Echoes of Ireland Sneak Peek

Happy St. Patrick’s.  This is the first of four monologues that make up “Echoes of Ireland”, which was done at DragonFly Performing Arts last year at this time with Ron Morehead and Susie Yzquierdo. 

I’ve added a link to The Salvation Army Disaster Relief on the right of this blog.  If you’re in any position to do so, please help them help the Japanese victims of the tsunami.  Say what you will about this country of ours, but when the chips are down we come up with the cash. 

Have a good weekend.  

Echoes of Ireland

by Brian C. Petti

PO Box 361

East Durham, NY 12423

bcpkid AT gmail.com 

Copyright 2010 © by Brian C. Petti

Donegal, 1860

Have you ever been hungry? Not that late for supper growl you get on your way to a meal, no. I mean the in-your-bones hunger, the kind that nary lets you think of ought else. The two days since and for all you know two days hence type. The hunger stirred in the pit of your belly, bourne of far too many days providing less that what a belly require, less than what a proper soul depends upon to thrive. Have you known that hunger, lads?

To understand me, to comprehend how I stand before you ten years hence breathing the air upon the wind of County Donegal, and all the seeming health that sails with it…you have to know the hunger that can turn a proper soul improper. There were crimes enough. There are judgments we’ve yet to repay, dwelling on this earthly green. And there were crimes enough committed ‘gainst us, that are beyond any earthly judgment I can reckon. And at the root of it all, tangled up in its sinew and vine, forcing all that blackness up through the ground and into God’s light there is one word, one notion—hunger.

Crops had failed before. I had heard tell, having tilled a parcel with me father since I were a wee lad in service to the same landlord. I worked me land, but I didn’t truly own me land, you see. But t’were mine nonetheless. Me Da, he taught me every stone of the place, and after he died out in that parcel is where we buried him. I knew that land like you know a woman. Actually, thinking about what I know of me Caitlin, I believe I knew the land a tad better. It fed me two girls. It gave me what little I had in me pocket any given time. It provided me any right I had, at eight and twenty years of age to be calling meself a man. I asked no more than to be doing me work, to have a meal for Caitlin and the two young ones at the end of the day, and to share a spot with the boys at Jimmy’s Pub upon the odd Friday—and Lord knows no more was ever visited upon me. Simple wants and simple pleasures. I was married and familied as we all were. We went to church Sunday as we all did and prayed with the same words. I yelled too much, or drank too much on the rare occasion, did me penance and moved on fresh to pull the crop from the ground once again.

‘Twasn’t a surprise when the famine come. We’d heard it coming in gossip and whispers. But to actually see those pieces of coal staring out of the ground like the cold, black eyes of the old serpent himself… What’s a potato? Not much. A bit to feed a soul. Wasn’t there corn enough? Weren’t there cattle enough to slaughter? And there were. On ships leaving the ports of Erin each day, off to keep England in beef and the rest of the world in corn, while those who tended the land… Everything we raised we sold, see. If you wanted to keep your land and not be turned out by the landlord, you did so. Potatoes alone could be grown enough to eat and sell as well. All the tenable land raised grass to feed the cattle. Only potatoes took hold in the leftovers. Hills and plains of rolling emerald, green the like of which there’s none to match in the known world. Cow food. What we ate, and lived upon, and fed our children with…t’was brown. And now t’was black.

The small farmers fell upon the mercy of the large crop farmers. The big farmers pled their cases to the landlords. The landlords turned to the absent owners, far away in England…there were no mercy to be found there. And you can be certain no mercy trickled down to the poor of Donegal. Those who could afford to feed their own locked their hearts to us. The church locked its front gate. And poverty locked its chains upon us. But the ports, they stayed open, every day without fail for five years, sending our food to foreign soil while Ireland’s children starved. While me own children starved. When the last of what little we had was gone and the prospect of replacing it were gone as well, we fell into a routine of survival, Caitlin and meself. I took the man’s role, and went into town each day to try to find work with the Irish relief, on the off chance they’d throw me a few scraps to dig a ditch that was of no earthly value to anyone. Caitlin took the woman’s part, traveling to a neighboring town with the girls to beg in the streets. I couldn’t have her doing it in me own town, see. Not if I were a man who aimed to keep me pride. So I sent me own wife and children out to strangers to do me begging for me. So’s I could keep me pride intact, see. That was the theory.

After months of living on the scraps we could beg or steal, Caitlin began to leave the girls at home and venture out herself. When she brought back more than she had before, I didn’t ask how or why. I should have. But I didn’t. I didn’t want to know what I already knew. Because how could a man live, knowing such a thing? The depths a mother would plumb to feed her children. So I remained unawares.

So why not just leave, you may ask, and not having been there ‘tis a fair enough question. The simplest answer is that leaving took fare for passage, and hadn’t we enough just keeping body and soul together. But there were other answers too. Caitlin’s mother, who she fed the best she could until the fever finally stole the poor old woman’s breath. And our cottage, small enough to be meaningless to anyone but us, but still the place we watched our girls take their first steps—the older one careful and tentative and the younger one running headlong to beat the devil. It was ours. The only place meself and the lasses ever called home. Until the filthy landlord blaggards turned us out like shiftless beggars. And damn my soul, there was the land I thought would come back to me like a long lost love. The air, the grass, the sky I knew and loved all me life, even after it betrayed me. The land I couldn’t bring meself to hate…until I came home from digging me latest ditch to find the girls’ mouths stained green with it, wild with the hunger, trying to fill their bellies with the grass like they’d seen the English beef cattle do. That was the end, there.

By that time we were squatters, spending our cold nights in a lean-to with the one candle, hoping no one would roust us out. I spoke to Caitlin that night over the candle, spoke to her eye to eye, in a way I hadn’t in what seemed like years. I told her I was proud of her for the mother she was to me children, and that her mother would be too. She looked away. I can still see the shadows on her face from the flickering light. But I kept on. I told her the time had come to leave and stake our claim on another shore, what with our children desperate enough to chew cud with the cattle. We owed it to them to be done with this place at last. She began to cry then. And I…I thought it were due to what she’d suffered: the ignominy she endured to feed her girls, the meager life we’d been reduced to, the mother she’d lost to the fever. But t’wasn’t any of those things. She cried because she was with child.

We hadn’t had marital relations in over a year. When a body’s main concern is surviving until its next meal, all other considerations become secondary. Yet I was to be a father once again—me with the two green-stained mouths I couldn’t feed already.

There’s another word you need to understand if you’re to understand me. Shame. The shame of a working man all his days, now helpless and idle. The shame of not being able to provide for me children as God intended. The shame of sitting in the candlelight, with nothing between meself and the cold air but a piece of tarp, on a piece of soil that didn’t belong to me…across from a softly weeping woman who put herself in harm’s way for me and mine. How quickly we lost all we were. How quickly we were reduced to beggars and whores, who once were men and women of substance and pride. And in that moment, the hatred welled up inside me. I hated those who starved me family without conscience. I hated me father for teaching me to love the land. I hated the mocking green of the country I lived in. I hated me girls for being born. I hated Caitlin for the truth behind her tears. I hated God for abandoning us in our time of need. But most of all, lads, I hated meself. Most of all, I hated meself.

Caitlin couldn’t board a boat in her condition—if she survived the journey they’d have sent her back as soon as she landed. And I couldn’t leave her alone to starve and die. So I forged a letter from a distant cousin who lived in New York, who I never met, nor knew naught about. It said that he would sponsor me two girls to come across. I made up an address. We packed a sack for the lasses, told our 11-year-old girl to be the mother and care for her little sister…and we sent our babies out into this Godless world unguarded.

The letter didn’t come for eight months. For eight months we knew not a thing of our own children. Caitlin had another girl, and she was still nursing when the letter found us. It was from our oldest—I could tell by the scrawl on the envelope. She’d made it to New York, and even managed to find the relative we lied about by repeating his name often enough to anyone who’d listen. She was all right. She was alive, and being fed, thousands of miles away from this desolate place. But…our younger…didn’t survive the trip across. She died in me eldest’s arms, without a mother’s hands to soothe her or a father’s voice to calm her. The lost wages of vile desperation. And that’s all I can rightly say on that subject…

It’s now twelve years since that day. Ten years since the famine ended and the crop came back. Two hours since I had me last meal, and two hours until me next. Three weeks since I last heard from me daughter in the States. And a million years since Caitlin and meself have been able to look into each others eyes without a twinge of pain. We had two more girls, in our attempt, like the rest of Ireland, to repopulate the country after the food came back. So now we have four, plus the one we lost. And I till the land again, and we go to church as we did, and I have a few more pints than I used to on the odd Friday. But it’s all make believe. Like we’ve all already died once and we’re waiting for it to become official this time. We laugh without joy and we sing without passion. We know what’s under the rolling green, and we know what hides in the heart of the man or woman next to us. And we’ve not been able to forget what hunger feels like. And I fear we never will…

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  1. September 23rd, 2012
    Trackback from : Chocolate Potato Cake

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