Wednesday, August 02, 2006

By design

In the autumn of 1728, Samuel Johnson, future author of the famous dictionary, rode with his father from his birthplace at Lichfield in the English Midlands to the university town of Oxford. He was 19 years old.

His biographer, John Wain, describes the countryside that young Sam passed through: "It was a place in which ugliness was very rare; indeed, with the important exception of the ugliness that disease and disfigurement produce in human beings and animals, ugliness was unknown."

Wain continues: "In [Johnson's] day there was probably no such thing as an ugly house, table, stool or chair in the whole kingdom." This was about to change. By the end of the century the Industrial Revolution was in full bloom. "Industrialism, by moving people away from the natural rhythms of hand and eye, and also from the materials which occur naturally in their region and to which they are attuned by habit and tradition, cannot help fostering ugliness at the same time as it fosters cheapness and convenience," writes Wain.

When first we came to this village in the west of Ireland 34 years ago, it was still a pre-industrial corner of the world. As such, it attracted artists and craftspeople of every kind. The result is that our cottage is full of beautiful things made of local materials by the hands of people we know. Pottery, rugs, wall hangings, paintings, sculptures.

But, of course, the visual aspect of life is not everything. In Johnson's 18th-century England, the nose was assaulted on every side by the stench of raw human and animal waste, and safe drinking water was in short supply. And, as Wain says, disease and disfigurement were common.

For those very reasons, few of us would opt to return to a time before the Industrial Revolution, and the sleepy villages in the west of Ireland have made a running leap into the 21st century. But still we are blessed to have creative people among our neighbors who choose to live simply and value things of handmade beauty.

More tomorrow.