A Long Walk Through Time

Catherine Dowling

Outside the enormous window of the hotel restaurant, rain pours down in dense, monsoon-like sheets that have been falling since before dawn. We’re surrounded by mountains, but I can see them only as hulking shadows behind the enveloping grayness. I nibble at pastries, try the muesli. Around 10 am, the downpour becomes a drizzle, and the monochrome terrain takes on a faint green tinge. I know if I wait long enough, the veil of gray will lift to reveal a panorama of mountain and valley; what I don’t know is that it will also reveal a story that reaches across three centuries and two continents.

So, I wait and watch. An hour later, when the sun bursts through the blanket of cloud, I’m rewarded for my vigilance; the land is transformed into a panoply of every shade of green imaginable, dazzling and intense it seems surreal. I grab my camera and my umbrella and head out of the hotel.

I’m at a conference in Delphi, County Mayo, on the west coast of Ireland. I’m from Ireland, but I’ve grown so used to the red and ochre vastness of New Mexico where I live that the closeness of the mountains feels momentarily claustrophobic. Cushiony green, they draw you upwards. There’s a promise of mystery, an alluring hint of wildness waiting at the top. But I take an educated guess that all that greenery floats on a bed of waterlogged turf. If you don’t know which tufts of grass to step on, you can be sucked knee-deep into the murky brown bog. I leave the mountains to the sheep.

Delphi is at the southern end of the glacial Doolough Valley. The only way into or out of the place is the tiny, two-lane R335 road snaking past the hotel on its way north to Clew Bay, where John Lennon once owned an island. The surrounding villages and townlands have names like Thullabaun, Cloonamanagh, Killadoon, Derryheigh, words that lilt and sing and sometimes twist the tongue, which is why the name Delphi stands out. My hotel, the Delphi Resort, seems isolated, but I know around a few bends of the R335 lies Delphi Lodge, a more old-money affair that I want to visit before it starts to rain again.

I follow the road north to an old bridge that crosses the Bundorragha River. A man looks over the stone wall into the river; presumably, the owner of the small van parked close enough to the road to get clipped by passing traffic, if there were any passing traffic.

“The salmon are running,” he says without looking at me.

He’s right. Spawning fish glint just beneath the surface, racing instinctively towards their past. The Oscar-winning movie, The Quiet Man was filmed in these parts in 1951. One of the most famous scenes takes place on a bridge like this one; a brooding John Wayne hears the voice of his dead mother leading him back to his ancestral homestead and into the arms of tempestuous Maureen O’Hara. I glance at the man to my left. Not as tall as John Wayne, certainly, but then I’m no Maureen O’Hara.

“I must come back with me rod,” he grunts, eyes down, and heads for the van.

Oh well, the movie was silly anyway. I move on.

A small lake, Fin Lough, is visible over the wild red fuchsia that lines the roadside. On the far side, a couple of small, white fishing boats bob gently against the backdrop of a sheer emerald slope. I stop, arrested by the intensity of the color, the reward for enduring all that rain. Delphi Lodge, my destination, lies just ahead at the end of a curving, tree-lined drive, its grounds open to walkers. The building’s elegant floor-to-ceiling windows reflect a panorama of lake and valley and the ever-changing weather. I pause to read the brochure I picked up somewhere, probably in Dublin.

The lodge, now a hotel, was built in the early 19th century as a sporting retreat for Lord Altamont, the 2nd Marquess of Sligo, an often-absentee lord who spent much of the year in London. The Delphi estate stretches to over 1,000 acres—in Ireland, a substantial amount of land. The Greek god, Zeus, decreed Delphi on the southern slopes of Mount Parnassus to be the center of the world. Lord Altamont, I read, is the one who, Zeus-like, named his lodge after the center of the world because he thought the Doolough Valley resembled Delphi in Greece. The house I’m looking at is not the original Lodge, but its elegant lines and symmetrical proportions are beautiful.

A man walks ahead of me. He’s elderly, in his 80s perhaps, but solidly built. He wears a dark wool suit, the kind that lasts forever, the kind you can’t get anymore. The jacket is shiny in spots and creased with the bending and straightening of his body over the years. I remember as a child, every old farmer seemed to live in a suit like that. His black and white Collie walks at his side, a hint of stiffness in her gait. In dog years, they’re probably the same age.

Breá, bog,” he mutters as I pass him. I wonder if all the men in these parts are parsimonious with words. I’m surprised at the language, though; this isn’t a Gaeltacht, an Irish-speaking area. But his two words are spot on. Now that the sun has come out, it is a fine summer day, and the air is soft on the skin.

I want to reply, but my grasp of Irish is so weak that I can't remember the correct response. “How old is your dog?” I ask instead, in English.

The dog is eleven. Not quite as old as her master, but they’re both sprightly for their age. I tell him I’m staying in the hotel down the road. He tells me they’re from an tuaisceart, the north, which could mean anywhere, taking a stroll “to stretch the animal’s legs.” We walk the path together past the lake, into the trees. The ground is spongy and pungent from rain, an earthy, wholesome smell of things dying and things growing. I try to fill in the silences that my companion seems perfectly comfortable with, but I struggle to form complete sentences in Irish. He picks up on the trace of American in my accent and asks where I’m living.

“Indian country,” he pronounces when I tell him Albuquerque. It makes a change from the “Is it really like Breaking Bad?” that I usually get.

Inspired perhaps by our proximity to the ghost of John Wayne, I jump to the myopic conclusion that the only way he could know about the Native American population of New Mexico—there are 19 native pueblos in the state—is through cowboy movies. “You like westerns?” I ask.

“I read,” he says so casually that for a moment, I’m not sure he said anything at all. It’s the rebuke I deserve. I reach down to pet the dog, embarrassed, while the silence stretches ahead of us.

“They come here, you know,” he says as we round a slight bend. I’ve no idea what he’s talking about.

“Indians! They come here. The Famine Walk,” he inclines his head towards the Lodge, now hidden behind a wall of leaves that moves in the breeze. I sense some exasperation with my ignorance. “They walked from Louisburgh to here during the famine. The Indians come for the commemorations. The Choctaw.”

Now he’s beginning to make sense. The Great Hunger, an Gorta Mór, began in 1845 when the potato crop failed. A mold called Phytophthora infestans, seen first in New York in 1843, caused the tubers to rot in the ground before they could be harvested. Accounts from the era talk about the stench emanating from the potato fields and emaciated typhus-ridden corpses lying by roadsides. Frederick Douglass, the American abolitionist and former slave, toured Ireland in 1845, promoting his autobiography, and was shocked by the poverty he witnessed. By the time the famine ended in 1850, nearly a million people had died from starvation or disease. There were many forced Famine Walks. People walked to find food at soup kitchens; they walked to find employment in one of the “workhouses” managed by the local Poor Law Union or walked to ports in Dublin or Cork where they boarded ships for New York or Grosse-Île in Canada.

But where do the Choctaw from Oklahoma fit in?

“They gave us money,” he says. I wait for more, but nothing comes.

At another bend in the path, he calls the dog and turns back in the direction from which we came. “She gets sore from walking,” he explains, then adds, “They have computers in that hotel of yours. Look it up.” He raises his hand slightly as he walks away, “Slán.”

Slán leath,” I say to his back, remembering how to say goodbye.

I continue walking until the clouds thicken overhead. As I speed past Fin Lough on the way back to the hotel, the green and blue of land and lake retreat once more into gray. I make it back before the rain starts and open my laptop.

I’ve studied the famine—what Irish person hasn’t?—but to me, as an undergraduate, it was a tragedy that belonged to another century, part of the history of the British occupation that my generation was decisively moving on from. Yet, these new dimensions— Delphi Lodge, Native Americans—intrigue me. They certainly didn’t appear in my college texts. When I type “famine walk Mayo” into the search engine, Google is more forthcoming.

In the 1790s, before building the lodge, Lord Altamont ordered the construction of a village about 12 miles north of Delphi. He named it Louisburgh after a town in Nova Scotia. The potato blight hit many places in Europe, including Britain. Only in Ireland did it cause wide-scale famine. Throughout the famine, boatloads of food left Ireland for England and far-flung parts of the British Empire, food sold to pay rent to landlords like Lord Altamont, food the British government refused to stop exporting. The peasants who worked the land were forced to rely almost exclusively on the potato. Mayo was one of the most potato-dependent counties in the country. By 1849, the well-designed little village of Lousiburgh and the surrounding area had been decimated by four years of famine.

On March 30, 1849, Colonel Hogrove and Captain Primrose from the Poor Law Union passed through Louisburgh. The Poor Law Union administered welfare to the poor. Hogrove and Primrose were supposed to assess the eligibility of the peasantry to receive a few pounds of grain. They told the people of the area to report to them in Delphi Lodge early on the 31st for the assessment.

Estimates vary, but as many as 600 people, adults, and children walked overnight from Lousiburgh to Delphi. The smoothly paved N335 didn't exist in 1849, so the hungry, often barefoot peasants trudged through sleety, mist-shrouded Doolough Pass. The next day, they were sent away from the Lodge empty-handed. Estimates of the number of people who died on the walk vary, but it was likely in the hundreds. The first Mayo Famine Walk commemorating the tragedy was organized in 1988 and has taken place every May ever since. But what of the Choctaw?

The Smithsonian Magazine online explains the connection. Fifteen years before the Irish famine began, over 4,000 miles away in Mississippi, the Choctaw tribes that my taciturn companion mentioned signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, ceding the last of their tribal lands to the United States. Between 1831 and 1833, over 20,000 Choctaw walked the 500-mile Trail of Tears to new land in Oklahoma. Thousands died on the way, more perished while struggling to set up homes in the new Indian Territory. Yet in 1847, Choctaw elders somehow got word that people were starving to death in Ireland. In the midst of their own desperate poverty, they collected $710 to send to Ireland for famine relief.

I watch a YouTube video of Chief Hollis Roberts of the Choctaw Nation as he hiked past Doo Lough in 1990. The day is bright and blustery, and as he walks, Roberts is interviewed about his own people's Trail of Tears. I am so moved by the Choctaw Nation's generosity that I decide to forego the last day of the conference and walk some of the trail myself.

I start the morning with the hotel’s more than adequate breakfast, pack snacks, and a bottle of water on top of the rain gear in my backpack. Not exactly an authentic 1849 experience.  I briefly consider leaving the pack behind but think better of it.

The day is bright and warm, in the high 70s, perfect for walking. I cross the bridge again—no salmon today—and take the road past the Lodge. Rhododendrons, fat and waxy, crowd together on the ditches with fuchsia, grass, and an intense green moss. Plants are abundant here. Wild ferns uncurl beneath the canopy of trees, and something green seems to burst from every inch of ground. But as I move north, past stone cottages and tiny marked-off fields, the vegetation thins out. By the time I catch sight of Doo Lough, the land is bare of trees and fields, just grass, bog cotton, and tufts of heather sweeping up the mountains on both sides of the lake.

The Doo in Doo Lough comes from the Irish dubh, meaning black. Clouds move across the sky, and where they block the sun, the lake does appear inky black and uninviting. But when the clouds pass, the water turns dark blue, rippling and sparkling in the sunshine. The land here is untamed, and through gaps in the mountains, I catch glimpses of other empty valleys and imagine other isolated mountain lakes.

It’s a lonely place, but in the clear morning light, I find it uplifting—and difficult to imagine what it was like on that frigid night in March 1849. So, I decide to endure a little hardship. I take off my hiking boots and socks. The road is cool and a little rough, but my foot comes down on some pebbles every so often. The pain they cause is out of proportion to their size. I stop to dip my feet in a little stream that rushes down from the mountains sinking beneath the road on its way to the lake. The water is cold but soothing. I decide to end the half-hearted experiment in hardship, put my shoes back on and keep walking.

The day is so beautiful, the land so absorbing, that I almost miss the famine memorial just north of the lake. It’s slightly elevated on what looks like limestone with a small parking space in front of it. The monument is a large piece of gray stone carved into the shape of a crucifix. It resembles the Celtic stone crosses that can be found all over Ireland, but where they are decorated with intricate, interlaced patterns, this cross is crude and unadorned. It seems appropriate. The inscriptions on the base, however, are not what I expect.

The plaque on the north side of the memorial tells me it was erected by AFrI, Action From Ireland, an organization that works to influence social justice and human rights policy in Ireland and abroad, and was unveiled in 1994 by Karen Gearon. That’s a name I remember. She was a shop steward in Dunnes Stores, one of Ireland’s biggest supermarket chains. In 1984, in protest against apartheid, she and ten colleagues refused to handle South African produce. Their strike lasted nearly three years, transforming public opinion until the Irish government finally banned the importation of produce from South Africa.

       The inscription on the southern side reads, "In 1991 we walked AFrI's Great Famine Walk at Doolough. And soon afterward we walked the road to freedom in South Africa," a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The front plaque says, “To commemorate the hungry poor who walked here in 1849 and walk the third world today. Freedom for South Africa." It's followed by a quote from Gandhi, "How can men feel honored by the humiliation of their fellow beings?”

I sit on the rocks and pull out of my pack the pages I printed late last night. I read about all the people who have walked this road: members of the Choctaw Nation, Desmond Tutu, Vedran Smailovic, the Cellist of Sarajevo, the children of Chernobyl, Kim Phúc, the little girl running naked and burned by napalm in the haunting Vietnam War photograph. This, I realize, is more than a commemoration of an Irish tragedy; it’s a point of connection for people from all over the world who suffer injustice.

By the time he left Ireland, Frederick Douglass believed the cause of the slave in the United States was the cause of the oppressed everywhere. But it seems to me now that the connection between people Douglass identified doesn’t just transcend nationality; it transcends time. Remembering a tragedy that happened nearly 200 years ago has agency in the present. The Dunnes Stores strikers have helped promote equality in South Africa. Irish people have walked the Trail of Tears to raise money for famine relief in Somalia; Mary Robinson, Ireland's first female president, is an honorary Choctaw chief. In gratitude for their generosity, the Irish government funds a scholarship for Choctaw youth to study in Ireland. My “get over it, move on” attitude to history is, I think, untenable.

Clouds begin to mass overhead, turning the lake black. If I hurry, I might be able to beat the rain. I put the pages away, take a quick drink of water, and begin my long walk back to Delphi.


About the Author

Catherine Dowling was born in Ireland and has divided her life between the United States and her home country. She has a Masters in History from the University of Montana and since then has worked hard to create a chequered resume that includes waitressing, quality assurance, teaching, and psychotherapy as well as writing. She has published two books: Racial Awareness (Llewellyn Worldwide), and Rebirthing and Breathwork (Piatkus, UK). Her articles have appeared in Oneing, r.kv.r.y. Quarterly Literary Journal, Positive Health, Inside Out, and more. She has lived in New York, Montana, California, and New Mexico but currently resides in Ireland.