This was published in The Lune Journal, 02 Dislocation, December 2018
There’s not much poetry in potatoes. Even less when they rot and turn black. It was the English, of course, who called our style of planting ‘lazy beds’. You can still see them, snaking up the hillsides, the pattern of the ridges etched into the land; but now it is only grass that flourishes where we heaped up kelp and sea shells to feed the soil. That was the year they call Black ’47.
Mary was born 100 years later. Rode on the back of her uncle’s motorbike, in her mother’s belly, before ever she got out into the wide world. How the vibrations must have travelled through Kathleen’s body, her thighs clenched against the metal, her breasts pressed up against her brother-in-law, and the tremors shaking her uterus. Quite an exciting start, I suppose, and suggestive of much more excitement to come. Which it didn’t, I’m afraid, or at least not for a good many years. The house in which she was born was in a slum, one of the poorest parts of the city. Kathleen had come over to England to stop Sean carrying on with another woman, so he had to carry on with his wife instead. Mary was born, therefore, out of retribution and guilt, not love at all, which cancels out the glamour of that pre-natal motorbike ride. Makes her a sort of penance, doesn’t it?
The London of her childhood was a grey and shattered place. On bus rides into the city, Kathleen would have to climb the stairs to the top deck, clutching her shopping, the handrail and the little ones, so that the children could look out and down upon their world. Bomb sites gaped, the ragged sides of houses sliced open, their walls and roofs tumbled into jagged heaps. These ruins were left for so long that the children thought them part of a normal city landscape. When Sean moved the family out to Essex, their new places to play were abandoned gun sites at the edges of the fields, and Anderson shelters which their stories turned into dungeons. He would take them for spins in the car across deserted airstrips where grasses were beginning to reassert themselves in the broken slabs.
But that 100 years is important. For if Sean and Kathleen had lived a century earlier it is likely that none of them would have survived. Or they might have been American.
Think of it, now. More than three million quarters of corn. That’s over 24 million bushels. And those four thousand ships, carrying peas and beans, rabbits, salmon and honey. Think of the poetry of it. Four thousand ships laden with salmon and honey.
Kathleen’s father had fine moustaches that tickled her when he kissed her goodnight, and a nice wave to his hair. She danced her childhood through his fields, and in the streams and mountains of her homeland. So her heart never could embrace that grim city. She would bundle the family back some summers, the long roads winding through the Welsh mountains, the night crossing and the seasickness. But they began to be too many and the younger ones knew little of Ireland except in stories.
‘But if it was so lovely,’ you ask, ‘why did they ever leave? And why did they never go back there to live if it was such a paradise?’
T’wasn’t only the people that left. The ships were crammed with livestock – with sheep and swine, oxen; horses and ponies, cattle. Think of the comedy of it, coaxing the terrified horses up the gangplank. All those sheep milling about on the quay, the dockers turned shepherds in case they tumbled themselves into the water. A regular Noah’s Ark tossed across the Irish Sea.
I was telling you about the father, the one with the moustaches. Now he did come back, transformed into an American in the meantime, but he did come home. It was hunger and disappointment that had driven him away. Not the Great Hunger. That came earlier. No, just the regular hunger of poverty and oppression and stolen land. You will be wondering who it was who killed his father. Well, uniforms do not go down well with the Irish, so maybe that was enough. But then, what was it killed his grandfather? And where was the rest of his father’s family? It is back there, at the beginning of that hundred years, that we would find them. But, trust me, that is not a time where you would want to be.
And there was corn and alcohol distilled from grain. And butter – great golden tubs of it stacked in the holds. Why, they even loaded potatoes on board. Now, all things considered, that’s a fine sort of irony. So many good things to eat and to drink. Fair makes your mouth water.
But we are heading in the wrong direction. There are the neighbours to meet and the priest. There’s the solicitor and the farmers. If you stepped into any of their homes there would be a welcome. Tea would be brewed, in all likelihood stronger than you care for it, but you cannot say so, as the thick dark liquid streams from the spout; and great plates of bread – dark rounds of malt loaf and the flour-dusted discs of soda bread. There will be a scrambling in the kitchen and the women of the house emerging with dishes of bacon and cabbage, mounds of potatoes decked with a slide of melting butter and a glitter of salt. And afterwards, when you are trying to ease your belt a little to give your belly a bit more room, there will be the offer of that alcohol, grain distilled. No point in refusing, the glass will be handed to you anyway. It goes down smooth and hot and you don’t refuse the second, so that the next morning you will be lying in bed wondering how many you had and why does your head hurt so.
Perhaps it is to drive out the memory of that hunger that they give you so much to eat and to drink.
Some died on the ships to America. But the ones to Canada, dear God, they were worse. Coffin ships that bore twenty thousand corpses. Twenty thousand stinking, dying Irish, fevered and starving and pestilent.
So, going forwards again. How they spread out. Some went to Australia and others worked in America. It the women married they tended to stay, to die there. But some of the old men, single, childless, made the mistake of coming home to a land where they did not fit anymore. Mary, she who rode a motorbike before she was born, drifted from London out to Essex and you’d think she was the dullest of the lot, but appearances can be deceptive. Imagine, now, if she became a ballroom dancer, winning trophies with her young partners when she was in her sixties, scandalizing her sisters. They had their adventures, too, wandering around Europe and Africa, cutting loose from their religion, one of them even getting divorced. But their mother, Kathleen, rarely stirred abroad. She had moved from one country to another and that was enough, except for the occasional pilgrimage to Lourdes.
The younger generation would go back an odd time – to the farm with its little mountain and its lake; to the cousins by the fjord at Leenane; to weddings in Dublin. Usually, news of funerals came too late so they missed those. A shame, for there’s nothing like a good Irish funeral.
Sean went back for his mother’s, of course, but he had turned into a Londoner now, almost an Englishman, with the faintest of accents and an odd beard, long and bushy but no moustache. Could he have been someone else if they’d stayed at home? There’s promise in that photograph. A tall, well-made man, just out of his youth, with a hint of gangliness left in the dip of his head and the sheepish smile. The sleeves of his jacket are too short and the bones of his wrists stick out.
Kathleen stopped liking him after that business with the other woman, which must have left him lonely. And as the children grew they went from loving him unconditionally as their daddy, tall and loud and funny, to a mild contempt for the old man.
Emigration, eviction, starvation. The imported maize made them sicken. And the corn was unfit for human consumption. Public works were instituted so that the dying could earn their keep. They were set to build roads that went nowhere. That came from nowhere. You will not find them on maps, these famine roads, but if you search, you may find their traces. Part the rose bay willow herb. Lift aside the travellers’ joy, the old man’s beard. While you are gathering sloes or blackberries, mind out for the thorns, but remember to look under the brambles. And while they were digging and starving and dying, bodies lying by the road side, swollen and ripening for the grave, those ships set sail for England, their holds full of the goodness of the land. Salmon and honey and corn and butter and livestock.