Kathy’s Famine Story

I was born in a thatched cottage standing by the side of a mountain stream. It was lonely in that part of the country, but a pleasant enough place in which to live. During the summer the wild ducks would bring their little ones to feed on the nearby bog and you could not stoop over the stream’s bank to get a jug of water without disturbing a nervous trout or two.
All of this was a long time ago, for it has been many years since my brother, Rory, and I would set off to wander together up the mountain to pick wild flowers and hunt for wild bird’s nests. But, Rory has now grown up to be a fine and clever man who no longer has time for such childish pursuits.
Yes. It was all such a long time ago and I am now a happy and comfortably well-off person, residing in a big house as a maid to the master’s daughters. Because I was so close and caring to poor Miss Anne, who died slowly of the ‘wasting disease’, I am treated more like an equal than a servant. Nevertheless, when I walk out with Jimmy Feeney, a neighbour’s son, in the fields during the cool and quiet of a summer’s evening, I constantly think about those days so long ago. As we stroll along together, I talk to Jimmy about those days and it raises my spirits, makes me smile, and we laugh together.
Every evening, before I creep into my bed, I say my prayers quietly to God. Then, before I sleep, I read a chapter from the small Bible that Miss Anne gave me. But, last night I could feel tears flow from my eyes and drop onto the page as I perused one particular verse that said, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away.” As I read those words, they made me think about all of those who were now gone from my world. My thoughts brought clear pictures of my father and his second wife, who was a really good mother to us children. But, above all, my thoughts turned to my little sister Betty, nestling into mother’s bosom as if she were a helpless pure-white dove seeking refuge from the world.
In those days when my father brought home his second wife I was nothing more than a slip of a girl, of ten years of age, and my brother Rory, who was about two years older. She was the daughter of a farmer from the next townland to ours and had been reared decently and with gentleness. But, her father paid an extortionate amount of rent for the land. So much rent, in fact, that the middleman between himself and the real landlord did not have to pay his own rent. It was a situation that could not be sustained and, when he was finally ejected, the farmer collected every penny he had, and prepared to set off with his family to America.
My father had long admired the farmer’s youngest daughter, and he often said that there was no sweeter creature ever drew breath. But, believing that her father was a wealthy farmer, he was very nervous about asking her to share his little cabin by the stream. When he found out the truth, however, he didn’t lose much time in discovering that this beautiful creature was willing to be his wife, and a mother to his children. She was to be all of these things and more to us. I often look back with sadness when I recall all those occasions that I hurt her with my foolishness, and my idle ways. I resented her presence at first and it took me such a long time to actually call her “mother.”
There were many times when my father would be ready to punish Rory and myself for our mischievous pranks and thoughtless acts. I can clearly recall the day when we took half-a-dozen eggs from under the hatching hen to play a game of “Blind Tom” with them, in which I would blindfold Rory and he had to try and catch the eggs when I threw them to him. She would intercede on our behalf, and say, “Tim, darling, don’t touch them this time. Sure, they are only wee children with no sense. They will grow up and get more sense soon.” Her appeals always seemed to work but, after he was out of hearing distance, she would give us both some very good advice. She never appeared to get angry at us and would speak to us so pleasantly that we could never resent her interference.
That woman also worked great wonders about the house and the garden, which were both dirty and neglected when she first came to the house. I was too young and foolish to do any cleaning or tidying, and my father was just too busy with his farm work. We had an old woman servant who lived with us, but she was too feeble and too blind to keep the house clean or decent. When she arrived, however, my mother got the floor raised, and the stagnant pool at the front of the house drained, planting in its place a parcel of roses and honey-suckles. The neighbouring wives would often say, “It is all pride and a complete waste of time for her to keep the kitchen-floor swept clean, and to put the potatoes on a dish, rather than simply emptying them out of the pot into the middle of the table.” Spitefully they would accuse her of being cruel and unnatural to take that old pool away from the ducks, leaving them no handy place to paddle. But, there was not a cruel bone in my mother’s body. Moreover, she was always too busy and happy to pay any attention to what the neighbours were gossiping about. She was, nonetheless, always prepared to do a kind turn for any of those same neighbours, and, because of the shame they felt for what they had said about her, they had at last to cease abusing her and what they called, “Her fine English ways.”
Not far from our house there was a rough, stony piece of ground, where nothing was ever grown but nettles, docks, thistles, and wild flowers of all colours. Rory and I came in from school one Monday and mother told us to begin weeding that area immediately. She added that we should bring in some buckets of good clay from the river’s banks and she promised that if we did a good job until Saturday, she would get me a new frock, and Rory a jacket, on the next market day. Encouraged by such an offer, we set about the task with great excitement and we didn’t stop working until supper time came. The next day we got stuck into weeding the ground again and, piece by piece, we saw the heap of weeds and stones that we got out, grow enormously. We saw the ground becoming nice, smooth, red, and rich with every bucket of river clay we deposited upon it. We were proud of what we had achieved on this bit of waste ground and we built a tidy little fence around it to protect it from the pigs. After we spread some manure on the soil, my mother planted cabbages, parsnips, and onions in it. Within a few weeks she harvested a fine crop from that parcel of land, from which she made us many a nice supper. She would cook the vegetables with, maybe, a small piece of bacon or the odd herring. From that land, aside from what she used in the home, she sold the surplus in the market. She made enough money from these to buy a good ‘Sunday Coat’ for my father, a dress for herself, a fine pair of boots for Rory, and a fine, pretty a shawl for me that I would wear every Sunday to Mass, confident that I was the prettiest girl in the Parish.
We were a poor family, but through my father’s hard-work and my mother’s good management skills, we were, thanks be to God, as comfortable as any other poor family in the country. We only paid a small rent for our land, and we always had plenty of potatoes to eat, good clothes to wear, and enjoyed the cleanliness and decency in and about our little cottage. For five years our small family enjoyed life on this land and then little Betty was born, bringing us all joy with her arrival. She was a delicate little thing, with a look in her beautiful blue eyes, that is seldom seen and is an omen of misfortune to come. She had a fondness for her father, Rory, and me, and would laugh and gurgle when she saw us. But we were all fully aware that the deepest love that she held in her heart was for her mother. No matter how tired, or sleepy, or cross Betty might be, just one word from her would set the child’s bright eyes dancing, and her little rosy mouth smiling. Those tiny arms and legs quivered in excitement in anticipation of being lifted into the warm security of her mother’s arms. The enfolding arms of a mother who doted on the very ground she trod! I don’t believe that the Queen in all her finery could have been one bit happier than my mother, when she would sit in the shade of the mountain ash, near the door, in the quiet summer evening, singing and humming her dearest one to sleep in her arms.

In October 1845, Betty was only four years old, things turned against us. It was a bitter time, when the food of the earth was turned to poison. The gardens that were usually so bright and sweet, covered with the purple and white potato blossoms suddenly, in one night, became black and offensive, as if touched by some ancient devil. I had never seen such terrible, heart-breaking scenes as those working men, God help them, who had only the one half-acre to feed their little families, going out in the evenings after work, to dig for their supper from under the black stalks of the plants. Each spade of soil that was turned over, and a long stretch of ridge was dug through, before they would even get a small bowl filled with withered undersized potatoes, which in other years would hardly have been seen as fit food for the pigs.
Some time passed before we found ourselves in real distress as a family, because we had managed to save a small amount of money in the savings’ bank. Because of this we were able to purchase meal, while our neighbours were rapidly approaching starvation. But, for as long as my father and mother had that little bit of money, they shared it freely with those people who were worse off than themselves. As the last of those small savings was spent, however, the price of flour was raised. Then, to make matters worse, the farmer who employed my father on his land for only eight-pence a day was forced to send him and three more labourers away, as he couldn’t afford to pay them any longer. That was a terrible sorrowful night in our house when my father brought home that news. I well remember the desolate look on my father’s face when he sat down by the ashes of the turf fire. Mother had just baked a yellow meal cake for his supper and then she went to the other side of the fireplace. There she gave Betty a small drink of sour milk out of her little wooden cup. The child, of course, turned her nose up at it, because, being delicate child, she was always used to drinking sweet milk.
“Mammy, will you not give me some of the nice milk instead of that stuff?”
“I haven’t got it darling girl, and I can’t get any more of it,” said mother, “so don’t you be fretting.”
Betty did not say another word but turned her cheek to her mother’s neck and stayed quiet, silently listening to what was going on in the house. She heard father say, “Judy, God is good, and sure it’s only in Him that we must put our trust, for in all this wide world I cannot see anything but starvation lying ahead of us.”
“God is good, Tim,” mother replied. “Be certain that He will not abandon us.”
Just at that moment, Rory came rushing into the cabin breathless but with more joy in his young face than I had seen on him for many days. “Good news!” he declared aloud, “Good news, father! There is work for us both on the Drumgar road. The government is to begin works there to-morrow. You’ll be able to earn eight-pennies a day, and I’ll be able to earn sixpence.”
If you had seen the pleasure we derived from this news, you would have thought he had given us a thousand pounds and a ton of food, instead of just an offer of a few pennies as wages for hard-work. Our supply of potatoes was gone, and the yellow meal that was available was expensive and roughly ground. A supper of yellow meal not the same taste or fulfilment as potatoes gave to us poor people, but it was heart-warming for us to know that there was plenty of that meal. Through the government work and the buying of yellow meal we could prevent ourselves from having to go into the local poor-house, which was already crowded to such a level that the poor creatures in that place had not even the space to die in their beds, God help them! It was told by many who had witnessed the conditions there, that the inmates were crowded like livestock with hardly enough space to even sit on the floor.
Before daybreak the next morning my father and Rory left the cabin, for they had to walk a long way to get to Drumgar, and they wanted to be there in plenty of time to begin work. For their dinner they took a cake made of Indian meal, which was that would be washed down with only a tankard of cold water. My father, always the optimist and knowledgeable about such things, always said the cake good wholesome food when it was well cooked. There were, however, a considerable number of the poor people who took exception to such food because of its sickly colour, which they believed came from having mixed sulphur with it. The poor declared the supply of such food by the government was a great insult to the Irish people, because when it was mixed it looked like food that would be given to a pack of hungry dogs. Nevertheless, many of the poor people were glad to receive such food after having suffered a diet of sea-weed and nettles, and the grass growing by the roadside. At least there was some life-saving nutrition in the yellow-meal, although it was exceptionally hard to digest.
It was evening when my father and brother came home from work. The walk to and from work had combined with a hard day’s work to make them both exhausted and in need of rest. My mother, dutiful as always, would always try to have something extra for them both to eat with their porridge, maybe a bit of butter, or a bowl of thick milk, or even an egg or two. She would always make sure that I got full and plenty, but she would only allow herself a little bit, hardly enough to keep body and soul together. There were days when she would go entirely without a meal, and then slip down to the barrow boy in town to buy a little white bread-bun for Betty. Getting that little treat and watching the child eat it gave her more joy than if she had been presented with a meat-dinner for herself. But, no matter how hungry that poor little creature might have been, she would always break off a bit of her bun and placed it into her mother’s mouth, and she would not take her eyes off mother until she saw her swallow. Finally, Betty would take a drink of cold-water out of her little tin bowl, enjoying its refreshing taste as if it was sweet milk.
As the winter came upon us, the weather became wet and bitterly cold, and the poor men working on the roads suffered dreadfully from wearing wet clothes all day. Worse still was the sad fact that they did not have anything to change into when they arrived home at night, soaked to the skin and shivering with the cold. In such conditions, it came as no surprise that fever soon took hold among all the men, including my father. Mother wasted no time in bringing the doctor to see him, and by selling all the decent clothes we possessed she managed to pay for the medicine he required, but all to no avail. When he died after only a few days of illness, Mother explained to us that it was the will of God to take our father to Himself.
I find it hard now to describe the sorrow that my widowed mother and us children felt as we watched the fresh sods of grass planted on his grave. For some, I fancy, it was not the type of grief that is displayed by the ‘Quality Folk’ at such a time. But, I am sure that it is the same sharp knife of pain that slices into the same grief-filled heart that we all possess. It is only our outside appearances that differ between the rich and poor in times of mourning. I recall coming across the mistress of the house a week after Miss Anne died, as she sat in her drawing-room with the blinds pulled down. She was sitting in a low leather chair, with her elbow on the small desk and her cheek resting on her hand. I noticed that there was not a trace of anything white about her, except for a small -fringed handkerchief, and her was paler than the marble chimney-piece that had the remains of a fire glowing in the hearth.
The butler had been busy with other duties and had told me to bring the luncheon tray to the mistress. But, when she saw me, she covered her eyes with her handkerchief, and began to sob quietly, as if she did not want me to notice. As I moved out of the room, however, I overheard her speak to Miss Alice in a quiet, sobbing voice, “Always keep young Kathy here, for our darling, Anne, was so fond of her.” Then, as I closed the door behind me, I could hear the grieving woman give a long, deep sob. On the next occasion that I met her, she was much more composed. It was only the paleness of her cheek and the black dress she wore that gave anyone a clue that she was still feeling that burning pain of her child’s last kiss.
My mother, however, was forced to mourn father in a quite different manner. She could not sit quietly in a parlour but had to work very hard to keep those to whom she had given life alive. It was only in the evenings that she was able to sit down in front of the fire with Betty in her arms. Sitting there she would quietly sob and rock herself to and fro, while she mournfully sang a loving song for the father that had gone. Betty’s sad and innocent tears would flow slowly flow from her eyes and down her soft cheeks each time she saw mother weep.
It was about this time that my mother was given an offer from some traders in the area who were aware of her reputation for honesty. They asked her to go to the nearby market-town three times a week and with their meagre amount of money trade on their behalf. With the town almost ten miles away, they wanted her to bring them back supplies of bread, groceries, soap, and candles. It was a task that she willingly accepted and walked the twenty miles, half of them with a heavy load on her back, just so she could earn enough to keep us alive.
Her job was made all the more difficult because Rory could seldom get a bit of work to do. The young boy wasn’t strong, for he had also suffered from the fever too. He had recovered from the sickness and, although he was left weak, he always did his best to earn an honest penny or two wherever he could. On many occasions I asked my mother to permit me go to the town in her place and bring back the load, but she wouldn’t hear tell of such a thing, ensuring that I remained at home to take care of the house and little Betty. But, that poor, innocent child needed little minding. After breakfast she would go and sit on the step at the cabin door, and she would not move an inch all day. She would patiently watch for the approach of her mother and would pay no heed to any of the neighbours’ children that would come and ask her to play. Through those long hours she would never stir, but just kept her eyes fixed firmly on the lonesome lane. But, when the shadow of the mountain-ash grew long, and Betty caught her first glimpse of her mother, as she was coming toward home, the joy that would suddenly explode across that small, patient face, was brighter than the noon sun’s reflection on the river. Mother, though faint and weary as the poor woman was after her trek, would have embraced Betty lovingly even before she sat down. Furthermore, no matter how little she might have eaten that day, mother would always bring home a little white bread-bun for Betty. The child, who had eaten nothing since the morning, would eat it that bun so happily, and then quietly fall asleep in the warmth of her mother’s embrace.
The fever that was so common was a terrible thing and after several months had passed I caught the sickness myself, though it did not have as bad an effect on me as it had on Rory previously. Any way, he and my mother watched over me and brought me through the worst of it. They sold almost every stick of furniture that was left in the home, to buy me drink and medicine. But, thanks be to God, I gradually recovered. Then, on the first evening that I was able to sit up, I noticed an odd look in my mother’s eyes, and there came a hot flush on her thin cheeks. It was a sign that she had taken the fever and, before she lay down on her bed of straw, she brought little Betty over to me. “Take her, Kathy,” she said, giving the child a kiss between every word.
“Take her! For she is far safer with you than she would be with me. You’ve beaten the sickness, and sure it won’t last long. I’ll soon be with you, my wee darling,” she said, as she gave the little girl one long close hug and put her into my arms.
It would take far too long to tell you all about her sickness and how Richard and I, as was our good duty, attended to her both night and day. I would have to tell you how, when every farthing and farthing’s worth of food we had in the world was gone, the mistress herself came down from the big house. It was the day after the family had returned home from their holiday, and she brought us wine, food, medicine, linen, and everything we could possible need. It was shortly after that kind lady had gone that my mother appeared to take a change for the better. Her senses came back to her and she grew a little stronger, so that she could sit upright in the bed. “Bring the child to me, Kathy, my love,” she said. And when I carried little Mary over to her, she looked into the tiny face, as if she was reading it like a book.
“You won’t be long away from me, my wee angel,” she said, while her tears flowed softly down upon the child.
“Mother,” I said to her, as well as I could speak for crying, “sure you know I’ll do my best to look after her.”
“Sure, don’t I know you will, my darling girl. You were always a good and dutiful daughter to me and your poor father. But, Betty, she’s the type of wee girl that cannot thrive without a mother’s hand guiding her, and a mother’s shoulder to comfort her. And now …” That was all that was said, for she clasped the little child to her bosom, fell back on my arm, and in those few moments her life had ended. Rory and I just sat there and stared at her still body, not quite believing that this wonderful woman was dead. Adding to our grief was the long time that Betty kept hold of her stiffening fingers, and it was only when our neighbours arrived to prepare the body that we managed to persuade her to come away.
The days passed slowly by and Betty remained very quiet as went to the front door of the cabin to sit. As she had done in the past Betty would watch, hour after hour, along the road that mother used to take when coming home from market. On this occasion, however, she was waiting for something that would never happen again. When the sun began to set, her eyes would widen as she anticipated mother’s arrival. But, when the darkness fell, her beautiful blue eyes would drop in disappointment, and she would come into the house without saying a word and permit me to help her undress and put her to bed. What troubled us most, however, was the difficulty we had to get her to eat. In fact, the only thing she would allow into her mouth was a piece of a little white bun, like those her poor mother used to bring home for her. We left nothing untried to keep her happy. I would often carry her up to the big house in the belief that the change in environment might do her some good. The ladies of the house would play with her, talk to her, and would give her heaps of toys and cakes, pretty frocks and coats. But, Betty hardly noticed the fuss that was being made of her and would be restless until she got back to her own lonely door-step.
It appeared that every day the child grew paler and thinner, and her once bright eyes developed a sadness about them. Then, one evening she sat at the door a little later than usual. “Come in, darling,” I said to her. “Won’t you come in Betty?” But, the child did not move an inch. I went over to her and found her sitting quite still, with her little hands crossed on her lap, and her head drooping on her chest. Gently I touched her and felt she was cold. In my anguish I gave a loud scream, and Rory came running to me. As he reached the door he came to an abrupt stop and looked, and immediately he burst into tears, crying like a child. It clear to us both that our little sister was dead!
Well, my little Betty, the sorrow was bitter, but it was short. You are gone home to Him that will comfort you as a mother comforts a child. Our beautiful wee darling, your eyes were so blue, and your hair as golden a ripened corn, and your voice as sweet as the lark. Still, your cheeks are not pale, sweetheart, your little hands are not thin, and that sorrowful expression that had come over has now passed away from your forehead like a dark rain-cloud from the summer sky. The mother that loved you so much has now clasped you forever to her bosom, and the good Lord has wiped away all your tears, and He has placed you both with our dear father, where sorrow or fear of death cannot touch you.

Letter From America

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?

Terry and wife

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.