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The Killing Snows


November 1846

In November the first snows came to Mayo.

The wind came from the east and north east, bringing bitter cold and blizzards from Siberia. Some nights it snowed, but the next day the people would still tramp through it, rags wrapped around their feet. Some days too the snow was blown on a violent gale that brought to mind the Big Wind of 1839. Now he saw the full cruelty of the piecework system. The work rate slowed, the wages dropped.

Every morning he rode out to the Relief Works with a feeling of dread. He rode past skeletal figures struggling against the wind out along to where the roads were being built. They ignored him, it was as if he did not even exist, but he was used to this by now. Whether he wanted it or not, his duty was to supervise the Works, and theirs was to work.

All across Mayo the Workhouses were full, tens of thousands still clamouring for admission. Road-building was the government’s answer, the last and only chance for hungry people to earn their few pennies for corn.

Here in the mountains he was the supervisor, the one who forced them to work or die. They despised him, and he felt he could not blame them. How could it have come to this?

For stone they collected rocks from the fields around, but this ran out. There were many places where rock showed through the surface, and with an eye well used to this he had small quarries started beside the roads. They were tiny compared to anything he had ever seen in England, but even so, as they deepened, the people fought for the right to work in them. They were the only places where they could work out of reach of the freezing winds.

But still they came.

Every evening, as he rode back to his lodgings, he would think of her. When he arrived she would be with her mother, cooking – hard gritty corn, cabbage or turnips, rarely meat. He would sit with her father at the table, sometimes talking about the Works, more often silent. Always she would serve the food, leaning across him as he sat, her breast touching his shoulder or her knee touching his leg. For fear of what her father might say he tried not to look at her, but it was impossible. Whenever their glances met she smiled at him.

Already he knew what her father thought. He saw him as a government man, an outsider. Even though the two men worked together, and worked well, the older man would always treat him with suspicion.

As the cold intensified on the roads the people stuffed hay inside the saturated rags around their feet, but their toes and shins were bare; blue and purple and black with cold. Few had jackets, and very few had coats.

The women tied their shawls around the children’s bodies as they worked. They brought blankets too, wrapped around their freezing bodies. Many days it snowed or sleeted without cease, and the heavy wool only absorbed the bitter cold water faster. The children were the first to die, but age no longer mattered now. Every day there were deaths on the Works.

Sometimes the wind would shift to the south, the temperature would rise and his spirits with it. But always it shifted back again, and the Siberian cold returned. By December people spoke of the worst winter in memory; no, more than that, the worst that Mayo had ever seen. Blizzards for days on end, lakes frozen over, drifts higher than a man; men and animals dead from the never-ending cold.

And the Works went on.

As the people died and the numbers dropped he would accompany the priest around the parish, or ride around on his own, to recruit more workers. Some days he had to fight his way through gales and drifts to pay dying men, women and children; or the families of those who had already died. But still he signed up more for the Works. He kept hoping, desperately hoping, for an easing in the weather.

But the cold continued, the Works went on, and the people died.

He kept thinking of her, he could not stop. It was more than attraction, much more. The horror of the days was bringing him close to the edge. Sometimes he felt a fear of the mountain. Many days he could not even look at it. He did not know why this should be, but often he felt himself slipping towards the void, and only the thought of her would bring him back. It was not just that he wanted her, it was that he needed her, more perhaps than he had ever needed anyone. Only the evenings in the house, the warmth of the fire, the warmth of her presence, gave him the strength to wake in the mornings and ride back to the Works.

He was caught. During the blizzards all human feeling in him screamed to stop the Works, but if he did the roads would never be built, and he knew what Morton would think of that. Worse, he would not be able to pay them, not even the basic wage. Nothing.

So the Works went on.

Every two hours he called a halt. They built fires sheltered from the freezing winds, shivering in the quarries, behind hummocks, behind the walls of abandoned cabins and houses, anywhere they could get in from the cold. This caused fighting as everyone tried to get closest to the fires, so he began to stagger the breaks, allowing only twenty off work at a time.

At first the people carried their own turf slung over their backs in rough-made carriers of blankets and rags, but many families had little enough turf for the freezing winter, and they began to steal it from ricks belonging to families living in cabins near the Works. This caused more fighting, and he tried to have it stopped, but it was impossible.

He tried to use dead wood from the woods nearby, but this was wet or frozen through. He had rough shelters built beside the fires, trying to dry the wood, and sometimes he succeeded.

But, no matter what was done, it could not keep the cold away. As he rode down the lines of workers, all he could see were hammers, pickaxes and shovels grasped in rag-wrapped hands, lifting and swinging slowly. Rags on hands! He had never seen that on the railways.

There were many things here that he had never seen. Driving sleet and snow for weeks at a time. Bitter winds screaming down from the mountains.

Dead men. Dead women and children.

But still they came.

When he was not thinking of her, he was thinking of a time before the blight and hunger. Carrigard – a different world then. Only twenty miles away, but it might as well have been a thousand. The farm and the house, his father and brother planting and reaping, his mother baking brown bread and cooking potatoes. Family and friends.

And the love of another woman then.

Was that so important now? He no longer knew.

He thought too of the years he had worked on the English railways – another world again. The gang, the comradeship, everyone talking and laughing long into the night. It was hard work building railways, but he had been earning more money then than he could ever have earned in Mayo. Far more.

But he had left it all, and for what? For this?

No, not this.

He had returned from England to farm again in Mayo.

Even then there had been hunger, but not like this.

When he had returned, he could not have known that this would happen, no-one could.

But it had happened, and he knew that he would never again be certain of anything, not even of life itself.

Chapter One

Coming Home  – April 1846

He had come home in April because his father had ordered him home.

Luke’s father, Michael Ryan, was perhaps the toughest man he had ever known. Michael had expected total obedience from Luke, not only through the years of his childhood but also through all the years he had spent working in England.

Michael was a tenant farmer – a smallholder – in Carrigard, a small estate of twenty farms outside the village of Kilduff in the east of County Mayo. His lease was tiny – eight Irish acres, or fourteen acres in English statute measure. But it was the largest farm in Carrigard, and Michael was a man to respect, accustomed to responsibility from a young age.

Michael had been only fifteen when he took over the running of the farm when his own father had been imprisoned. Luke was curious about this, but he could get no information on it. He knew that it related to the Rebellion of 1798, but he had no idea how. He never dared to ask Michael about it, and anyone else he asked refused to talk of ’98.

Whatever the cause, Luke’s grandfather had spent ten years in Claremorris Gaol. He spent all those years breaking stones, and in the end the stones broke him.

When the old man was released in 1808 he was no longer a man to respect. He found that he had a son well used to authority, running the farm alone and commanding the respect of everyone in the family, including his own mother. But Michael had to yield authority to the older man, and bitterness ensued. Michael knew how to farm, but reckoned his father knew nothing.

It was then that Michael had conceived the idea of the quarry. He wrote to the landlord in Galway suggesting that they bid on a maintenance contract for the roads around Carrigard. The contract had been for five pounds a year, and was in the name of the landlord and nominally in the name of Michael’s father. The quarry was located on the edge of the farm. It had given Michael the chance of running the farm on his own again, and it gave his father – Luke’s grandfather – the chance to do the only thing he knew how.

Breaking stones.

For fourteen years Michael waited. But the old man hung on, and did not die until the fever epidemic which came with the famine of 1822. Michael’s mother was already ill, and died a few weeks later.

The next year, when he had paid off the back-rent, he travelled to County Galway to meet the landlord and his agent. He negotiated a twenty-one year lease, which was rare in Mayo. Now the law was on his side – if the rent was paid, he could not be evicted.

As soon as he returned to Carrigard, he started to build a solid stone house beside the mud cabin that the family and cattle had lived in for generations. He left the old cabin to the cattle, and in a year of brutally hard labour he worked the farm, quarried rock, broke stones, repaired roads, and built his house. He was forty years old, and a free man at last.

In 1824 he married Eleanor O’Kelly, his younger brother’s sister-in-law. Of their children that lived beyond a year, Luke was born in 1825, Pat in 1828 and Alicia in 1836.

By 1846 Luke was working as a navvy building railways in England, Pat was helping his father to work the farm and quarry in Mayo, and Alicia was dead.

Luke was at breakfast in his lodgings in Dover when Michael’s letter arrived.

He glanced through it before reading it again more slowly. Then he folded it, and stuffed it into his pocket.

‘What does he have to say?’ Danny asked.

‘Nothing much,’ Luke said. He stood up to leave the table.

‘You’ve left half your breakfast,’ Danny said.

‘You can have it.’

When the men were finished eating, they walked out along the railway to the cutting. It was raining. Luke and Danny joined the other men, hacking away the sides with their picks, while the others shovelled the clay and shale towards the wagons.

Danny was Luke’s cousin. He had been working on the railways since the age of twelve, and had developed a quick witted toughness since then. Unlike most of the gang he, like Luke, could read and write, and he could calculate faster than almost anyone.

After two hours, Matt McGlinn brought their tea bucket to the shack. When he came back Luke and Danny scooped up mugs of tea, and stood by one of the wagons. The rain had stopped.

‘Well, aren’t you going to tell us?’ Danny asked.

‘I told you,’ Luke said, ‘it’s nothing.’

‘I thought someone was dead from the way it took you.’

‘No-one’s dead.’

Owen Corrigan was leaning on his shovel, staring at the ground. ‘It’s the hunger, isn’t it?’

‘Perhaps it is,’ Luke said.

‘Of course it is,’ McGlinn said. ‘It’s in every letter we’re getting, nothing but hunger and more hunger and send us more money. You’d never know how bad it is; they make it worse in the telling.’

Luke said nothing more. They finished their tea, and went back to work. Corrigan’s question had surprised him. Michael’s letter had not even mentioned hunger, and that was odd. McGlinn was right. Everyone else wrote telling of hunger in Mayo, but Michael never did.

It was getting dark when Farrelly called a halt, and they walked back along the track towards their lodgings. Luke went upstairs, and flung himself on his bunk. He stared again at Michael’s letter.

For six years he had been with the gang. There were twenty of them, all Mayo men, working under Farrelly as their own elected gang-master. They had built railways all the way up and across England, from the western end of the Great Western Railway snaking towards Exeter, up to the Lancaster & Carlisle approaching the Scottish border, and down again to the eastern terminus of the South Eastern at Dover.

Farrelly ruled absolutely. He was tough, a man to respect and totally honest. He never took a skim from the gang’s earnings, but ensured that most of their wages, after board and lodgings, were saved or remitted home to Mayo.

Luke had had every intention of continuing working in England.

But then Michael’s letter had arrived.

’Come now, or come never’.

He knew his father well enough to know what that meant.

The door opened, and Danny came in. ‘What in hell’s biting you?’ he asked.

‘Nothing. I was just tired.’

‘The devil you were. Luke Ryan tired this early. You expect me to believe that?’

‘Why can’t I be tired?’

‘Because I’m not letting you be tired. Come on down and join the rest of us.’

‘But I don’t want to.’

Danny sat on the bunk across from him. ‘Look, just don’t let the hunger worry you. All you have to do is work hard, and send them money. They’ll be happy enough.’

‘I suppose you’re right.’

‘I am right. Now come on down.’

‘Not now. I’ll come later.’

‘Have it your own way,’ Danny said. He went out, and closed the door.

Luke lay back again watching the flickering light of the fire on the ceiling. Yes, it was odd about the letter, but he reckoned if the family was really hungry Michael would have said it. Or would he? With his father it was impossible to tell.

Still he was sending enough money home. Even if the price of corn had gone up there would be enough to feed them all. But then, if they were depending on his wages, what would happen when he went home?

Go home? Six years he had been waiting to go home. Waiting to see family and old friends. Waiting to farm again in Mayo. Now at last he was going home, but he no longer wanted it. Why not? Why should he think like this? He did not know.

A few nights later Farrelly called the gang together. They gathered in the bunk room, sitting on bunks or leaning against the wall. Danny was lying on his bunk in the corner.

‘I thought you should know,’ Farrelly said, ‘I met one of Brassey’s fellows today. They’re looking for men up in Yorkshire – the Leeds & Thirsk Railway. Brassey’s got the contract.’

For a few moments there was silence around the room.

The men had not worked under Thomas Brassey since 1844. They all knew that Brassey was the largest railway contractor in Britain, but far more important was that he never permitted subcontractors to exploit the gangs. When they were working for Brassey, Farrelly negotiated directly with his managers, bypassing the subcontractors and agreeing a rate for each job based on cubic yards of muck shifted or yards of rail laid.

‘No subcontractors’ meant they were free to work as they pleased. There was no base wage, but Farrelly expected long hours of hard labour, and then the men in the gang earned wages which were among the highest on the railways. It was tough work, but the gang were well used to that, and even took a certain pride in it. But Brassey was not the contractor for the South Eastern, and for two years they had been working under a subcontractor they despised at wages that were hardly half of what they had earned before.

At last Bernie Lavan spoke. ‘Brassey?’

‘None other.’

‘He has the contract?’

‘He has. Or sure as hell the most of it.’

‘Well, that could sort a lot of things out.’

Danny had pulled himself up on the bunk. ‘It’ll sort things out, right enough. God knows there’s little enough work left around here, and to be working for Brassey again, what more could we ask?’

‘Well, that would be up to Martin,’ Lavan said. ‘But one thing’s for certain, Brassey’s the best, and if we don’t get the best deal out of his fellows, we’re no good at all.’

As the other men walked to their bunks, Danny and Luke stepped outside. It was a clear evening; not yet cold.

‘Well, by God,’ Danny said, ‘wasn’t that a surprise. Back up north, and working with the best contractor in England.’

‘It’ll be great for you all, no doubt,’ Luke said.

‘For us all?’

‘I’m not going.’

‘You’re what?’

‘I’m going home.’

‘Going home. You’re going …’

‘Home,’ Luke said. ‘Mayo. Carrigard.’

‘But what … When?’

‘Soon. I’ll have to wait until Martin gets a few new fellows. After that.’

‘You’re not coming to Leeds?’

‘No. I’ve had enough.’

‘Enough!’ Danny said. ‘Like hell you have. All these years we’ve been waiting for another contract with Brassey. Now we can get it, now we can make real money, do it all our own way, and you’re going home. What kind of eejit are you?’

‘No eejit. It’s what I want.’

Danny stared at him. ‘You’re crazy.’

‘No I’m not. Carrigard is our home. You know that as well as I do.’

‘It might be your home, but it sure as hell isn’t mine. Mayo’s finished, it’s got no future.’

‘It’s got my future. Father won’t last forever, and I’m going to inherit the lease. It’s Pat that’ll have to work in England. It’ll be tougher on him.’

‘Then let Pat inherit the bloody lease. It’s no damned use to you. Just look at them all. The hunger’s back. It’s 1840 all over again. They’re starving, I tell you.’

‘If they were starving, father would have said so.’

Danny said nothing for a moment. Then he shook his head. ‘Look, would you have a bit of sense. Sure, your family mightn’t be starving. And why not? Because you’re here, that’s why. Every month you’re sending them back money to buy corn. And now you’re going home and cutting them off from the very money they need to live. Are you mad?’

‘They’ll be fine after the harvest. We all will.’

‘The harvest? That’s what they always say. The harvest, the harvest. Every year they’re there with their empty bellies waiting for the harvest. It’ll never change. Never.’

‘It’s my farm though,’ Luke said, angry now. ‘I’m the one that’ll be feeding the family when father is no longer able for it.’

‘Yes, and in another ten years time you’ll have a dozen more mouths to feed and the rent to pay, year in, year out. And when your sons are twelve years old you’ll be sending them off every summer  as spailpíns working the English harvest. And why? Because the farm can’t pay for itself.’

‘But it’s our land.’

‘Our land, bedamned,’ Danny said. ‘They’ve all got their heads turned towards the past. Brian Ború, Owen Roe, Wolfe Tone, our glorious history, we’ve heard it all. Don’t make me sick.’

‘Yes,’ Luke said. ‘But Murty …’

‘Damn it to hell, don’t remind me. My own father, buried in the past. You and I know it, and we know it well. The new schools are coming in Mayo, and they sure as hell won’t approve of him. He’s no teacher. He’s not trained their way – you’ve said it yourself. They’ll close his little school. What’ll he do when it’s all over? He’s too old for work on the rails. He won’t be able to feed his family. And he doesn’t even know what’s going to hit him.’

‘Maybe he does know.’

‘He’s a fool if he does,’ Danny said, ‘and an even worse fool if he doesn’t. And you’ll be a fool  if you go back to Carrigard.’

For a few more moments Luke said nothing. There were many thoughts racing through his head, but he could not put them in order. ‘So I’ll be a fool,’ he said at length, ‘but I’ll be worse than a fool if I stay here. If I don’t go home father will be evicted. They’re saying he’s too old, and they won’t sign another lease unless I sign it too.’

‘They’re saying what?’

‘They’ll evict him. I have to sign it with him.’

‘But that was signed years ago.’

‘No,’ Luke said, ‘we thought it was signed years ago. It was only that he let on it was signed. They’ve been running two years without the lease, and father never told me.’

‘Two years? They could have been evicted.’

‘Isn’t that what I’m telling you?’

‘But why?’

‘Look, he’s sixty-three. They won’t sign another 21-year lease with a man that old, and I can see why. They know damned well that he won’t be able to work the farm and the quarry that long. They reckon they need a younger man …’

‘But what about Pat?’ Danny asked.

‘He’s too young.’

‘But …’

‘There’s no way around it. They won’t take father on his own, and they won’t take Pat. They’ll only sign again if I sign it with father. Otherwise they’ll bring in another fellow for the lease, and the three of them will be out on the road – father, mother and Pat.’

‘So why don’t you just go back home, sign the lease and then come back over to Leeds. There’s no reason for you to stay. All Burke wants is for the legal fellows to see you signing it.’

‘No,’ Luke said, ‘they want more than that. They want me back working the quarry too. They reckon father can’t work it. If they hear I’m gone they’ll have another fellow in for the farm – quarry and all.’

For a few moments, Danny said nothing, pacing up and down. Luke had never seen him lost for words before. He turned back to Luke. ‘Damn it,’ he said, ‘that’s blackmail.’

‘No it’s not. He’s no choice, and neither have I. Can’t you see that?’

‘But you do have a choice.’

‘The hell, I do,’ Luke said.

‘Yes, you do. You can come to Leeds with us, and bring them all over.’

‘Bring them over! To Leeds!’

‘Where else? You’re going to have to pay for them all anyhow, and the farm won’t earn enough money for that, good years or bad. You’ll earn far more money in Leeds, and even your father will get some kind of job around, and your mother can work in the mills.’

‘Don’t be foolish. That would never work.’

‘Yes it would. It’s just that you can’t see it.’

‘Look,’ Luke said, ‘I have to go home. You go to Leeds if you like.’

‘Damned right I will,’ Danny said. ‘There’ll be years of work in Leeds, and with Brassey too. A man would be mad to do anything else.’

‘And when that finishes, what then?’

‘The next contract,’ Danny said. ‘If Brassey doesn’t have contracts in England, he’ll have them in France, and if it isn’t France it’ll be Spain. You’ll see.’

‘France or Spain? You’d go …?’

‘Why not?’

‘But you can’t keep working like this,’ Luke said. ‘It’ll kill you. You’ll be fine ’till you’re forty, then it’ll be too much. You’ll be back on the roads with not a penny in your pocket.’

‘Not me, I won’t. That’s for the fellows who drink everything they get. We’re different, you and I. We’re going to save our money.’

‘And buy a farm?’

‘That isn’t the future.’

‘So what is the future then?’

‘Railways,’ Danny replied. ‘Railways, but not as a navvy. Look at Brassey. He started off with nothing. What is he now? – one of the richest men in England.’

‘So you want to be Tom Brassey!’

‘No, I’m not that foolish. But look at all the other contractors around us. Muck-shifters, that’s all they are. They can’t read, they can’t write, they can hardly add or subtract. All they can do is get men to work.’

‘Muck-shifting? Is that what you want so? Muck-shifting.’

‘Yes,’ Danny said, ‘muck-shifting. Rock, stone or mud, who cares? But I can do it better than those fools, and so can you. There’s a future in contracting on the railways. Deep down you know that, even if you want to deny it. You might never be as rich as Brassey, but by God it’s a hundred times better than starving in Carrigard.’

Next day he spoke with Corrigan and McGlinn. They had already decided to sign off at the next payday, and return to Mayo. He agreed to travel with them. Over the following days, he still worked alongside Danny, but little of importance passed between them.

Two weeks later he started his journey with Corrigan and McGlinn, travelling by the open wagons of the South Eastern Railway from Ashford up to Reigate Junction and along the tracks of the London & Brighton Railway to the terminus at London Bridge.

They walked across London in driving rain to the terminus of the London & Birmingham Railway at Euston. Corrigan led them to a boarding house he knew on Pentonville Road where they dried out their clothes as the landlady served them a hot dinner.

‘Good food here,’ McGlinn said, as he cut into a thick pork chop.

‘Didn’t I tell you it would be good?’ Corrigan said.

McGlinn elbowed him. ‘Yer man’s awful quiet.’

‘Sure hasn’t a man a right to be quiet, if that’s what he wants?’ Corrigan said.

Luke glanced up from his plate. ‘It’s nothing. I was only doing a bit of thinking …’

‘And sure there’s no harm in that,’ Corrigan said. ‘A man has a right to think.’

‘And a right to share his thoughts,’ McGlinn said. ‘A man has that right too.’

‘A man might have rights,’ Luke replied ‘but that doesn’t mean he has to inflict them on his friends.’

‘We’ll have no more excuses,’ McGlinn said. ‘Let’s hear it.’

Arra, it’s nothing,’ Luke answered. ‘It’s just that when I first came over here, I was so frightened of it all.’

‘Of course you were,’ Corrigan said. ‘Sure you were only a young gossoon. We were all frightened when we first came to England.’

‘It wasn’t just that,’ Luke said. ‘We had to pay the rent, and it couldn’t be paid without me going to England, and that was bad enough. But I’d heard so much of England, what a rough, tough place it was meant to be. And when I came over first I was sick for home. Day and night I’d be thinking of Mayo, thinking of the farm – mother and father and everyone else in Carrigard and around. I couldn’t wait to work out my time in England, make the money and get home. There were two things that kept me going – the fear that they couldn’t keep the farm without my money and the knowing that it would be mine in the end. My own farm, that’s what I wanted, and working in England was the only way to do it. So I just had to put up with it all, and that was an end to it.’

‘Wasn’t it the same for all of us,’ Corrigan said. ‘Either we were working to pay the rent or saving to buy our own.’

‘Anyhow,’ McGlinn interjected, ‘you had  your friends over here too. Working with Farrelly, what more could a man have asked than that? If you were working for one of the other gangs, then you’d have cause to be crying at night.’

‘I know,’ Luke said. ‘Ye’re right, and there’s no doubting we had great times together. But still, the one thing I wanted was getting home to Mayo and getting the farm. And then, all of a sudden, a letter comes from father saying I’m to come home straight away. So in another few days I’ll be seeing them all again, and in a few years the farm will be mine. And now I just don’t want it any more.’

‘Would you listen to him,’ McGlinn said. ‘Give him what he wants, and he’s still miserable.’

‘Worse than miserable,’ Luke said. ‘Mayo frightens me. In fact, it terrifies me.’

They travelled third class on the London & Birmingham line as far as Birmingham city. They saw dozens of navvies in the station, powerful men compared to the small group of haggard men, women and children standing at the end of the platform. As Luke walked past the huddled families he noticed the children were speaking in Irish. He hesitated.

‘Come on,’ Corrigan said. ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ 

In less than an hour they were headed north again on the Grand Trunk Railway as far as its junction with the Liverpool & Manchester at Newton. This time McGlinn led them across the tracks to a freight marshalling yard where they jumped a boxcar heading towards Liverpool.

Corrigan was doubtful. ‘What if we’re caught?’

‘We won’t be caught.’

As Luke’s eyes became accustomed to the darkness inside he noticed that there were two men sitting in the corner.

‘Have you travelled from far?’ he asked.

There was no answer. Luke repeated the question.

We cannot understand,’ one of the men replied, speaking in Irish.

‘I’m sorry,’ Luke said, switching into Irish. ‘If I had known you were Irish speakers I would not have annoyed you with English.’

‘That is not a thing to worry about,’ the man replied.

‘I was asking how far you had come.’

‘We have come from Leeds where we have been trying to get work, but they would not take us. They say we are not strong enough to work on the railways.’

The train rattled as it went over a crossing.

‘You’re from the south, I would say,’ Corrigan said.

‘The west side of the county of Cork,’ the second man answered. ‘Between Schull and Skibbereen.’

‘Is that where you are travelling?’

‘That would be madness,’ the first man said. ‘They have little food there. It is to Liverpool we are travelling. Perhaps we will work there. Perhaps we will make enough money to get to America.’

‘Is it so bad in Cork?’ Corrigan asked.

‘Bad enough. The potatoes were good when we harvested them. But then the rot came to Schull, and we lost many of them. The people are hungry now. It is not as bad as 1840 yet, and we pray it will not be.’

‘It will never be as bad as that again,’ Luke said.

It was dark when they arrived in Liverpool. They walked across the tracks towards a side entrance to the station. Suddenly McGlinn grabbed Luke’s collar. ‘Run, Luke, run.’

Four policemen were rushing towards them. Luke ran. One caught him by his belt, but he broke free, and kept running. He followed McGlinn and Corrigan, crossing tracks and platforms and access roads, weaving in and out between engines, wagons, carriages, carts and horses. One of their pursuers slipped on horse manure, the others hesitated and were cut off by a slow moving cart. They continued the chase, but Luke and McGlinn and Corrigan outran them. They raced up a stairway and stopped, leaning on a wall under a gas lamp, gasping for breath.

‘You’re a damned fool,’ Corrigan said to McGlinn. ‘I knew we shouldn’t have listened to you.’ But McGlinn only laughed.

‘Where are the other fellows gone?’ Luke asked.

‘Over there,’ McGlinn replied, pointing down between the tracks. The two men were lying face down the ground. As Luke watched they had their wrists trussed up behind them. Then they were stood up and dragged off.

‘I wonder where they’re taking them,’ he asked.

‘The Workhouse,’ McGlinn said. ‘If they’re lucky.’

‘And if they’re not?’

‘The boat back to Cork.’

They went to Buckley’s boarding house at the bottom of Scotland Road. During the night it turned wet, and Luke lay awake on his bunk listening to the drumming of the rain on the windows.

The next morning they left early. It was only now that he noticed the poverty around him. The boarding house stood in stark contrast to the rest of Scotland Road. Again he saw the miserable people with shrunken faces, some begging in the rain, others just standing at street corners. He could see through filthy courtyards, and down stairways into rooms and cellars crowded with people.  

They walked to the George’s Dock, and paid their passage on a steamship for Dublin. As they waited by a shed on the pier they saw a cattle ship tying up on the other side of the dock. The hold was open to the weather, the cattle steaming from the rain. As the drovers started driving the cattle off, Luke saw hundreds of people disembarking from the hold alongside them.

‘They’re travelling with the cattle!’ he said.

‘Isn’t it the cheapest way over,’ Corrigan replied. ‘Thruppence a man, why wouldn’t they? There’s not many can pay two shillings for their passage, you know.’

Luke walked to the end of the pier, and watched as the stream of cattle and humanity flowed along the docks.

A young woman walked past him in the crowd. Her face was thin, but it carried its own gaunt beauty. She wore a patched shawl, washed out to a dull grey colour. Her hair showed wet and lank beneath it. Her shift hung loose from her shoulders, torn in places and shredded at the hems. She had bare feet, and her ankles and shins were streaked with manure from the cattle.

She saw him staring, and stared back with a look of contempt and defiance. Startled at the aggression in her eyes he turned away. When he looked again she was gone.

He returned to Corrigan and McGlinn.

An hour later their own ship slipped its moorings, and set sail from Liverpool.

Chapter Two

Hunger in Ireland.

As to famine in Ireland, in what year since the traces of history can be relied upon, was there not more or less famine in some part or parts of that apparently doomed island? Where there are from two to three millions of beggars, the want of employment and the prevalence of abject poverty, of disease and other evils, must be perennial and co-existent. There is always famine, because there is nowhere where beggars are not in multitudes; in rags, inured to filth, lazy, insolent, professional and incapable of improvement.

The Liverpool Mail, April 1846.

 They docked at Dublin. Six days of hard walking lay ahead of them.

In the city there were hundreds of ragged people walking towards the docks. One family stopped them, asking for directions and questioning them about England when they heard about the railways. Luke knew they had no prospect of work on the rails.

On the west of the city they met families making for the Workhouses – the North Dublin Union or the South Dublin Union. Luke wondered how either still had the space for them.

Lucan, Leixlip and Maynooth

In the small towns there were beggars everywhere. Every day on the roads they met groups of silent people walking towards Dublin.

Kilcock, Enfield and Kinnegad.

They questioned more people on the road. Some were young men going to spend the summer working on the English harvest, as they always did. But most told a different story, one of hunger, fever and despair.

Mullingar, Edgeworthstown and Longford.

More beggars, crowds of them outside the Midlands Workhouses. More ragged families trudging across the bridge on the Shannon.

Termonbarry, Strokestown and Tulsk.

West of the Shannon the solidly built houses of the midlands gave way to smaller thatched cottages and mud cabins. The fields were smaller and stonier. There were fewer hedges and no fences; only blackthorns and roughly-built stone walls along the sides of the fields. The roads were deeply rutted after the winter.

Bellanagare, Frenchpark and Ballaghaderreen.

On their last night on the road they slept in a barn just outside Knockanure. They were worn out, and it was well past dawn when the farmer roused them. They went through the town and past the Workhouse. A crowd of hundreds of thin and ragged people stood in line along the outside wall.

They walked on towards Carrigard.

Two hours later they arrived. He shook hands with Corrigan and McGlinn. They left him, and walked on to Kilduff.

He stood at the gate to observe the house.

The gable that had collapsed in the 1839 storm had been rebuilt; carved lintels over the windows. The walls had been freshly whitewashed. The thatch on the roof had gone, replaced by regular rows of grey-black slate.

The door was half open. Silently he stepped inside.

His mother was sweeping the floor with a rush broom, her back to the door. So much had changed, but she had not. She was dressed better than he remembered though. Her long black skirt hung straight, with no rips or patches. A grey jumper clung tight into her back, the folded black triangle of her shawl hanging down over it and loosely tied around her neck. Over both hung her long hair, black as he had always remembered it.

‘God with you, mother.’

She spun around. The broom clattered on the floor. For a few seconds she stared at him in fright. Slowly she began to recognise his features. ‘Luke?’ she whispered. ‘Luke? Oh, my God … LUKE.’

She ran over and hugged him, her head into his chest. She had started to cry. ‘Luke. My son, my son …’

‘It’s alright,’ he said, not knowing what else to say. He had not expected this. He waited for her to finish, but the sobbing went on. He put his arms around her. ‘Don’t fret yourself. You’ll be fine, I tell you.’

Suddenly she pushed back from him, rubbing her eyes. She pulled his head down, and kissed him on the cheek. ‘You’re a right fathead, do you know that?’

‘Oh, I know it well enough,’ Luke said. 

‘You put the heart crosswise in me. All these years, and you just walk in on me like that. You could have been the death of me.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘And so you should be. Why didn’t you tell us you were coming today? We weren’t expecting you.’

Within minutes, he was sitting at the table, trying to answer his mother’s questions through mouthfuls of buttermilk and oatmeal porridge.

The table was solid smooth-planed timber, four inches thick he reckoned. The earthen floor was gone, replaced by flagstones, squared off with mortar between them. They had been scrubbed and brushed clean. The stone walls were scrubbed too. A ceiling made of long wooden planks covered the entire room, with no sign of staining from smoke.

At the gable end where there had been a hole to let the smoke out, there was now a well-constructed chimney over a large, wide hearth, pots on a ledge down one side, two more hanging on small cranes over the fire, bubbling. On one side of the hearth, there was a creel of turf, a stack of logs just beside it. Against the back wall there was a butter churn he had not seen before; a spinning wheel beside it.

‘God knows, you’ve become a powerful man,’ she said to him. ‘Those English fellows know how to work men, didn’t I tell you so?’

‘Oh, it wasn’t the English.’

It must have been tough on you all the same.’

‘It surely was. Farrelly would never let up. He had us working day and night.’

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but it was best you were with Farrelly. He’s a man you can trust, and we knew he would take care of you. You were only a child. Fourteen years old, and to have the whole family depending on you, it wasn’t fair.’

‘But it had to be done, mother. Wasn’t that the way of it?’

She shook her head. ‘Maybe it was, but I couldn’t stop worrying. Lying awake every night I was, thinking of you over there in England. Hard work expected of you, and money expected of you every week.’

‘But wasn’t it hard  for ye here too?’

She flinched, as if the question had not been expected. ‘Yes, it was hard. That first year you left was desperate. God, we were hungry. Never enough to eat and the rent to pay. There were times I cursed Michael in my heart for the promises he made. The rent, the back rent and interest too. No one else around was able to do that, and they weren’t evicted. But it was his pride, his cursed pride, that made him do it. It was fine for him, wasn’t it? But it was you that had to do the paying, taking a man’s work on a boy’s shoulders. Oh God, how I’ve missed you.’

She reached across the table, putting her hand on his arm. ‘You’re not to go away again.’

He gulped down his porridge. ‘No, mother,’ he said. ‘But tell me about the farm. How is it going?’

‘It’s safe now you’re home. Now you’re the one that will be the farmer.’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘and nearly wasn’t, from what I hear. Two years without the lease. You’d think he would have told me before.’

‘I don’t know about that. Maybe he didn’t want worrying you.’

Or maybe he was too damned proud, he was thinking. Too proud to admit he was getting old and they wouldn’t give him the lease.

To hell with that. There were other matters to think about. What future had Mayo if the potato had failed again?

But everything here seemed so normal; far, far better than when he had left. Yes, his mother was a few years older than she had been in 1840, but even that was difficult to detect. She most certainly was not hungry.

It  made no sense.

‘What about the hunger?’ he asked.

She looked up, startled. ‘Who told you about that?’

‘No one. Couldn’t I see it with my own eyes, and I crossing the country?’

‘Yes … I suppose you could.  Well we’re doing well enough.’

‘No hunger?’

‘No hunger.’

‘And Murty?’

‘Murty and Aileen too. Why wouldn’t they? Don’t they get the money from Danny?’

‘And everyone else?’

She looked away, avoiding his glance. ‘Oh, I don’t know. Sure we’ll talk about it all some other time.

TO CONTINUE  .  .  .

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