This is the first chapter of my latest novel that I’ve been avoiding working on like I would avoid the plague. I’ve got five chapters in the bag and I figure I might as well get back to work after a month of getting drunk, passing out, and walking my dog. Anyway, it still needs a ton of editing, but if something big jumps out at you, please let me know in the comments section. Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta get a beer and go to work.
It started out as a dream. A dream of a place where no one ever went hungry and fine Irish whiskey flowed from the fountains—a land of good and plenty. But first the nightmare had to be endured.
In the second year of An Gorta Mhór—The Great Famine—MacMurragh stepped into Devin Mahoney’s cabin, but stopped short just inside the door. There was not a stick of furniture present; it had been sold off, one piece at a time, as the hunger grew. Devin had not eaten for five days, and then it was only a meager cupful of cornmeal. Before that he had gone three days without a morsel of food passing his lips. Devin Mahoney, the descendant of kings, lay on the dirt floor of his small, dark cabin.
Near in distance, but leagues away in time, a lone horseman ascends a small hill. He is wearing his bronze breastplate, but no helmet. A sword dangles from his left hip. When on the crest of the hill, he dismounts and looks about him. To the east, the green, undulating hills roll on until they touch the azure sky in the far distance. To the west, the green carpet flows gently into an angry, grey sea. To the north and south—nothing but the green verdure of the land can be seen. It goes on forever.
The man’s name is Màel Muad mac Brian. He is the master of all he surveys. He is Ard Ri, the High King of all of Ireland. There are many lesser kings, but there is only one High King. It is a tenuous hold that he has on the crown. But for the moment, he is ruler supreme.
Year later, his son, Cían mac Máelmuaid, chief of the Cineal Aodha, married the daughter of Brian Bóruma mac Cennétig, the man who had killed Cían’s father and became High King. His daughter’s name was Sadb ingen Brian. She was a comely lass with emerald-green eyes, and whose golden hair shimmered in the sun—like pale yellow sunlight reflecting off a small, placid pond.
Cian’s lands extended from Cork to the steep cliffs of Mizen Head in the south. He and Sadb had a son who they named Mathghamhain. His progeny would become the sovereigns of Southern Ireland and be known as Mahoneys.
Devin Mahoney was too weak to sit up, but his eyes bored into the landlord’s agent as he stood in the doorway, blocking the feeble light from an Irish sun trying to cast its rays through a grey and overcast Irish sky.
“Aha! I see you’re still drawing breath, then,” said MacMurragh, the landlord’s lackey.
“Aye. For a few days more, at least,” whispered Devin.
Devin Mahoney was nineteen years of age and the last of his family left alive. His mother was the first to go when the blight hit. She lasted only four months. She had always been a little on the frail side. But going days at a time without eating just wore her down. One day, she put on her finest dress and sat in her old rocker. She informed her family that she was tired and needed a rest. The next morning when the family awoke, she was still in her rocker. Dead.
The agent took a few steps into the dreariness and nudged Devin’s leg with the toe of his boot. “I be wanting to talk to you.”
“Speak, damn you. Then be gone and let me die in peace.”
“You’ll not be dying. At least not this day. The master has sent word that he will pay your way to America if that’s what you be wanting. If it was up to me, I’d let you die and then we’d be rid of you for good.”
“Why would he be wanting to send me to America? He has never given a tuppence worth for any of us Mahoneys.”
Six months earlier and four hundred and forty miles due east, on an estate comprising two hundred and eighty-four acres in Warwickshire, England, the Seventh Earl of Denbigh, William Basil Percy Feilding, sat in the library of his ancestral home, Newnham Paddox. With him were three of his closest friends: Lord Beckham, Lord Beaumont, and his old school chum, the Marquee of Hertford, also known as Pinky to a select few.
The men had just adjourned from the dinner table, leaving the women free to get on with their gossiping. The men had important matters to discuss. There would be no talk of cricket scores or the latest method of cattle breeding that evening.
After serving the gentlemen their port, the butler quietly departed. Left alone, the four men, sitting in large, high-backed chairs, clipped the ends off their cigars. When the fragrant aroma of the West Indian tobacco filled the room, and the sweet, rich Portuguese wine had been tasted and savored, Lord Denbigh cleared his throat and said, “Gentlemen, what are we to do about this damnable Irish problem?”
Lord Beckham leaned forward and seemed ready to say something. Instead, he shrugged his shoulders, sipped his wine, and leaned back into the warm embrace of the overstuffed chair.
The Earl of Denbigh sighed. “All of us here have landholdings in Ireland. What are we to do about the tax? That damn tax will ruin me! If the blighters over there are starving, why doesn’t the government send them food? Why tax us?”
Francis George Hugh Seymour, the 5th Marquee of Hertford, rose from his seat and picked up the decanter of wine from his friend’s desk. As he poured the dark purple liquid into his now empty glass, a wiry smile played across his lips. “If I remember correctly, Bill, you were the one always so sure that you’d be sent down for failing an examination while we were at Oxford.”
“That was a long time ago, Pinky. I do not think that I am overstating the severity of the situation when I say that the tax on our number of tenants will cost us plenty. How are we to pay it?”
The Marquee tilted his head back and blew out a stream of blue-white smoke, then sipped his wine before addressing his friend.
“If I understand you correctly, you have two questions you would like answered.”
Lord Denbigh nodded.
The Marquee continued.
“First of all. One cannot just feed people when they are hungry. They must work for what they receive or else they will become indolent, and the Irish are already a languid lot. The Prime Minister knows this, hence, the creation of the work gangs and workhouses. However, someone has to pay for those things, and Her Majesty’s Government has decided that it should be us. I agree with the concept, but not with who should pay for the program.”
“I don’t care who pays for it as long as it’s not me! I can’t afford the tax. It will ruin me,” Lord Denbigh practically shouted.
“You just built a third story onto your house. At how many thousand pounds sterling?” asked his friend, the Marquee. “You used to have thirty-four hearths throughout the house. How many do you have now? You needed a third floor like you needed another head. And don’t look at me like that, Bill. My point is that we can afford just about anything. But that being said, why should we pay the tax?”
Lord Beaumont rose and reached for the decanter. After he had refreshed his glass, he said, “We will pay the tax because we have no alternative. If those damn Irish did not breed like rabbits, then perhaps this year we would make a profit from our farms. The rents I collect do not come anywhere near what I’ll be paying in taxes.”
Having had his say, he relinquished the floor by sitting back down with a full glass of the best port to be had on the British Isle.
Francis Seymour, The Marquee of Hertford, eyed Lord Beckham. “Have you anything to say?”
“Yes, by George. May I have a spot more of that port?”
The Marquee filled Lord Beckham’s glass and leaned back on the desk. Eyeing his three peers, he said, “We would not be in this pickle if we had not subdivided our land to such an extent. When the law was made giving us one vote in the Irish Parliament for each tenant farmer on our land, we got greedy for votes, not to mention the additional income. When the famine came along, the additional tenants became a liability because of this new tax. Prime Minister Peel and the Colonial Secretary, Lord Stanley, have deemed it necessary to tax us landlords for the creation of workhouses and work gangs.”
The others in the room vigorously puffed on their cigars in silent agreement.
The Marquee of Hertford continued. “My only concern is to remove the tenants from my land, and I think I have found a way to do so without throwing the poor buggers off onto the road to starve to death. That might not look so good and it may have unpleasant repercussions. You can push a people only so far before they will rise up against you. Look what happened in America under King George.”
The others nodded their agreement and leaned forward in eager anticipation for what the Marquee would say next.
“I have given the matter thorough consideration and I think I have come up with a solution.” Here he stopped speaking to avail himself of the enticing port.
“Out with it, Pinky!” declaimed Lord Denbigh.
The 5th Marquee smiled at his old friend. “The solution is simple. We send them all off to America.”
“What?” the three other men said in unison.
“It is less expensive to send a family of six to America than it is to pay the tax on them for one year. I have spoken with a few ship owners and they have all agreed to take the tenants at a reduced rate if we use their ships exclusively. It’s not much different than shipping cattle,” said Francis George Hugh Seymour, the 5th Marquee of Hertford.
“I think you’ve got it,” said a smiling William Basil Percy Feilding, the 7th Earl of Denbigh. “Let’s finish our port and rejoin the ladies. And Pinky, I’ll be wanting the names of a few of those ship owners of whom you spoke.”
Looking down at the recumbent Devin Mahoney, MacMurragh shrugged his shoulders. “You ask me why His Lordship would send you off to America. Well, I ask no questions. I do as I am told. Do you want to go to America or lie in your filth and die? The ship leaves from Cork in two weeks.”
Devin forced himself to sit up and leaned against the stone wall of the cabin. There were no windows; the agent was a dark silhouette against the soft brightness coming in through the door. Addressing the gloomy specter, Devin said, “I could not walk out that door behind you. How am I to get to Cork? And how am I to live for two more weeks with nothing to eat?”
“If you agree to go, I’ll send the cook down with a little food to get you back on your feet. When you leave, you are to be given enough to keep you alive until you board ship. Once on board, you’ll have nothing to worry about. And in America, employment is plentiful and everyone is rich.”
“Again, I’ll ask you . . . how am I to get to Cork?”
“You’ll walk, be damn’d. You don’t expect the master to send you off in his fine coach, do you?”
“I’ll go. Send down the food.”
Devin had said he would go to America only to get something to eat. He had to think on what his next move would be. The agent would probably allow him food until he was strong enough to make the trek to Cork. Then he would be given a sack of meal to prepare and eat along the way. But what if he did not board the ship? Whatever he decided, he would no longer be living on the farm where he was born.
He lay back down and thought of his father and two brothers. His sister, Hannah, was safe. She had married before the famine struck and moved to the North where the suffering was not as widespread—at least not yet.
A few months after his mother died, Devin’s father and brothers checked themselves into a workhouse. It was a decision of last resort when it became apparent that they would all starve to death unless something was done. The three older men would subject themselves to the indignities of the workhouse—the wearing of a uniform, the bad food, and the twelve-hour work days. At least in the workhouse, they would be fed twice a day.
The salary wasn’t much, but what there was would be turned over to Devin who was to stay on the farm to protect the tenancy. When the famine was over, the Mahoneys would check themselves out and return to the farm. That was the plan.
What they had not planned on was being exposed to disease. Bathing was practically unheard of in the workhouses and most of the inmates were infested with lice. Two months after entering, all three of the Mahoney men came down with typhus. Three weeks later they were all dead. And now here lay Devin, close to death himself.
A little while after the agent had departed, the cook from the manor house came in with a bucket of stirabout.
“Here, this will give you strength.”
Devin struggled to sit up but was having a hard time of it. The cook placed the bucket on the dirt floor and went over to help. Once Devin was leaning against the wall, the cook brought the bucket over.
“Now you go easy, with ya. If you eat too much, you’ll make yourself sick, sure enough.” She reached into the big pocket in the front of her apron and pulled out four slices of bread and a spoon. “I wasn’t supposed to give you any bread, so let’s keep this between us.” She handed him the bread and spoon as he smiled up at her—his first smile in many, many a day. The cook smiled back, then left him to eat his porridge alone.
Devin first ate a slice of bread. Before the famine, he had never thought of bread as having any flavor, but as he chewed, his taste buds awoke with the sensation of little, intense explosions. The coarse brown bread was the most wonderful thing he had ever eaten in his life. He chewed slowly and enjoyed the feeling of food filling his stomach once again.
With the bread settled warmly and comfortably in his stomach, Devin dipped the spoon into the still-warm porridge. After three spoonfuls, he felt full and lay back down to wait for his strength to return.
If MacMurragh had just a spark of humanity in him, he would have let Devin work around the manor house in exchange for food. However, the man hated the tenants and did everything he could to make their lives miserable. The cook was a good woman and used to give the Mahoneys a little food at the start of the famine. But one day, the agent caught her at it and threatened to terminate her if she did anything of that sort again. She, being a widow and having a small child to look after, had no choice but to cease with her philanthropic endeavors.
As he pondered his future, Devin fell off to sleep and dreamt of times before the famine.
During the week, there was cabbage and potatoes to be had, and maybe a little milk. Sometimes the potatoes were fried, sometimes boiled together with the cabbage, and sometimes roasted in the fire. For most Sunday dinners, there would be meat on the table, usually pork. And at Christmas-time, there was always a pudding. As a child, he and his siblings awaited Christmas with wild anticipation. There were never any presents; the family was too poor for things like that. But they always had a pudding. It was the high point of the year.
Devin slept through the night. And as he slept, his body absorbed the nutrients from what he had eaten. In the morning, he was strong enough to stand and go outside. But first he ate his fill of cold porridge, which had congealed in the bucket overnight. For dessert, he had a slice of bread.
He met MacMurragh right outside the cabin.
“I see that you’re strong enough to move about. Would you be leaving us today?”
“You said the boat doesn’t leave for two weeks. I’ll need a day or so to get my strength back. I can make it to Cork in five days. So don’t worry, Your Lordship. You just keep up your part of the bargain and I’ll be on my way as soon as I am able. There’s no longer anything to keep me here.”
“When you’re ready to go, see the cook and she’ll give you enough food to get you to Cork. The name of the ship is The Archimedes. Tell the captain your name and that you are a tenant of Lord Feilding; he’ll have a place for you. I’ll expect you to be gone by tomorrow—before I get back from town. I’ll be wanting to burn that hut of yours and be rid of the stench.”
Devin had never liked the man, and if he had been at the top of his game, he would have punched the agent right in his big, fat, ruddy face. Instead, he turned without a word and went back to his cabin.
He looked around the empty room and thought of times past. Over there stood the table where so many family dinners had taken place. During the happy times, before the famine, dinner had been the best part of the day. It was a time to come together as a family and discuss things of great import. Such as Hannah’s insisting she needed a new dress. “How do you expect me to attract the boys if I have to wear that raggedy grey thing?”
His father had patted her hand and said, “We’ll see what we can do right after the harvest.” She got her dress and she got her husband, and thank the Lord in heaven for that.
Devin smiled sadly at the memory.
Over there, against the south wall, is where he and his siblings slept. During the winter, they would drag their beds near the fire, and the three brothers would take turns keeping the fire lit throughout the night. He could still hear his oldest brother, John, yelling at him in the darkness. “Devin, you’ve let the fire go out. It’s your turn. Get your arse out of bed and do your duty!”
Again, Devin smiled a sad smile.
His parents slept in the adjoining room—the only other room in the cabin. As a young boy, he had once asked his father why he and his mother did not sleep by the fire in winter. Remembering his father’s answer caused another smile to play across his lips. “Your mother is all I need to keep me warm at night.”
Now the cabin was as empty as his heart.
It was at that moment Devin made up his mind. He would go to America and become a very rich man. He would return, buy the land from Lord Feilding, and find himself a good, strong Irish lass to bear him many children. He would live out his days as lord of the manor, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. Never again would a Mahoney be driven off the land!
He sat down on the earthen floor, next to the cold fireplace, and lay down to spend his last night in the only home he had ever known.
In the morning, he knocked upon the kitchen door. Shortly, the door opened and the cook handed him a canvas sack. “Here. This will keep your body and soul together until you’re on the boat. There’s five pounds of meal and two of oatmeal. I’ve also given you a small kettle and some matches.”
Devin thanked her and turned to leave, but was stopped in his tracks with the words, “Wait a minute. I’ll be right back.” It was a cold November morning, and she had noticed that he was shivering in his tattered rags. She was soon back, holding a gentleman’s overcoat.
“Take this and be gone with you before Mister MacMurragh returns. It is the master’s coat and I would surely be put out upon the road if it was known that I had given it away.”
“I cannot take it. You and your child would starve if you were thrown out.”
“Do not worry. The master will never miss it. He has three more just like it. The only danger is if Mister MacMurragh sees you wearing it.”
Devin leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. “You’re a good woman, Aife Meehan. When I return from America, I’ll build you the grandest house County Kerry has ever seen, and you’ll never have to work another day.”
She said not a word, but a single tear rolled down her right cheek as she slowly closed the door.
Devin put on the coat and hefted the sack over his shoulder. It was forty-two Irish miles from Killarney to Cork. Fifty-three miles if you’re figuring as the Americans did. The sun was trying to assert itself over the eastern horizon. It was a new day in more ways than one. As he stepped through the gate and out onto the road that would lead him to Cork, and ultimately to America, he thought of something his parish priest had once said in a sermon.
The journey of 1,000 miles starts with the first step.