“Wake up there, Jenny!” shouted Bridie Ferguson as she ran up to her neighbour’s door.
“What in the name of Jaysus is wrong with ye?” replied Jenny Dunn.
“Did you not hear the news?”
“What news? What’s it about?”
Bridie shouted at the top of her voice, “Sure there’s a letter from Amerikay in the post-office.”
“Wheesht, now! Don’t be daft!” answered Jenny
“I’m telling you the truth, woman,” insisted Bridie Ferguson. “No word of lie! Micky Dunn brought word from the town this morning. He says that the letter is from Dessie McDowell to his old mother.”
“Oh, is that right? Well, now I know you’re telling lies! That dirty blackguard never had that much good in him from the day and hour he was born. He was always an idle, worthless ruffian, that was the ruination of everyone he came in contact with. The dirty old——”
“Jaysus, Jenny, don’t be holding yourself back! But, let me tell you that you’re wrong this time,” Bridie told her. “The letter is from Dessie McDowell to his old mother, and it contains money, believe it or not!” Her friend Jenny looked at her in disbelief and listened to the rest of what Bridie had to say. She told how the postmistress had sent word that old Mrs. McDowell should bring some responsible person that might guarantee her identity. The old woman was a widow, and the postmistress did not want to give the letter into the keeping of a frail old woman, especially when she did not know what might be inside the envelope. For the two greatest gossips in the area the outstanding question was to discover how that well known reprobate of a son had managed even to get the price of writing paper.
Jenny told her friend that she had seen old Sharon McDowell borrow a clean coat from her neighbour, and that she had sent for Conn King and his car. Mr. King was the local solicitor, who was known to everyone in the town, both rich and poor. Conn was going with the old woman to verify that she was Sharon McDowell of Tullybann, and the addressee of the letter from America. Bridie laughed at the idea, saying “That old crone is so well know that she could get every man, woman and child in the area to verify her identity. She didn’t need Conn King.
Dessie McDowell was the old woman’s only son, born to her when she was still freshly widowed. Sadly, Sharon’s husband had been killed by a falling tree before they had been married six months. All that was left to Sharon was her beautiful, curly-headed son and she lavished all her love upon him. She spoiled him terribly and as he grew up, he became the greatest young hooligan in the parish. As a young boy he developed a knack for throwing stones, the results of which were gathered and reported back to his mother. There was not one day in his young life that passed without him earning the blame for a list of damages and disasters. There were complaints about the chickens and other birds he had maimed and killed with his stones, windows broken into smithereens, and children that had been cut or badly bruised. Dessie was simply a one boy disaster zone and all his poor mother could say was, “For Christ’s sake, what do you want me to do with him, for there is really no harm in my son, for it would do me no good?”
The neighbours and townsfolk held their patience with young Dessie for quite a number of years, but finally decided that something would have to be done. Not wanting him to be sent to any delinquent centre, for Sharon’s sake, they came upon another way to resolve the problem. Although not a permanent solution, the tactic that they had agreed upon had the potential to keep him out of their way for the greater part of every day. The opportunity to enjoy that much of their lives in peace was a chance they could not turn down, and even the clergy were glad to agree since the solution might just converting Dessie from being the parish nuisance into a useful member of the community.
Each house in the parish agreed to give a small subscription every month, which would be used to send Dessie to the Christian Brothers’ School in the next town. The brothers were noted for their rigidness and for their teaching ability, as well as for their sports skills. Accordingly, Dessie left home and was sent to this new school for the next five or six years. There was peace in the Parish for these years and Dessie studied hard at all the subjects he was given. But Dessie was not an academic and preferred to make things out of wood and metal, becoming so proficient that his poor mother was able to boast of his success. Even the neighbours began to think better of him, and his teachers spoke highly of Dessie’s abilities. In fact, many of the teachers suggested that if Dessie could keep his head down to work then he would be a man fit for the company of any lady in the district. Encouraged by such compliments, Dessie attempted to keep his head down and work hard, putting his talent for metal and woodwork to good use. But in doing all these things Dessie came to ruination.
It was the end of his school days and Dessie knew that the time had finally come for him to make his way in the world. His mother, in an effort to help him get a good steady job, obtained a position for her son as a labourer on the large tract of land owned by a prominent businessman from the town. But, when he heard about the job, and what it entailed, Dessie was not in the least bit pleased. Sharon thought she had gained for him a good start in life, but Dessie was speechless, at first, when she told him. He asked her, “For why, then, did I go to school mother? Is this the sort of job that you want for me, and me qualified for better?”
Despite Sharon’s pleadings that he should not reject the offer out of hand, Dessie felt himself to be above such lowly work. He boldly told his mother that nothing but being a carpenter would satisfy his ambitions. People began to look at Dessie as a man who had ideas above his station in life. But Dessie didn’t really care what anyone thought of him, and there was one other person who agreed with such thoughts. In fact, is it not a strange phenomenon that the most mischievous boys in town always seem to attract the prettiest girls? This is exactly what happened to Dessie McDowell. Unfortunately, for this young couple the young lady, Nancy Doran, had friends and family who were not prepared to quietly allow their relationship to continue unopposed. Undaunted, however, Dessie and Nancy were driven to carry on their relationship in secrecy.
Driven by his great love for Nancy, Dessie urged Nancy her to elope with him. He believed that her family would, when they realised there was nothing else, they could do, give Nancy enough money to set matters right with her. Nancy had not yet gathered enough courage or daring to elope with her man. She also, unfortunately, had not the courage to end the relationship with Dessie, or the increasing secrecy required for the relationship to continue. The affair was becoming increasingly more hopeless in her eyes and, as a result, she began to feel increasing sorrow and shame. Nancy’s bright eyes, that were once like a magnet to all the young men in the district, had now began to grow dim. Her once rosy cheeks, that had caused more than one suitor to write poems to her beauty, had now began to grow pale and sallow. Then, true to his old ways, Dessie had been less than a gentleman towards her and he was forced to flee the country to avoid the righteous and murderous anger of her family. He fled to America and safety, though it remains very much a mystery as to how had obtained the necessary finance. Now, after a period of almost a year and a half, a letter from him had arrived and there were many who hoped it would answer all their questions.
This story, as you must have realised, happened quite a number of years ago when travel to foreign parts was not the everyday event it is today for people. In those days America to be almost like a different planet, and there would be little chance of someone who went there ever returning home. You can imagine, therefore, the fuss and bother that a letter from America could cause when it arrived in any small Irish village. The news that such a letter had arrived quickly became a matter of public interest to everyone in the village, and it was looked after almost as if it was valuable joint property. Country people generally regarded such a letter as being a general communication from neighbours abroad to all the neighbours at home, and hearing what such a letter contained was a matter of intense interest to all those who have seen a family member joining the numerous emigrants from this land. So, it was with the letter Sharon received from America.
When she arrived back home, after retrieving her letter from the post office, the old widow found herself pursued by a cavalcade of her neighbours. Every inch of the cottage interior was full to capacity and the crowd overflowed on to the entire area outside the front of the house. The door and the windows of the cottage were almost completely blocked up with various heads that strained in a vain effort to hear even a little of what was being read to Sharon. In a low voice the was read out, but many couldn’t hear because of the squabbles between individuals, as they tried to get a better place to listen from.
“Damn you, Tom Burns, what the hell are you pushing me away for, sure I want to hear what’s happened with Dessie!”
“Ah, shut your beak, you eejit! Why wouldn’t I try to get in there to hear a letter about Sharon, sure isn’t she my sister-in-law?”
“Here boys! Does any of ye hear a word about my poor Paddy?” Biddy Casey called out from the back of the crowd.
For the past three years not a letter had come from America that Biddy had not gone to the addressee in the hope of getting some news about her husband, Paddy. He had been through some financially troubling times, which had caused him to become part of a trio of men who were rustling cattle and sheep. With the forces of law breathing down his neck, Paddy had gone to America to prepare a new life for his family. Regularly every market-day in town, Biddy went to the post-office and inquired if there was a letter from America addressed to her. But, week after week she received a negative answer, and her heart sank with despair. Biddy still attended the post office each market day, but could no longer ask the question, and only presented herself at the counter to receive the usual negative answer from the post-mistress. On some occasions she would turn her eyes to Heaven and pray, “God in heaven help me!”, as the tears flowed down her cheeks. From the day he left until the day Mrs. McDowell’s letter arrived, Biddy had never heard one word one word about her husband, or what had happened to him. The news contained in Sharon’s letter from America would give Biddy some closure on the labours and anxieties she had suffered since Paddy had left. Biddy learned that he was attracted to the city of New Orleans by the promise of high wages, but he met his end in the deadly swamps that surround the city.
But Dessie McDowell’s letter contained news for others. One such person was a red-cheeked lady called Peggy Dillon and, after getting her news, she elbowed her way out of the cottage and into the fresh air. She had tears in her eyes but, from the expression on her face, these were undoubtedly tears of joy.
“Well, Peggy? Is there any news of your Bridie?” came the questions from the crowd that was gathered outside the cottage. “From the smile on your face, Peggy, it must be good news.”
“Oh, sure its great news!” Peggy answered delightedly. “Bridie has a wonderful fine place for herself in America and another for me. She even has my passage paid and in five weeks I’ll be away myself. Woo! Woo! I’m so excited that I don’t know what to do with myself!”
It was, indeed, good news for Peggy Dillon, but others sought news for themselves from the letter. “Peggy darlin’, was there any news about our Mick?” asked someone from the crowd.
“Or our Sally? Our Johnny? Or our wee George,” came other questions with which she was inundated.
“Oh, I don’t know, I just don’t know. I couldn’t listen with the joy I felt in getting news of Bridie,” replied Peggy
Then, one more spoke out to her to ask he a very pertinent question, “But, Peggy darling, what will Tom Feeny think of all this? Do you just ignore all those vows and promises that you and he made to each other when you were coming home from the dance the other night?”
Peggy did not worry about such questions, for she knew exactly what was going to happen. With the very first money that she earned in America; Peggy would send it to the care of the Parish Priest to pay Tom’s passage out to her. She was sure that the Parish Priest would help if she assured him that she and Tom would be married as soon as he set foot on American soil.
As Peggy walked away with a huge smile across her face another happy face emerged from McDowell’s cottage. It was old Malachy Tighe, and he was clasping his hands, together as he looked up toward heaven, silently thanking God for the good news he had received. His son, his pride and joy, was going to be home with him before harvest time, with as much money as would buy another bit of land. His son’s wife threw her arms around her father-in-law when she heard the news from him, and his grandchildren jumped around, screaming with delight. “It’s good news Malachy, Johnny is coming home!” the neighbours celebrated and wished him well.
As usual in these things not everyone would be destined to hear good news. There was a message from Mick Finn to his sweetheart, Susie, telling her that he would soon have her fare gathered and would be sending it on to her. Unfortunately, Susie was not going to hear the message, for she took terribly ill a couple of months earlier and died. It was six weeks since the poor girl died, and the family had brought her to her last resting place in the cemetery at St. John’s Church. There in her grave Susie lay, and the daisies had already taken root, blooming there in the fresh air as beautiful as she had once been. Mick Finn’s words, however, had brought back the heartache and tears the family had shed in the days and weeks that had passed since her untimely demise.
“Johnny Gallagher has got himself married to a girl from Cork, who has a bucketful of money behind her,” they read from the letter and Big Nancy Mulroy burst out laughing. Everyone had thought, before Johnny went to America, that he and Nancy would have wed, or at the least engaged. She was a tall well-built girl that no man in the district would dare to cross and this laughter was simply her attempt to deny how she truly felt. Although she wished him good luck, Nancy just wanted to get her hands on the eejit. There had been talk that Johnny had only gone to America in the first place to get away from Nancy, and she now wondered if these rumours were true. This letter had been Johnny’s first convenient opportunity to break her heart.
While the letter was being read out there were quite a few listeners, who had become increasingly curious about the absence of Nancy Doran. She, after all, should have been the one most interested in the fate of Dessie McDowell, and yet she was nowhere to be seen. Nancy, however, was not far away and was sitting in the dilapidated cottage into which she had been forced to move when her family threw her out of the house. She had been pregnant to Dessie before he left, and her father was incensed by the shame he believed she had brought to the family. As Dessie’s letter was being read, Nancy was sitting at her kitchen table with a pile of sewing, which provided the income she needed to support her and her baby. Every now and again she gave a sob, which would almost waken the baby asleep in the box beside her, though she tried to hide it. Nancy’s mother had quietly visited her daughter without the knowledge of her husband, and was seated on the hearth, angrily berating Nancy for feeling sorry for herself.
“Will you stop your weeping,” the mother told her daughter, “Get a bit of back bone, girl. It’s something that you have never had, because if you did have it you wouldn’t have gotten yourself into trouble with the likes of Dessie McDowell.”
“Mother, please,” Nancy answered the sufferer, “don’t always be condemning me. Is it not bad enough that I must sit here quietly, while his letter is being read out only a few doors away?”
“Well then, go to McDowell’s cottage and beg them to let you read it,” her mother told her angrily. “Go there, darling girl and find out for yourself how little thought he has for you, or the trouble he left behind him.”
“It’s not for me, mother, no, not just for myself,” Nancy sobbed. “I can live without his thoughts or favours, but I would just like to know what he has said about the baby.”
“Ah, be quiet!” exclaimed the mother. “You are always trying to get me to think about the whole bad situation. Wait ’til I tell you Nancy that I have never felt hatred for someone so badly as I do now. Please be quiet, I tell you.”
“You just have a very hard heart, mother,” Nancy told her.
“You have no place to talk dear,” replied the mother. “If your own heart had been a little bit harder, darling, your family wouldn’t have to walk away with their heads down every time that your name is spoken.”
A fresh burst of tears was all the answer that Nancy could give to this. It was an answer, however, that only caused an increase in Mrs. Doran’s wrath and lower the tone of her words. She had heard about the letter and had visited Nancy to persuade her to assume an air of quiet nonchalance, to demonstrate to neighbours that she had a “back-bone” in her character. It was obvious that Nancy had failed in her objective, and now Mrs. Doran directed her anger and frustration towards Nancy. In response, Nancy’s sorrow became louder, and, between crying and the shouting, the child was awakened from its sleep and began to add its bit to the general clamour. The noise did not lessen one little bit until a crowd unexpectedly gathered at the door Nancy’s dilapidated cottage and the voice of Sharon McDowell could be heard shouting joyfully over the din.
“Well, if the girl won’t come to us,” Sharon called out to the crowd, “then we must go to her. After all, this news, is worth hearing!” Then, before another word was spoken Sharon, and a crowd of people, had made their way through the door without knocking, or asking permission to enter.
“God save all here,” old Sharon greeted them, “including yourself, Mrs. Doran. After all we must now forgive and forget all that has kept us divided.”
“And if I forgive and forget, what do I get in exchange?” asked an angry Mrs. Doran.
“It’s good news and much to be thankful for,” said old Sharon as she revealed the letter. But, for her part, Mrs. Doran was in no mood to listen to any news from the letter, be it good or bad. She rose up from where she was seated, gathered her belongings, and haughtily pushed her way through the growing crowd. There was no word of goodbye to Nancy or the baby as she stormed out of the cottage.
“Cheerio, then, may the sun shine on your back,” said Sharon as she recovered from the undisguised contempt Mrs. Doran had shown toward her. “Away on with, and if you never come back, it’ll be no great loss, for there’s not one word about you in the letter, you old serpent,” Sharon called out to her and then she turned to Nancy and the baby.
“Now, Nancy, you and I should spend the whole of the day down upon our knees giving thanks, even though you thought the letter not worth your time,” said Sharon, and Nancy went down on her knees clasping the baby close to her bosom. She raised her eyes to heaven and, oblivious to the crowd and commotion, with every nerve in her body trembling with excitement and joy, Nancy waited for old Sharon to ready a seat for the letter reader near to the window. As the reader settled himself into the seat, the old widow called out for silence and gave the letter over for it to be read out to the crowd for about the sixth time.
Dessie had grown to realise that survival in America was very much dependent upon his character, and he became very wary of not doing anything that might affect his character badly, even by the slightest degree. He was a changed man now, no longer an utter idiot, but a man of honour and integrity. All the while he never forgot Nancy Doran, nor his old mother, whom he had left behind him in Ireland. Images and thoughts of Nancy filled his dreams with such intensity that Dessie immediately began to put aside a little money every week so that he could send it to her, but he was ashamed to write to her until he had the total amount gathered. Unfortunately for Dessie his efforts were cut short and the money he had accumulated was used for his own subsistence. The event which had brought about this misfortune was the sudden death of the owner of the grocery business for which he worked. The unexpected death of the man who managed the entire concern caused the entire business to break up, and Dessie was once again unemployed. He found it exceedingly difficult to get another job and his small amount of savings was soon exhausted. Dessie decided it would be better to get out of the bulging city of New York and move westward, where labour was more plentiful and there were less people chasing each job.
Dessie travelled widely getting casual work as he went until, at length, he met a friend who had been one of the partners in the grocery business that had first given him a job. This man had money, but, he did not have the education or business acumen to put it to profitable use. He had no knowledge of reading, writing, or arithmetic. Now, these happened to be a specific talent that Dessie had cultivated when at school. One day, while talking to Dessie, he bemoaned his lack of a sound education which prevented him from using his capital to good effect, and Dessie very modestly suggested one way in which he could put his money to profitable use. After a little consideration of Dessie’s idea, he invested his money and in a very few days a grand new store appeared in the town in which they now lived. Dessie became the bookkeeper for the business and was rewarded with a junior partnership in the business.
In the latter half of the letter he gave thanks for the education he had been given and the faith that his mother had handed on to him. Dessie then told her to take hold of the large amount of money that he had sent with the letter. He told his old mother to keep half for herself to make her old days comfortable, or to use it to pay her passage out to him in America. The remainder, he told her, was to be given to Nancy, the girl of his dreams who had suffered so much because of him, and he wanted to assure her that he would spend the rest of his life making it up to her and their child. H said that he would expect her in New York by the end of the month, and that Nancy was to immediately purchase a gold wedding ring, which she should place on her finger at once, without waiting for the priest. “I’m her sworn husband already,” he wrote, “and I will bring her straight to the priest the minute she puts her foot on American soil.” He added that they should write to him giving the date and means of travel and named the place where they should meet. As a final surprise he told his mother, “When you write to me, address the letter to Desmond McDowell Esq. for that is what I am now, and I’m not kidding you.” The letter finally closed with Dessie wishing his mother and all the neighbours, “good luck.”
There was a loud cheer from the crowd as the reader finished the letter and they all rushed forward to congratulate Nancy and her infant. Old Sharon whispered in her ear, “It’s very hard to spoil an Irishman entirely, if there is any good at all in him.”