It was in the first year of The Great Famine—a hot July day—the sun was splitting stones, it was. On that day, Andrew Fitzgibbons’ world ended and his hell began.
Like most, his potato crop had failed, but unlike most, his family was eating, thanks to his son’s vegetable garden, and his rent was paid up to date. He did not know how long that would last, but for now he was holding on.
His wife was kneeling over the peat fire, boiling a cabbage for their noon meal. Andrew’s oldest son, Daniel, fourteen years of age, was tending his garden with love and care. The boy had the gift of a bhfuil ordóg glas—a green thumb, as the English would say. The younger children were playing near the house, under Andrew’s watchful eye.
Yes, things were bad in Ireland and getting worse as far as Andrew could tell, but for the moment, all was well. Then the clock ticked one tick and the fateful moment arrived.
A gang of the landlord’s drivers came up the stone path that Andrew’s father had laid when Andrew was but leanbh beag—a small child. There were seven in number, led by Thomas Cohan. Andrew knew him well. Tommy was the town bully and a thoroughly unpleasant man. He was tall, almost six feet, and his arms were thick with muscles. The smirk he wore upon his face announced to the world that he was enjoying himself.
Cohan got right to the point. “You have ten minutes to gather your possessions and your rabble, Andrew Fitzgibbons. His Lordship is increasing his pasture lands and you and your hovel are in the way.”
That was the moment Andrew’s world ended. But he did not yet know it.
“What do you mean, Tommy Cohan? My rent is paid.”
“’Tis no concern of mine. I’ve been told to move you off the land and that is what I will be doing. The ten minutes starts now.”
Andrew was dumbfounded. He could not think straight. He could not move. This was too much to take in all at once. His mind was reeling off the possibilities. Could he fight the seven men before him and drive them from his house? No. Could he plead for time so that he might beseech the landlord to reconsider? The look in Cohan’s eyes said no. Would God send down a lightning bolt to strike Cohan where he stood? Probably not.
“You now have nine minutes.”
Andrew called to his son. “Daniel, gather the little ones and bring them inside. Hurry!” He went into the house and told his wife to stop what she was doing and gather up all that she could carry of their belongings and take them outside. “Then come back for more.”
She stood immobile at the fire with her stirring stick in hand and a questioning look upon her face.
“I will explain later, but right now you have to do as I say.” Just then the children came in. Andrew told them the same thing he had told his wife. Daniel had overheard the conversation, so there was no hesitation on his part. The younger children thought it a grand game and readily joined in. His wife, seeing the fear in her husband’s eyes, placed the spoon into the pot of cabbage, picked up a rag, and took the pot off the fire. She took it outside and placed it on the ground. She was put off at seeing Cohan and the other men, but said nothing and hurried back inside.
When everything that they owned—which was not much—was standing in heaps outside the house, Cohan gave the order to remove the thatch. The family had no alternative but to stand there and watch the destruction of their home.
Andrew’s wife stood with her three small children, ages nine, seven, and five. Daniel stood next to his father. With the roof reduced to a pile of hay, the men started in on toppling the walls. Missus Fitzgibbons started to cry.
When the destruction was complete, Cohan informed Andrew that the family was to be off the land by sundown. “Thems me orders,” barked Cohan. “And I’ll be wanting no trouble from you, Andrew Fitzgibbons.”
“Where are we to go? What are we to do?” demanded Andrew.
Sneered Cohan, “Again, ’tis no concern of mine.”
Daniel, knowing the family would be needing food, ran to his beloved garden and started picking anything that was anywhere near to being ripe.
Cohan yelled, “You there, stop! That be His Lordship’s property.”
Daniel ignored him and continued with what he was doing. An enraged Cohan ordered two of his men to restrain the boy and hold him. To another he said, “You go along into town and bring back a constable.”
Andrew pleaded with Cohan to release the boy and they would be on their way. But Cohan was deaf to Andrew’s entreaties.
The constable arrived shortly thereafter, and based on Cohan’s testimony—and the law that stated a landlord owned everything on his land—he promptly arrested Daniel for thievery and destruction of property. He would not listen to a word from Daniel’s parents or the crying of his siblings.
The next day, Daniel went before a judge and was sentenced to two months in jail.
Just one story from An Gorta Mhór—The Great Famine.