When we lived in England the only empty houses and cottages were those which were up for sale...I don't recall ever seeing an empty property which had simply been left.
People who undertook house clearances were commonplace...they'd go into the home of an elderly person at the request of the relatives to literally clear the house out...of furniture and ornaments and bedding...it would all go and be sorted out for resale.
But the west of Ireland is different altogether. House clearances are unheard of...everything unwanted by the family just stays where it is until such time the place is sold or decays gradually over time...
And the question of actual ownership is fraught with problems...there may not be any living relatives in Ireland...they might live in America or Australia and haven't a jot of interest in a tumbledown two roomed cottage on the edge of a bog which belonged to a Great Aunt they'd never met.
So the cottage is left...no proof of ownership means it cannot be sold. Some empty places date back to the Great Famine when families fled starvation on the coffin ships...they intended to return some day, but that day never came...now there is just a mouldy plaster statue of the Holy Mother standing on the mantelpiece and perhaps a dog's collar on a nail behind the door...
We have acquaintances who own an entire townland...when they bought their remote hilltop farm twenty odd years ago for the pennies that lurked in the settee...included in the sale were six cottages grouped together in an L-shape at the bottom of the hill...derelict for many years, they sit there as a bitter reminder of the days when the occupants had to flee a country rife with typhus and lack of food.
Anyone who may have known those people are long gone now of course...it is thought they might have worked for the folk in the two storey across the road...but that house has changed hands over the years and no-one is certain who owned it or what occupation they followed...
Pre-Famine cottages were owned by those who lived in the big house...it was only much later that farmhands were in a position to build their own places on a small amount of land which they could call their own...
What astounded me when viewing the old places before we bought our first cottage was the sheer amount of goods left behind. Iron bedsteads which would make a small fortune in an antique shop in England...three legged stools with wooden pegs to hold the legs on...the great old dressers standing proud against the back wall, with a chicken coop at the bottom and goose feather dusters still in situ...sometimes there were small ornate glass fronted cabinets with a selection of mementoes on the shelves inside...an ashtray from Knock...a little plastic bottle of Holy water...a favoured and treasured Christmas Card...a sepia photograph of a young man in uniform.
And always...in every single cottage was the inevitable poorly executed painting of Christ of the Bleeding Heart and the plaster Madonna, her bright blue robes faded with time and damp and speckled with fly spots.
I wanted to gather all those treasures up and care for them and look after them for ever...Padraig thought I was plain silly altogether and wasted little time telling me so...he used to take the best bits...the flat irons and the cauldrons...the horse harness and the three legged stools for display in the 'pubs he frequented.
There were feral cats and their litters of kittens in the outhouses and walking sticks cut from the hedgerow in the barns...
But there was never a sense of doom or disaster...never so much as a hint of the troubles those people left behind them when they walked for hour upon hour to the nearest port...just an almost gentle acceptance.
I rather think that in England those cottages would have long been raided by antique dealers looking for something to sell on at an vastly inflated price...here they sit quietly enough among the dilapidated buildings...the thatch long gone and the replacement tiles lying in broken heaps...home now to wild cats and foxes with a rightful owner somewhere in Texas or Arkansas...oblivious to his birthright.
I was spending an afternoon some time ago with a couple of others looking for a bunch of donkeys in a wood...we came across a small farm...net curtains at the windows...the sink heaped with dishes waiting to be washed up...the sheds and barns filled with sheer delights...a cheese press which crumbled into dust when we tried to move it...donkey panniers were the same and as a bonus were filled with mouse's nests...tiny pink creatures we scooped up frantically...there were wagon wheels and skillets and shoe and boot lasts...
Another time, when I was staying with a friend high up in the mountains, we came across a tiny cottage...there was a wind up gramophone and heaps of old records and a gorgeous little glass fronted cabinet filled with sea shells...a ladder lead to the 'upstairs' where there was an iron bedstead and a straw mattress...we wanted to bring everything away with us. A few months later we went past that cottage again...it had been knocked and in its place was an horrendous modern monstrosity...there was the inevitable heap of rubble and rubbish waiting to be cleared away...with the wind-up gramophone squashed up in the middle...the little cabinet was but firewood...and the old iron bedstead was stuck in the hedge.
Maria looked at me and I at her and she drove on towards the ocean where we walked for miles out of pure temper.