It May Be Forever: An Irish Rebel on the American Frontier
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It May Be Forever
An Irish American Rebel on the American Frontier
Chapter One: Cloonfower 1846
Patrick Quinn picked his way carefully along a footpath not much wider than the fattest snake St. Patrick expelled from Ireland. As he traipsed, he rehearsed his frustrations like an old woman fingering the beads of her rosary. Since dawn he’d been seeking day wages at larger farms in the parish, but without success. It was well past suppertime as he hurried back to his family. Cate will surely be weary of toil and toddlers. I mustn’t add to her worries.
Beside the path, drenched pastures of deep, thick grass smelled of earthworms. Further on, the lush, green meadows were replaced by a brown expanse of bog land, scarred black where the turf pits lay. A midsummer sun forced its way into the evening sky. Through the lingering rain clouds, shafts of gold created and interrupted the lengthening shadows.
He approached their mud-wall cabin, a drooping, gray structure that begged a coat of whitewash. Its roof of tattered thatch resembled an urchin in bad need of a haircut. Cate, nearly seven months pregnant, sat at the threshold and took no notice of Pat’s arrival.
“Ah, Cate, have I missed the children then? I didn’t mean to be so late.”
She nodded and put a finger to her lips. “Please God, you’re home. Did you find any work at all?”
“None for pay. Helped Flanagans birth a calf. No one has work but for his own.” Pat grabbed at tense muscles at the back of his neck, but he managed to force a smile. “I fear I chased away a daydream or such just now. What were you thinkin’?”
Cate didn’t look up. She stared at her dirty, bare feet. “Oh, I’ve been prayin’... beggin’ God ‘tis no mortal sin to have these feelin’s which I do. Here you have six mouths to feed in hard times and I’m cursin’ you with another.”
He reached out and stroked her tear-stained cheek with the smooth back of his otherwise rough hand. “Ach! Are you now producin’ babes all by yourself? Your mind is in a needless dither, woman. ‘Tis all of Cloonfower which is misfortunate! You bring me no curse at all.”
Cate smiled but her furrowed brow did not smooth. Pat sat down upon a large stone mottled with the orange-yellow acne of lichen and washed himself with water from a wooden bucket. He was a lean, wiry type, and not particularly handsome. But he had a marvelous smile and gentle ways that had easily captured Catherine Finan’s heart almost twelve years before. His thirty-one years were beginning to show around his blue-gray eyes and his mouth. Smile lines he called them. Longish, dark brown hair, flecked with a few bits of gray, curled a bit at the back of his neck. He wore his faded shirt tucked into mud-spattered, black woolen trousers that ended in tatters between his knee and ankle.
Life was hard, but it was so for all the cottiers in Cloonfower. Still, things might have been worse if Pat had been one given to despair and bitterness. But he was wont to look away from the ugly face of poverty, happy to believe things would soon look up.
“I’ll bring your supper out here,” said Cate. “Nora brought a pot of flummery on her way to Shanbally and I’ve saved it warm for you.”
Pat dried himself and made no comment. As Cate turned to go into the cabin, he eyed her. Seen in profile, her ponderous belly reminded him of her worry and want. Soon she’d be due with their fifth child. Increasingly, their efforts to put food on the table had to be supplemented by these gifts of oaten porridge from her older brother, Peter, and his wife, Nora. Pat’s pride was wounded in the face of such charity. But neither of them could afford the luxury of resentment. It wasn’t Peter’s fault that he was a generous brother and better placed in life.
Cate returned with his supper and set the steaming bowl beside him. Three years younger than he, she had been only sixteen when they married. She still retained her handsome features—greenish, hazel eyes and long, auburn hair, which when pulled back, revealed a face and neckline of considerable beauty. Pat loved her dearly, but he was shamed by her worn, ragged clothes, by her long hours of work, and by the knowledge he was helpless to give her better.
Cate had been born into modest prosperity. The Finans had long been among the top tenants in Cloonfower, with more acreage and better ground than many. Despite her now reduced circumstances, Cate complained little. But feeding ten-year-old Margaret, eight-year-old James, six-year-old John, and two-year-old Roderick was a challenge each day. With another on the way, Pat knew she must feel that life was closing in on her.
It took but little time for Pat to consume the bowl of porridge. Setting the empty bowl aside, he took Cate’s hand and pulled her to a seat beside him. The late sunset of the Irish summer had gilded in crimson the clouds hung low in the blue-gold sky. Though it was late, they sat and silently watched the glow gradually surrender to inexorable darkness.
As the chill came up, Pat wrapped his arms about his weary wife.
“It shan’t be long now till the harvest. Things will be better then. You’ll see.”
Cate nodded without comment. “Let’s be in then.”
Pat picked up the water bucket and placed it at the threshold. He entered the single room whose darkness was relieved only by a faint glow of a dying turf fire.
Cate quickly washed her feet and left the bucket outside the door. It was now too dark for pitching muddy water into the yard. It might land on the fairies. She would take care of it in the morning.
* * * * * * *
The townland of Cloonfower, which means “meadow of the spring,” sits on the western edge of Kilkeevin Parish, in the County of Roscommon. Blotched by bog land, the district produced more turf than crops. Where good land could be found, it was often devoted to grazing. Still, the potato was the staple for the Quinns, as it was for over three million peasants in Ireland. This was most unfortunate as the country was reeling from the partial failure of the previous potato harvest. Ireland’s great hunger had begun, though it was not yet recognized as such. Its full horror had yet to fall upon the land.
Then in August of 1846, in the course of a few days, the new crop of potatoes turned. The plants blackened and collapsed, unleashing a sickening odor from lazybeds across the breadth of the country. Fully three quarters of the nation’s crop was laid waste. Fear and confusion gripped families as the specter of famine crouched in the dark corners beside their hearths.
* * * * * * *
Centuries of confiscation and colonization had left most of the native Irish with no land of their own. In Roscommon, nearly all the land was owned by a handful of British proprietors. One of these was William Robert Wills of Willsgrove, landlord of Cloonfower and a good portion of Kilkeevin Parish. William, a tall, silver-haired gentleman in his late sixties, was the very image of an Anglo-Irish patrician.
Ten years younger than William, Mary Sandford Wills was a feisty, slightly sardonic spirit, despite the recurring bouts of asthma that had plagued her since childhood. She was the niece of the late Lord Henry Moore Mount Sandford, first Baron of Castlerea.
Recently, another uncle, George, the third Baron, had died in his dotage, without a male heir. The hereditary title was, therefore, extinguished. But the vast Sanford estate was intact, and it now devolved upon Mary and her husband. When she and William wed thirty years ago, it had been a love match and an alliance of fortunes. It was the joining of both estates and of the two family names that William had announced at the Relief Committee meeting that morning.
“You should have seen the blood drain from the face of that old fart, Lorton,” William crowed to his wife as they lurched along in their black brougham carriage from Roscommon town to Castlerea. Their destination was Castlerea House, Mary’s ancestral home and the seat of the Sandford estate.
Mary looked at her husband with a wry smile. “You use rather coarse terms for the Lord Lieutenant of the county.”
William chuckled. “Well, he is an old fart! He’s paid little courtesy to either of us in the past. But when I announced the union of our estates, his air turned around quicker than a London hackney. Now that I’m to be the largest landholder in the Parish, he is suddenly most solicitous of our good health and comfort.”
Mary gazed absently out the side window at the flat, monotonous countryside. “I suppose this meeting was like all the others, much harrumphing but no great actions taken.”
William grimaced with injured pride at this second rebuke. He turned and faced Mary to address an earnest self-defense. “What can we do? Both London and Dublin are happy to let us sink in this sea of declining rents and rising poor taxes. I reminded Lorton that starving bogtrotters pay no rent. But he, of course, complained that his hands are tied.”
Never deferential to political authority, Mary waved her fine, embroidered handkerchief dismissively. “His hands may be tied, but what of London? Lord John Russell’s hands are not tied!”
“We are told, my dear, that the Prime Minister feels it is down to Irish property to care for Irish poverty. Ireland is only deemed part of the kingdom when they want something from us. God knows if this famine had broken out in Berkshire or Kent, the government would be rushing forward with aid.” William fiddled with his blue, silk cravat as he contemplated the abandonment felt by the Anglo-Irish propertied class.
“Surely they could, at least, open the workhouse in Castlerea,” Mary said. “It is simply unconscionable that such a facility of relief is not yet available to the needy.”
“Yes, yes, that was all agreed. Can you believe it? Some fool had its doors closed for lack of uniforms for the inmates!”
After a few minutes of naught but plodding hoofbeats and creaking carriage wheels, Mary turned and fingered the lapel of William’s chesterfield. He knew a request was coming. “William, I do hope we can leave for France before winter sets in. The cold and the damp are bad enough, but now the ghostly faces of the poor fill the streets and shops of Castlerea. I can’t be seen anywhere in public without attracting a mob of beggars. God save them!” She pulled her shawl close, as if the chill of winter had already arrived.
“God better save them,” William replied. “No one else is going to do so.”
Mary shrugged and repeated her request, “Can we leave soon, dear?”
“Don’t worry, my love. We’ll leave for France just as soon as the merger of the estates is settled. In the meantime, we must get used to our new appellation.”
“Whatever you say, Mr. Wills-Sandford.”
* * * * * * *
Cate Quinn delivered her baby, a boy named Michael. The birth of a male child was usually the cause of great pride and pleasure among the extended family, indeed the entire clachan. But their capacity for joy and satisfaction drained from them with the potato blight. Given the odds of infant mortality, Pat promptly arranged to have Michael christened. Along with a few relatives and friends from Cloonfower, the family walked the dirt lanes to the chapel of St. Joseph, on the west edge of Castlerea.
The parish priest was Father Keane. He was a large man in his early fifties. His prematurely snow-white hair was cropped short and always in disarray, as if he’d just got out of his bed. He had the hands of a farmer, and his piety was of an earthy character, rooted in the land and the everyday life of his people. He did not suffer fools gladly, and he spoke his mind freely.
After initiating young Michael with the Christian rite of baptism, Keane sent the family on their way with his good wishes and blessings. As he returned to the sacristy, he shook his head sadly. It might as well have been the last rites I was just performin’. Such is the chance that this wee one will survive the comin’ year.
As the worried priest traveled his parish, he had seen much evidence of the growing hunger and homelessness. Whereas only a few families in the parish had been ruined last year, now virtually all were severely impoverished. Dressed in little more than rags, they scavenged the fields for charlock and nettles to make their meager soups. A realization of impending doom imprinted the faces of his parishioners like a brand.
* * * * * * *
As the christening party made its way back to Cloonfower, Pat walked and talked with his brother-in-law, Peter Finan, a tall, rough-hewn farmer in his early forties. His reddish brown hair and beard framed a face of strong features and kindly expression. He wore a rough woolen shirt, trousers, and brown leather boots, the last a sure sign of relative affluence.
A champion of the rights of the cottiers, Peter was busy decrying the rising evictions of tenants who had fallen behind in their rents. “None to report here, praise God! But in Ballintober, there’s whole families sittin’ by the side of the road with no place to go. Master Wills is keen to put more acres into grazin’.”
Pat turned and, walking backwards, called to his daughter as she walked with Cate, Nora, and the other women. “Margaret, will you carry Michael for your Ma a spell, dearie? Here, I’ll take Roderick with me.” Pat lifted young Roderick onto his shoulders and resumed his pace along the puddled track. “Sorry, Peter, go on.”
Recovering from the distraction, Peter winked at the toddler and returned to his rant. “You know, in the old days, the Ribbonmen would be settin’ things to right. Why, back in 1820, me own father was one of them, and their numbers was so great, the Brits had to reinforce the garrison at Castlerea. Today, there’s many a man who’d be takin’ measures but for the grip of hunger.”
Pat looked off at the cloudy sky that threatened rain before they would reach Cloonfower. But he wasn’t thinking about the weather. “Sure, the Ribbonmen was always heroes in our house. When me brother, Martin, was denied his conacre, didn’t the lads recover it for him? They was our only defenders against thievin’ landlords.”
Peter nodded in solidarity. “Why, ‘twas only several months back, the lads in Aughrim took their spades on an evenin’ and turned over the sod denied for praties.”
“The landlord was makin’ way for the grazin’?” Pat asked.
“Aye. There’s the greater profit for the master. Of course, left turned, the ground would be no use for grazin’ for the season.”
“‘Twould seem enough to get the tenants their conacre back,” Pat concluded.
“Not right off, though. The bastard landlord vowed he’d hire day laborers to quickly turn the fields back. But, the next day, a mysterious notice appeared on the church door. ‘Twas a warnin’ signed ‘Molly Maguire.’
‘Whoever undertakes the turning back of sod shall have his tongue nailed to his forehead.’” Peter smiled sardonically at the grim, but effective, threat.
Pat gave a shudder. “I could never carry out such a sentence, nor rake a man’s skin with the cardin’ tool as they do. You’ll recall when Father Keane gave us all ‘who-began-it’ one Sunday. Said Bishop Browne had decreed that any Catholic man who took part in such cruel justice would be excommunicated and damned to hell.”
Peter spat in disgust. “Ah, there’s the clergy for you! Why don’t that feckin’ bishop damn a landlord or two for bundlin’ families into the road and pullin’ down their cabins?”
Pat looked behind him to check the progress of the women and children. “Do you think, Peter, that we’ll be evicted? Sure, most of Cloonfower is good for nothin’ but cuttin’ turf. What gain will Master Wills have for puttin’ us off our leases? He’ll just have to find someone else to cut his turf.”
“We can’t live on cuttin’ turf, Pat! There’s got to be a proper crop, fit for to feed our families. If not, they won’t have to evict us. We’ll be starved out.”
* * * * * * *
A few weeks later, in a foggy pre-dawn, Pat slipped into the straw-stuffed bed he shared with Cate and the baby. His breathing was hard; his body steamed with perspiration. Cate knew he had been missing through much of the night, as she had been up nursing Michael. As she awakened, the memory of his absence jolted her into indignation. Her voice packed as much anger as a whisper could convey.
“Where have you been most the night? I’m here alone with the wee ones whilst you’re out ramblin’ about the countryside!” She felt his body tense; his labored breathing suddenly hushed. In the dark she couldn’t make out his expression, but she faced him as she vented her fear-born anger. “I was worryin’ where you was and what bad cess might be on you.”
“That, Cate, is me own business entirely. You’re to say nothin’.” A rare flash of temper colored his voice. He brought his lips close to her ear and whispered, “When you rise, you’ll find a haunch of mutton in the pot. Put on water and make your soup. And let none be the wiser!”
A sense of dread replaced her anger. “God save us, Patrick Quinn! Am I married to a sheep stealin’ Ribbonman? What if the magistrate catches you out? ‘Twill be the workhouse for us and a prison ship for you.”
“Cate, I told you already, ‘tis not for discussion! I’ll hang before I watch me family starve. Now get ready to feed us. ‘Twill be a spell ‘fore we see meat again.” With that, he pulled the thin coverlet over his shoulder and turned away.
* * * * * * *
The new year, 1847, brought on the worst stage of Ireland’s famine. Starvation, sickness, and emigration were erasing whole communities. It was clear, even to desperate ones such as Pat Quinn, that sheep stealing was no strategy for long-term survival. An alternative of sorts emerged one Sunday when Father Keane took to the pulpit at St. Joseph’s. His face was a mask of ill temper as he gave the announcements after the Mass.
“The District Relief Committee has requested that I tell you of a grand and generous public works project that should commence shortly.”
An excited murmur swept through the modest whitewashed chapel. The miserable, and much reduced, congregation watched their priest struggle to contain his anger, which might go unleashed as it had in times past.
“A new road is to be constructed ‘tween Castlerea and Swineford. Work is offered to those in need, for the bounteous sum of eight pence a day!”
Epithets never before uttered within the walls of this holy space erupted spontaneously from the faithful. Keane raised his hands to silence the impious outburst. “Now, now, we must all pray to our merciful Lord that you and your families may survive such generosity.”
Pat fumed at Cate as they trudged home from the Mass. “Father Keane had it right! How can one feed a family on 8p a day?”
Cate shrugged. “I was thinkin’ 8p might be better than nothin’. Besides, is there not a chance James could get a helper’s position at half wage? We might have 12p between the both of you!”
“Why the lad is but nine years, Cate!” Pat paused to reconsider his opposition. “Still, it may be worth tryin’ him to see if he can manage it.”
One morning in late February, Pat and James left Cloonfower before dawn. Men and boys streamed out of each boreen, joining them in an hour’s walk to the site of the roadworks near Cloonkeen. Bellies noisily protested their emptiness. None of the usual joking or gossip was bandied among them. This was a grim community of silence, each privately calculating his own chances of survival.
Days spent over picks and shovels, and pushing heavy wheelbarrows, were more than some could endure. Several times a day, a laborer would collapse and be carried off, not to be seen again. Young James struggled to play his manly role, but the foreman was unimpressed. The skinny, brown-haired lad would hoist his shovel, but in his malnourished state, he lost most of the dirt and gravel before he reached the barrow.
“You’ll have to fill that barrow more quickly than that young man!”
Pat quickly inserted himself between the ham-handed taskmaster and the boy. “I’ll mind that he does, sir. He’s me boy and I’ll be quick after him if he slacks at all, sir.”
Reluctantly mollified, the foreman pulled his flat cap snug and grunted. “See to it then! No room ‘ere for slackers.”
It was a long wait till the noonday break, when meager portions of bread and thin soup were carefully measured out to these “fortunate” ones. Dropping to the ground beside their tools, the laborers gobbled their bits so quickly, it was more memory than meal. But their respite was all too brief.
Pat glared at the back of his nemesis as the foreman walked down the line, shouting and urging the workers back to their tasks. A left-footer if I ever did see one.
But he didn’t have to worry about the foreman for long. It was only a few weeks later that the road project was abruptly cancelled. Now the British government in London was bent upon lowering the cost of Irish relief. Expressing concern over the potential for abuses, they cancelled all funding for “make-work” projects. Rather it was determined that direct provision of food should replace public works. District Relief Committees were ordered to establish outdoor soup kitchens in the major towns to feed the hungry masses. Initially the promised food was not available due to delays in locating and securing the necessary staples. When food did finally arrive, the quantities were woefully inadequate. Food prices had been driven to treacherous heights as Irish traders insisted upon the freedom to ship their commodities to the highest bidder and opposed any importations that would collapse their heady profits. Absent leadership by the government, great quantities of Irish wheat, barley, and oats were exported to England, under armed guard, throughout the famine years.
* * * * * * *
The Quinns and their neighbors were beyond desperation. On a wintry evening, men from the clachans gathered by an open fire at the edge of the turf beds. A waning moon cast scant light. Only when they faced the fire were the participants’ faces dimly recognizable. A strong west wind blew the flames sideways.
An old, gnarled farmer was the first to voice his worry and anger. “Me wife cannot make it to Castlerea for the soup.”
Another cottier near the fire added his lament, barely able to restrain his sobs. “We go as often as we can, but the wait, ‘tis beyond endurance. Me children are collapsin’ ‘fore their turn comes up.”
A bitter voice from the back of the crowd answered him. “You were lucky to get soup at all! Last week, we waited in line for hours, only to be told the pot’s gone empty.”
After a spate of such grievances, Peter Finan stepped forward. Once a big man, with powerful shoulders and arms, his coat now hung on his frame like a draped curtain. His full and florid face had turned drawn and gray. But his neighbors still hushed to hear his views. He raised his arms high to quiet the jabbering assembly. “Enough! We’ve only one chance to feed our families. Master Wills must give us soup and bread! And we must have grain meal to carry home to those not fit to travel for their relief!”
Pat jumped in, hoping to support his brother-in-law’s efforts to rouse some action. “How can we convince him, Peter?”
“We must speak and act as one! Everyone who is able must show himself, and his family with him, at Castlerea House tomorrow. We’ve no force but our numbers. God willin’, we’ll be heard.”
Pat listened as the debate resumed. Some expressed skepticism, while others defended the wisdom of Peter’s proposal. Gradually, murmurs of assent passed through the group. “Tomorrow then!” Having reached a consensus, they kicked out the fire and turned for home.
* * * * * * *
By early the next day, word of their decision had spread throughout the parish. Desperate peasants from the entire Wills-Sandford estate moved toward Castlerea. The journey was no more than a few miles for most, but it was nevertheless tortuous for the emaciated men, women, and children. Many could barely place one foot before another. Some had the distended belly of starvation.
It was mid-afternoon when the crowd of weary peasants had fully gathered before the gray stone walls at the gates of Castlerea House. The weakest among them simply sat in the middle of the street. There hadn’t been such a crowd in Castlerea since the harvest markets of years ago. Nearly five hundred persons were massed in front of the great demesne this day.
Sporadic spits of rain marked the slate-skied March day. Constables from the garrison were scattered about the market, in passive observation. They were under the strict orders of Captain Kerr to avoid any provocation. In panic, the gatekeeper at Castlerea House securely bolted the gates against the crowd and rushed off to the estate office to alert the agent.
Owen Young came from a family of prominent businessmen in Harristown. He had previously been agent to the late Baron Mount Sanford. William Wills-Sandford had been happy to retain him for his business acumen, his connections to the other landowners, and his loyalty to the Sandford family. Now in his late forties, Young was a portly man with thinning red hair. He wore a heavy woolen suit and high brown boots. A flat cap protected his pate against the inclement weather. It was obvious that Owen Young was not among the hungry.
He was not a harsh man, but neither was he particularly solicitous of the tenants. Young was simply devoted to the protection and growth of his master’s assets and incomes. He had seen the violence of Ribbonmen over the years, but he knew these enfeebled tenants posed no such threat. He strolled from the estate office into the market square, the callow gatekeeper fairly dancing at his side with anxiety. Owen pushed his way through the crowd. So as to be seen and heard, he climbed the stone wall next to the gatehouse. “What business brings all of you to the demesne today?” he asked.
Dominic Flanagan, a well-respected tenant, was the designated spokesman. “We wish to speak with Master Wills, sir.” Like most all the tenants, he was not yet trained to the newly hyphenated name of his master, Wills-Sandford.
Young shook his head, his hands open and outstretched. “You’ve wasted your journey. The master and mistress have gone to France and shan’t return until late in May.”
The agent noticed the cottier trembling as he spoke. No peasant was accustomed to holding forth before such an audience. Still, Flanagan was emboldened by shouts of support from the crowd. “He must grant us some relief! We can’t pay our rents and we’ve no food. You must get word to him! Is there nothing you can do, Mr. Young?”
Owen mopped the chilling rain from his clean-shaven cheeks and adopted a patient, patronizing tone. “I assure you, the master is keenly aware of your trouble. And he’s entirely sympathetic. He’s authorized me to grant temporary relief from rents, but only in worthy cases. As for food, you must look to the workhouse or the church. The estate has no supplies of its own for its many tenants.”
A cottier challenged Young in a loud, surly voice. “Workhouse! More like hell it is!”
Young made no attempt to debate the virtues of the workhouse scheme. “The estate has nothing more to offer.”
The crowd gave out a moan of despair. The agent climbed down from the wall and walked briskly back to his office. Pat and his family slowly pushed their way out of the market square and back toward the road to Cloonfower. Many others passed through the streets of Castlerea, accosting all they met and knocking on the doors of the shops to beg a few coins or a bite to eat.
For the next few weeks, the Quinns tottered on the brink of starvation. The English Parliament had decreed that no relief, whether open air or workhouse based, should be allowed to any person or family employing greater than one-quarter of an acre of land. The regulation forced many Irish to choose between their homes and food. Some peasants put their own cabins to the torch to qualify for the sparse relief being offered. It became increasingly evident that the propertied interests would see the land cleared of its surplus cottiers and way made for cattle and sheep.
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It May Be Forever: An Irish Rebel on the American Frontier
"It May Be Forever is an obvious labour of love.... the author invested considerable time in research and the scenes depicted have a truly authentic ring..."
Pauline Ferrie - EmigrantOnline.ie
Rising from famine, child labor in England’s textile mills, and a foiled Irish rebellion to eventual prosperity on the American frontier, Michael Quinn lost love, friendship, and family in his single-minded pursuit of fortune. Only a dramatic encounter with a Lakota holy man provides the catalyst for personal redemption.
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Copyright, all rights reserved. David M. Quinn, Author