Authors: Vivienne Dockerty
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
The Polish Connection
Copyright © 2010 Vivienne Dockerty
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of research or private study, or criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, this publication may only be reproduced, stored or transmitted, in any form or by any means, with the prior permission in writing of the publishers, or in the case of reprographic reproduction in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency. Enquiries concerning reproduction outside those terms should be sent to the publishers.
ISBN 978 1848764 880
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Typeset in 11pt Aldine401 BT Roman by Troubador Publishing Ltd, Leicester, UK
is an imprint of Troubador Publishing Ltd
I have never understood why my father didn’t visit Ireland in his lifetime, as he always seemed proud to tell me that he was second generation Irish and all his ancestors were from the Emerald Isle. He would sing “ Danny Boy” and “ I’ll take you home again, Kathleen” and other haunting songs that I never knew the titles of ; he would show me how to dance the Ceilidh and tell me stories of the ancestors that we were descended from. My favourite story was of how a Great Aunt had rowed up the River Dee estuary, with a handful of golden sovereigns sewn into the hem of her dress. I could imagine this doughty woman seeking a new life for herself, when things had got tough in her homeland.
One day he took me to a place called Denna Point, near the village of Neston on the Wirral and showed me the site where Irish immigrants camped out under a canopy of leaf laden trees, before setting off to the town of Birkenhead, or city of Liverpool, to find employment, or settled down to labouring jobs nearby.
I decided to visit this land of my childish imagination, to trace my heritage as far as it would go. I found an “ Irish stew” of spectacular scenery, quiet country roads, glittering loughs, tumbling waterfalls, mystical legends and learnt some of the island’s turbulent history whilst I was there.
I feel sad that my father never made it to the Emerald Isle. He missed out on all the beauty that could have calmed his troubled soul. But he left me with a wish to write this story, the one that my Great Aunt Maggie would have liked me to tell.
The blackening clouds that heralded more rain, gathered menacingly over the west coast of Ireland. Blown in from the Atlantic they looked down upon the small hamlet of Killala, where a row of windowless cabins sat on the grassy headland overlooking the River Moy.
Maggie knelt at the side of her mother’s bed in one of those poor cabins, deep in prayer as she rotated each bead on her rosary. She was oblivious to anything that was going on around her, so jumped in surprise when a gentle hand touched her shoulder. It was Jack, her childhood friend, who stood behind her, gazing down with sympathy in his eyes.
“Jack,” she whispered, reluctant to even tear herself away for a precious moment from the task of praying on the behalf of her sick mother.
“Yer not here again over the leaving, are yer? I’ve told yer I’ll think on it, but not just yet.”
She turned her face away from him and shifted her knees more comfortably, as her legs were beginning to feel numb. She wished he’d go, he was intruding into this time of peace and prayer.
He hovered, seemingly unwilling to wait until she’d finished her praying.
“What did the priest say?”
Maggie sighed wearily and dragged herself up to face him.
“He says there’s little hope and to expect her passin’ in the next day or so.”
Jack nodded grimly.
“Aye, yer mother was never strong, never got over yer father and then young Bernie running off like ‘e did.”
He put his large work- roughened hand out to steady Maggie, as she got up and took a few jerky steps.
“Easy now. ‘Ave yer eaten today or did yer give that broth me mother sent te Molly?”
Maggie’s face brightened at the mention of her sister.
“Aye, I took a sup, but most was given to Molly. She can keep food down now the fever’s broke. Wish I could say the same for me mother. She’ll only have a little water, says her belly’s past it.”
She turned away, suddenly embarrassed. Jack had a strange expression on his face. As if he was drinking in the sight of her, like one would covet a rare picture on a wall. The look was unexpected. She knew from peering into the speckled mirror which belonged to her mother, that her face was drawn and her green eyes dull, that her long chestnut hair was tangled and her clothes were all raggedy. So why was he looking at her, like a girl he would wed if he could?
It was true that Jack’s thoughts were following in that direction, he wanted to possess her, offer to wed her, take her away from this dying hamlet to a new life over the sea. But deep down he felt an anger. Anger at Maggie’s blind and stubborn faith in the God she worshipped. The God who had allowed the main source of sustenance to the poor people of Ireland to wither and blacken for the second successive year. The God, who was allowing whole families to die slowly and in pain from the effects of the hunger in their lives. His shoulders drooped as his feelings turned to helplessness. Once he had gone from Killala, there’d be no one to look out for her. Jack didn’t believe like she did, that God would be there to care.
Maggie knew that he was desperate for her to leave the hamlet with him, as leaving had been the only thing he had been able to talk about for the last few days. Recently though, his attitude had seemed to change from caring friend to possessive suitor. She knew
she should be flattered. Any girl would be proud to walk out with such a strong young buck , but not Maggie. She had no intention of tying herself down at the tender age of sixteen.
She turned away from his gaze and went to lean over the wooden cot, where her sister, Molly, lay sleeping. She kissed the small child’s brow, then listened anxiously to her breathing. To her relief it seemed better than it had been all day. She wasn’t as hot, her waxy skin felt cooler.
Perhaps her fever was really on the mend.
Jack’s manner though became insistent as Maggie rose from covering the girl with a threadbare shawl. He placed his calloused hands upon her shoulders and began to shake her gently.
“But Maggie, don’t yer see, this is yer only chance of gettin’ away. Once the winter comes you’ll never be able to leave this place. The sea will be too rough, yer’ll be cut off here in the snow and how’ll you care fer Molly then? Look, come with us and leave yer mother and yer sister to the relatives. Your Aunt Tess would be up to looking after the pair of them and take Molly in after yer mother’s gone.”
He must have known from the look on her face that he had gone too far with his pleading. She shook off his hands and went to the cabin door looking flushed and angry. At that time Jack could have taken himself off to the ends of the earth if he wanted. Her duty was to remain in Killala and make her family as comfortable as she could. He followed sheepishly, knowing that he had pushed her too far, knowing that she could dig in her heels once she had made up her mind.
Words didn’t usually come easily to Jack and it must have been a blow to his vanity to be shown the door, but Maggie knew where he’d be off to. He’d be seeing if his mother, Alice, could find a way to get her to change her mind. Alice could deny him nothing and would sell her own husband if it would please her son.
Maggie listened as Jack’s footsteps faded into the distance. She knew that he was right. Life would become even harder now that the potatoes had rotted. There was no future for anyone living in
the poor hamlet now. Most of the neighbours had gone, either left or succumbed to the fever that was raging through the land.
Her Pa had died three weeks before. He had been a fine strapping man until the hunger. Now his wasted body lay buried in the churchyard at Ballina, the nearest town, and it looked as if her mother would be joining him very soon. Her heart twisted in sympathy as she went back to sit by the sick woman. Her mother had simply lost the will to live, though why would she want to? What a desperate state her little family had found themselves in.
As Maggie continued her vigil, she began to think back over the years of her childhood. It had not been an easy life, as they depended largely on things they could grow. The most abundant crop had been potatoes. Rows and rows of the plant had grown profusely on their small piece of land, fertilized with seaweed gathered from the shore and manure from the wild ponies that came down from the hills. That had been until two years ago.
She felt sorrow as she remembered her Pa’s words, when they had all lent a hand to plant the seed potatoes into their drills. He had boasted of the fine crop that they’d be having. Enough to sell at the market in nearby Ballina, with all of them having a rare day out. They’d buy new clothes, well, new to them from a stall on the market, as they couldn’t afford Hegarty’s, the outfitter’s prices. And maybe there would be a bit of money left over, for a jug of porter from one of the taverns in the town. That was the measure of her father, he’d spend first on his family and then he would think of his own needs.