This is an excerpt from a novella I wrote set in the Irish famine of 1845-1852. I have loosely based it around my great great grandmother’s parents. Her name was Catherine McGrother and she was born in 1846 to James McGrother and Mary (Roarke) McGrother. They went on to have four more children after Catherine, at a time when Ireland was in the grip of what came to be known as The Great Hunger. Catherine lived to be one hundred and two years of age, my mother was twelve when she died and remembers her well. I have been able to get a glimpse of this remarkable woman through the eyes of my mother, who is also called Catherine. How did James, a fisherman, and Mary manage to raise a family at a time when one person in every nine inhabitants died between the years 1845 and 1852? From the records I have discovered that their last child was born in 1862, so it seems they were not among the one and a half million who emigrated in the hopes of a better life elsewhere. So many of those hopeful, starving people died on the “coffin” ships sailing to their new destination, or shortly after they arrived. The population of Ireland is just under five million today, but it is estimated that upwards of seventy million people throughout the world claim Irish descent.
Most of the story in this book is fictitious, with historical facts setting the scene in Dundalk, Liverpool and Sunderland, places that have a connection to my mother’s family. I wanted to show the reader how people coped in their own way with the difficult situations they found themselves in. I created a relationship between James and Mary that turned their lives into a love story. It may have been the case, I like to thinks so.
A Pocket Full of Shells
James stood up straight and squared his shoulders.
“I’m a married man of nineteen now, and soon to be a father.”
The young man flexed his arms to show off his biceps. Pat stepped back and looked him up and down, acknowledging that James had certainly become a man.
“With no land to work this past year how did you manage to build muscle like that?” he asked.
James went quiet and sat down on the bench beside Annie.
“Breaking stones for a penny a day. I was one of the lucky ones. I had enough strength to have a heap of them by evening. Some men were too old or too sick and got nothing. Now and again I gave my pile of stones away, but not very often, I’m ashamed to say. It’s really bad in Monaghan, the whole county is starving. Everybody’s leaving or dying.” James held back bitter tears of frustration and anger.
“Now, now, son. Don’t dwell on things you can’t do anything about. Where is this young wife of yours, didn’t you bring her with you, or is married life not what you expected? Have you run away already?” Pat teased, peering into the empty cauldron by the fire.
Annie stood beside him, looking into the pot.
“Do you think we could get another broth out of those old fish heads, or are you going to surprise us with a nice rabbit, or two? ” she asked, not getting her hopes up.
“Sorry, love, I couldn’t catch a thing. All the animals are hiding from the weather. I’m sure I heard a rabbit laughing at me for being out on such a bad day as this,” Pat joked.
“Never mind, tomorrow is another day, we can collect seaweed and cockles and we still have some dried herring left,” said Annie. “Sit down there by the fire and let James tell us about his lovely wife.”
The young man’s face clouded over as he told his aunt and uncle about the fate of Mary’s family. Her father, Michael Roarke, a stone mason, had gone to search for work in Leitrim, having heard they were looking for men there to build a bridge.
“I almost went with him, but Mary begged me not to go,” said James. “If she had not been pregnant I would have left with her father. We were living in my sister’s house and I knew she would take good care of her, but I stayed to keep Mary from fretting. A month went by and there was no word from him. Mary’s mother got the fever and sent her three younger children to stay with a neighbour. Going twice a day to leave some broth or meal and fresh water in the doorway, Mary was not allowed to step inside for fear of catching the sickness herself. Even I was forbidden to enter the house. Screaming and shouting at us to keep our distance, the poor woman used a long stick to push her empty bowls towards the door. When we filled them she insisted we return the food to her in the same manner,” said James.
“Each day, Mary’s mother would tell us she was on the mend and feeling better. We were beginning to believe it might be true and I could see the relief in Mary’s face after every visit.”
“One evening as we walked towards the cottage we could see it had no roof. Panicking, thinking it had collapsed on top of her mother, we ran to the door, but there was no one inside. On our way to the village we had passed a group of men pushing a cart, so we turned back and caught up with them. They were collecting the bodies of those who had died in the cabins thereabouts, and pulling in the roofs of empty homes to discourage squatters. Mary begged them to pull back the sheet that covered the mound of twisted forms. As long as I live, I will never forget the despair in Mary’s cry as the cold, blue eyes of her dead mother stared up at us.” James looked into the fire’s dying flames. “That was the day I became a man, Uncle Pat.”