Looking Back to Move Forward

“These days, young people are looking for meaning through authenticity,” says Dearbhaill Standún. She tends to a peat fire as we file into seats that line a traditional thatch roof house. I observe the house’s quaint interior, adorned with sprigs of sphagnum moss, wild flowers, and a St. Bridgid’s cross perched carefully on the stucco windowsill. Dearbhaill owns Cnoc Suain—25 acres of farmland turned Gaelic cultural heritage site—with her husband Troy. While she tends to soda bread, Dearbhaill explains that the cottage, built in 1825, belonged to a woman named Ellen O’Hare who reared 15 children primarily on her own. “People had to very self sufficient back then,” she remarks. I gasp, 15 children! Clearly this place has a rich history.

And a rich history Cnoc Suain has indeed.

We listened transfixed as Dearbhaill told that after she and Troy found ruins of cottages dating back to the 1660s on the property, they hoped to establish an educational foundation, giving young people like ourselves, “the inspiration to go forward, by looking back, but to not be stuck in the past.” It was immediately evident that Dearbhaill is deeply in touch with the historical habitat of Cnoc Suain. As a fluent Gaelic speaker, she works to promote teaching the language in Irish schools, fighting its stigma as a “background language.” She sang us traditional songs in Gaelic and explicated that before electricity came to Cnoc Suain in 1980, children and adults would gather around the fire to sing and tell stories.

However, being of Gaelic heritage was not always merry. During the British occupation, those who lived at or near Cnoc Suain had to resourcefully navigate their environment in order to survive, often eating seaweed and dulce for iron intake and periwinkle for protein. As Dearbhaill told this to us, I noticed many grimaces amongst my peers. She passed us plates of seaweed and dulce to try. I took two brittle green and salty smelling pieces, eyeing them carefully before popping them in my mouth. Not that bad. I was surprised and impressed by how much the earth can provide us if we just care to look.

Later that morning, Troy held a hearty amount of thrush—a reed-like plant that grows in the bog lands surrounding the site—and explained that people used to throw it onto their floors to keep mud from the ground from sticking on their feet. He also discussed the process of thatching and how, if done correctly, it can make an immensely durable roof. Fascinating, I thought. My mind wandered to images of the big, generic, boxy houses made of plastic siding, standing obnoxiously on artificially green Chemlawns back in New York. Dearbhaill is right, we can learn a lot from the past to move forward, and perhaps a starting place is reconnecting with our natural habitats—rekindling the local knowledge of our traditions, languages, and environments to create new sustainable technologies and innovations.

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