John laid back into the thick, soft grass of his favorite hillside. He gazed sedately up at the puffy white clouds that floated gently through the dark blue late afternoon sky. A large black crow flapped noisily by, cawing loudly as it flew overhead. With a vivid image of black feathers floating to the ground, Eileen’s prediction of a few months ago suddenly popped into the lads wandering mind. She had said that many things would change in four months. And they had.
Even since losing their potato crop just two months ago, changes were rampant. His family had been spared the brunt of the famine thus far. Their landlord had postponed the rent until a new potato crop could be raised, giving them the money to buy food. At least they were unlike dozens of other families he had seen recently, homeless and starving with very little hope of rebuilding a life in the future. No, so far they were spared the worst of the agony.
Fate, however, had not smiled so brightly upon his friend Seamus. After losing his potatoes, his landlord demanded full payment of the rent. Faced with either starvation or homelessness, he refused to pay. The owner, backed by Constabulary and the English Army, forcefully evicted the poor man and his wife, sending them unwillingly to America. Who knows, maybe that was a good thing.
Others wandering the street were even less fortunate. Many people all around the country had died. Munster and Connacht were particularly devastated. The edition of The Cork Examiner he found yesterday described horrific conditions. Hundreds were dead or dying, tossed out of their homes like sickened animals. Very little relief had come. A new government program to employ laborers to construct useless roads provided too little food for even a man and his wife, much less a family of five or six. Stories abounded of desperate men working themselves literally to their own deaths, taking home every morsel of food to give to their families and falling dead in the middle of their work.
The abundant grain growing on thousands of acres of Irish farmland was being exported to England to be sold for the profit of English absentee Landowners. Tons of food left the country while thousands starved, facing prison or death should they attempt to steal enough food to stay alive. Images of death and dying haunted John’s recent memories. He closed his eyes to the bright sky, allowing the small trickle of a tear slide down the side of his face.
His emotion played out, John sat up and picked up his newspaper once again. So many articles filled with bad news, he thought. Opening to the second page of the newspaper he began to read once again:
September 23, 1846
FOOD RIOTS IN YOUGHAL.
DESTRUCTION OF THE BAKERS' SHOPS.
[FROM OUR REPORTER.]
After the termination of the meeting held in this town on Monday last, our reporter was surprised to see a large concourse of persons, exclusively of the labouring
classes, hurrying from one street to another, apparently in a most excited manner. On making inquiry, it was ascertained that this demonstration was made in order to
prevent the merchants and manufacturers from exporting the corn or provisions of the town, for which purpose upwards of a dozen ships were lying in the harbour.
After visiting several of the corn stores with the apparent intention of intimidating the proprietors, the mob proceeded down to the quay, where they speedily
compelled some carmen, who were loading the vessels with corn for exportation, to desist and return to the stores; on coming back, they met another carman who
however, did not remain to receive the injunctions of the mob, but immediately turned the horse's head, and commenced a speedy retreat amidst the cheers and jeers
of the multitude. Not satisfied with their success in these instances, they turned towards another portion of the quay, where they succeeded in a similar manner.
Up to four o'clock there proceedings were confined to preventing the exportation of provisions; and by the respectable portion of the inhabitants, it was anticipated
that no actual violence would be the result; but unfortunately their expectations were frustrated. The mob, elated probably by the success of their first attempt,
commenced at a later period of the day to demolish the flour and bread shops, which was only partially prevented by the interference of the Military. I understand, in
consequence of the extent to which these outrages were carried, that Mr. Keily, J.P., arrived in this City on yesterday, for the purpose of consulting with the General
of the district, and obtaining a large reinforcement of military.
Was there no justice? Was there no heart in the people inflicting this intolerance and wrath on his beloved people? How many had to die before the lead hand of free enterprise and progress released its grip from the throats of a starving people? His sadness was quickly overtaken by anger. There had to be recourse.
John could no longer stand his own thoughts. He quickly folded his paper, stuffed it under his shirt and trotted down the hillside. There was no way he could go home yet, his anger would eat him alive. Blindly he ran, as fast as he could, for dear life. The lad jumped several stone fences, running through green fields of corn and barley. At the edge of the Tullamore River he stopped.
Overlooking the tree lined banks, John screamed. As loud as he could, the lad cursed the English, the Irish, even God and all the occupants of Heaven themselves. There was nothing else he could do.
This land was his home. This was his people. Yet, everything was being destroyed. John pulled off his clothes and dove deep into the dark, cold waters of the river. Maybe he would just go ahead and drown. That way he would not feel the helplessness and hopelessness that surrounded him.
His body suddenly convulsed with the frigid water. Numbness beset his flailing limbs. His lungs ached for air. John found himself beneath a tree root at the edge of the flowing water. He did not know how far it was to the surface. His survival instinct then took over.
Thrashing wildly with numb arms, the lad struggled to free himself. He could hold his breath no longer. The depleted air in his lungs exhaled into the dark water. If he could have felt what he was doing he could free himself. Panic set in. His chest screamed for a breath. His body ached with cold and lack of oxygen. A last mighty push backward freed him from the trap. John’s head popped above the surface and he drank in the sweet cool air into his blazing lungs.
A small portion of water slipped down his throat along with his breath of air. John choked and coughed deeply. His numb body began to sink back into the inky water. He had to get to the shore. Land lay only ten feet away, yet, that seemed miles from him at that time. Forcing his stiff, aching arms and legs to paddle dog style, he finally reached the solidity of the muddy embankment.
John dragged himself onto the bank, forcing his naked body completely out of the cold water. Every muscled rippled in retaliation to be subjected to the cold plunge. His mind fogged over and he coughed heavily once again. Crawling into the lowering rays of sunlight, the lad tried to warm his blue body. Where were his clothes?
It was ten yards away where the cold lad had removed and dropped his clothes. The dim sunlight warmed him slightly, allowing him to force himself on hands and knees to the garments. That was a dumb idea, he thought, pulling his sweater onto his quivering body.
Pulling on the rest of his garments, John leaned against a nearby tree. The sun was beginning to set, casting a rosy glow over the river. His body ached with exhaustion from the ordeal. He had to get home. Eileen should have some cornmeal biscuits made for supper. It was not much, but he needed food in his stomach.
John’s breathing had begun to return to normal and his numbness to dissipate as the exhausted lad dragged himself off the chilly earth. He was still a long way from home and the day was dying quickly. The setting sun was halfway behind the horizon and affording little warmth as the rising, chilly breeze sent another shiver through John’s damp body. Once he began moving, his body should start to warm up.
The shivering lad clambered up a short, steep embankment to the road that ran alongside the river. Reaching the top, John grudgingly decided to follow the shortest way home, which led directly through the village. He took a long deep breath, sighed, and rubbed his arms rapidly to try and warm himself a little more.
The last bit of sun had slipped below the horizon as the lad turned down the road toward home. His body had begun to recover, yet his belly felt very empty. The chilled lad set a fast pace, trying to keep himself warm.
The first twinkle of stars began to sparkle between the floating clouds. The empty stretch of farmland passing slowly by to his right felt haunted and surrealistically lifeless. Several abandoned cottages dotted the landscape, their dark windows a testament to the reality that surrounded him.
A putrid odor suddenly wafted heavily across the dying breeze. The stench was revolting and becoming stronger the further he walked down the narrow road. Several rats scampered across the lane in front of him, darting quickly into the weeds on the river side of the road.
John held his nose and picked up speed. Something had surely died, probably somebody’s poor retched pooch. Several more rats crossed just in front of him, almost running over his feet. The lad jumped, a startled cry escaping from his throat. He hated rats. They carry the plague, and worse.
For some odd reason, John’s curiosity was suddenly piqued. Braving the horrid stench and threat of rats, he moved slowly to the side of the road. The lad swatted at several irritating midges that buzzed in his ear as he perused the dark roadside. The moonless sky made the shadows of the weeds difficult to see through. Shifting his head back and forth, John peered intently through the gloom.
There seemed to be a figure lying in a section of crushed grass not far from where he stood. The night had grown far too dark for him to make out any detail of the motionless object. Hesitantly, John moved through the thick weeds, closer to the lump. As he drew nearer, the outline of a human body came into view. Oh Christ, he thought, not this again.
Parting the high weeds a little more, he recognized the figure of an old man, dead for quite some time, lying face down in the dirt. The fellow’s skin was draped loosely over his bones. What little meat had been left on the man’s body upon his death, had been nibbled on by the pack of rats that John had just seen.
The lad could only close his eyes, turn away and continue down his path. The sights of death and starvation were becoming so common that they no longer sickened him. John decided the best he could do was inform someone in town as he passed through.
The dim glow of light shining through the little window of his cottage was a welcome sight to John. His body ached from the intensity of the day’s activities as well as the two hour walk home from his river experience. He passed through the opening in the stone fence and plodded heavily toward the entrance.
Peter unexpectedly slipped out of the cottage door, turned into the darkness and gasped as John approached him. “You startled me, brother,” he replied quietly with a small chuckle. “What has taken you away for so long?”
“I just had to get away and clear my head,” John answered sadly.
“And is it clear now?” Peter replied rather jokingly.
“Not hardly. Fact is, I think I have got more turmoil than ever before,” John admitted, hanging his head. “I saw a man this evening, a dead man, eaten by rats on the side of the road. How can we let this happen?”
Peter placed his hand lovingly on his brother’s shoulder. “I understand you,” he answered quietly. “Times are not what they should be, nor could be. Come with me tonight, brother. There are others who think like you and me. I think you should meet them.”
“Oh, Peter,” John begged off, “not tonight. My body is rebelling and my head is sore with thought. It has been a long day, this, and now I am ready for bed.”
“Just a couple more hours, John,” Peter pleaded. “‘Tis not far and we will be seated soon as we are there.”
“But, I am starved as well!” John continued, still looking for a way out.
“I will go get you some pan bread and a cup of corn mash,” Peter offered. “You can eat it on the way. Sit right there, brother, and I will get you some food.” Without waiting for an answer, Peter returned to the house. After a few moments, he returned with a small cup and two small loaves of pan bread in his hands.
Handing the morsels to John, the eager lad prompted his brother to follow. “We do not want to be late,” Peter informed him seriously.
“Who are these people?” John questioned with his mouth full of bread. “Do I know any of them?”
“They are mostly lads from around the area here.” Peter answered, setting a quick walking pace. “I think you know a couple of them. There are also a couple more lads from Dublin, they kind of organize things. I have been meeting with them for a couple of months now. They have some grand ideas.”
John drained the cup of mash and slipped the last bite of bread into his mouth. “How did you meet these lads?” he questioned, still a bit wary of where he was going.
“Here and there,” Peter answered cautiously. “You have got to promise me you will tell no one where you have been tonight. No one at all! All right?”
John eyed his brother curtly. “Where are we going, lad?” he asked.
“Just over there,” Peter pointed across a dark, empty field. “Just follow me.”
John stopped in the middle of the road. “No, brother, I mean what is this group of lads we are going to meet with? Tell me true or I will go no farther.”
Peter turned disgustedly to his brother. He looked him squarely in the eye and huffed loudly. “We do not have time right now, John.” Thinking for a minute, he continued. “We are a group that calls ourselves The Young Irelanders. We believe in self rule, Irish should govern Irish! We want foreign oppressors out of our country and are willing to sacrifice whatever we need to make that happen. Now come on, the meeting is about to start.” Peter turned without another word and scurried across the empty field toward a large, dark barn at the edge of the tree line.
The half moon was just rising, lending a soft golden light on the knee high growth. The still air was sweet and cool, smelling of damp clover and ripening crops. Pinpoints of stars shined brightly overhead, blotted out by an occasional passing cloud. John took a long, deep breath and followed his younger brother across the field.
Arriving at the door of the barn, Peter knocked lightly with two short series of knocks. The old door squeaked open, revealing a bright redheaded lad who quickly motioned them into the structure. Peter took a quick look around him and slipped through the door into the darkness. John followed suit, tripping slightly over the high door threshold. The door shut behind them with a grinding squeal.
“Take my hand, brother,” Peter instructed, leading him up a dark, narrow stairway. “Watch your step. We make a turn to the right at the top.”
Following his younger brother up the flight of steps, John felt totally enclosed. He could see nothing in the dense darkness. He almost felt as if he were still in the river. Peter guided him through a right hand turn and directed the lad blindly to a narrow wooden bench. He sat down uneasily, glaring through the darkness of the old building.
A small candle was struck and shaded in a far corner of the room, allowing John to dimly pick out the shapes of other people around him. All was eerily quiet except for the sounds of breathing and shuffling feet. John bent over to whisper in Peter’s ear, but was quickly pushed away and urged to be quiet.
Suddenly, someone in front of the group struck a match. The sudden flare startled John as he settled back down onto his seat. His feet and back were beginning to ache and sitting with no place to rest his back did not help.
The fellow who had struck the match, set the flame to the wick of another small candle and waited for it to catch. “Welcome, brothers,” he greeted the small group quietly. “I know all here except one. Peter, who is with you there?”
Peter stood quickly to his feet, the dim flickering of the candle’s flame toying with the color of his face. “This is me brother, John. I think he is ready to join us,” he announced with a small smile.
John looked quickly around at the faces in the room. Some he recognized from his dealings around the village. A few faces he could even put a name to. There was Patrick O’Meara and his brother Sean. Across the room were three brothers of the Clancey clan and two O’Tooles, Fenton and Brendan, who had come to see his sister twice.. The leader, however, was a total stranger to him.
“Welcome to you, John,” the stranger replied. “I am Tim.” He was a tall man in his thirties, dark hair and deeply set eyes. He had a kindly face, but one seemingly scarred by a hard life.
John simply nodded in response. He was pretty wary of anyone who felt they needed meet in a dark, hidden place. That form of communication usually meant trouble for everyone.
“Any news?” Tim asked the group, returning to the business at hand..
Several of the lads began to speak quietly amongst themselves. One of the Clancey brothers finally spoke aloud. “I went by the Flannery’s place yesterday and it looked empty,” he began, looking rapidly around the group. “Knowing Tom Flannery, I though I would see what happened to them. There was no sign of them being burned out or anything. I peeked through the little window in the front of their cottage and saw the whole family sitting off in the corner of the room together.” The young lad’s voice began to quiver. His eyes turned to the floor as he paused his story.
“I thought maybe ole’ Tom needed some help in his fields,” he continued in a much quieter voice, still looking only at the floor in front of him, “his barley going ripe and all. I could use a little money for food myself, you know. Anyway, I knocked on his door and no one came to answer.” The red headed lad grimaced and his voice became a whisper. “So I opened the door myself and went right in. The smell. . .,” he choked back his emotion. Trying to subtly wipe his eye, he continued. “They were all dead. All sitting there together Tom, his wife and five little ones. Must have been gone for days. I could not stand the awful smell.” He sniffled and quickly sat back down.
The room grew deathly quiet. No one spoke a word for several minutes. Tim eventually stood back up at the front of the group and wiped his eyes openly. John’s heart fluttered. Too many memories bombarded him at once. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat and tried to swallow the huge lump in his throat.
“Any other news?” Tim asked with a sniff.
“Paddy Murphy who was here last week from Birr is in jail,” one of the strangers spoke up. “Got caught lifting four ears of corn, he did, from one of Lord Buxley’s precious fields. He only wanted to feed his two hungry young ‘uns. Now he is spending the next six months in prison with no one to feed his family.”
Tim just shook his head unbelievingly. “Any more?”
John shifted uncomfortably once again. Unable to keep quiet any longer he spoke up. “I saw a man dead,” he started, “just this evening. He was lying in the weeds over by the river.” The lad gazed around the room, all eyes upon him. He was not much of one to speak out in public, but when he had something to get off his chest, a group like this could relate to him.
He swallowed, caught his breath and continued. “He looked to be an older fellow. I do not know how long he had been lying there, but the smell, like the other lad just said, was horrible. And the rats. . .,” he shifted his feet, having trouble even finishing the sentence. “The rats was eating him.” Looking around the room once again, he saw the look of disgust and apprehension on everyone’s face.
“Why did not you tell me, brother?” Peter whispered over to him.
“I really did not want to think about it,” John responded quietly, then he continued his story. “On my way through town, I stopped at the Church. I asked Father O’Casey to at least get the poor retched soul and bury him,” He looked at the floor and kicked at a piece of straw with his toe. “He said there were too many people to feed at the church and that he could not afford to buy any more coffins to bury any more poor souls.”
A murmur started throughout the dim room. Tim took his spot once again in front of the room. “Lads,” he said, trying to quiet the group. “Let the man finish. Anything else, John?”
“That is all with that,” John responded. “But, I have a copy of The Cork Examiner here,” he patted a bulge under his shirt. “There is bad news everywhere. I can read some later if anyone is interested.”
A low murmur began once again. “Come up here, lad,” Tim asked of John, motioning him to a spot next to himself. “Tell us what is going on around our beautiful country.”
A little reluctantly, John took a spot at the leader’s side. He pulled the newspaper out from under his shirt and lined it up with the dimly flickering candlelight. Tim moved in closer, scanning the smudged headlines over his shoulder. “There,” he instructed, pointing to an article that caught his attention, “read that one to us.”
John shifted the newspaper in the dim glow. He tried desperately to adjust his eyes to the combination of dim lighting and smudged newsprint from the paper getting wet after his swim. “This was written about a week and a half ago,” the struggling lad prefaced. “The workmen and labourers employed by Mr. FITZGERALD, Rocklodge, near Cloyne, refused to allow him to send his corn to Cork, or to market, and stated that they would give him the price he demanded for it. To this step they said they were compelled by the loss of their potatoes, and the dearness of provisions.” He shifted the paper around in the light to get a better view.
“We have heard rumours of intended risings in various parts of the country,” John continued reading the story, haltingly, “but trust that the activity of the local authorities and the advice of the clergy, and other influential friends of the people, will be sufficient to keep them quiet until relief and employment can be afforded. A party of Dragoons left Cork yesterday for Youghal. The Clashmore Mills were attacked by a mob, and flour taken from them.”
Tim stepped once again to the forefront. “That, lads, is who we are up against. The English are starving our people, stealing their land, and murdering anyone who gets in their way.” He stopped, looked around the dark room then rubbed his face in his hands. “The bastards took our freedom, sent in Protestant Scots squatters to occupy our ancestral farmlands and now send a plague upon our main supply of food, trying to murder our whole population. Tons of grain grows in our fields, yet we can have none for our own stomachs through penalty of prison, death or worse!” Tim slammed his fist into a post of the hay bin beside him. He rubbed his face again and turned to lean, face first, against the railings of the bin.
Fire erupted in John’s heart, burning through his veins and blazing into his brain. Sons of bitches! he thought, clenching his fist. His Celtic blood began to boil, fired with the agony of centuries of oppression. The lad dropped his newspaper to the ground and looked around the group of young men. Vengeance burned on every face.
Tim turned back to the group. “We cannot tolerate the Imperialist bastards any longer,” he spoke quietly. “From the days of Cromwell’s conquest we have been a divided people. We have trembled like a flock of sheep in our hovels. Our once fierce and proud ancestors would be sickened by our lack of action.” Tim dropped his arms heavily to his sides. He looked sternly around the dark room at the faces of the lads gathered in the name of freedom. John slipped quietly back to his seat, never taking his eyes off the charismatic young leader.
“It is time all that changed, brothers,” the impassioned leader continued quietly. “The struggle will not be easy. Some of us in this room may die. But, that is a price I am willing to pay to give my children a future of freedom and honor.” Tim grew quiet once again, waiting for reaction from someone in the group.
An unfamiliar voice spoke from behind John, “But, what do we do, brother? We have been meeting here for three months now, yet, we do nothing but talk! When do we act?”
John turned to face the voice. He had the look of a young O’Toole. His slim, red face highlighted the embers of hunger in his eyes. It was easy to understand the passion of that family.
“Soon, lad. We act soon,” Tim answered the fiery lad. “There are groups meeting at this moment all around our beautiful country. Some have already begun operations. We must organize a strategy, pick our time and purpose. Then we strike like the tiger we are.” He wrung his hands and took a deep breath. “Go home now, lads. Watch over your families like the guardian angels you are. Think of an action that we can accomplish to strike at the legs of our enemy. Be back here in three days ready to fight for our country.”
Tim looked across the room a final time, smiled and bent over, blowing out the candle. John started to stand up. Peter placed his hand firmly on his brother’s leg, urging him to sit still. “We leave one at a time, brother,” he whispered quietly through the darkness.
John could feel an occasional body brush past him. Sitting quietly in the darkness, his over stressed body began feeling its exhaustion once again. The lad’s neck began to ache and his eyes sagged for lack of sleep. No one passed by for a couple of minutes, prompting Peter to release his leg and tap his brother’s shoulder as a signal to get up and leave. John allowed Peter to slip by and lead the way through the darkness.
The brothers quickly reached the door exiting the barn. Peter opened the door slightly and stuck his head out to make sure the coast was clear. “Come on,” he whispered, slipping into the moonlit field.
Reaching the narrow lane back to their cottage, John took up a position beside his brother. “What do you think?” Peter asked at a whisper.
“I agree mostly,” John replied quietly. “I have seen far too much death and agony as late. But what can we do? We are but a few angry lads, they have the English army on their side.”
“Remember Father O’Carroll when we were but wee lads?” Peter asked with a smile. “He told us of David and Goliath from the Bible stories. We must find our slingshot, brother.” He smiled brightly, looking at his older brother through the moonlight.
John smiled back. He was not much for bloodshed. The lad considered himself a farmer and family man. But, he recognized a dire situation for what it was and the understood the measures necessary to exact change from an intolerant government.
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