Last year I shared a post on Facebook about the Doolough famine walk and one of my readers suggested I write a book about it. I haven’t written the full book yet but did manage a short story (Hunger’s Walk) based on a fictional family who will be the main characters in this future historical fiction novel. So thank you, Joyce, for the encouragement.
In a letter to The Mayo Constitution, someone at the time reported that the bodies of seven people, including women and children, had been discovered on the roadside between Delphi and Louisburgh, overlooking the shores of Doolough lake and that nine more never reached their homes. It is now believed that the death toll was much higher. I can only imagine the dejection and dismay felt by those who took that long, cold, hungry journey on foot, 170 years ago today.
On a freezing wet day in March, 1849, two little Mayo boys died within hours of each other. Their father swaddled them in the blanket they had shared through their sickness and made a coffin from the kitchen table. It was a useless piece of furniture anyway, as there was very little food to prepare and the family tended to huddle around the hearth, even when there was no fire to warm them.
A wake of sorts was held by their grieving parents and two remaining siblings. No neighbours came, for fear of catching the fever, nor did anyone come to the burial next morning. They were fortunate enough to have a family plot with room for one more coffin. The eldest son, Michael, asked his father where the rest of them would be buried, seeing as there was no room left in the grave. Patrick told him he wouldn’t let anyone else in the family die, as if it was his fault the fever had stolen his children. After the funeral, what was left of the family set out on a journey they had taken many times before but this one would have a very different ending.
A five mile walk through rain and hail brought them to the town of Louisburgh where they were to collect their weekly ration of meal. Patrick’s exhausted wife sank to the ground at her husband’s feet while their five year old daughter clung to his back like a leech. His eyes swept over the ragged multitude gathered around him, trying to catch sight of Michael, who had squeezed through to the front of the crowd.
Eventually, the relieving officer appeared on the courthouse steps, shouting for silence. He had an important message to convey from the two officials whose task it was to inspect those registering for relief work. As soon as he had finished speaking he dashed back into the building.
“What did he say? I didn’t catch a word of it.” Patrick enquired of the man next to him.
An uproar came from those nearest to where the speaker had stood.
“Whatever it was, ‘tis not good news,” the man replied.
Peeling the drowsy child from his back, Patrick cradled her in his arms, trying to put some warmth into her tiny frame. Those at the back of the crowd waited for word to reach them as it spread from person to person, like ripples in still water when a stone breaks the surface.
“The inspectors are not here.” Michael reached his parents with the awful news seconds ahead of the ripple. “They are at Delphi and we have to be there by seven in the morning. Anyone who does not attend will be struck off the relief.”
Patrick knelt beside his exhausted wife. She looked much older than her years and he feared she would not survive a round trip of more than twenty miles, especially in such bad weather.
“You can lean on me, love, for as long as you are able to put one foot in front of the other. And when you can no longer do that, I shall carry you on my back.”
After handing his daughter to her sixteen year old brother, Patrick lifted his wife from the sodden ground.
“Leave me be,” she pleaded. “Myself and the wee one can shelter in the ditch. You and Michael will get there much quicker without us. We’ll be grand, it will give us a chance to catch up on a bit of sleep.”
“We’re not leaving you, either of you. Are we son?”
Michael shook his head, tightening the grip he had on his sister. He wanted to scream with anger but the hungry years had taught him that rage burns up your strength. His father had done everything in his power to keep the bailiffs from their door, determined his family would never enter a disease-ridden workhouse. This didn’t stop the fever from taking his two little brothers but as long as they held onto their home, Michael felt sure they had a chance of surviving.
Patrick half carried his wife as the weary crowd pitched themselves against the weather.
“How many of us do you reckon there are Da? A thousand?”
Michael was almost as tall as his father, in spite of being malnourished for most of his teenage years.
“I would say half that figure, son. A crowd always feels bigger when you are in the middle of it.”
The weather worsened and those unable to keep up fell behind. His mother began to weep, along with others nearby and Michael worried that the sound of it might upset his sister.
“Are you alright?” he spoke over his shoulder and felt thin arms tighten around his neck.
“I’m cold,” came the reply.
“Try to sleep, we’ll not be too long out in this weather, you’ll see. There’ll be hot soup waiting for us when we get there,” he lied.
Michael felt another weak squeeze as he matched his father’s stride, noting that his mother’s feet hardly touched the muddy ground. The walk continued in this manner until Patrick suddenly came to a halt and put a hand on his son’s shoulder. They stared at each other, like two rocks in a river, while the crowd streamed around them.
“Son, do you think you can walk at a quicker pace than we’ve been going? Those who get there first might fare better in finding some shelter from this hail.”
“I can if you can, Da.”
With that, Patrick lifted his wife onto his back and began a determined stride that brought the four of them gradually towards the front of the crowd. There was a marked difference in the people now surrounding the family and it somehow gave father and son a boost of energy.
Where that extra strength came from, Michael could not tell but he recognized the same expression on his companions’ faces as the one his father wore. The boy clenched his teeth and summoned every ounce of power he had left in his slight body, determined to keep pace with those around him. His sister was so light, he barely felt the weight on his back and he was sure it was the same for his father, carrying his weeping mother.
In time, her sobbing became a soft moan and Patrick thought his wife was in pain. He hoisted her higher up on his back in order to lessen the pressure on her thin legs but the sound continued. It reminded him of the keening that took place at funerals and he tried to remember the last time he had heard those mournful cries. These past few hungry years had robbed his people of paying their loved ones the respect they deserved, a wake and a decent burial.
Patrick’s wife buried her face into the back of his neck, the sound of her distress penetrating deep into his bones. It spurred him on and he urged his son, along with those around him, to keep going, reminding them of their rations upon arrival.
Those who could, picked up the pace and for almost a mile experienced renewed energy. It didn’t last too long, as an increasingly bitter gale beat icy rain into their threadbare clothes. Even Patrick, the strongest man in his village not too long ago, had to slow down, and for that his son was grateful. Michael did not know how much longer he could have matched his father’s stride.
The majority of the heaving mass of weary, hungry people reached Delphi at seven in the morning, as they had been instructed to do, but the relieving officer was nowhere to be found. Until he arrived with the register there was nothing could be done except wait. No soup or hot drinks were offered to the cold, wet, starving travelers. There was nowhere for them to shelter and they were left at the mercy of the weather.
Some of the men volunteered to go to where the inspectors were lodging to ask that food be distributed to the elderly and the children, while they waited to register for relief. They returned to the crowd humiliated and angry. Patrick could feel the tension in the air and it seeped into his heart. He curled his hands into fists and shouted that he would like to break every window in the building to let the weather in and give those inside a taste of what the people were suffering.
As he took a step forward, someone grabbed him by the arm and broke the momentum of his rage.
“You have your wife on your back. Do you mean to drag her along with you, son?”
Patrick turned to find an emaciated, elderly stranger by his side, “I had forgotten she was there, she’s as light as a feather. I’m not sure what I was about to do, but I’m much obliged to you for pulling me back to my senses.”
“You are not the only one longing to take justice into your own hands but it will do more harm than good. Let us stand fast and bide our time and wait for the relieving officer to arrive. Having come all this way it would be a pity to give them any reason to deny us our rations, now, wouldn’t it?” the old man advised.
“Well now, I’m still on my feet and I haven’t eaten in three days. Would you call that standing fast?” asked Patrick.
The stranger gave a sad smile, “I feel much like yourself but I haven’t the strength to act on it. Is that your son beside you, carrying the poor wee mite?”
“It is. That’s his sister on his back. He refuses to put her down, even though he’s carried her all the way from Louisburgh.”
“It will be up to the likes of his generation to bring justice to our people. Now is not the time nor the place but this day, along with many others like it, will be seared into his memory, like a brand. You mark my words. Mark my words.”
The old man walked away muttering the same chant over and over until swallowed up by the crowd. Patrick, now aware of the weight on his back, eased his wife into a sitting position on the rain soaked grass. He studied his children’s faces in light of what had been said. While Michael’s eyes shone with anger, under a deeply furrowed young brow, his sister’s half opened lids revealed the opposite – hers were dull and listless.
The bitter frustration written all over his son’s face took hold of Patrick and he feared it would take root and fester in both of them. What if something were to happen to himself or his son? Who would take care of his already weakened wife and daughter? Were they to end up in a mass grave or buried under a sod of grass in an unknown field, nameless and forgotten? It was at that very moment Patrick made a fateful decision.
“Brigid, we’re leaving,” he said.
His wife protested they must wait for their rations or she would die from the hunger.
“I mean we are leaving Ireland. As soon as we return home I will make the arrangements.”
Brigid began to weep inconsolably and Patrick felt bad for causing her more distress.
“It’s the only way left to us now, love,” he consoled.
“I’m not crying because we’re leaving. These are tears of relief. I never thought you would go, no matter how hungry we were.”
Brigid crawled over to where her son was sitting, his sister still clinging to his back.
“Did you hear that, Mary-Ann? Your da says we’re going to a place where there is no shortage of food or work. Isn’t that grand, love?”
The young girl rewarded her mother with a weak smile.
It was noon before the relieving officer arrived.
Jean Reinhardt 2018