by Charles McNamara
Sean McNally could feel the dew begin to settle on the land like the hunger of Ireland. Hunger made him fight to embrace every good thing in his life so pain and emptiness would not force him to crumble in despair.
Chestnut brown hair stuck out from under his tweed flat cap. His eyes and mouth were tightly drawn from contending with hopelessness. He was nineteen.
The rutted dirt lane leading from his parents’ tumbledown cottage meandered between endless stone walls dividing the tenant plots. Sean climbed over a wall into the wet grass and walked toward the stoic arch of a Celtic church abandoned hundreds of years ago. Summer vines hugged the arch as if to comfort the aging stones.
Sean climbed the arch and settled in to watch for the British. One at a time, thirteen children appeared beneath him pushing, through the hedgerow into their ring of stone seats at the clandestine school.
The hedge master, Aiden Gallagher, hugged each of the children. Four were Sean’s age, six were around twelve and three were barely nine years old.
He was the local scribe, historian, poet, and Bible study teacher, feeding his eager pupils the forbidden fruit of knowledge. He was also well-connected to the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood hell-bent on overthrowing British rule.
“Good evening, children,” Aiden began. He was forty years old. His unkempt hair and scraggly beard were black.
Two lanterns bobbing in the distance alerted Sean to soldiers prowling the lane below. His hatred flared.
Sean pushed into the sanctuary and put his finger to his lips. “The British are on the road,” he whispered.
Aiden blew out his lantern. He and Sean sat quietly among the students listening to the hoofbeats, waiting for them to fade into the distance, waiting for the fear to pass.
Aiden exhaled quietly and made the sign of the cross. He relit the lantern.
“Buonasera,” he greeted them in Italian, the language of the pope in Rome.
“Buonasera, maestro,” the children responded with relief in their voices.
“Wangshang hao xuéshēng,” switching the greeting to Chinese, the language he’d learned working for the British East India Company importing tea from China. “Wangshang hao,” the children said with a well-rehearsed Mandarin accent.
Sean went back to his post. He’d been attending the hedge school since he was seven years old. He was well versed in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, history, geography, spelling, writing, languages and, of course, the catechism.
He’d buttoned his threadbare white shirt at the throat under his overalls. The overalls were torn and stained from working in the peat bogs.
Aiden opened an old book of Irish fairy tales and carefully handed it to Gwenneth who was seven. The pages were yellowed and warped.
“Would you read today’s poem for us?”
“Sleep, my child! for the rustling trees,
Stirr’d by the breath of summer breeze,
And fairy songs of sweetest note,
Around us gently float.”
“Nicely done, Gwenneth,” Aiden said.
Aiden passed the delicate book Michael, a boy with freckles, who continued.
“Sleep! for the weeping flowers have shed
Their fragrant tears upon thy head,
The voice of love hath sooth’d thy rest,
And thy pillow is a mother’s breast.
Sleep, my child!”
At the end of class, Aiden whistled to Sean. Sean carried sacks of oats into the ring of stones and handed them to the children. They’d stolen the grain from the British warehouse in Drogheda the night before and hidden it in the hedgerow.
“Hurry off with you now and make not a sound on your way home,” Aiden said, patting several of the children on the head as they pushed through the hedge.
“Have you spoken to your mother and father about sailing to Liverpool with us?” Aiden said, motioning for them to walk along the road. He owned the Drogheda Steam Paddle Company.
“I’m not sure I want to help you deliver to the British what they’ve stolen from us,” Sean said.
“That’s how I make my livin’ now,” Aiden said. “I hate having to transport what’s been stolen at gunpoint from the tenants, but it gives me the freedom to move about without arousing suspicion from the British tyrants. I want them to recognize you as one of their valued servants like me.
“You and your parents are at great risk. The landlords are evicting thousands of peasants every month.
“Time is running out for us,” Sean said. “We refuse to renounce our faith. With no crops, we can no longer pay rent.”
They stopped in the darkness in front of the McNallys’ thatched-roofed stone hut.
“I’ll help ya,” Sean said.
“Good.” Aiden walked quickly into the night.
Inside the cottage, Darragh McNally sat at a rustic wooden table tuning his fiddle.
“Good. You are home, son. I was wondering if you would like to play along?”
“Aye. But first, I need to tell you what Master Gallagher told me.”
Sean took his fiddle down from the low rafters and unwrapped the linen protecting the instrument. His mother, Deidre walked in, brushing dirt from her long dress and removing a cotton scarf from around her head. She stood with her back to the large hearth and made kissing sounds to their four chickens and two pigs, the entire wealth of the family.
“The British troops are going to start taking all our produce, leaving us with nothing,” Sean said. “They plan to conduct a barbarous policy of mass starvation. It will be a genocide like we’ve never seen. Master Gallagher is already carrying an average of one hundred deck passengers every trip to Liverpool. He wants me to help. Shall I go with him?”
“You may,” Darragh replied. “The hedge master is taking grains and produce from the British and bringing it to our homes. He is saving us from starvation. Give him all the help he needs, son.”
Deidre sat down and lit her pipe.
“Will you play ‘Road to Lisdoonvarna‘?” she said from behind a cloud of smoke.
Darragh tapped his foot on the hard clay floor. The atmosphere was pungent with the smoke of turf smoldering on the hearth.
Sean put his fiddle to his chin and played along with his father. He swayed to the gentle rhythm of the tune. Their chickens and pigs seemed to dance to the music.
When they finished, Darragh said, “Shall we be goin’ to the cèilidh tonight?”
“We shall,” Deidre said, tying a clean apron around her long skirt. She rolled up her sleeves and tied a kerchief around her hair. She was worn, with deep-set amber eyes and an aquiline nose.
“Don’t you look all fine,” Darragh said laughing. He got up and put on his vest and chocolate brown derby hat.
“There now. We’re all proper.”
Deidre took his arms and danced across the room as Sean played on.
“We’ll stir up Drogheda with a few witty songs of everyday life,” she said.
“And celebrate the contraband Master Gallagher will bring us. ‘Tis a source of life in a lifeless world,” Sean said.
At the cèilidh house, more than twenty neighbors sang songs, quoted Proverbs, told long stories and riddles and danced to the music of the fiddlers.
Sean watched his father play. The older the fiddler, he thought, the sweeter the tune.
On the way out of the cèilidh, Arthur Loddington, the local agent of the absentee British landlord, stepped from the shadows.
“You are excellent musicians. Could I inquire as to your willingness to play at my daughter’s graduation dance?”
“Em, and what will you be paying for our tunes?” Sean said.
“You can enjoy a pint and the food.”
“We will be willing to offer you our tunes if you would be willing to cancel the rent due next week.” Sean took a step closer to the man.
“Preposterous. You play at her graduation or I’ll have the constable throw you off the land.”
Sean moved so close the man took a step back.
Darragh put his hand on Sean’s shoulder to calm his anger. “May God blind me for not seeing such a fair offer, me Lord, but one we cannot accept. You are charging us rent on land we’ve owned for generations. My family tilled the land, raised cattle, and fished the rivers since before recorded history. We should not have to pay you rent.”
Sean took a deep breath and smiled. “We would be willing to provide joy and good music for your daughter’s dance if you reduce the share of our harvest that you take from us,” Sean said. “You take nearly everything.”
“That’s the price of staying in Ireland,” Arthur said.
“What did you say?” Sean said, stiffening for a fight.
A cruel sneer formed on the overseer’s smooth face and he leaned forward, eyes bearing straight into Sean’s.
“I said, give us your goods or leave our country.”
Sean’s hands twitched. He could feel a vein pulsing in his forehead. “It will always be our country, goddammit.”
“God has already damned you, you Catholic mick.”
Sean’s voice lowered, almost to a whisper. “God has damned you, not us.”
Darragh stepped between them. “We will play at your daughter’s dance, me Lord.”
Two days later, Aiden appeared at the doorway of the McNally cottage as the sun set on the River Boyne. “Master Gallagher, come in and rest awhile,” Sean said.
Sean opened an old trunk, revealing half-empty whiskey bottles of Tullamore Dew and Kilbeggan.
He poured four glasses of Kilbeggan and held up his glass, “Here’s to the water of life.”
They clinked their glasses together.
“To Ireland,” Aiden added.
Sean let the amber fluid sit in his mouth for a moment before swallowing. He closed his eyes, dwelling only on the flavor. He felt the keen burn on his tongue and throat. God, it was good.
“So you are going to use the children from the hedge school to distribute the grain?” Deidre said. “That’s a clever game you play.”
“How else can we survive starvation?” Aiden said. “May I take Sean to help? I want the British to become familiar with him and trust him.”
“May you live as long as you want and never want as long as you live,” Darragh said, raising his glass.
“May we be alive at this time next year,” Sean added.
“We leave in two days for Liverpool,” Aiden told Sean. “Meet me on the boat at noon.”
Aiden departed as silently as he’d appeared.
Darragh and Deidre pulled their matching Saint Christopher medals from inside their collars. Darragh kissed his. Deidre removed hers from around her neck and hung it around Sean’s.
“Look to Saint Christopher and travel with his protection,” his mother said kissing, him on his cheek.
“What will you do while I’m gone?” Sean asked.
“We’ll put the donkey to work hauling peat door to door for sale,” Deidre said.
“Jaysus, Mary, and Joseph,” Sean said out loud, standing before the swaying masts and rigging of so many ships reaching into the sky. He’d never been to the North Quay.
The narrow street was crowded with warehouses, shops, and taverns on one side and piles of cargo on the other. The smell of tea, fruit, tobacco, fish, and spices, followed him as he found his way to the Drogheda steamship.
He waved to Aiden, who stood at the top of the gangplank. Once all were on board, the ship glided slowly along the golden ribbon of noonday sun stretching down the River Boyne. Sean looked up at the North Lighthouse, turning his head to watch it as they sailed into the open waters of the Irish Sea. The flat sea stretched in all directions, the afternoon sun scattering diamonds across its surface. Seagulls wheeled overhead. He figured the six masts above him could hold a full rig of sail if the winds were favorable.
Four hours later, the side-wheeler turned south into the wide channel of the River Mersey and docked in Liverpool. Sean couldn’t believe his eyes. Below him, merchants and their wives, filled the promenade, their walking sticks and high-heeled shoes clicking on the cobblestones. Naval officers from the king’s ships congregated outside a tavern. To Sean, it seemed as if all of Liverpool strolled up and down the street indifferent to the boatload of Irish about to mingle with them.
Sean inhaled the gray fog lingering from the evening rain. Street lamps and lighted store windows along the waterfront cast an orange glow through a green mist, illuminating the sidewalks and the wide cobblestone street. His first view of the city was rendered like an old painting with the soft brush strokes of a master.
On deck, an emaciated man emerged from the mist holding his small daughter. His eyes were bleary and reactions slow. He looked frightened.
Behind him stood his wife and two children, followed by a line of other peasants. They were starving and weak, barefoot, their clothing tattered.
“Where shall we go?” he asked Sean.
Sean looked at Aiden, who stood next to him.
“Let’s get them something to eat. Do you smell the potatoes and fish?”
“Yes,” Sean said, wrinkling his nose. “Where are they cooking them?”
Aiden pointed to a food stand at the edge of an alley across the street. Charcoal glowed in the night air.
“They make a local dish called scouse with hardtack, fish, and other ingredients found dockside thrown in, like potatoes and herbs. Try some. The food is given freely here from those carts, nothing like the distasteful rations handed out in the soup kitchens in Drogheda.”
Aiden and Sean helped the man and his family carry their bundles down the gangplank and walked with them to the food vendor.
“Feed your family. There’s no charge,” Aiden said.
“You are most kind,” the man whispered.
The next morning, lines of Chinese workers loaded the Drogheda with goods bound for Ireland. Sean watched as they carried crates of tea and sugar, bundles of timber, bins of coal, rock salt, and iron, none of which, he knew, were destined for the Irish.
“Zhaoshang hao,” Sean said, bowing to one of them.
The man bowed and spoke slowly trying to pronounce each word. “Good morning to you, master.”
Sean felt that at that moment he’d become part of an ancient trade.
When Sean returned from his maiden voyage to Liverpool, he walked with new legs and a glad heart to his cottage. An unfamiliar silence greeted him as he stepped through the door. The pigs and chickens were gone. His parents were not home. He walked into the fields and hollered to them. The donkey and cart were gone. He walked toward the peat bog, following the deep ruts.
Sean noticed the turf blocks thrown on the ground in a slapdash pattern, rather than the usual triangular collection of six blocks standing on end.
This is not right. Neither he nor his neighbors arranged peat like that.
A glint of silver flashed from the turf at his feet. He knelt down, uncovering a Saint Christopher medal. He pulled on the chain but it wouldn’t come freely. As he pulled, his father’s head surfaced.
Enraged, he dug up his mother and father with his bare, trembling hands. They are cold. So cold. His muscles quivered as he lifted their limp bodies into the empty cart. Wiping tears from his cheeks, he carried them back to the cottage and laid them on their bed. Slowly removing their clothes, he washed them, then dressed them in their best clothes, folding their arms across their chests.
Carefully, he pinned the army medal his father earned while serving with Sandham’s Battery, Royal Irish Field Artillery, during the war with Napoleon. He was proud of the medal.
Foxglove bells bloomed outside the door. Sean picked several and placed them in a cross on their chests. His heart thudded dully in his chest as he took his violin from the rafters.
Drawing the bow slowly across the strings, he closed his eyes and played a sad melody. Swaying back and forth, the wailing in his heart flowed through the violin, out the doorway, and followed the stone walls along the road and over the wet grass.
That evening, Sean and his neighbors carried Darragh and Deidre in a slow procession through the long dark shadows cast by the setting sun to Saint Peter’s for a requiem mass.
The British forbade eulogies at Catholic burials, so after the mass, many went to the cèilidh house to be part of a glorious send-off for the McNallys.
After hiding sacks of oats, bundles of tea, and sugar behind the hedge school, Sean sat alone on the ring of stones considering what to do next. He could retaliate, or leave Ireland. He knew the way to Liverpool, following others who had fled persecution, but he had no idea how to avenge the murder of his parents.
Sean played for the graduation dance of Arthur Loddington’s daughter. Playing alone, without his father by his side, he was unsure of himself. His father always took the lead. Now he had to improvise from his own heart.
As he played, he felt something taking control of his music making it more emotional. He realized it also took control of his listener’s spirits. They surrendered to every change in pitch or rhythm, stomping, clapping, twirling to the beat.
At the end of the night, three other landlords asked him if he would come to their estates and play for similar events.
Soon he was in great demand by the Protestant gentry. The performances didn’t pay well, but the constables stopped threatening him with arrest and deportation.
Aboard the Drogheda, Aiden stood next to Sean, turning the pages of a book. His eyes were green. A gentle green like an evening mist. The color of the Irish fields after a rain. The kind of green that sequestered his students in the hedge school, bringing hope to hopeless lives.
Sean raised his voice and spoke into the brisk wind.
“I know how I’ll get even with the British for killing my parents.”
Weeks later, at the estate of Nigel Plaskitt, lords dressed in flared frock-coats over tight trousers, with high upstanding collars, gathered around the carriages.
Ladies in bell-shaped gowns reached for the hand of the coachman, dangling handkerchiefs as they stepped out of their carriages. Some wore linen caps with lace frills.
As the festivities began, Aiden and five of the older students from the hedge school, quietly loaded grain and produce from the barn. They hid behind the manicured hedges and waited.
The notes from Sean’s violin filled the air, elevating the guest’s spirits, stealing their breath from their bodies. He’d captured their souls without weapons.
When he finished a jig or a reel, his audience was spellbound. Then like a thunderstorm, their applause and cheers rolled through the night air. Aiden and the children scurried away, pulling carts filled with the life-saving produce that had been stolen from them.
N O T E S
Wangshang hao xuéshēng – Good evening students
Cèilidh – pronounced kayli
Zhaoshang hao – Good morning
Drogheda – pronounced dro-ee-da
Darrah – pronounced like Sarah
Poem read by students – “Cusheen Loo”, by Edward
Walsh, translated from the Irish by J. J. Callanan,
from a book of Irish fairy tales.