the dark mystery of the Connemara region of Ireland

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It starts at the top of a mountain. Not the novel itself, but the idea for the novel. Iorras Beag is on the mountain, on the Connemara coast in County Galway. It is an unsightly lump, overgrown with prickly yellow gorse and patches of swampy bog, but the landscape is spectacular. The mountain face looks directly down on the back-to-back beaches of Dog Bay and Gortín Beach. To the east is the beautiful village of Cloch na Rón. The peninsulas of Ballyconnell and Erislan are in the north-west, and beyond them is the beginning of the Atlantic, dotted with small islands.

So far, so usually. Things only get weird when you turn away from the sea and lose sight of land. The view sweeps across an expanse of desolation that stretches as far as the Twelve Peaks mountain range in the distance. It’s nothing but bog and scrub and pockets of water and cloud shadows traveling over the land. There is a fierce beauty in the place, but something is also missing. This is a landscape with few trees.

I’m a novelist, so you’ll have to take some of what I tell you with a pinch of salt. If you go to Connemara, and take the road from Mám Cross to Clochán, you will see streams of evergreen trees in the cracks of the ground, but they look to me as if they do not belong. Clusters of nondescript deciduous trees cover islands in the lakes, like groups of refugees. There are gatherings of arboreal trees on the side of the road, individual trees bent double by the wind. A photographer could capture them, but I stand by my novelist’s understanding. What the mind registers is a vast emptiness. The place feels heavy with some dark mystery. It feels like a crime scene.

The harbor in the village of Cloch na Rón.

The harbor in the village of Cloch na Rón. Photo: Robert Harding/Alamy

Every novel begins with a haunting, an idea that is vivid but vague and won’t leave you alone. In this case, it was the treeless landscape of Connemara that impressed me. There was no narrative attached to it, just a distant feeling. If you’re a writer, you learn to follow that feeling, so I started reading up on the natural history of the area. ​​​​​​I discovered that the place was once inhabited by rich native forests. This information was being spoken in my mind by a woman’s voice, a voice overflowing with wonder. It can be difficult to separate fact from fiction.

“This whole area would be covered in trees,” she said.

“What happened to them?”

“We happened. We cut them all down.”

​​​​​​I discovered that the place was once inhabited by rich native forests

Connemara’s native forests have been gone for thousands of years, but they still hate the place. I was interested in this notion of a landscape that is forced to remember its dead, I started playing with titles. “Where Once There Were Trees” was an early one. “Memory of Trees” was another. That sense of a ghost story – how something can leave the world but not be completely absent – ​​fed into the story of the people I started writing about.

The characters I created – two sisters in their mid-30s called Cassie and Christo – are haunted by their long-dead mother’s legacy, in the same way that the Connemara landscape is haunted by its long-lost trees. The trees left a scar on the landscape in their absence, just as the death of the mother left a scar on the lives of the children she left behind.

A novel needs roots, and I found mine. I had the setting for the story. I had the characters and the plot. What I was missing was a full circle for the story to travel – a beginning and an end that would provide a sense of completion. A successful novel is like a set of model railways – it doesn’t work unless you complete a circuit, and I was missing that last crucial piece of track.

These trees were over 7,000 years old and remained submerged for thousands of years

I found it by chance, one day while reading the Irish Times. It was reported in the newspaper that an ancient forest had been discovered off the south coast of Connemara due to a storm. The report contained a photograph of a man walking on a stony beach. In the foreground were tree stumps – my trees.

I soon drove back across the country. With some difficulty, I found the beach. At first, I could only see a field of smooth, round stones and some beach debris, but then I came across peat deposits in the sand. A few more steps and I saw the first tree stump, no more than a foot high, like an elephant’s foot. It was worn as smooth as a bone, but the wood was very well preserved, and the rings were still perfectly defined. Surrendering myself to my hunters, I held out my hand to him, reverently, as you might put a hand to the face of a dead person. It was quite a move to be in the presence of something so old.

Looking around I saw many more tree stumps sticking out of the sand. A silent army of them, survivors of a vast forest of oak, pine and birch. These trees were more than 7,000 years old and remained underwater for thousands of years, until the Atlantic storm washed away sand and stone and laid them in ruins.

I knew this was the occasion my novel needed – an encouragement for my fictional sisters, now adults, to go back to the scene of their childhood and face their ghosts. The revelation of the sunken forest – something long hidden but not gone – was reflected in the lives of the characters I was writing about. His history would be revealed in the course of the story. Their dead would be exposed and examined. The title I finally settled on is – “The Home Scar” – a term for the mark that a barrel makes on a rock over time, by leaving for life and returning to the same spot each time.

Related: It can feel like the most amazing desert in the world; the wild beauty of Connemara

The journey my characters made to Connemara was a return to home, and an opportunity to make peace with the past.

At the beginning of this year, I made my own trip back to the beach of sunken trees to see if they were still there. The beauty around me was a hazard as I drove – it was hard for me to keep my eyes on the road. The landscape wore scorched winter colors. The air was smoky with cold. It looked like the aftermath of a fire. I found the place from memory and picked my way across a field and through a thick, spongy bed of seaweed to the beach.

I was preparing myself for disappointment. I knew there was a strong chance that the trees had been washed away by the sea again in the years since I last visited.

They were very surprised that they were still there, as I remembered them. They seemed friendlier this time, more like old friends than ghosts of the past. Such is the nature of history, both natural and human. It loses its menace when it is brought to light.

The Home Scar by Kathleen MacMahon is published on February 9 by Penguin

Six more books rooted in the Irish landscape

That They Could Face the Rebellion by John McGahern
This exquisite novel is set in a community living around a lake in County Leitrim where McGahern gives an account of a year in the life of a returned migrant and his wife. The book follows the stories of the people they encounter on a daily basis, but it is the remote, inland setting and the rhythms of rural life that are truly special.

The Green Road by Anne Enright
A Booker prize-winning novel from one of Ireland’s best modern writers, The Green Road is set in County Clare where a scattered family comes together to spend Christmas with their difficult mother. There’s great humor here, woven into Enright’s powerful wisdom, and a chapter on the now iconic “Christmas shop”.

Traveling in a strange land at David Park
A short, very beautiful book that follows a father’s journey through a wintry spell from Belfast to Sunderland to collect his student from his dig. Tom’s lonely drive through the empty countryside, surrounded by snow on all sides, is the quality of the quest as we learn about the tragedy that makes it so necessary for him to bring his son home.

The Vogue by Eoin McNamee
Set against a large abandoned second world war aircraft on the coast of County Down, where a woman’s body is found in a makeshift sand pit, this novel takes us deep into a sinister and serialized history. McNamee’s other works include the “Blue trilogy”, three interconnected and highly literary crime novels based on the events of life in Northern Ireland in the 1950s. McNamee is a master of dark histories and the places that create them.

In the middle of the field Mary Lavin
This collection of short stories comes from one of the best practitioners of the genre in Ireland. The title story relates to a widow who lived on a farm in County Meath in the 1950s, where she is “islanded by fields”. Written more than 60 years ago, it takes on entirely new material for the #MeToo generation.

Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry
A collection of short stories sent around counties in the west of Ireland from Sligo to Galway, it includes the joy that is Fjord of Killary. This wild take on a story, first published in the New Yorker, is a black comedy about a young man who buys an old railway hotel at an unnamed fjord, where the bleak landscape and volatile weather reflect the personalities of the locals their “great mood swings”.

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