It starts at the top of a mountain. Not the novel itself, but the idea for the novel. The mountain is Errisbeg, on the coast of Connemara in County Galway. It’s an ugly lump of a thing, pocked with prickly yellow gorse and patches of swampy bog, but the landscape it commands is magnificent. The face of the mountain looks directly down on the back-to-back beaches of Dog’s Bay and Gurteen Strand. To the east is the lovely village of Roundstone. The Ballyconeely and Erislannan peninsulas are to the north-west, and beyond them lie the beginnings of the Atlantic, dotted with small islands.
So far, so normal. It’s only when you turn away from the sea and cast your eye inland that things get a little strange. The view travels across an expanse of desolation that stretches as far as the Twelve Bens mountain range in the distance. Not a thing lies between, only bog and scrub and pockets of water and the shadows of clouds traveling over the land. There’s a savage beauty to the place, but there’s also the feeling of something missing. This is a landscape strangely bereft of 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 Maam Cross to Clifden, you will see drifts of evergreen trees in the clefts of the land, but they look to me like they don’t belong. Clusters of nondescript deciduous trees huddle together on islands in the lakes, like groups of refugees. There are motley arboreal gatherings along the side of the road, lone trees bent over double by the wind. A photographer could capture them, but I stand by my novelist’s impression. What the mind registers is a vast emptiness. The place feels heavy with some dark mystery. It feels like a crime scene.
Every novel starts with a haunting, an idea that is vivid but nebulous and won’t leave you alone. In this case, it was the strangely treeless landscape of Connemara that took a hold of me. There was no narrative attached to it, only an eerie feeling. If you’re a writer, you learn to follow that feeling, so I began to read up on the natural history of the area. I discovered that the place had once been inhabited by rich native forests. This information was spoken in my mind by a woman’s voice, a voice dripping with wonder. It can be hard to separate fact from fiction.
“This whole area would have been covered by trees,” she said.
“What happened to them?”
“We happened. We chopped them all down.”
The native forests of Connemara have been gone for many thousands of years, but they haunt the place still. Fascinated by this notion of a landscape that is forced to remember its dead, I began to play with titles. “Where Once There Were Trees” was an early one. “The Memory of Trees” was another. That sense of a ghost story – how something can be gone from the world but not entirely absent – carried into the story of the people I started to write about.
The characters I created – two siblings in their mid-30s called Cassie and Christo – are troubled by the legacy of their long-dead mother, in the same way that the Connemara landscape is troubled by its long-lost trees. The trees had made their absence a scar on the landscape, just as the loss of a mother had left a scar on the lives of the children she had left behind.
A novel needs roots, and I had 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 deliver a sense of completion. A successful novel is like a model railway set – it doesn’t work unless a circuit is achieved, and I was missing that last, crucial piece of track.
I found it purely by chance, one day as I was reading the Irish Times. The newspaper reported that a storm had uncovered an ancient, drowned forest off the southern coast of Connemara. The report carried a photograph of a man walking on a stony beach. In the foreground were the stumps of trees – my trees.
I drove west across the country without delay. With some difficulty, I located the beach. At first, I could see only an expanse 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 tall, like an elephant’s foot. It was worn smooth as bone, but the wood was remarkably well preserved, with the rings still perfectly delineated. Lowering myself down on my hunkers, I touched my hand to it, reverentially, the way you might touch a dead person’s face. It was very moving to be in the presence of something so old.
Looking around me I saw that there were many more tree stumps rising out of the sand. A quiet army of them, survivors of a vast forest of oak, pine and birch. These trees were more than 7,000 years old and had remained submerged for millennia, until the Atlantic storm stripped back sand and stone and laid them bare.
I knew this was the event my novel needed – an impetus for my fictional siblings, now grownups, to go back to the scene of their childhood and confront their ghosts. The exposure of the drowned forest – something long hidden but not gone – was reflected in the lives of the characters I was writing about. Their history would be revealed in the course of the story. Their dead would be exposed and examined. The title I finally settled on – “The Home Scar” – is a term for the mark that limpets make on a rock over time, by leaving to feed and returning to the exact same spot every time.
The journey my characters made to Connemara was their return to the home scar, and an opportunity to make peace with the past.
At the start of this year, I made my own journey back to the beach of the drowned trees to see if they were still there. The beauty that surrounded me as I drove was a hazard – I found it hard to keep my eyes on the road. The landscape wore scorched winter colours. 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 the trees would have been swallowed up again by the sea in the years since I had last visited.
To my surprise they were still there, much as I had remembered them. They seemed to friend 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’s brought to light.
The Home Scar by Kathleen MacMahon is published on 9 February by Penguin
Six more books rooted in the Irish landscape
That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern
This exquisite novel is set in a community living around a lake in County Leitrim where McGahern charts a year in the lives of a returned emigrant and his wife. The book follows the stories of the people they encounter on a daily basis, but the isolated, inland setting and the rhythms of rural life are what make it really special.
The Green Road by Anne Enright
A Booker prize-nominated novel from one of Ireland’s greatest modern writers, The Green Road is set in County Clare where a scattered family come together to spend Christmas with their difficult mother. There is great humor here, steeped in Enright’s mighty wisdom, and a now-iconic chapter on “the Christmas shop”.
Traveling in a Strange Land by David Park
A short and very beautiful book that follows a father’s journey through a winter whiteout from Belfast to Sunderland to collect his student son from his digs. Tom’s solitary drive through empty countryside, surrounded on all sides by snow, takes on the quality of a quest as we learn about the tragedy that makes it so imperative that he bring his son home.
The Vogue by Eoin McNamee
Set against a vast abandoned second world war airbase on the County Down coast, where a woman’s body has been found in a shifting sandpit, this novel brings us deep into a sinister and layered history. McNamee’s other work includes the “blue trilogy”, three inter-connected and highly literary crime novels based on real-life events in 1950s Northern Ireland. McNamee is a master of dark histories and the places that form them.
In the Middle of the Fields by Mary Lavin
This short-story collection comes from one of Ireland’s finest practitioners of the genre. The title story is about a widow living on a farm in County Meath in the 1950s, where she is “islanded by fields”. Written more than 60 years ago, it takes on a whole new relevance for the #MeToo generation.
Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry
A short-story collection that hops around the western counties of Ireland from Sligo to Galway, it includes the thing of joy that is Fjord of Killary. This wild treat of a story, first published in the New Yorker, is a black comedy about a young man who buys an old railway hotel at the eponymous fjord, where the bleak landscape and the volatile weather mirror the personalities of the locals with their “ magnificent mood swings”.