For the rest of her life, Eleanor would remember that first baffled moment of startled bewilderment, leading to an awful surmise, and then to the appalling certainty.
She grasped her daughter-in-law by the arm.
‘Easy, Winnie. Stay easy.’
‘It cannot be,’ Winnie whispered. ‘Not again. Not so soon.’ Her face was pale.
‘It is,’ Eleanor replied. ‘There’s no doubting it.’ She felt the need to vomit, but did not. The shock had hit her with brutal force.
Winnie stared at the putrefied potatoes on the table, both cut open to show the dark purple rims, deepening to a sodden wet black at the centres.
‘The most of them,’ Michael said. ‘I’ve dug up and down and across the big field. There’s damned few left, and I reckon they’ll rot soon.’
‘There’s the ones in the loft,’ Eleanor said. ‘It’s as well we dug them in time.’
‘They’ve rotted too,’ Michael said.
‘They did. Can’t you smell it?’
Eleanor sensed the cloying sweet smell. Why had she not noticed it earlier?
‘But the high field…?’
‘Little enough, you’d find there.’
She steadied herself on the table, shaking her head.
‘It’s back, so.’
‘It is. The blight is back, and the crop is gone.’
Morning Post, London. July 1848.
Imperial Parliament, London. At Belmullet, 140 families were turned out by one landlord, and 700 persons turned houseless upon the high road. From the estate of Lord Lucan, in the poorest part of Mayo, 1,200 evictions took place.
George Scrope, Member of Parliament, condemns the evicting landlords of County Mayo.
Michael made to the door, taking the spade. The women stayed behind. Outside, a grey, knee-high mist had settled over the potato field.
‘Will he find anything?’ Winnie asked, slipping into Irish.
‘Not much,’ Eleanor replied. ‘He knows that as well as we do. He’s only working out his anger.’
‘I don’t know about that. We might have money enough with Pat working in England and Luke in New York. Who knows? Still it’s a matter of pride. Having to rely on our sons for money – it’s not easy for any man.’
Liam was crying. ‘It’s the noise we’re all making,’ Winnie said. ‘It’s time for his feed anyhow.’
She brought him into the kitchen, rocking him gently. She opened her blouse and gave him to suck.
‘So what now?’
It’s like I told you before,’ Eleanor said. ‘Us women, we’re hard because we have to be. You’ve lived through hunger before. And what do you feel? Pity for the dying. Disgust at the rat-eaten bodies. The fear of death. Many times, I have felt these things, and then I can’t think. But we must think plainly to see what is vital to us. Even when our babies die, we cannot allow our feelings dim our reason. So now we go cold. Cold in our heads, and cold in our hearts. Otherwise we lose all charge. Are you cold?’
For some time, Winnie said nothing.
‘I am,’ she said at length. ‘I have the understanding of it now. Our families come first.’
‘They do,’ Eleanor said. ‘Always.’
Then there was only the sound of the baby feeding. When he had finished, Winnie rocked him until he fell asleep.
‘I’ll just put him in the back room.’
Eleanor took the rotten potatoes from the table and threw them on the turf fire, where they sputtered as they burned. Winnie joined her by the fire, but neither spoke.
Brigid came into the kitchen rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. Puzzled, she looked from one woman to the other.
‘She knows there’s something wrong,’ Winnie said.
‘She does,’ Eleanor said. ‘Now come on, we’ve work to do. Let’s clear the loft.’
Winnie went outside and took in a bucket and shovel. Eleanor climbed into the loft. Winnie passed up the shovel and bucket, and followed up the ladder. Most of the potatoes were black. Some had turned to slush, and a viscous fluid was seeping across the floorboards. Eleanor took a bucket and filled it with the foul-smelling potatoes. Winnie took it down and dumped it outside. Brigid held her hand to her nose, her face wrinkled with disgust.
At last Eleanor joined Winnie. She could just see Michael sitting at the top of the field, smoking his pipe. Slowly, the mist above the potatoes burned off in the sun, but the rotten stench remained.
Later the women joined him. Winnie carried the baby in a shawl tied around her back, while Brigid sat at the edge of the field, watching. Many of the potato stalks had blackened. The mist had disappeared.
‘What of the high field?’ Eleanor asked.
Michael knocked his pipe on the rock to clear the ashes.
‘Come, I’ll show you.’
The two women followed him to the high field. It was no more than a few tiny ridges of potatoes below the rath. Here some of the stalks were green, and a few of the potatoes that Michael had dug were firm and clean.
‘There’s no sign of these ones rotting anyhow,’ Winnie said.
‘They will,’ Michael said. ‘Look here.’
Under the leaves, there was a white, down-like substance.
Eleanor rubbed her finger on the leaf, and looked close. Again, she felt the shock in her stomach, but calmed herself quickly. Go cold.
‘It’s blight right enough.’
‘It is,’ Michael said.
‘But let’s get these ones out while we have the chance.’
‘We can try, if ye want.’
Eleanor went to the lower field and picked up two hessian sacks. They filled the sacks with the few firm potatoes and carried them back to the house, where they were stored in the loft.
But she knew they were working to no purpose. A day or two in the loft, and they too would rot.
That afternoon, she walked up towards Kilduff. There were men and women in the fields on either side of the road, digging potatoes. As she walked, she heard a weird keening sound. She had heard that sound before at funerals, but this was different. These people were keening their own funerals.
When she arrived in Kilduff the line at Dillon’s was shorter than she had expected. A few women stood outside, all gaunt with hunger. Then a woman ran out of the shop. She was weeping.
The women in front turned to Eleanor. ‘The price is up,’ one said, ‘there’s not many that’ll afford it.’
After a few minutes, Eleanor entered the shop. ‘Fourpence per pound,’ Dillon said, before she even opened her mouth.
She gasped. ‘But that’s four times the price…’
‘Take it or leave it.’
Eleanor was undecided. Then she thought it better to take a small quantity, even less than a quarter of what she normally would. As she walked back, she saw a family kneeling outside a mud cabin, scrabbling through a heap of rotten potatoes. She went on.
When she arrived in Carrigard, she placed the bag of corn on the table.
‘So little?’ Winnie asked.
‘The price has gone up four times. At these prices, we might have to start eating our own, whether it’s full grown or not.’
That night, they ate corn with turnip. Eleanor had decided to leave the new potatoes for a few days. There was no point in sickening themselves on hidden rot.
Dinner was quiet the next evening. Again, they fed on corn and turnips. The potatoes in the loft were rotten.
‘They looked well enough when we dug them,’ Winnie commented.
‘Yes,’ said Michael, ‘but the rot was there, only waiting to show itself. This is ‘46 again. ’42 too. There’s nothing left. Not a damned thing.’
‘And what of the ones from last year?’ Eleanor asked.
‘Still sound,’ Michael said, ‘but we should keep them for next year’s seed.’
‘Is it worth keeping them, if the crop will only rot next year?’
‘We must try,’ Michael replied. ‘What else can we do?’
‘There’s the hens. We could kill them. Then we wouldn’t have to keep feeding them. Yes, we’d have no eggs, but we could eat their feed ourselves.’
‘They won’t last long,’ Winnie said.
‘No,’ Michael said, ‘but we’ve still some flitches of salted beef left. It won’t be enough though.’
‘We may kill the pig,’ Eleanor said, ‘and won’t it be strange? Not able to buy corn but living on meat.’
‘And what of the horse?’ Winnie asked.
‘We’ll eat it last,’ Michael said. ‘The donkey too. But one thing’s for certain, we can’t leave any animals outside. We’ll have to bring them in or they’ll disappear. As for eating, we’ll stretch them out long enough. But we’ll have to sell something for the rent, and I’m not sure we’ll have enough corn if we eat it ourselves.’
They drove the animals inside, and tied them to the rings under the loft, away from the kitchen. There was a smell of animal sweat, and soon a stink of dung. Michael spread straw over it.
‘We’ll dig it out in the morning,’ he said.
‘I thought we were finished with this kind of thing,’ Eleanor said.
Michael sat back at the table. Brigid sat close to the fire, playing with a straw doll.
‘So what now?’ Winnie asked.
‘We’ll have to write to Pat in England,’ Michael said, though Eleanor knew from the tone of his voice that he would not write any time soon.
‘Don’t forget I’ll be sending money to ye from America,’ Winnie said.
‘I’m sure ye will,’ Eleanor said, ‘though I don’t like that it has to be that way. And anyhow, it’ll be months ‘till we’d have it.’
‘I know,’ said Winnie, ‘but sure what else can we do?’
The women were alone in the kitchen the next morning, as Michael had gone to the rath, where he could overlook the cornfield, and protect the growing crop against theft.
‘There’s no choice now,’ Winnie said. ‘It’s America for me, whether I like it or not. It’s where Luke is, so I have to go.’
‘You’re right, Eleanor said. ‘We’ve bought the ticket. We have his address. There’s only the hunger here, so why stay. Anyhow, you can get work in New York or Jersey City.’
‘Working as a bridget in one of their big houses?’
‘Any work you can get.’
Brigid was fed on chicken and corn. Winnie fed Liam by breast. Eleanor was thankful she could do so. She had heard of women whose babies had died in famine, but knew that this was only in the last stages of starvation.
She would have to cut back on what the rest of the family were eating, and all their reserves of food, either in storage or on the hoof, would have to be guarded. The turnips were dug, and brought inside. By now they were guarding the cabbage patch, but since it was beside the house this was not difficult.
Eleanor went up to Kilduff to buy more corn. Just outside the town, a woman’s body lay face down in a ditch. She knelt beside her, and turned her over. She listened. There was no breathing. She walked on to the town. At the priest’s house, there was a line of people, where Father Reilly was giving out soup. She made her way to him.
‘Delia Loughney is lying dead out the road towards Carrigard,’ she whispered to him in English, knowing few others would understand.
‘I’ll see to it,’ he replied, blankly.
In Dillon’s the price had dropped, but it was still expensive.
When she returned, Winnie was sitting at the table with Liam and Brigid. There was a letter.
‘Where’s it from?’ Eleanor asked.
Eleanor examined the stamp.
She slit the envelope.
‘Look at this. Three pounds.’
Winnie took the notes, wide-eyed.
‘But why? We never even asked him.’
‘No, but he’d have known, wouldn’t he? He’d have heard all about the potatoes and that we’d be needing money.’
‘Sure by now they’ll know all about it, up the length and breadth of England. And they’ll have had their own blight, they’ll know full well what’s happening.’
She slipped the letter to Winnie.
‘Here, you read it, and tell me what he says.’
Winnie glanced through it.
‘Just what you’ve said. He’d seen blight in England, and thought we might be needing the money.’
‘Not much. Just that he’s working well with Danny.’
‘Does he say anything about that Irene woman?’
‘Nothing at all.’
The next morning a letter arrived from Castlebar, addressed to Pat. Eleanor gave it to Michael.
‘Should we open it?’ she asked.
‘Better not,’ Michael said. He re-addressed the envelope to Pat in England and Eleanor took it to Kilduff to post. There was the usual line of ragged people outside Dillon’s, but she did not join them. There was no line outside the post office.
That night, she took her turn in guarding the cornfield. There was a half moon, and a slow breeze whispered through the trees.
She was startled by a figure moving towards her.
‘Who’s there?’ she shouted.
‘Tis only me.’
‘Winnie! You gave me a fright.’
‘Sorry. It’s just how I couldn’t sleep.’ She sat on the flagstone beside Eleanor. ‘I keep thinking about this America business. We’ve written to Luke last month, like he asked us.’
‘We never said anything of blight. He’ll be thinking there’s no reason to send money, or very little if he does. Maybe we should write him another letter?’
‘Arra, will you stop being silly. He’ll have news of the blight far faster than any letter of ours. It’d only be a waste of money on a stamp to be telling him what he’d already know, and your last letter he’ll have soon enough, so he’ll know when to be awaiting you.’
Sometime later, Michael arrived to take his turn, and Eleanor and Winnie walked down to the house. The moon had set, and vague streaks of green and red flickered above the Mountain.
‘So how are you planning on getting to Westport?’ Michael asked the next day.
‘Walking,’ Winnie answered. ‘How else?’
‘We can’t let you do that. It’s too far with a baby, and unsafe with the times that are in it.’
‘I’ll take her across,’ Eleanor said.
‘How?’ Michael asked. ‘With the donkey and cart, is it?’
‘Well, why not?’
‘Why not! The donkey wouldn’t get out of Kilduff. They’d have him for meat.’
‘What then? What the devil can we do?’
‘I’ll take her over.’
‘You could be attacked too, you know,’ Eleanor said.
‘I know, but at least a man would have better chances.’
‘Well, let’s the three of us go.’
‘And leave the farm unguarded, is it? No-one to feed the hens, neither.’
‘We could ask Kitty down. She’s great enough grá for little Brigid. Ever since Nessa died, she’s almost been like a mother to her. She’d move in here if she could.’
‘Maybe, but would that drunken husband of hers allow it?’
‘I doubt he’d much care,’ Eleanor said.
Eleanor went to visit Kitty. She left early, preferring to meet as few people as possible. As she walked, she saw the villages strung out along the Mountain. Most were half abandoned; ruined cottages where families had died or emigrated. At Gort na Móna, she saw the tumbled ruins from Lord Clanowen’s evictions the year before, a day that would live in her memory.
She reached a cluster of houses on the edge of the Mountain. Eleanor herself came from the Mountain, and she had a vague memory of this area from twenty years before. There were two ruined houses, brambles and weeds growing alongside and through them. Three houses were left standing. A ragged woman was standing outside one of them.
‘I’m looking for Kitty Brennan,’ Eleanor said.
Wordlessly, the woman pointed her to the next house. Eleanor knocked.
When Kitty answered, Eleanor saw at once the gash on one side of her nose, but said nothing. She explained Winnie’s plans.
‘Winnie leaving?’ Kitty gasped.
‘But sure you knew that,’ Eleanor said.
‘Maybe I did, but I didn’t want the knowing of it. When do ye want me?’
‘She’s leaving in two days’ time. The night before would be a good time to come.’
‘I’ll be there. Ye can rely on it.’
Eleanor walked back down the Mountain. The sun was well up by now, and she noticed that not all the fields were blighted. It was a patchwork – some tracts, larger or smaller, totally blighted, with many fields and farms between with no blight at all.
She mentioned this to Michael and Winnie that night.
‘It won’t last,’ Michael said. ‘Sure the potatoes we took in the other day, they’re gone. No, the blight is here and it’s going to have a clear run at the potato fields, every damned one of them.’
When Kitty arrived, the gash had healed a little, but her cheeks were bruised.
Michael was furious. ‘That’s one right bastard of a husband you have.’
‘Don’t I know it,’ Kitty said. ‘Sure what choice do I have?’ She pointed to the bruising. ‘And this was when he heard I was spending a few days with ye.’
‘But he let you go,’ Eleanor said.
‘He did. But only after I had boiled a pot of porridge for him. He had a sack of potatoes too, though I’d say there’ll be few enough for the eating.’
Michael and Eleanor drove with Winnie to Westport.
As they left, Kitty’s eyes were brimming. Eleanor remembered the impossible love she and Luke once held for one another. But it was all too late. Kitty had already married Fergus. Still, she reflected, Luke had married an able woman, and an agreeable one at that. Kitty knew that too, and the strong friendship between her and Winnie was something Eleanor had never expected.
Kitty stood out on the road, waving to them. A cart full of cadavers followed them towards Kilduff. Three emaciated women followed. Eleanor did not recognise them, but their sunken faces would have changed the look of them.
Kilduff itself was quiet. As they left the town they passed two corpses on the roadside. Many times, they saw feral dogs.
There was little said on the journey. Winnie had Liam in her arms, and tried to rock him to sleep. Eleanor did not want him to see the ghastly sights on the road. She tried to cover his eyes with her shawl, but he kept tearing it away. In the end, she told herself that he was too young to understand. Perhaps.
Still, the blight was incomplete. In the few green fields, wan, wasted families, dug desperately. But most fields were blackened, the pungent aroma of blight coming from them, and the unnerving sound of keening.
Close to Castlebar, they overtook gaunt people walking towards the town, some carrying children on their backs, or in turf panniers on their flanks. Once they passed a donkey carrying a child on either side. One was dead.
Eleanor thought perhaps they should have offered at least one family a place in the cart, but realised as soon as she had thought it that they could have fever.
Castlebar was as filthy as ever, open sewers running brown and green. The town was crowded with donkeys and carts drawn up along the streets. Most carried families with many, many more children.
‘So many donkeys,’ Winnie exclaimed. ‘I’d have thought they’d all be gone for eating by now.’
Michael steered the cart away from the workhouse, avoiding the desperate crowds.
As they left Castlebar, Winnie lay down.
‘I’m tired, mother,’ she said. ‘I slept little last night.’
‘Why didn’t you?’
‘Arra, I don’t know. Was it fear? Or maybe the thought of leaving ye all.’
‘Would you stop being silly,’ Eleanor replied. ‘You’ve got Luke waiting for you on the other side.’
Within minutes, Winnie was asleep. Eleanor lay back on the sacks alongside her. She closed her eyes, but she did not sleep.
She listened to the crunching of the wheels on the gravel, as Michael drove the donkey. He was a strong man, no doubt about it. Still, what could he do now? What could either of them do? Luke had gone to America, Winnie was following with little Liam, and Eleanor was certain that none of them would return.
Then there was Pat. For many years, she had thought that he would be the one to take over the farm and the quarry, when Michael was no longer able for either. Now he was in England, working with Danny, and she was certain that he would never return. Then she and Michael would have no sons on the farm.
She dozed for an hour. When she awoke, Winnie was leaning on her elbows, looking at her.
‘What were you thinking,’ she asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Eleanor said. ‘I was half asleep. I was just thinking of all the family, most all of Luke and yourself. It won’t be long now. Time for Liam to meet his father.’
The cart swayed as one wheel dropped into a hole in the loose gravel. The baby awoke.
‘And look at him,’ Eleanor said. ‘The nose of his father, that’s for sure.’
‘I think you’re joking,’ Winnie said, as she gave Liam her breast.
‘Who knows? But there’s one other thing on my mind. What about Pat? And what about this Sarah Cronin? I’ve always thought they were very close.’
‘They are,’ Winnie said. ‘I’ve little doubt of that.’
‘Do you think they’ll marry though? That’s the question, isn’t it?’
‘I don’t know,’ Winnie said. ‘It all depends on Pat now. What will his station in life be? That’s what her mother will be thinking.’
‘I think you’re right,’ Eleanor said. ‘But will he stay in England working with Danny, or can he get a good opening here in Mayo? Or Dublin even?’
‘Hard to say,’ Winnie responded. ‘If he comes home, they could marry, but why would he come home? If he gets a place clerking with the County like he was before, then he’ll come home and they’ll marry for certain. Otherwise he’ll stay in England.’
‘But if he stays working with Danny, would Sarah go to England?’
‘Who knows?’ Winnie said. ‘And that’s the real question, isn’t it?’
The cart had stopped.
‘What’s wrong?’ Eleanor asked.
‘Would you have a look at this?’ Michael replied.
Eleanor and Winnie sat up. Around them was a scene of devastation. There were houses, some fully flattened, most with broken walls, the roofs either collapsed or burnt. Listless creatures were picking through the ruins. A few soldiers stood by, looking quite bored. There were more sitting alongside a ruined rafter, playing cards; their guns stacked beside them.
‘Oh, Mother of God!’ Eleanor exclaimed. ‘What have they done? What in God’s name have they done?’
‘Maybe someone can tell us,’ Winnie said.
‘No,’ Eleanor answered, shaking her head in horror. ‘Let’s just get you to Westport.’
Michael flicked the reins. They drove on in silence. Along the side of the road there was the debris of the eviction – broken furniture, abandoned carts, farm implements too heavy to carry. All the shattered wreckage of an undeclared war.
But Eleanor was already thinking of other things. Sarah was still on her mind. Sarah lived in Westport Workhouse where her mother worked as Matron.
As they neared Westport, the traffic on the road became heavier, as hundreds trudged the side of the road. Even in the ditches, the evictions went on, as policemen woke sleeping families and forced them to keep walking.
Some had donkeys. As before, many of them carried panniers containing young children, ribs protruding.
They passed one older boy riding a donkey, travelling on his own. His hands and arms were shrunken, his feet blue and horribly swollen. It was clear to Eleanor that he could not control the donkey.
‘He’ll have no chance of getting inside the workhouse,’ Eleanor said.
‘Not a hope in hell,’ Michael said.
A man stood by a wall, staring hopelessly at the pathetic scene. Eleanor asked him what had happened.
‘Lord Lucan’s evictions,’ he answered. ‘Kilmaclasser and up by Kilmeena and down towards Islandeady. Dozens of evictions, hundreds, thousands, the Lord knows how many. Lucan has crucified us.’
They drove towards Westport. Now the line of trudging people had become continuous. They slowed to a walking pace. At Westport, Michael led the donkey, forcing their way through the throngs of animals and humanity, and across to the docks.
When they arrived, Winnie and Eleanor shoved their way through the crowd outside the shipping office, leaving Michael to guard the cart.
The clerk brought his finger down the names.
‘A hundred and thirty from Mayo, you know.’
‘A good number,’ Eleanor said.
‘Ah yes, here it is. Winifred Ryan from Kilduff, that’s it.’
‘It’s leaving tomorrow on the tide, about noon time.’
‘So where now?’ Michael asked.
‘The Workhouse,’ Eleanor said. ‘Let’s visit Sarah.’
‘The Workhouse! Are you mad?’
‘We can try it at least.’
‘We won’t get near it.’
He tapped the donkey. As they drew closer, the crowds got denser and denser. Soldiers were keeping order, lined along the outside of the workhouse. Michael stopped and tied the donkey to a rail.
‘Here, I’ll go,’ he said.
‘Be careful,’ Eleanor said. Already she was feeling doubtful about her idea. The soldiers disturbed her. What was this? A war? Did it take a whole army to control Mayo?
It took a long time for Michael to return.
‘Well, what happened?’ Winnie asked.
‘I got all the way to the gate. Had to ask this soldier fellow – an officer, he was – to let me forward, and even then, there were inmates inside the gate keeping the people out. Anyone trying to climb the gate, they just pushed them back with sticks. But I got close enough to shout a message to one of the guards – told him I was looking for Sarah Cronin, and he heard that right enough. So he went off, returned in a minute and said no one was allowed near the infirmary. I told him Sarah wasn’t working in the infirmary, but he wouldn’t have any of it.’
‘I didn’t think Sarah was working in the infirmary, right enough,’ Winnie said.
‘Neither did I,’ Eleanor answered. ‘I’d understood she was in some class of clerking, but maybe she’s not. I know with her mother being Matron and that, she’d be in the infirmary often enough. Maybe Sarah was working there too.’
‘That would be dangerous,’ Winnie said.
‘It would. I hope she hasn’t got fever.’
‘We can only pray.’
Michael untied the donkey, and backed the cart into the road.
‘So where now,’ he asked.
‘We’ll have to find somewhere to stay the night.’ Eleanor said. ‘Not back the way we came though.’
‘You’re right,’ Michael said. He flicked the reins and followed around the side of the docks until he picked up a road heading west, with Clew Bay on their right. Half way between the coast and a small island, a three masted ship was under sail, a long bowsprit extending from the prow, seagulls wheeling behind it.
‘It might well be yours,’ Eleanor said.
‘It might, mother.’
‘What does it say there along the front?’
Winnie squinted, holding her hand to shield her eyes against the setting sun.
‘Vega. It’s the Vega.’
‘Philadelphia. That’s where it’s owned, I’d say.’
‘A good-looking ship, in any case,’ Michael said.
They looked for somewhere to bed down. It was clear that no one wanted to take them in.
‘Disease,’ Michael said. ‘They’re terrified we’d have fever.
‘I wouldn’t blame them,’ Eleanor said.
At length, one farmer brought them to an outside shed where there were no beggars sleeping.
‘There’s enough hay, so ye may rest easy,’ he said.
‘We will,’ Michael replied.
Next morning, they drove back to the quays. The Vega had berthed.
The crowd of people at the quayside were very different to those outside the workhouse. These people were not starving, though many were weeping.
Michael unloaded Winnie’s packs. A group of three girls were waiting on the quayside. They were better dressed than most. One broke away and came over to Winnie.
‘Oh, would you look at the little baby,’ she said. ‘Is it a he or a she?’
‘Is he coming too?’
‘He is,’ Winnie said. ‘Just the two of us.’
‘Why don’t ye travel with us then, yourself and the baby?
‘What are you on about,’ one of the other girls said. ‘That little scamp would keep us awake all night.’
‘Arra, would you stop that kind of nonsense,’ the first girl said. ‘He’ll be well looked after between the lot of us. How old is he?’
‘Nine months,’ Winnie said.
Already there were whistles blowing. Eleanor was surprised when Michael took Liam and kissed his forehead. She was even more surprised when Michael handed the baby to her, and hugged Winnie tightly.
‘Make sure to come back and visit us,’ he said, ‘and make sure to bring that husband of yours with you.’
‘I will,’ Winnie said, ‘I promise.’
She boarded the ship with the three girls. Eleanor bit her lip. How long would the ship really take to reach New York? And when would they return? Winnie had promised, but what of that? They would never return, Luke neither.
Her eyes were wet. Go cold. It can’t be helped.
They stood on the dock with the crowd, waving, as Winnie waved Liam’s tiny hand from the deck. Then the ship was moving. It sailed out through the islands of Clew Bay and into the Atlantic Ocean.
The Pilot, Dublin. August 1848.
Shrule, Co. Mayo. Blight in 1848! 450 houses levelled. From Michael Phew, Parish Priest. It is awful to know, as I do, that within the circumference of four miles in this district, that there are no less than 450 houses levelled within the last three months, and the families residing in these houses were tossed out of them, and are now to be seen by the ditches and roadsides without any shelter in the shape of a cabin to keep them warm by day or by night, and without even half enough to eat, looking like spectres, moving skeletons, crawling along the highways. May the great and merciful God commiserate with them in their wants!
Eleanor and Michael made for home. He took side streets to avoid the workhouse. Many were open sewers stinking with shit and piss, but even so, families sat or slept along the walls at the side.
They cleared Westport, driving out the road towards Castlebar. As they passed the wall surrounding Lord Sligo’s estate, Michael pointed out where their convoy had been attacked a year or two before, as they had returned, carrying relief corn from the Westport docks, to the soup kitchens in Kilduff.
‘You never spoke much about that,’ Eleanor observed.
‘Maybe I didn’t want to. It’s a hard thing fighting starving men and women.’
‘But if you hadn’t fought them, the corn would never have made Kilduff, and our own people would have been starving. Wasn’t that the way of it?’
‘True for you,’ Michael said. ‘But it was a savage battle, I can tell you. One fellow near killed me with a rock, but Luke got him first.’
Outside Westport, most of the houses between the wreckage were mere mud cabins. The people were digging potatoes in the afternoon sunshine, but while a small number of fields were untouched by blight, most were already black. Eleanor thought there were more blackened fields than when they had come in, but perhaps she was imagining it.
What kind of people were these? The kind of starving men and women who had attacked the Kilduff convoy. No different here than all around Kilduff though, or Carrigard either. They were not even tenants, she guessed, and doubted that any could read or write, nor sign their name beyond an ‘X’. Not to say that she herself could read well, not like the rest of her family. Eleanor herself came from the Mountain, and there was little call for reading or writing there. But, as with so many around Carrigard, these people here would never even see money. Their small ridges of potatoes were all they had, and rent was paid in labour, not in cash. And now the potatoes were gone; once again, they had nothing.
Beyond Westport, it was raining. ‘Let’s shelter a while, Michael,’ she said.
Among the shattered houses, they spotted one where the roof had collapsed in the centre but still clung to the walls at the gable end.
‘In here,’ he said.
It was dark inside and Michael stood at the splintered window, holding the donkey. As Eleanor’s eyes became accustomed to the dark, she realized there were people inside. One woman and four children. A heap of rags lay in the corner. She could hear the squeaking of rats, and smell the stink of rotting flesh.
‘Ocras,’ the woman murmured. Hunger.
But Eleanor knew they had little to give. Did they provide charity, or did they protect themselves? A hard question.
‘What has happened here?’ she asked.
‘The agents of Lord Lucan,’ the woman whispered. ‘They would have us here no longer. They drove us from the houses.’
‘A terrible thing.’
‘Worse than terrible. A violent afternoon, wet and windy, and the night the same. I lost one of my daughters that night. But when the tumblers had done their work, we crept back in here and stayed since. And now my son. He has died too.’
‘God help us all,’ Eleanor said.
They left before the rain had stopped. Eleanor could no longer bear being there, though she did not want to upset the woman by leaving too soon. But they had to.
‘We didn’t leave them any food,’ she said.
‘That’s right, we didn’t,’ Michael said. ‘We’ve little enough of our own.’
In Castlebar, they saw the same scenes as in Westport, as wasted people slogged towards the workhouse. There was much military activity in the town, far more than before. The military barracks was heavily guarded.
‘It wasn’t like that, and we going out,’ Michael said.
‘No indeed,’ Eleanor said. ‘I wonder why it is now.’
More dead bodies in the streets. Even more out the road towards Kilduff. The rain had cleared, and at last the sun came out’ steam rising from Michael’s shirt.
It was dark when they arrived in Kilduff. A waning moon hung in the sky. No more bodies in the streets, though perhaps it was just too dark to see them.
In Carrigard, the house was warm. Kitty held her finger to her lips.
‘She’s asleep, don’t be waking her now.’
She took three cups and a bottle of poitín.
‘There’s strange news afoot.’
‘What’s that,’ Eleanor asked.
‘There’s revolution,’ Kitty said. ‘The country is in rebellion.’
Michael looked up. ‘What’s that you say?’
‘Revolution,’ Kitty said. ‘They’re all talking of it. There’s desperate fighting going on in Tipperary and Kilkenny, thousands of people fighting the police and army. They’re burning the trains, and there’s places the army is refusing to fight.’
‘Is it war?’ Eleanor asked.
‘It is. And it’d be more of a war if the army would stand and fight.’
‘Who told you all this?’ Michael asked.
‘We went up to town yesterday, Brigid and myself. The cattle drovers, they’re talking of nothing else. They’re saying Dublin is to be taken over too. They’re wanting change in the government. They’re saying we won’t have to pay any rent anymore.’
‘I wish I could believe that,’ Michael said, ‘but I don’t think I’ll live to see that day. I saw enough of ’98. They slaughtered us then, and they’ll slaughter us now.’
The day dawned bright, with a near cloudless sky.
Over the shoulder of the Mountain, Nephin stood sharp; brown against blue. Kitty and Eleanor stood outside the half door.
‘I’d better go home, and feed the brute,’ Kitty said. ‘I don’t know that he’s able to cook for himself, the state of him.’
Eleanor handed her a groat.
‘Fourpence might help.’
‘Arra, not at all. Sure it was a pleasure feeding little Brigid, and having the odd bit of your food.’
But Eleanor insisted. Kitty took the coin, and left to walk home to the side of the Mountain.
Eleanor went up towards the cornfield to call Michael for his breakfast. She was surprised to see him scything.
‘I thought we’d better make a start, seeing as the day that’s in it,’ he said. ‘We mightn’t get more days like this.’
The corn was harvested rapidly. It was now the only immediate source of food on the farm. The weather was warm and continued so. Every morning, Michael was up before sunrise, and Eleanor accompanied him. Mostly, it was Michael who scythed the corn, but sometimes he would pass the scythe to Eleanor while he rested.
She carried Brigid up to the fields, lying her in a blanket, where she slept ‘till sunrise and played most of the day. She, at least, thought it was all fun, chasing the frogs that leapt out ahead of the scythe.
They worked long hours, from sunup to sundown. As the scything progressed, the sheaves of corn were stooked, and before the harvesting was finished, the early stooked corn was already being threshed.
Every night, one of them stood guard high up by the rath, where all the fields and house could be seen from one single vantage point. As the weather continued warm, the nights were clear. On one occasion, Eleanor thought she saw movement in the fields, but when she came closer, there was no one there, or perhaps there had been, but he had left. She slept late that morning, leaving Michael to work on his own.
She was proud of Michael’s strength as a scytheman. Most men could manage a half acre a day, but Michael cut half as much again through the long, long days. Whatever his age, he could still work hard. When she was younger, he used to entertain her with stories of working with other Mayo men on the English harvests, during the time of the French wars.
And then it was over. The corn was saved. That night, the rains started.
‘And, by God, that was good timing,’ Michael said.
The corn too was taken into the house where it could not be stolen. Michael decided they should keep it, and pay the rent using the money from Luke and Pat. Eleanor knew the high price of corn had tempted him to sell some at least of what he had, but that would destroy their own food reserves. For the next months, they must depend on Pat. It was hardly a month since Luke’s last letter with the remittance, most of which had been spent on Winnie’s ticket for New York. She doubted there would be another letter from America for some time. Either way though, their own food reserves and their reserves of cash meant that the family would not starve.
She thought again about Michael’s insistence on always paying the rent, regardless of any other calls for cash. What would happen if they refused? Was Mr. Burke in a position to do anything about it if they did? Or would he be ruthless enough to evict them? In the end, she knew she had no say in the matter. Michael would pay the rent, and there was no question of their being evicted.
But if the Ryans were secure, they lived in an ocean of increasing horror. Yes, there were other families who were receiving remittances from England and America, but these were few, and with many of them the few shillings received could never be enough.
The stories filtered back to Carrigard in different ways. Whenever Kitty came down, she brought desperate stories from the Mountain and the farms around. On one occasion, Michael walked five miles to Knockanure to buy a spade handle. She guessed that he was only walking off his own powerlessness. When he returned, he was quieter than before and would not discuss what he had seen or heard, either in Knockanure or on the road.
But the early talk of revolution had died down. Kitty did not mention it again on any of her visits, but that was not surprising since she lived well out of town, and was not close to sources of news. In any case, starvation around the Mountain was worse, and people had other things to think of.
One morning, when she was in Kilduff, she called into McKinnons’ on her way home.
The bar was dark, with a candle burning at either end of the counter. Four men sat around a table by the far wall, smoking at clay pipes with their drink. It was warm, and the fireplace was empty, stacked sods of turf alongside.
Sabina looked morose. This surprised Eleanor. Michael’s sister was not one to be easily put down. She handed Eleanor a gin, and waved away Eleanor’s coin.
‘Not that there’s much other business,’ she said. ‘The fellows down the end, they nurse their pints all day. All they talk of is the rebellion in Ballingarry, and I’m sick of it.’
‘I’m sure you are, but we hear nothing.’
‘Arra what. They were all on about it for weeks, they’re much quieter now. Damned if I know what’s happening.’
There was less need for Eleanor to go to Kilduff now. They had enough corn for now, but sometimes she bought a few pounds at Dillon’s, if only to listen to the talk of the women around her. In many ways, it troubled her, and even put her at risk of fever. Still, she had to keep abreast of what was happening in Mayo, and through the women’s gossip, she heard the reality of famine.
The failure of the potato had caused outright panic. The appearance of the potatoes in June and July had brought back confidence, but the total blight of August resulted in terror. Many people resigned themselves to death, but others fought for life.
She knew too that all the workhouses were either penniless, or close to it. She heard that roadworks for Famine Relief had started again, but it was as nothing compared to what it had been in the winter of ‘46. Starvation was back, and with it, fever. Week by week, the number of deaths climbed. Now, she heard no one was being buried with coffins, and very few were even buried in churchyards. The priests tried to bring more corpses to trenches within consecrated ground. But, as the level of deaths soared, these too were filled, and new trenches were dug out along the Castlebar road, and hastily blessed. And still, the death carts clattered past Carrigard, jangling her nerves.
The women in the corn line were panicked by fever, and often no one would even approach houses or cabins where it was known to be present. Families died in total isolation. Sometimes the houses were tumbled over them, sometimes they were not. Many were buried in ditches and bog holes by people who were too scared to give them a proper burial. The rats feasted on the remains. She did not need the women to tell her this. Every time she went to Kilduff, she heard the squeaking from the ruins of the cabins, and from the ditches along the road where bodies and skeletons still lay.
And the flight from the land went on. Hordes of people passed through Kilduff and Carrigard.
‘Erris and Achill, that’s where they’re all coming from,’ Sabina said one day. ‘Partry too, I’ve heard.’
‘You’re right,’ Eleanor said. ‘And you know what I’m thinking, there’s many out there who’ll never make Dublin, let alone Liverpool.’
‘There’s many won’t even make it out of Mayo.’
She lay awake that night, listening to the wind rustling the leaves among the ash and birch trees.
Sabina was right, she thought. And it’s not just young people that are fleeing. Now the babies and old people escape with them. They dream of America, but there’s crowds of them will never get that far, nor nowhere near it. Even if they make it to the ports, the fever ships are waiting; death stalks the ocean trails. Oh God.
Were they the guilty ones? They were guilty of nothing. What difference does it make to You? What difference did it ever make to You? Guilty or not, they’ll suffer Your anger and pay Your price.
Oh, to hell with it, I’ll have to stop thinking like this. It only upsets me.
Manchester Times, July 1848.
Liverpool. Several thousand special constables have been sworn in, and for the last few days the police have been exercised in the use of firearms, in addition to the sword exercise, and, liking the task, have attained great efficiency. About 600 additional policemen have been appointed. The additional soldiery who have already arrived are the entire regiment with the exception of one company of the 9th Infantry, three companies of the 31st Infantry, and three or four troops of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoons. A brigade of artillery has also arrived from Chester; and an official communication has been received that another body of 1,000 men will arrive here direct from London. Several hundreds of the servants of the Dock Trust have been sworn in as special constables, and a strong extra guard has been placed around the docks. Several thousand stand of arms have been received from Chester.
Danny was dead.
Pat was stunned. Since he had come to England again some months before, he had been working with his cousin, and he knew Danny as a ruthless man. Scrupulous too. Yet here he was being told that Danny had had an accident on the railways. That such an accident could have happened on the Manchester & Birmingham Line was bewildering for two reasons. First, none of Danny’s contracts were on that line, so why was he there? Second, it had happened on one of the longest straights in England. How could Danny have fallen under a train that would have been visible for miles? Had he been drunk or what?
It fell to Murtybeg to identify Danny’s corpse, but he asked Pat to accompany him. As the clerks went on their eleven o’clock break, they stepped outside, and flagged a hansom cab.
‘You’ve no idea how thankful I am,’ Murtybeg said. ‘This is not going to be easy.’
‘I know,’ Pat said. ‘Your own brother…’
‘Yes, it’s rough. Not that it’d be much easier on you. Still, I think you’re more used to this kind of thing than I am.’
‘Because I lived longer in Mayo?’
‘Perhaps. But still, we’ve both got to face it. Danny killed himself.’
‘But how can we know that?’
‘We can’t know for sure. The police say he stood out on the track, straight in front of the train, as if he knew what he was doing. Leastwise, that’s what they say the driver said.’
‘He would say that, wouldn’t he?’ Pat said. ‘Do you believe him though?’
‘I don’t know,’ Murtybeg said, ‘I’m inclined to believe him. It’s like I told you, Danny was under giant pressure, between the business and Irene.’
‘Yes,’ Pat said, ‘even I knew that.’
‘That woman, she had him where she wanted him. That’s what it was. Danny knew he had no chance. He had to marry her, and that was an end to it. If he tried anything else, she’d bring the business down. You know, Pat, it’s a strange thing when you think about it. Most men might look forward to marriage, and with good reason. But Danny was terrified of it.’
‘It’s hard to believe,’ Pat said.
‘Hard enough. We all thought of Danny as a right tough fellow, but I don’t know, these tough men are never quite what they seem.’
‘I know. I’ve met fellows like that. Hard as nails on the outside, but it’s all for show. Hiding what they really are.’
‘You’re right. But, like I say, there were other burdens on him.’
‘The Manchester & Salford Bank. He was in some kind of trouble with them, but what it was, I’ve no idea.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘For God’s sake, Pat, do you not see what’s under your own eyes.’
‘I haven’t been here as long.’
‘I know. But I think there was worse than that.’
‘What, in God’s name, could be worse?’ Pat asked.
‘That Inspector fellow who kept calling.’
‘Wasn’t that about the killings on the railway works?’
‘But sure that was nothing to do with Danny. Surely you’re not saying…’
‘That’s just what I’m saying, Pat. I think Danny was more tied up in those killings than we thought.’
‘Even worse, I reckon the Molly Maguire gang was part of it.’
Pat sat back in silence, looking out at the streets of Stockport. There were beggars on every corner. Irish? What else?
What Murtybeg said had really stunned him. Had Danny really been in trouble with the Bank? And with the law? Working with the worst Irish gang in England. Impossible.
They were coming to the morgue.
They paid off the cabbie and went inside. The mortuary attendant brought them down a long corridor, and opened a steel door into a long, white-tiled room. Light poured in through six windows along one wall. Along the other wall were six benches, two with uncovered cadavers, one male, one female. Two canvases covered more cadavers, feet protruding. Each had a label tied to a toe. On one bench, there was only one foot, bloodied and broken. The label read ‘Daniel Ryan. Male.’
Even with all he had seen of famine in Mayo, Pat was not prepared for the shock when the canvas was whipped back. Danny’s body was shredded and covered in dried blood, turning brown. What remained had been pushed together to give some appearance of a human form.
‘It’s what happens to all of them,’ the attendant said. ‘Step in front of a train and they think it’s all over, just like that. What they forget is what happens to the body afterwards. The train takes hundreds of yards to stop, and rips them to bits as it does.’
‘You think he killed himself?’ Murtybeg asked.
‘That’s what I heard. It’s what the driver said. He just stood out between the tracks, of his own free will.’
Murtybeg slumped forward, but caught the edge of the bench and steadied himself.
‘How did you know his name?’ Pat asked.
‘There was a contract of some sort in his pocket, with his name and address on it.’
‘Where is it now?’
The man shrugged. ‘The police might have it.’
Murtybeg was weeping. Pat wondered how long it was since he had last done that. Not since they were children. Or was it? He remembered the time he had brought Murtybeg to Knockanure Workhouse to recruit inmates as railway navvies. Murtybeg had broken down on that occasion, but the sight of the mass grave at the back of the workhouse was enough to break any man who was not used to it.
He put his arm around Murtybeg’s shoulder.
‘Come on, Murteen. Time to go.’
‘You haven’t identified him,’ the attendant said.
Murtybeg couldn’t speak, but simply nodded his head.
‘That’s Daniel Ryan right enough,’ Pat said. ‘No doubt about it.’
The man took a pen, dipped it in ink, and handed it to Pat.
Pat signed. He passed the pen to Murtybeg, took his hand, and brought it to the paper.
‘Just here, Murteen.’
Murtybeg signed, and they left.
Pat hailed a cab.
‘Well, what do you think, Pat?’ Murtybeg asked. ‘Did he fall, was he pushed, or did he do it himself?’
Pat shook his head in bewilderment. ‘There’s only one answer, Murteen. He did it of his own wish. But damn it to hell, I still find it hard to believe.’
Murtybeg said nothing more and was silent all the way back to Stockport.
Dinner too was a silent affair. Murtybeg said little, beyond confirming to Irene that he had identified Danny’s corpse. Pat was thinking of their shock when the attendant had shown them the corpse. Did men like that enjoy the drama of that moment. A body torn asunder under a train. Many a tougher man would have found it hard to take the sight of a train-kill. Worse than the fever dead in Mayo? Perhaps.
But he was thinking of other things too. He could not take his eyes off Irene. Yes, she was a good-looking woman, with a striking figure, and the black dress highlighted her figure far more. Once, he thought he saw Murtybeg looking at Irene in the same way, but dismissed it from his mind. Murtybeg had been too overcome by the day’s events.
But what of Irene? No tears! He had always reckoned her a tough woman, but this poise, this self-control, was something he had never seen in a woman before. Coldness in the face of death.
Had Danny really been frightened of her? He had reckoned Danny as being a tough man, and Irene was surely tough too. A match made in heaven? Perhaps not. He could think of marriages that were poisoned because both husband and wife had been like that, and could never agree. What Murtybeg had suggested was different though. Irene was the tougher one, and she had controlled Danny in a way that drove him to kill himself.
There was another factor though. Danny’s parents had left him. Murty was Danny’s own father – Murtybeg’s too – and he held that the way Edwardes & Ryan was being managed was wrong. Immoral, even. He saw the way Danny and Irene were importing cheap, starving Mayo labour from the west coast of Ireland. In the end, Murty had not been able to take it, and working with the Gilligan gang on the Leeds & Thirsk railway was far preferable to working with Edwardes & Ryan, Danny’s own business. That must have been a real slap in the face for Danny.
And Murtybeg, for that matter.
After dinner, Pat and Murtybeg stayed behind.
Murtybeg fetched two glasses from the cupboard. Crystal glass, as Pat noted. Waterford perhaps? Danny had been trying to create an impression, essential, as he had understood it, to a man who was rising in the world as a labour contractor on the railways.
Without asking, Murtybeg poured brandy. His hands were trembling, and the neck of the bottle rattled against the glass as he poured. He handed a glass to Pat.
Pat sipped at it. Even with no knowledge of brandies, he knew it was of a high quality.
‘I’m sorry,’ Murtybeg said. ‘That all gave me a hell of a shock.’
‘I know,’ Pat said, ‘Sure I wasn’t much better myself.’
‘And father and mother. One way or another, I’m going to have to tell them. I’ll have to write.’
‘What’ll you say?’
‘Just that Danny met with an accident. We don’t need to say any more.’
‘It’ll be a terrible blow to them.’
‘I know,’ Murtybeg said. ‘Father is strong, though. But Mother? You know how feeble she is.’
When Murtybeg had finished, Pat wrote to Michael in Carrigard, only saying that Danny was dead, without any further information. As he was writing, Murtybeg sat on a chair by the empty grate. Then he gulped back the rest of the brandy.
‘I’m going to bed,’ he said.
‘I’ll follow after,’ Pat said.
At last, he finished the letter. Then he went and stood outside the house, staring at the stars over the viaduct and the mills.
What was his future now? Could he work alongside a woman like Irene? Could Murtybeg?
The next morning, Pat was surprised when Murtybeg told him there was to be a meeting with Irene in the boardroom. He was more surprised to note that Irene sat in Danny’s seat. She was still dressed as a widow. But she was no widow. She and Danny had never married.
Murtybeg made to speak, but then said nothing.
‘Well,’ Irene said, ‘back to business. Let’s see what the figures are looking like now. Pat – you’ve been going through them, haven’t you? Eighty men gone. What’s our nett outgoings now? Are we still losing cash?’
‘We are,’ Pat said. ‘The drop in prices on the Anderson contracts will be more than we had supposed.’
‘I know, she said, ‘and we’ve another problem too. The loan is on overdraft only. The Manchester & Salford could call it in at any time.’
‘Danny never told me that.’
‘Perhaps he didn’t want you to know.’
‘So what should we do?’
‘There’s only one thing we can do. Let more workers go. Will you see to it?’
‘I’ll have a word with Johnny Roughneen straight away.’
Murtybeg had said nothing. He was staring at Irene in an odd sort of way. Wondering perhaps at how a woman could control her grief like that. Or have none.
At Danny’s funeral, Irene put on a superb performance. Again, she was in black. Her dress was tight, and she wore a black, translucent veil, swept back with her long hair.
Pat was a little surprised that she could weep after all, but was it genuine? She sat in the front pew, accepting condolences alongside Murtybeg and Pat – the line went on forever.
He thought it odd that she could do all this in a Catholic Church. Perhaps it was all a front. Many of the men and women in the line were sub-contractors to Edwardes & Ryan, and Pat had little doubt they were concerned about the future of the business.
There were others too. Roy Anderson was there. He was a larger contractor in the Manchester area. He was the man who had given Danny his first contract in 1846. How Anderson & Co. might be doing in the present market was an open question, but Anderson did not seem to be concerned. He was the one who had reduced prices to Danny. He did appear to be genuine in his sorrow though.
Murtybeg’s parents had not been there, but as they carried the coffin down the aisle, Pat saw Murty usher Aileen into a pew at the back of the church. Murty nodded to them as they passed. After they had lowered the coffin onto the hearse, Pat found them in the crowd. Roughneen was already talking to them. He went across. Aileen was weeping. Pat embraced her.
‘I’m sorry we’re so late,’ Murty said. ‘The trains were running late, and with this crowd, it was near on impossible to fight our way into the church.’
‘I understand,’ Pat said.
Murty took his arm, as they made their way out of the crowd.
‘How could this have happened, Pat?’ Murty asked. ‘Danny was careful, not a man for accidents.’
‘It was no accident.’
Murty’s eyes opened wide. ‘Murder!’
‘Madness, more like, Danny killed himself.’
Murty’s chin dropped. He took some time to compose himself.
‘But why…but how could they know?’
‘We can’t be certain,’ Pat said. ‘That’s what the train driver said, I understand.’
‘But why in hell…?’
‘Sure you know enough about it yourself. The markets are dropping, the railways are cutting back, the business is in a tough way. That’s if Danny showed you what was going on. I know you had some idea, but from what I hear, there were other things too. The Manchester & Salford Bank – there was a lot of money owing.’
‘But did no one know about this?’
‘Irene did. And I reckon she was another burden on him.’
‘One hell of a burden. He was just a few weeks from marrying her. Murtybeg reckons he wanted out of it, but he couldn’t see how.’
‘But why not?’
‘Who do you think is running the business? And always was, ever since she arrived.’
‘A tough lady, eh?’
‘Damned tough. But sure we always knew that.’
‘So what now?’
‘God only knows,’ Pat said. ‘But tell me this. Aunty Aileen? How’s she taking it?’
Murty turned away from him for a moment. He turned back, not looking at Pat.
‘Well, you know what Aileen’s like. Do you know, she hasn’t said a single word since we left the house? No crying, just hush.’
Murtybeg ran over.
‘Would you come over, you two. We’ve been looking for you everywhere.’
They returned to where the cortège was forming and mounted the carriage behind the hearse. Irene and Aileen were already sitting side by side in silence. Pat observed Aileen closely, all the way to the graveyard and during the interment. He knew the silence was only a passive surface hiding the turmoil beneath.
But what was Irene thinking?
Murty and Aileen stayed in the hotel beside Stockport Station. The next morning, Pat and Murtybeg joined them for breakfast in the hotel.
Again, Pat embraced Aileen. ‘I’m sorry, Aunty Aileen.’
‘He was my son,’ she murmured in Irish. ‘Whatever he’s done.’
Murty looked up, surprised that Aileen had spoken. ‘He was, alanna’ he said. ‘He was our son.’
They sat down to breakfast.
‘How are you finding the Leeds & Thirsk?’ Murtybeg asked.
‘As good as can be,’ Murty answered. ‘As you know, I’m working as a clerk with Gilligan and the lads. They ask no labour of me, though sometimes I give them a hand out with the shovelling. Nothing near as fast as those fellows though. Not at my age.’
‘Your age?’ Pat asked.
‘Sixty. Sixty-one close enough. Who cares?’
‘You’re better than most, so. There’s many a navvy would be well past it by that age.’
‘Me too,’ Murty said. ‘Still, digging the potatoes back home gave me some amount of practice. But I’ll never know how those fellows can keep going the way they do. They’re all powerful men. There’s only one snag though. Our contract on the railway will be coming to an end. We’re hoping that Gilligan will be able to get another one for us, but who knows.’
Murtybeg looked at him in alarm. ‘But could ye get another contract with Brassey? That’s the question, isn’t it?’
‘It is. There’s talk of contracts in and around Bradford, but I don’t know if they’d be Brassey contracts. And if they’re not, we’d not be able to work as a gang in the way we’re used to. And there sure as hell wouldn’t be any call for a clerk.’
‘Yes,’ Murtybeg said, ‘it could be a difficult state of affairs.’ He leaned back in his chair. ‘Would you not come back working with Edwardes & Ryan? I know it’s a hard thing to say, but Danny’s gone. Wasn’t it him you had the differences with?’
‘Him and his woman.’
‘But I’ll be running the place now.’
‘Will you?’ Murty asked. ‘Will you really? Will you end up the kind of man that Danny was? Or will that damned bitch of a woman break you too?’
For some days now, news had been trickling across the Irish Sea. Blight again? That was hardly surprising. There was already blight in the English potato crop, and Pat knew at some time it would have to arrive in Ireland. He was sending money to his own family, three pounds a few weeks ago. In some ways that settled his conscience. But what about all the other people around Carrigard and Kilduff? Who knows? And the rumours now were frightening.
He walked into Stockport and bought another money order for two pounds to send to Carrigard.
Should he be sending so much, though? Could he really afford it?
Could he afford not to?
But the Famine was not his only concern. Danny’s suicide would change Edwardes & Ryan. That was for certain. The thought of working under a woman like Irene disturbed him even more than before. He suspected there would be some kind of power struggle within the business. The question was – would Irene or Murtybeg come out on top? And even if Murtybeg won out, how could he do it? He would have to be rough to take on a woman like Irene. What kind of man could do that? Could Pat work under Murtybeg in the future?
He decided to wait it out, and see. But then a letter arrived that changed everything.
Murtybeg handed it to him.
‘Castlebar and Kilduff. It’s been redirected.’
Pat took it. ‘Looks like father’s writing underneath.’
He slit the envelope open.
‘It’s from Gaffney.’
‘The fellow we met in the Union in Castlebar?’
‘That’s right. Seems from his letter he doesn’t know I’m in England though. He’s heard I lost my job at the Union in Knockanure. That’s why he wrote to me at Carrigard. He’s offering me a post in Castlebar.’
‘In Castlebar!’ Murtybeg echoed.
‘Well, based in Castlebar perhaps. They’re looking for someone to ride around the County and make reports back to Castlebar. He wants someone to talk to the Unions, talk to the priests, and observe.’
‘Observe? Strange word.’
‘That’s his word. He wants someone who’s not afraid to go into cabins, and see how the people are. Report back on hunger, fever, crops, burials, evictions – anything and everything. And I must say, the money isn’t bad either. Three shillings a day, by God.’
‘That’s far less than we’re paying you.’
‘It is,’ Pat said, ‘but even so, it’s a good wage, and I’ll be able to help father on the farm.’
‘But why you? There’s many another in Mayo would jump at it.’
‘He doesn’t say anything about that. Still, I’m guessing it’s because he knows me already from all the times I’ve met him and knows I’ve good practise at clerking in Knockanure Union. I think too, the fact that I’m Luke’s brother would have weighed in his thinking. He knew Luke well.’
‘So what will you do?’
‘I’ll think about it.’
Once again, Pat was torn. In some ways, he had come over to England against his better judgement, especially in view of Danny’s ways of working. In the end, he had adjusted to this and had compromised in the very same way as Murtybeg had. He thought back to the navvy’s moll he had once met in a shack on the railway. ‘You’re no better than the rest of them,’ she had said, after he carried out Danny’s sackings. She had been right. Had he compromised too much?
Irene was still in his thoughts. He was beginning to think, much as he and Murtybeg might resist, she was going to be the real power in Edwardes & Ryan. In many ways, she was at a disadvantage as a woman, since the rough-cut contractors and railway negotiators would not deal with women. But she had Murtybeg and Pat to do that. Roughneen and Lavan too. As against this, her tough negotiations with the horse dealers, the timber merchants and the other traders who supplied Edwardes & Ryan showed a ruthlessness that few men ever expected, but that Pat and Murtybeg knew all too well. Danny too, before he had killed himself.
There were other good reasons for accepting Gaffney’s offer.
Carrigard was one. He would be needed on the farm, if not now, later.
And Sarah was another.
Before he left Ireland, they were beginning to plan their lives together. Now, she was in Mayo, and he was in Stockport. Sarah was an attractive woman, there was no doubt about that. Would other men see her in the same way? Most certainly. If he really wanted to win Sarah, he would have to return.
There was one single reason against returning.
Gaffney wanted Pat to observe Mayo, and Pat was frightened of what he might observe.
For a few days, he thought about it, and discussed it with Murtybeg, who had been sworn to secrecy. At length, he decided for Mayo and wrote to Gaffney, indicating his acceptance. Within a week, he had a reply confirming his position.
He wrote to his mother and father to inform them he was returning, and a similar letter to Sarah in Westport.
Irene, when he told her, did not seem in any way concerned. Pat knew that Murtybeg was the one who was really worried. As long as Pat was with him, he had some strength against her. With Pat gone, it would be hard to predict how matters might turn out between Murtybeg and Irene.
The next day, matters changed again. He received a letter direct from Sarah. He saw from the date that they had crossed in the post – she had written to him on the same day as he had written to her. He opened it in pleasant anticipation, but what he received was a shock.
Sarah’s mother, Mrs. Cronin, was opposed to any further contact.
As head Matron in Westport Workhouse, she saw Sarah’s future in better terms than being married to a railway labourer. It appeared, that while Mrs. Cronin might have once been satisfied with Pat, that was when he was a clerk in what, at the time, was a permanent position. But his salary as a clerk in Knockanure Workhouse had dropped according as the workhouse moved closer to bankruptcy. It would be impossible to explain all that to Mrs. Cronin. He was earning far more with Edwardes & Ryan than he could in any clerical position in County Mayo. Nor was he a labourer, as Sarah herself pointed out in her letter, but it was impossible to convince Mrs. Cronin of this.
Now Gaffney had invited him back to Mayo in a good position. The only problem was that Pat suspected that this would not be a permanent position. Then what future would there be when he was no longer a clerk in Mayo? Return to England? Or farm again in Mayo? Either way, Mrs. Cronin would not consent, that much was clear, and Pat could not expect Sarah to go against her own mother.
He decided to say nothing to anyone. He was too hurt to think clearly.
Next morning, Murtybeg accompanied him to the station in a cab.
‘Don’t you have work to do?’ Pat asked.
‘I’m sure Edwardes & Ryan can do without me for an hour.’
‘I wouldn’t know about that. That woman’ll have taken it over – lock, stock and barrel – if you’re away too long a time.’
Murtybeg slapped him on the back.
‘Well, thank God, we’re still able to laugh.’
At the station, a troop of cavalry stood across the street. They were being led by an officer, who wore a blue uniform with red piping, a Maltese cross on his shako. He was riding a tall chestnut horse, which pranced forward and back. Nervous perhaps? The officer made no attempt to control it, though the horses behind all stood in line, unmoving.
‘Who the devil are they?’ Pat asked the cabbie.
‘Those fellows, sir? That’s the Cheshire Yeomanry.’
‘What are they doing over here so? Aren’t they based in Chester.’
‘Oh, they are, but these lot, they’ll be the Stockport Troop. They’re based right here. They’re well spread around, the Cheshires are. They keep them in reserve so as to send them in whenever there’s trouble. They were in the Peterloo massacre. A savage lot. Pack of bloody murderers.’
‘That was all a long time ago,’ Pat commented.
‘Twenty or thirty years, who knows? They’ll never be forgotten for it though. And whenever there’s trouble – Liverpool, Manchester, Bradford, Leeds or wherever – they’ll have those fellows in. They’re off back to Chester now, I understand. Something to do with revolution in Ireland.’
‘Just because you know my accent…’
‘No, sir, it’s what they’re saying. It’s all over town. Though for my tuppence worth, I reckon it’s just an excuse to get them nearer to Liverpool. There’s talk of rioting there too.’
Murtybeg paid off the cab, and they walked around the horses and into the station.
‘Was he serious?’ Pat asked.
‘That bit about revolution in Ireland.’
‘Damned if I know, though he seemed to know enough about it.’
Pat bought the ticket. They both walked along the platform. Pat stepped into the carriage and stood by his pack inside the door.
‘You take care of yourself, Murteen,’ he said. ‘And watch your back.’
The train pulled out towards Manchester. The Manchester & Birmingham Line. The one that killed Danny. Let’s not think about that.
In Manchester, he changed for Liverpool. He settled into a comfortable carriage for the journey.
Going home to Mayo at last. Soon to meet the family. He knew his remittances had been vital, but what of the price of corn? Did they have enough to last out the winter?
Lime Street Station. Liverpool at last.
As the train came to a halt, he was not surprised to see more of the Cheshire Yeomanry disembarking from an open train on the other side of the platform. What did surprise him was the artillery; with horses yoked up to the gun carriages and the ammunition caissons. Already, a crowd was gathering around them.
‘That’ll sort the bloody Irish out,’ a woman in front of him said. ‘They’ll have enough of their bloody revolutions by the time our fellows are finished with them.’
Pat did not reply. He had no desire for his accent to be recognized.
One of the women tapped a young yeoman on the shoulder. ‘When are ye sailing?’
‘We’re not sailing at all,’ the soldier replied. ‘We’re for Liverpool, not for Ireland.’
‘Liverpool? Are you mad?’
‘You don’t have to go all the way to Ireland to find Irish rebels, you know. There’s plenty of them here in Liverpool. But don’t worry. They’ve thousands of us out at Everton. We’ll sort out the Irish Clubs. Show them who’s top dog in Liverpool.’
The woman laughed in scorn.
‘Better be careful. The Afghans had ye running. And Liverpool’s a tougher nut to crack.’
Pat walked towards Vauxhall, thinking. Thousands of troops in Liverpool. The city under military rule. Was this a war? Against who? The Liverpool Irish? Or Liverpool itself? Was England’s second city such a danger to the Crown? It made no sense.
He decided to stay in Buckleys’. When he had come over, he had stayed at Brown’s Temperance Hotel. But that was last May, and all had thought that the blight was gone, and the Famine was disappearing. But now, it was back in full force. Every penny would be needed when he got to Mayo. No, there was no way he could waste money on the comforts of Brown’s.
There was another factor in his thinking too. If Gaffney wanted him to ‘observe’ County Mayo, he might as well get used to doing it. Even at hundreds of miles remove, Buckleys’ was as good a place to start as anywhere.
As it certainly was. It was as disgusting as he expected. He went into the dining-room, but the pigswill he was served, sickened him. He forced himself to eat it, but spoke to no one. From the accents, he could hear enough of Mayo around him. Almost all were speaking in Irish too. Most were desperately thin. Were these the people the yeomanry had to control in Liverpool? These were the men who would work the railways, if they could get work. But many more would end up in the squalid courts and cellars of the Liverpool slums all along Scotland Road, and the Manchester slums of Ancoats and Little Ireland.
Next morning, he went to the George’s Dock, and walked towards the ticket office.
A war steamer was docked close by. A group of soldiers were leading horses off the ship, more standing aside, watching them. Dragoons! He knew from passing through Liverpool before, that this part of the docks was for Irish shipping. Were they coming from Ireland? Why?
One was standing apart, smoking a pipe. Pat stood beside him.
‘Come from Ireland, are ye?’ Pat asked.
‘Aye, and damned glad to be leaving it.’
‘Dublin, was it?’
‘Dublin! How I wish it was Dublin. We never got near Dublin. Mayo, that’s where we’ve been. Never got out of it.’
‘Mayo,’ Pat exclaimed.
‘Aye, and I have never been in a more cursed county.’
‘I know,’ Pat said. ‘I’m from Mayo.’
The soldier looked up in alarm. ‘Oh look, mate, I’m sorry…’
‘No need,’ Pat said, ‘I know what you mean.’
‘It’s just that…with you looking all respectable and that.’
Pat laughed. ‘I’m glad someone thinks so.’
‘There weren’t many in any kind of decent clothes in Castlebar. Rags – that’s all they wear. Doesn’t even cover their decency.’
‘I know,’ Pat said ‘and it’s getting worse, from all I hear.’
The unloading of the horses had finished.
‘Tell me,’ Pat said, ‘what’s this about revolution in Ireland. Is it all stories?’
‘I couldn’t tell you that, rightly,’ the soldier answered. ‘For myself, I think it’s all stories. After all, if there was a revolution, why would they be sending us home to England, and why would they be sending the Scots Greys to Mayo? There’s no talk of revolution in Mayo, that’s for sure.’
‘There’s talk of them sending the Cheshires over though.’
‘All talk, I’d say.’
A convoy of six carts arrived alongside the ship, carrying sacks. One of them had burst and was trailing corn along the quay.
Pat discovered that the HMS Orion was now to take forty of the Scots Greys to Westport, and on to Castlebar. At first, he thought the corn they were loading was for soup kitchens in Mayo, but it turned out that this was not the case. The corn was only bound for the military depot in Castlebar and for constabulary stations around the county.
For what? Who were the army fighting in Mayo?
He went to buy his ticket.
‘Any tickets for Westport?’ he asked
‘None. The military have them all taken.’
‘Cattle boat or Kingstown?’ the clerk asked.
‘The Kingstown boat is the steam packet and it has no cattle. I’d advise you to go that way.’
‘I wasn’t thinking to go the cattle boat anyhow.’
‘I didn’t think you were.’
‘What’s the difference?’
‘A shilling more. Shilling and four pence total.’
‘Fine so,’ Pat said. ‘Kingstown.’
He put down a half-crown and took his change.
‘The Arlene,’ the man said. ‘Fourth along on your left.’
Pat found the Arlene and walked up the gangplank. It was a single funnel vessel, streaming dirty black smoke. There were three masts, but all sails were furled. A red ensign flew from the rear.
The crossing was a quiet one. It was crowded inside, but he found a single seat at a table with three other men. They were talking about the revolution. Pat said little, but listened. As far as he could deduce, it had centred on Ballingarry, a mining town in Tipperary or Kilkenny. But for all their excited discussion, they seemed to know little more. Nor were they too concerned about any question of famine.
He went out on deck and walked towards the front of the ship. There was a strong breeze from behind, and, despite the time of year, it was cold. He had only been a short time in England, but already Ireland was a foreign country to him. He had never expected all the talk of revolution, but Mayo concerned him more. The potatoes had failed again, and Mayo would be starving. The lack of concern among the other passengers unsettled him. Did they not know? Or did they not care?