What Lasts? Reflections From Ireland

At first thought, Kylemore Abbey, the majestic castle looking across Pollacappul Lake and nestled in the Connemara highlands of western Ireland, bears no relation to the hardscrabble life that generations of poor farmers have eked out on this unforgiving countryside. Built by Mitchell Henry to house his adored wife Margaret and their nine children, the drawing room alone has more windows than the typical 2-3 room homes on which the 15,000 acre estate's tenant farmers and their families dwelled for generations.

Yet Margaret only got to live at Klyemore seven years before dying of dysentery while travelling in Egypt in 1874. Her body was buried in a mausoleum her husband created at Kylemore, and a short walk from it stands a Neo-Gothic church he also built to honor her memory. His ashes lie next to hers. In this sense, Kylemore and the Henrys' lives do parallel the fortunes of so many who lived and died in this largely barren, rock-strewn yet unimaginably beautiful land. However much they had, little of it remains.

The castle and its Victorian walled gardens are being restored to their former glory by Benedictine nuns who live, work, and operate a school at Klyemore Abbey. Their order's own former home in Belgium was destroyed in the First World War. In this sense, the Henrys were lucky. While they lost everything, their home still stands. The roofless and crumbling stone cottages of farmers who died or emigrated during the Great Famine of 1846-1852 or who just abandoned their land when they could no longer pay the rent, offer no such glorious reminder. Indeed, the current abbey stands in stark contrast to the ruins of countless monastic abbeys that flourished in medieval times -- until Henry VIII took them in his fight with the Pope and the monks had to flee.

Much of western Ireland is testimony to the impermanence of our lives and work. This is not so much sad as it is helpful -- a reminder that what seems so important and permanent is so ephemeral. We, the living, occupy the land for such a brief time, and when we are gone it is only the land that seem to remain. Connemara is no doubt as beautiful today as it was thousands of years ago, as if all those who have toiled and shed their tears here, have prayed and worked, have laughed and danced and sung and cried, have left nothing to mark their time on this earth but the earth itself.

Yet they have left something. That something is more important than their homes -- stately or simple. It is more valuable than their debates about politics, religion and social conventions. It is more lasting than the fallen stones that mark their dwellings. They have left their stories. Each of them, no matter his or her wealth, has left a legacy of struggle and also triumph, of the spirit if not the body. Whether recorded in the books of historians, in the brochure for Kylemore Abbey tourists, or in the oral traditions and memories of the descendants of potato and sheep farmers -- or whether remembered only by the evidence we can see that they were here and survived on this land as long as their hard work and luck could sustain them -- the people of Connemara mattered. As impermanent as they were, as fleeting as were their creations, their stories are permanent enough to help us know that their lives meant something -- to them at the time and to us as the keepers of their memories, hopes and dreams. Nothing in life lasts. But our stories remain, if we will but cherish them and pass them on, as permanent as the land itself.