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Wittgenstein's Irish Retreat

(Vol. II, No. 1 -- Summer 1998)
Peg writes:

For a travellin' philosopher gal who wrote a dissertation on Wittgenstein, a trip to Ireland must include a trip to Maurice O'Connor Drury's cottage on Little Killary Harbor in Connemara. This area is considered a fjord in Ireland. Given Wittgenstein's time in Norway, the terrain was probably welcoming in its familiarity. From May through August of 1948, Wittgenstein lived there, working on Philosophical Investigations. So important was Wittgenstein's time there that President Mary Robinson in 1993 dedicated a plaque to mark this cottage.

The cottage is no longer a single family residence. Its original two rooms have been joined to a newer, much larger structure. Since this radical reconstruction, it has become a youth hostel (a change that Wittgenstein would most undoubtedly loathe). We chose not to stay at the cottage; it would have felt far too sacrilegious to do so. Instead, we stayed at the Little Killary Activity Center a mile up the road. There we had the opportunity to water ski while wearing a wet suit (we passed), to go kayaking while wearing a wet suit and life jacket ( we didnít go) and to go gorge walking while wearing a wet suit, life jacket and hiking boots (we completely passed on this too).

But the walk to Rosro cottage was quite grand. The road curved between the harbor and the hills. The misty conditions made for poor visibility, but we knew we had reached the cottage when we came to the end of the road. We first walked around the side of the cottage that directly faced the harbor. For some reason, perhaps because it was right before our eyes, we failed to notice the large plaque dedicated by Mary Robinson. With a bit of trepidation, we entered the hostel hoping to find a friendly, helpful person.

We were not disappointed in our hopes. The caretaker on duty was a most friendly woman, who just happened to be married to the son of Tommy Mulkerrins, the caretaker of the cottage while Wittgenstein was living there. She took us to the large room where Wittgenstein spent most of his time working. She also mentioned the plaque. She remembered quite vividly when the plaque had been dedicated. Terry Eagleton ("a very nice man") attended the service. We learned that we were among many philosophers who have visited the cottage on a pilgrimage. After taking our leave, we returned to the Little Killary Activity Center.

On the day we were to depart for Galway, we took another walk to the cottage, armed with new film in the camera. After taking several shots of the cottage and harbor, we noticed one man bailing his boat. Another man approached us and greeted us warmly. When we told him we were philosophers on a quest, he told us that he had lived there as a child. "All of us kids were afraid of that Wittgenstein," he told us eagerly. And he went on, "See that fellow in the boat? That's the caretaker's son. He says that Wittgenstein was the damnedest fellow he ever met. He would stay up all night long working, and then sleep most of the day." Having heard this testimony from a source close to Wittgenstein I felt fulfilled in my journey.

Last night I dreamt I went down to Rosro Cottage

Rosro Cottage appeared out of the fog as I walked from main road to the harbor. The cottage appeared the same as it was when Wittgenstein lived there. The cottage was dominated by one room with a large window overlooking the harbor. The other room was small and spartan and seldom, if ever, used. I stood at the window, seeing the harbor as Wittgenstein must have. Little about the harbor had changed; the boats had small motors now. Sensing Wittgenstein's presence in this room, I felt compelled--guided almost--to run my hands along the bookshelves underneath that large window. There were few books on these shelves, and the ones that were there were fiction. Mysteries with hard-boiled detectives to be exact. Knowing about Wittgenstein's passion for tough-guy mysteries, I pulled out several and skimmed them to see if Wittgenstein had left any annotations. I fully expected to find terse, nasty comments if he had solved the mystery early in the book, or if there had been some completely implausible plot twist. But I was disappointed in that venture.

I stared out the window while absentmindedly running my hands along the bookshelf. My hand grazed over a spine that was not smooth like the others. Surprised out of my reverie, I withdrew the book. It was A Christmas Carol, one of Wittgenstein's favorite books. Wedged between the spine and the sewn binding was a very neatly, but tightly folded piece of paper. My heart started racing, and my hands became slick. I knew that I had found something heretofore hidden, and the thrill of the discovery was intoxicating. On one side in English was the single expression, 'milk!'

As soon as I saw this expression, I knew that I had stumbled upon one of the greatest discoveries in the history of philosophy. I also knew that there were three other expressions hidden somewhere else in that room. I knew they must be 'tea' 'biscuit' and 'sandwich'. The expressions were commands, obviously meant for Tommy Mulkerrins, the man who took care of the cottage for Maurice O'Connor Drury.

For Wittgenstein, these four words constitute an entire language. These were the original words he intended to use in section 2 of the Philosophical Investigations. The mystery was why he switched from what was really important to him to building words ('slab' 'beam' 'block' and 'pillar').

Upon awaking from this dream, I knew that I would never know the answer to this question. But this not knowing has not troubled me in the least. The world's greatest mysteries are not meant to be comprehended, and Wittgenstein's switch is certainly one of them.

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