Will they come again in the spring?

Two days before the New Year, we saw the blooming lilac bush. We were on our short walk through the townland of Móin an Fhraoigh, next to our own Mullenaglemig. A fellow walking with his Labrador in the opposite direction stopped to gawk at the bush with us.

“It’s lovely to look at but do ye think it will come again in the spring?” he asked.

His Lab, after a quick sniff at Lucy, shoved his muddy nose into us, hoping for a scratch behind the ear. We both obeyed. He did not seem interested in the cycles of nature.

“I’m afraid of what will happen when the frost comes,” I replied.

“Aye,” the fellow said.

We continued on our walk.

The winter has been abnormally mild this year with temperatures consistently in the 50s. Anemones started popping their red, blue, and purple heads up in my garden in early January. Our roses are blooming as well. In the woods nearby daffodils sway in the breeze and, over in the corner near the fence, our landlord’s gran’s lilies are glossy green, getting ready to flower. The fields around us are as green as a day in June.

Good weather for walking

But we all know the frost will come.

The short walk–about two and a half miles–is the walk we take when we’ve had a busy day shopping in town or we’re still sore from our workout at the gym the previous day.

“Will we do the short walk?” Sara will say as we approach our gate.

“I think we should.”

We turn left as we pass through the gate and walk to the bridge that spans the stream that borders our forestry. There is a short hill beyond the bridge, the only strenuous part of the walk, and we lean on our sticks until we reach the crossroad. Móin an Fhraoigh, called Monrea in English,is just past the crossroad.

The road flattens out here, passing by some newer bungalows with a view of the harbor, Dingle Bay, and, on a clear day, Little Skellig and Skellig Michael, some fifty kilometers out in the Atlantic. We stop to admire the bay. Sara calls one house with a particularly fine view our “lottery house.” Around a bend in the lane is the lilac bush that bloomed in December and, a few steps on, there’s an abandoned village

The village fuels my imagination; I populate it in my mind.

There are three or four one-room stone cottages hard by the lane on both sides. The walls, laid stone by stone two hundred years ago, still stand strong, as sturdy as the people who lived within them. The door frames and window sashes are intact. But the hearth has gone cold and the timber and thatch of the roof have long since rotted away.

Scattered around are sheds for their animals – a cow for the milk and butter and hens for eggs. Small plots for growing potatoes, cabbage, and carrots can still be seen, now just furrows covered by grass.

How many generations were fed beside those hearths? How many children slept in the loft beneath the thatch? How many secret plans to leave were shared? Outside in the yard an old swing still hangs from a tree but there are no squeals of laughter. One-by-one the children left. Famine, crushing poverty, wars of independence took their toll. The children scattered to Hartford and Springfield, London and Birmingham, Sydney and Melbourne. Few would ever come back.

The night before a child left the village in Monrea there would be an “American wake,” with the women keening and the men stoically smoking their pipes. In the morning, the son or daughter would walk away to Dingle, not daring to look back until they were around the bend in the lane, so they would not lose their resolve. From Dingle there was a train to Tralee and then another train to the port of Cobh, near Cork, where they would board a ship to a new, unknown life.

Until there was no one left.

A few steps further along the lane on the short walk is a larger house, built perhaps in the early 1900s. It started like the houses beside it, one room with a loft, but over the years, as the owners became more prosperous, new sections were added, along with a solid slate roof. A proper front garden was planted, with a stucco wall around it. A path led from the wrought-iron gate to the front door, and the broad field beside it had room for five or six fine milk cows. By the 1950s and 60s, electricity and telephone services had arrived.

But here too, the children would be forced to leave, seeking better opportunities than tending six milk cows in a field in rural Ireland. Unlike earlier generations, they drove to Shannon and flew into exile knowing they could keep in touch with Mammy by phone, and, if they prospered, come back someday to visit.

Squeezing past the rusting iron gate, most of the spindles rotted away and the yellow paint peeled off, we walk up the path that has sunk beneath the sod, marked only by a line of daffodils on either side. The rhododendrons by the front door are starting to bud much too early

We peer in the deep-set front windows. On one sill is a pencil and note pad and an ancient telephone. On the other there is a statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague.

Feeling like we are prying, we back out of the garden and continue our walk, turning the corner towards the old Ventry road, and remarking on the early primroses hidden in the hedge.

As we walk along, I imagine an old woman, the last occupant of the house, sitting by the fire saying her beads, waiting for the phone to ring and wondering, “Will they come again in the spring?”

It’s a short walk, but a lot to ponder.