A life in a picture.


There is a man’s life story told in this one picture.

It was taken in an abandoned cottage less than 2k from where I live in county Clare, Ireland. Brigitte and I went for a walk locally, all that is permitted right now. We followed a very rough old lane. Called a boreen (bóithrín) in these parts. It brought us past a semi-derelict cottage, windows gone, roof beginning to fail, surrounding barns, ruined, and overgrown. We can never resist sticking our noses carefully and respectfully into such places.

I love to play detective and sift through what remains. In this case, the lower floors revealed a man alone, no sign of a woman’s touch. An old pipe, a cupboard piled high with Powers Whisky bottles, but all small hip flask 1/4 sized, all the better to slip in the pocket on the journey home by horse and cart from the local bar/shop. In later years, the horse might have become a tractor, but the lane would not have admitted a car and this small farmstead, would not have supported such luxury.

This old fellow lived just above the poverty line and his daily or perhaps weekly bottle of whisky was his big expense. I would think it was in all senses; needed.

There was the remains of a single bed, a rosary, a few trinkets and buttons. A few picture frames that may have had holy pictures. The walls had paper peeling and that had been often daubed with home-made whitewash paint, coloured badly with something, maybe tea.

There was a rusty old shoe repair last. When I carefully went up the creaky narrow stairs, I was greeted by the shoes and boots that the ‘last’ had been used to repair – a long row of boots and shoes, all the same size, and all many times re-heeled and thickly re-soled. None had laces. Those had moved to each new pair, and most likely are in the boots he was buried in. There were mouldering rubber boots crumbling to dust and a few Sunday-best shoes. This man was a hoarder. No shoes or boots he ever owned were discarded. No whisky bottle emptied was ever cast in a midden. The occasional Guinness bottle suggested an exceptional expenditure. A treat after a beast was sold at the Mart perhaps?

I found an old aluminium water flask. On the lid it said: Made in Nenagh. The Irish Free State. (Nenagh is a nearby market town). That dates it to between 1922 and 1930 roughly. We brought the flask home and will clean it and keep it.

That row of old shoes and boots extended all around the walls upstairs. Beyond the picture here. A life of toil, thrift and simplicity laid out. One man alone and perhaps lonely, propped up by a controlled consumption of whisky. The little hip flask size does not suggest drunken excess. There were none of the full size bottles of an oblivion seeker. Only small regular aids to living an isolated hard working and simple life.