The Uses of Ruins

11:59 AM Posted by Anya Ventura
53.22222 -7.94935
I spent today touring the Shannon Harbor and the surrounding areas with Ian and Steve. I’m interested in exploring how people think about the past, and how the past is written into physical landscape. Someone once told me that in Europe a hundred miles is a long time, while in the States, a hundred years is long. We have space, Europe has time. So it’s been interesting to see all the visible layers of history – what do people here make of it? While waiting out the rain in a pub, we had an interesting conversation about the Irish sense of history. Ian colorfully described bog bodies cutting through the air as peat was being harvested. He hypothesized that these discoveries has led to the sense of the bog as an inexhaustible warehouse of historical scenarios, as an almost physical repository of historical knowledge.
Later in the day we stopped by Clonony Castle, which was in the process of being renovated by a former ballerina and historical preservationist named Rebecca. She had been in the business of restoring castles for a long time, and offered many interesting insights into the meanings of old ruins. The Victorians, she pointed out, had tinkered with the architecture to make the castle look more authentically “medieval.” It was a good visual reminder how history is constantly being made and remade, usually according to the desires and anxieties of the present. Steve brought up the question: what makes something historical? When do these sites begin to be described as “ruins,” and when do the changes start taking place in the way the sites are perceived? It’s all part of a cycle of use and abandonment.
Cultural Studies scholar Meaghan Morris has written, “Wanting history is not a primal human desire. We have to be taught to want it, to learn that history is the name of something we lack, and this particular pedagogy of desire and lack has been intimately bound up with nationalism as a project aspiring to govern change.” Exploring this dialectic of desire and lack, I wonder: What do we want or need from history? I’m curious as to how these historical desires are enacted in an Irish context. Do these ruins form a kind of “origin story” in the construction of Irish heritage? Meeting Larry, Rebecca, and Sean Murphy – all local amateur historians and preservationists – makes me wonder why. Why are everyday people driven to create and maintain a history? Where does the sense of civic responsibility come from the preserve the past?