Photograph: David Robertson/Alamy
It starts at the top of a mountain. Not the novel itself, but the idea of the novel. The mountain is Errisbeg, on the Connemara coast in County Galway. It’s an ugly lump, dotted with spiny yellow gorse and patches of swampy bog, but the landscape it overlooks is magnificent. The mountain face looks directly towards the back-to-back beaches of Dog’s Bay and Gurteen Strand. To the east is the charming village of Roundstone. The Ballyconeely and Erislannan peninsulas lie to the northwest, and beyond lie the beginnings of the Atlantic, dotted with small islands.
So far, all normal. It’s only when you move away from the sea and look inland that things get a little strange. The view travels across an expanse of desolation that stretches to the Twelve Bens mountain range in the distance. There is nothing in between, just swamps and bushes and pockets of water and the shadows of the clouds that travel over the land. There is a wild beauty to the place, but there is also a feeling that something is missing. This is a landscape that is strangely devoid of trees.
I’m a novelist, so you’ll have to take some of what I tell you with a grain of salt. If you go to Connemara and take the road from Maam Cross to Clifden, you’ll see lots of evergreens in the clefts of the earth, but they don’t seem to belong to me. Groups of nondescript deciduous trees huddle on islands in the lakes, like groups of refugees. There are motley gatherings of trees along the side of the road, lone trees bent in two by the wind. A photographer could capture them, but I maintain my impression of a novelist. What the mind registers is a vast emptiness. The place feels charged with some dark mystery. It feels like a crime scene.
Every novel begins with a ghost, an idea that is vivid but hazy and won’t leave you alone. In this case, it was the strangely treeless landscape of Connemara that got me. There was no narrative attached to it, just a creepy feel. If you’re a writer, you learn to follow that feeling, so I started reading 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 filled with wonder. It can be difficult to separate fact from fiction.
“This entire area would have been covered by trees,” he said.
“What happened to them?”
“We happened. We cut them all down.”
I discovered that the place had once been inhabited by rich native forests
Connemara’s native forests have been gone for many thousands of years, but they still haunt the place. Fascinated by this notion of a landscape forced to remember its dead, I began to play with the titles. “Where Once There Were Trees” was one of the first. “The memory of the trees” was another. That sense of a ghost story, how something can disappear from the world but not be completely absent, carried over into the story of the people I started writing about.
The characters I created, two brothers in their 30s called Cassie and Christo, are concerned with the legacy of their long-dead mother, in the same way that the Connemara landscape is concerned with its long-lost trees. The trees had scarred the landscape from her absence, just as the loss of a mother had scarred the lives of the children she had left behind.
A novel needs roots, and I had found mine. He had the setting for the story. It 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 provided a sense of completion. A successful novel is like a set of model trains: it doesn’t work unless a circuit is achieved, and I was missing that last crucial piece of track.
These trees were over 7,000 years old and had been submerged for millennia.
I found it quite by accident one day while reading the Irish Times. The newspaper reported that a storm had uncovered a drowned ancient forest off the south coast of Connemara. The report included a photograph of a man walking on a stony beach. In the foreground were tree stumps: my trees.
I drove west across the country without delay. With some difficulty I located the beach. At first I could only see an expanse of smooth round stones and some debris from the beach, but then I found peat deposits in the sand. A few more steps and I saw the first tree stump, no more than a foot high, like an elephant’s foot. It was worn like bone, but the wood was remarkably well preserved, the rings still neatly outlined. Squatting down, I touched it with my hand, reverently, the way you might touch a dead person’s face. It was very moving to be in the presence of something so ancient.
Looking around, I saw that there were many more tree stumps sticking out of the sand. A silent army of them, survivors of a vast forest of oak, pine and birch. These trees were over 7,000 years old and had been submerged for millennia, until the Atlantic storm washed up sand and stone, exposing them.
I knew this was the event my novel needed: a push for my now-adult fictional siblings to return to the scene of their childhood and face their ghosts. The exposure of the submerged forest, something long hidden but not gone, was reflected in the lives of the characters he was writing about. His story would be revealed in the course of the story. Their dead would be exposed and examined. The title I finally settled on, “Home Scar,” is a term for the mark that limpets leave on a rock over time, as they stop feeding and return to the exact same spot each time.
Related: It can feel like the most spectacular desert in the world; the wild beauty of connemara
The trip my characters took to Connemara was their return to the scar of home and a chance to make peace with the past.
Earlier this year, I made my own trip back to the beach of the drowned trees to see if they were still there. The beauty that surrounded me while driving was a danger: I found it difficult to keep my eyes on the road. The landscape wore scorched colors of winter. The air was smoky from the cold. It looked like the aftermath of a fire. I found the place by heart and made my way across a field and through a thick, fluffy bed of seaweed to the beach.
I was preparing myself for disappointment. I knew there was a very good chance that the sea had swallowed the trees again in the years since I last visited them.
To my surprise, they were still there, just as I remembered them. They seemed friendlier this time, more like old friends than ghosts from the past. Such is the nature of history, both natural and human. It loses its threat when it comes out.
Kathleen MacMahon’s The Home Scar is published February 9 on Penguin
Six more books rooted in the Irish landscape
To Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern
This exquisite novel is set in a community around a lake in County Leitrim, where McGahern traces a year in the life of a returned emigrant and his wife. The book follows the stories of the people they meet on a daily basis, but the isolated setting, the outback, and the rhythms of rural life are what make it truly special.
Anne Enright’s Green Path
A Booker Prize-nominated novel by one of Ireland’s greatest modern writers, The Green Road is set in County Clare, where a scattered family gathers to spend Christmas with their difficult mother. There’s great humor here, infused with Enright’s powerful wisdom, and a now-iconic chapter on “the Christmas store.”
Traveling in a strange land by David Park
A short and very beautiful book that follows a father’s journey through a winter whitewash from Belfast to Sunderland to collect his student son from his digs. Tom’s lonely journey across an empty field, 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.
Vogue by Eoin McNamee
Set in a vast abandoned World War II airbase on the County Down coast, where the body of a woman has been found in a mobile sandbox, this novel takes us into a sinister and layered story. McNamee’s other work includes the “Blue Trilogy,” three highly literary, interconnected crime novels based on real-life events in 1950s Northern Ireland. McNamee is a master of dark stories and the places that form them.
In the middle of the fields of Mary Lavin
This collection of short stories comes from one of the best practitioners of the genre in Ireland. The title story is about a widow living on a farm in County Meath in the 1950s, where she is “cut off by fields”. Written over 60 years ago, it takes on a whole new relevance for the #MeToo generation.
Dark Lies on the Island by Kevin Barry
A collection of short stories spanning the western counties of Ireland, from Sligo to Galway, including the joy that is Killary Fjord. First published in the New Yorker, this wild delight of a story is a dark comedy about a young man who buys an old railroad hotel on the fjord of the same name, where the bleak landscape and volatile weather reflect the personalities of the locals. with his “magnificent mood swings”.