Open-mouthed sheds and barns lie behind Woodford’s street line.
Woodford is little more than a single wide street, draped in a soft sag between two small hills. At the top of one of these is a church, school, the Garda station, a factory and a library. At the top of the other, are shops and pubs. Between these, the lines of two-storey terraces hold both sides of the road, their roofs aligned to the street, their gables serrating to follow its incline. Behind this line are a clutter of yards with abruptly open-mouthed sheds and barns. Here and there, one noses the houses aside to get to the street. These disguise themselves by making a decorative gable to the street – something coyly classical, a stepped parapet with an implied order drawn in plaster and pebbledash; the vast darkness of the interior strange among the glass-fronted shops and net-curtained windows.
In the remoteness of this hinterland it was “town”, but this was a reach. It has no strategic importance, it isn’t on the way anywhere. It is a place that people end up in. I spent most of my summers here as a child, with my cousins who lived some six miles beyond in boggy independence. Both our families had very little, but in our pooled nothing there was a freedom, an open terrain which sat so far beyond the smaller worlds of my daily life as to be exotic.
My uncle and aunt had initially moved to be off the grid – no electricity or running water. I saw this gradually change as hardship yielded compromise: the building of the water ram to pump water, the septic tank and the first glowing lightbulb, and building the house outward periodically, in beautiful ad-hoc rooms of salvaged materials, and then in more and more sophisticated timber works. They weren’t alone in this. The surrounding lands attracted Dutch, English, German and French people who arrived to abandoned farms and stitched their way in. For all the searching for an alternative way of life it was quietly entrepreneurial. I remember it as a place to be surrounded by people more skilled than you – cloudy apple juices, Dutch cheeses, horse training, wood shavings. My uncle set up a metalworking shop, the air light with the steel of machine oil. It was a place of lathes, optical flats and overhead projectors used to calibrate the diamond bits used to make aircraft screws for companies working in Shannon airport.
It was aware, connected and canny in how livings were eeked out. The world folded into the rhythms of the place. Conversations flowed easily from discussing EEC headage payments to the latest lands bought by the state forestry board. Arguments arose on the etiquette of commonage and who had the rights to graze it. History too – the cottage where my great aunt now lived had been the site of the Siege of Saunders Fort, where a family resisting eviction held out several thousand bailiffs, police and troops and started the Land War in Connaught in the late 19th century. The countryside is many things but its globalisation is not recent. The conversation was always about elsewhere, how to react.
Long-derelict wind turbine factory
Up the road was Ken, an English meteorologist hired locally to design the foils of the windmill blades in a local factory that had folded in the early 80s. Out of work, he parked a caravan on a field, made himself a small workshop with salvaged parts and built a house. Next he built a creaking windmill to cut wind-felled timber into planks, which he used to make grander things: buildings for others and a boat for himself. He sailed to France and parts of the east coast of Africa. Recently he has made himself a small shed in green oak where he is carefully building a glider from the smallest pieces of exotic hardwood. He taught my cousin how to work with wood, and the long-derelict wind turbine factory is where my cousin runs his business. It was he who built Slievebawnogue for us, and the Red Pavilion, which returned here from London, reincarnated as a shed to build boats in.
The Irish word for town (baile) is the same as for home. The word for countryside (faoin tuath) literally translates as “among people”. This resonates with my experience of that place, an underlying feeling of everything being interconnected; town as a place which is made of its people, an emerging wonder from our basic need to be near one another.
Andrew Clancy is a director of Clancy Moore and Professor of Architecture at Kingston School of Art