History has a way of repeating itself and each generation has it’s own set of struggles. In the wake of the latest recession in Ireland, many are once again emigrating. Picture what it would be like if there was no social welfare or subsidized health care. If that support was not available how many more would be forced to leave their homeland? Where would they go in a world where former wealthy countries are finding themselves ever more in debt?
This is a book based on the struggle to remain at home at a time when leaving was often the only way to survive. A story about what it must have been like to watch family and friends depart, with little hope of ever laying eyes on them again. There are no easy choices in situations like that and people in many countries around the world are still having to make those decisions. This story is as relevant today as it was in the Ireland of the mid 1800’s.
Another 5 star review:
5.0 out of 5 stars an excellent thought provoking story., 22 May 2014
All of the reviews are very much appreciated. I am writing a follow up series about some of the characters and will be publishing the first one in a couple of months.
At last I have finished the sequel. Its called A Year of Broken Promises (click to see video)
A Pocket Full of Shells #1 in Kindle paid store top #100 Victorian Romance category and #2 in top #100 paid Historical Fiction six weeks after it was published, as of May 7th 2014 (amazon.co.uk)
- Amazon.c0.uk Bestsellers Rank: #35 Paid in Kindle Books (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
A Pocket Full of Shells
A Pocket Full of Shells is a novella that I have loosely based 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 Ireland 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 think so anyway.
A Pocket Full of Shells – Chapter One
Hand in hand, the exhausted couple stood waiting for the weather beaten door to open. The noise of the sea behind her was a strange and frightening sound to the young woman. James turned to watch the waves crashing on the shore.
“Look at the sea, Mary, don’t be afraid, it’s too far away to harm us.”
As he was speaking the door creaked open and a pair of gnarled hands grabbed hold of the young woman’s shoulders.
“Oh ye poor wee thing, come in out of the weather. What a day to be travelling, and in your condition too.” James’s aunt Annie had been waiting for their arrival all morning.
A large, black cauldron of soup made from fish heads and kelp was bubbling over the fire. Nothing had ever tasted so good to the young visitors. They hadn’t eaten for two days and the walk had left them on the verge of collapse. Annie watched as her guests tried not to wolf down the warm liquid, but hunger overtook them and in no time the soup was gone. Mary turned the empty wooden bowl around in her hand, examining it closely.
“I’m afraid there’s no more in the pot, my love. Pat has gone hunting and won’t be back for a while, he might be lucky this time,” said Annie. “You should lie down for a bit and get some sleep. We can have salted herring for supper. My Pat is a fine fisherman and I can’t remember the last time we had no fish in this house, fresh or salted.”
Embarrassed, Mary said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude. I was admiring this bowl. It’s beautiful, so smooth.”
Picking one of the bowls up from the table Annie ran her rough old fingers around it’s shiny base. “I have six of them, left to me by my mother. It was her older brother who made them for a wedding present. I think I will pass them on to you when my time is up, you are the first person to look on them as lovingly as I do.”
“Don’t talk of such things, Aunt Annie,” said James. “There’s years left in you yet.”
“Ahh, of course there is. Well now, let’s get this young wife of yours to bed. She’s exhausted, poor wee mite.”
Annie stood up from the table and led the way to the stairs. It’s steps curled up behind the chimney to a small windowless loft room, heated by the fire below. A bed of straw-filled sacks was waiting to be slept on and Mary lay herself down as gently as she could, not wanting to disturb her unborn child.
Downstairs James and Annie spoke in hushed voices.
“Why did you not go with your brothers and sisters to England? There’s nothing for you here, except hunger,” Annie whispered.
“How could I bring Mary when she is heavily pregnant. There’s talk of the fever there too. She would surely catch it,” said James. “Besides, you always told me I was your favourite, and we need grandparents for our child.”
He took his aunt’s crooked hand in his and gave her the smile that always melted her heart, even when he deserved a scolding.
“You can take that grin off your face, it doesn’t work any more,” Annie said unconvincingly. “I never minded too much about us not having any children of our own. You made up for that in lots of ways. Pat took great pleasure in teaching you to fish and hunt, especially as you were orphaned so young. Your visits here gave us the joy of being parents for a while. We will always be grateful for that, my boy.”
“My brothers were thankful to have somewhere to send me, seeing as I was such a handful,” James laughed.
A loud, creaking sound made them turn their faces from the fire. The young man jumped up from his seat and ran towards the rain sodden shape that came through the door.
“Wait till I get these wet clothes off my back, son, or we will both be soaked,” Pat said as he shut out the storm and hung a dripping cape on a hook near the fire. That done, the two men embraced warmly then stood apart, examining each other.
“You look even younger, Uncle Pat, if that’s possible for the ugly old crow that you are,” James said, ducking as the older man playfully made a swipe at him.
“Quick as ever now, aren’t you, my boy.” Pat loved the way they could just pick up from where they had left off two years before. “You’re not too old to have a spanking, you know, and I’m not too soft to give it to you,” said Pat still trying to catch his young opponent.
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 am 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 do nothing 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, tearing down 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.”
A Pocket Full of Shells – Chapter Two
Later that evening, when Mary had joined them, there was salted herring for supper with a little Indian meal, a type of corn shipped in from America. It helped to take the edge off their hunger. Pat had built up the fire to cook the cornmeal that Annie had mixed with water and formed into small flat cakes. These she placed around the base and sides of the empty cauldron to brown. The four of them ate in silence, the storm howling around the cottage and the wind whistling through the gaps in the door.
There was a settle bed each side of the fireplace and Annie got Mary to lie down on one of them. She could see the young woman was still very tired.
“If you are more comfortable there, then you and James can stay down here for the night. It’s all the same to us, upstairs is just as warm.”
Their cottage was one of the few to have a chimney and a loft.
“Thank you, Annie, I would rather stay here tonight, I’m so exhausted. I don’t fancy climbing the stairs again. Are you sure you don’t mind?” asked Mary.
“Not at all, in fact I’m not so lively myself this evening so I’m off to bed as soon as I bank the fire. Pat, go on up there and warm the straw for me,” said Annie, winking at Mary.
Before heading for the stairs she kissed the young couple on their foreheads and wished them a good night’s sleep.
When they were alone, James lay beside Mary and placed his hand over her swollen belly. As soon as the baby felt the weight it jumped.
“That’s a fine kick he has. There’s nothing to worry about with this little one.”
James was trying to allay his wife’s fears about her lack of food throughout her pregnancy.
“How do you know it’s a boy? What will you do if we have a girl? Won’t you love her just the same?” Mary asked.
James kissed the back of her neck.
“I will love her as much as I do her mother,” he whispered.
“No, you won’t,” said Mary, “You must love this child more than me. Do you hear?”
“Don’t fret so. I will, if that’s what makes you happy,” James said this knowing it wasn’t true.
Since they were children he had loved Mary, but never let on in case his brothers found out. They would have given him a hard time over it. Instead, he tried to ignore her, calling her names when any of his family was nearby. They would chastise him for his treatment of her, saying “Leave poor Mary alone,” and, “What did the little mite do to deserve that?” It wasn’t until they were in their mid-teens that James purposefully tried to get her attention, which she then chose to ignore. When she eventually paid heed to him it was purely the result of an accident.
Searching for bilberries on Fraughan Sunday, a tradition in Ireland on the last Sunday in July named after the fruit, Mary tripped and slid down a bank of grass. In his hurry to help her, James caught his foot on the exposed root of a tree and toppled head first down the green slope, passing her by in the process. He came to a stop at the bottom of the incline and lay flat on his back, eyes closed. A few seconds later Mary landed beside him and took hold of his hand, calling his name. Fearing the worst, she put her face close to his, hoping to feel the breath coming from his nostrils. When he sensed the nearness of her, James opened his eyes and kissed her cheek, then closing them again, he flinched – waiting for the slap that was surely coming. Instead, he was aware of the softest brush of her lips against his skin.
They were married the following year, in 1845, as soon as Mary turned seventeen, he being eighteen. That was the first year of the potato blight. Everyone coped as best they could, believing that the following year would be better. It was a bad winter and there was no money for rent or food. To make matters worse, Mary was pregnant and her father was missing. James had been living with his wife’s family when the fever struck her mother in early spring. The couple moved in with one of his married sisters, at the insistence of Mary’s mother. The only reason she obeyed her and remained outside her parents’ cabin on her visits, was because of their unborn child. It broke her heart not to be able to do more for her sick mother and she cried herself to sleep every night in his arms.
The neighbours, Mary’s relatives, who only had one child, took in the three younger children. Not long after their mother’s death, their foster parents decided to take up an offer from the landlord of a ship’s passage to America. James and Mary knew it would be impossible for them to care for her younger brother and two sisters and made the heart-breaking decision to let them go with the others. She had lost her father, mother and her siblings in the space of six months. James thought he would lose her too, and his unborn child, because of the grief she was suffering.
When Mary was eight months pregnant, James’s brothers also took up the offer of transport to another country. They had relatives in county Durham in the north east of England and there was work to be had on the docks and in the foundries. They begged him and Mary to go with them. Even his married sisters and their husbands and children were leaving. None of them had the money to pay the rent and knew they would soon be facing evictions. James thought long and hard about what he should do. His young wife was so weak from grief and hunger, he was afraid the journey on an overcrowded vessel would kill her, or their child – or both. At first his brothers were angry and upset at his refusal to join them. His sisters were more understanding, if any of them had been pregnant they would not have risked the journey either. James promised that as soon as Mary and the baby were fit to travel, they would join them in England. In his heart he knew he would never go.
Everyone had agreed to leave their homes on the same day and make their way to Dundalk where they would say their goodbyes. Mary could not keep up the pace and James told his family to go on ahead, for fear they would miss the boat, as the landlord had already booked their passage. The twenty mile journey would have been fine for a well-nourished pregnant woman. But they hadn’t eaten since the day before, and it wasn’t much of a meal at that. James watched as the last of his family disappeared around a bend in the road.
“I’m so sorry,” said Mary wiping her eyes, “I really tried to keep up with everyone.”
The young man kissed her head as he lifted her up in his arms and carried her till his strength gave out. Looking behind a hedgerow, James saw a hollow in the ground and made a gap so that Mary could get through the tangled branches. He managed to make a scalp which was even worse than a scalpeen. It was no more than a hole in the ground with a few rocks and sods of grass to give some bit of shelter for the night. During those hard years of hunger and evictions in Ireland homeless families made scalpeens out of tumble-down cottages and lived in them as best they could. Luckily for the young couple it didn’t rain that night.
James knew that his brothers would be calling on their aunt and uncle in the village of Blackrock, on the way to Dundalk. They would say their farewells and let them know he would be arriving with Mary. His aunt would be worried if he didn’t get there the next day, so as soon as it was light they set off. He was excited about showing his young wife the ocean, she had never seen it before. As the morning passed, the grey sky filled with angry clouds and the young couple knew a storm was gathering. Again, James carried Mary, until his legs buckled under him. She jumped from his arms just before his knees hit the hard ground.
The worried look on his wife’s face made him laugh.
“Are you afraid it might be your turn to carry me?” asked James.
“This is as good a place as any to take a rest,” Mary said, ignoring his teasing and sat down beside him.
A strange noise came from behind a nearby bush and James got up to investigate. He grabbed a thick branch and broke it off in one swift movement, at the same time telling his wife to run. Mary did not have to be told twice. She could hear the snarling and snapping of angry dogs. James caught up with her and helped her along, all the while looking back in case they were being chased by the starving animals. Mary came to an abrupt halt, a stitch in her side.
“I can’t … take … another … step,” she was out of breath.
The road behind them was quiet with no sign of the dogs. James suggested they sit for a while to regain their strength.
“How many were there?” asked Mary, breathing easier.
“Only two,” James said, “They were fighting over something. One of them saw me, but he was having a tug of war with the other dog over an old bone. They won’t bother us, you can relax now.”
They sat there for a while lost in their own thoughts. Suddenly, something leapt up behind them and landed on Mary’s back. Before the scream could leave her lips, James was standing, stick in hand, shouting at the top of his voice. He made a ferocious swipe at the animal with all the strength he could muster, sending it flying and yelping into the air. Two more dogs came at them from behind the low hedgerow. The young man stood between them and his wife, snarling back at them, threatening with the stick. Another two arrived, one with a bone in his mouth, but kept their distance.
“Stand up, Mary. Make yourself bigger than them. Be aggressive – shout and snarl. It will frighten them off.”
The adrenaline pumping through her spurred the young woman into action and she outdid her husband in growling at the pack. The dogs, whimpering, turned tail and ran, leaving James and Mary coughing and laughing.
“I hope I never find myself on the receiving end of your anger. Those animals will still be running tomorrow, they got such a fright. I almost went with them,” laughed James.
Mary went very quiet. When she did speak it was in a hushed tone.
“Tell me the truth, was that a human thigh bone in the dog’s mouth?”
“Yes, it was. But it’s an old bone, maybe from a grave.”
Mary sat down and cried huge sobs that sent shudders through her body. James sat beside her, rubbing her back, trying to soothe her.
“Calm down, love, take deep breaths, think of the baby. It’s the shock that has you so upset.”
“No, it’s not that at all. The thought struck me that my father could have died in a hedgerow with a pack of dogs fighting over his bones. Nobody has heard any news. How will I ever know what happened to him, James?”
All of the grief she had stored in her heart seemed to be spreading convulsively through her thin, swollen body. He had never seen her this upset, not even when her mother died and her younger brother and sisters left to go to America.
Nothing her husband could say would make any difference to how Mary felt. He knew that, so they sat there, on the side of the road, until the sobs got softer. James had one arm around his wife and the other was still holding the stick in case the dogs came back.
After a long time, Mary sighed deeply, stood up and brushed down her dusty clothes.
“Right, James, we should get a move on, before the storm sets in. I’ve done my grieving. You and this baby are what’s important to me now.”
Mary held her hand out to her husband, who was still sitting on the ground.
She helped him up and said, “By the way, next time you see a pack of dogs don’t lie to me, pretending there’s only two. I wouldn’t have got such a fright if I had known what to expect,” and she slapped him lightly on the back of the head as they set out on the last leg of their journey.