rest of existence. The sense of isolation was that immense. In fact, Allihies was only a few minutes by car, a small village but with a decent sized shop, a post office, a choice of pubs. More than enough to get by. And for bigger needs, there was always Castletownbere, the nearest town of any real consequence, probably not more than half an hour of bad road back along the southern side of the peninsula. But out here, two kinds of reality seemed to exist. There were the facts, and then there was something else. Within a minute of seeing the place, you got the sense that when a storm blew even the least gale, the walls closed very quickly in. This might be the 21st century, but civilisation out here felt barely the thickness of a piece of gauze removed from myth.
No artist could begin to hope for more than what I’d found: spectacular views of beaten hills and ocean, huge skies and, best of all, the light, the strange spectral light, peculiarly heavy and in a constant state of flux. Just breathing this air made me want to cry and laugh at the same time. Here the world had simplified itself down to rocks, ocean, sky, wind and rain; these because everything else was fleeting, and you felt overwhelmed by such a sense of permanence all around, by the realisation that what could be seen in any one moment and in any direction had always existed and always would. Holy men built monasteries in places like this, trying to capture even part of the alchemy that coaxed time into standing still. The immensity of so much wildness brought on a kind of melancholy, it made you feel small beneath greater things, but it also made you feel oddly and fully alive.
I’m not sure whether this is a ghost story or a tale of unrequited love. Certainly, the house haunts me, and the place. It’s with me always, and if I wasn’t a penny above impoverished, I’d own it now. But maybe some things are too good to own. For now, the best I can manage is a visit, once or twice a year, just to see that it’s still standing, still waiting for me. It is.
* Billy O’Callaghan is the author of three volumes of short stories: In Exile, In Too Deep and The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind. In 2010, he was the recipient of an Arts Council Bursary for Literature. His stories have won and been shortlisted for numerous honours, including the George A Birmingham Award, the Molly Keane Creative Writing Award, the Seán O’Faolain Award, the RTE Radio 1 Francis MacManus Award, and the Faulkner/Wisdom Award.