The sky turned blue again after the murdering famine, and gorged itself with the peace it was allowed to shadow through the hardened corners of the stonewalled fields of Aran, my beloved island of the Irish west where my annual pilgrimage to her gulls calmed my nerves and the smell of the returning sheep-shit was my morning tonic.
My heart skipped as I caught sight of her and the serrated cliffs drew close, reaching upwards to the clouds as Fogarty’s currach launched me over Atlantic crests and dipped me through Atlantic troughs, the two brothers lilting a tune to time the oars of oak they cut through the cold green water with the ease of champions.
I tasted the salt that licked my lips and inhaled the leather that skinned the boat, watching their wired muscles and enjoying their song against the backdrop of rock face and surf that awaited me.
“Still the holders boys?”
“Aye, pushed close by the Danaher’s though, young bucks will take us next year unless we strip her and skin her”
“I’ve a new stitch might help ye” I offered and I could tell by the movement of jaw that the older one said something before it was carried away by the rising wind and prevented from reaching my ears. And as their song became intermittent I whitened my knuckles and gripped my shoemaker tools and hoped the Virgin Mary was keeping an eye on our sleek cow skin boat.
Our landing couldn’t have come any sooner and my suit jacket was soaked by the time we beached. I helped the Fogarty boys lift their currach, flipping it keel side up above their heads as they walked the sand with heads inserted, a waxed skinned four legged currach walking from the ocean.
“Tis a green faced man with shoemaker tools and fancy mainland tweed coming to save us is it?”
Bridget Murphy stood amongst the nets with hands on hips and a scowl that refused the smile I knew she had in her. The Fogarty brothers dropped their currach into its berth and glanced at each other as they took their dry jackets from pigskin bags.
“We’ll leave ye to it Joseph” and they tipped their caps and took large steps through the crab pots and wicker baskets of seaweed that marked the path of women cleaning the herring of the morning catch, Bridget Murphy the only one standing.
“I’ll call up to ye later lads, show ye that stitch for the boat, say thank you for the journey ”
They waved a hand and continued their walk without turning, leaving me to deal with the womenfolk alone.
“So tell me Joseph Kearney, what sophistication have you come to show us this time”
The other women shifted uncomfortably at such a show of impudence and I doffed my cap and bid them good afternoon, ignoring Bridget and taking fob watch from my waistcoat in a manner sure to get a rise from her independent spirit. Her scowl deepened as my smile broadened.
“I’ll be off to the tavern so”, and I counted the bare feet amongst them; their shoes beyond the counter of O’Flaherty’s waiting to be stretched over my wooden last and revived for another winter. I winked at Bridget Murphy and strolled within inches of her pointed elbows.
“Expect I’ll be dancing with you at the ceile tonight Bridget so don’t forget the lavender” I said quietly and passed on by, not looking at her directly. I heard the womenfolk snigger behind me as Bridget huffed and sat back down to tend her nets, furiously delighted with my insolence.
O Flaherty’s was forty-three fields away, each piece of grass segregated from the next by dry stonewalls born beneath the soil and plucked by the farmer’s hands. Stones that broke backs and gnarled fingers as generations fought the Almighty and tried in vain to turn the rock infested land into a meagre livelihood. Finally succumbing to its barren soul and leaving it to the pitiful sheep that caught their wool against the stacked stones as they sheltered from the coastal winds sweeping in from America. The place I was now destined for.
My walk to O’Flaherty’s took longer than was normal. Knowing it was my last and drinking a fill of memories I could take with me, I ambled along the cart rutted track, nodding to the tattered black waistcoats and tweed caps of the distant figures toiling their fields in solitary melancholy at the children they lost to the famine and the continuous struggle of their own living. My thoughts were with Bridget and I hoped I wouldn’t be leaving the island alone. I was of an age where a family of my own was long overdue but I wanted my name to start anew in a land free from the Crown and the history of hunger and I decided that Bridget Murphy had a spirit and a mind to help me make it happen.
O’Flaherty himself, gaunt like the rest of the island men, greeted me with watch in hand and ushered me in for a pot of spuds and freshly churned butter from the island herd, sustenance before the needle and last took over my day. There was no sound of porter nor sniff of tobacco, provisions of oats and candles all I could see along the warped shelves of O’Flaherty’s shrinking store and I immersed myself in the solitude of my trade and the thoughts of a future uncertain, thankful for the warmth in my now full belly.
“Some hot water for ye Joseph”, O Flaherty said as a third candle burned through and the last of the boots were mended.
“Jesus is that the time” I replied and quickly added “God forgive me’ as O’Flaherty frowned at my blasphemy.
I removed my shirt and washed as best I could with cramped hands and dark room, fumbling as I attached a new shirt collar I had brought for the purpose. I brushed the turf soot from my dry but smoky “mainland” suit jacket as I heard the fiddles and left O’Flaherty’s at a pace, running along the dirt track, concentrating on my footing in the pitch blackness that had descended like a blanket across the small island, worried I might lose a boot as I flapped inelegantly across the sods of bog.
Most of the islands inhabitants were now ensconced at the ceile in the church hall, single women on the right, the bachelors to the left and the married ones sitting together with cups and laughing as the priest walked his beat and had not so quiet words in the ears of some of the dancers.
The matchmaker held meetings in the tea corner and some of the fathers waited their turn.
“Partner up now for the first of the Walls of Limerick” Fr. Ignatius boomed from the stage as the fiddlers and the button accordionist seamlessly merged from reel to jig and I dropped my bag of boots for owners to collect in a hurry. They then chose their sides and faced off against the women they secretly desired.
Bridget stared at me from across the hall, daring me to partner up opposite her, knowing that set dancing was never my gift. I light my pipe and nodded towards the door as I gratefully accepted the thanks of the newly heeled. Taller than most I watched her over the heads of the men still standing as she raised both her hands, holding them high with the ladies at her side as she stepped into the men doing likewise, and stepped back again. The Walls of Limerick continued and she then stepped under the male arch of hands and stuck her tongue out at me as I reached the door and I blushed, despite my determination not to let her win any more of our yearly battles.
I didn’t have to wait long for her to come to my side, hot cup of tea in her hand and a dram of whiskey up her sleeve. We silently stared at the blackness, the sound of crashing waves beneath us as I checked around for unwanted eyes and put my arm around her shawl.
“I’m going” I said and nodded out to the water below and the neighbouring country it came from.
“Aye, no choice Bridget”
“As soon as you say yes”
She was quiet and I let the silence continue, hearing only my heart in my ears as it beat with anticipation.
“You’ll be waitin then Joseph Kearney, ye think I just scratch me arse waitin for ye to come and fetch me do ye? Plenty of suitors for me you know”
“Well I do declare Bridget Murphy that you’re quite the most difficult woman I have ever met. Can ye not just whist a bit and listen to me”, I was getting vexed, an emotion that I didn’t like and had proven many times in the past to be an unproductive road for me to take, so I smiled at her and held her hand.
“I want you to come with me, I have money, enough to get us started out there with a little shoe business, you won’t have to char for any of the hoy poily and we can…”
She interrupted me with tears in her eyes.
“I’m sorry Joseph, I’ve been promised to another”
After a pause I asked, “Is he a better match than I Bridget Murphy?”
The waves crashed and a lonely gull squawked in the night.
She didn’t answer, just nodded a “No” and let go of my hand with a squeeze and ran back to the fiddles and the button accordion.
The Atlantic whipped around me and I wiped the wind tears from my eyes.
I would be leaving for America alone, never to see Bridget Murphy again.
I returned to the ceile and sought out the Fogarty boys for I needed to show them the stitch that would tighten the skin of their currach before I left. They were nice lads and being the champion rowers of 1799 was important to them.
Note to the reader
This is a work of fiction but the characters were very real.
Joseph Kearney was a shoemaker born in Ireland in 1794 and died in the USA in 1861.
Bridget Murphy married William Kennedy and they left Ireland and emigrated to America where she died in 1888.
Both of them had children and their family lines continue in America to this day.
Bridget Murphy’s (nee Kennedy) family produced a political dynasty that reached its pinnacle with the election of J F Kennedy.
The most famous of the Kearney line is currently the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack Obama.
I shit you not!
© Cathal 2010
Having never written about my country before I was inspired by fellow bubblers Rick and Gretchen and another great exercise set in an RB forum. It just became too long to post in the forum and hence turned up here as a story.
There’s a little Note to the Reader at the end of the story that you might find interesting if you have time to read on after doing me the honour of reading my attempt at historical fiction.