Eleven-year-old Aoibha Walsh with her first book. She is one hell of a writer and will only get better with age—like a fine wine. We are all very proud of her
You might want to listen to this before you read my story.
Michael was my friend. Michael died saving my life.
Michael row the boat ashore . . . sister help to trim the sails . . . the River Jordan is chilly and cold . . . chills the body but not the soul . . . the river is deep and the river is wide . . . milk and honey on the other side.
I can only hope that Michael has found his milk and honey.
This is the story of Michael.
Michael and I grew up together. We went through grade school together. Then on to high school, where together we stayed. Neither of us wanted to pursue a “higher” education, so we decided to travel to broaden ourselves, as the terminology was in those days. At that time, we thought good would always win out over evil. But we were yet to be taught our lessons of the real world. Evil does sometimes triumph over good.
Michael James was six feet tall. He had straight blonde hair and blue eyes. The bluest eyes I ever did see. If limpid means clear as I think it does, then Michael’s eyes were limpid pools of blue. The color was that of the sky, perhaps a little lighter with flecks of yellow throughout the irises. Upon meeting Michael for the first time one was taken aback by his eyes. They did not bore into your soul—they lit up your life. Then there was his smile. I had known Michael for many years and I don’t think I ever saw him without that shit-eatin’ grin on his puss. And that grin, and its persistence, was amazing, given the fact that Michael suffered from a skin problem. He had large red patches on his skin, including his face. They came and went. I thought the name of the disease was psoriasis, but of that I am not certain.
Michael had no mother. She died when he was quite young . . . before I knew him. He had no siblings; he was reared by his father, which is probably the reason I am alive today. By that, I mean he was raised to be a man. He was taught “The Code” of real men, which is: You do what you have to do.
Michael row the boat ashore
Though we both had the travel bug, my case was more pronounced than his. During the summer between our junior and senior years of high school, I took off and bounced around the country while Michael held down the fort, so to speak. When I returned to finish my last year of school (at that time I still bought into the myth that you needed at least a high school education to survive in the world), I regaled Michael with tales of my adventures.
Well, after hearing what a wonderful world awaited us out there, Michael could not wait to hit the road. He wanted to leave immediately, but seeing as how I had just come in from a three-month run, I prevailed upon him to wait a few months and allow me to at least try to get my diploma. He said he would wait, but he did not, or he could not. Within six weeks of my return, Michael was on the road.
the River Jordan is chilly and cold
Michael was hip, and the only place for a hip guy to migrate in 1968 was San Francisco. And that was the end of Michael’s roaming. He fell in love with the city. I endured my senior year as long as I could, but two weeks short of graduation I said, “The hell with it!”, stuck out my thumb and headed for San Francisco to rendezvous with my friend.
When I arrived, I didn’t know where Michael was living; however, I knew if I hung out on Haight Street long enough, I’d see him. It took less than two hours.
This will tell you something about my friend Michael: He always had a place to live out there, and never paid rent. People were always asking him home, and once there, he just moved in. They were always glad to have him. And when I would hit town, he’d take me to wherever he was living and tell me to make myself at home. The person who actually owned the domicile never looked askance when he brought me through the door, they all loved Michael, and any friend of Michael’s . . .
it chills the body, but not the soul
For the most part, Michael stayed in San Francisco. I, however, could not stay in one town for more than a few days. I was like a pinball, rebounding from coast to coast, and from Canada to Mexico. While on the road I was alive. When on the road, I interacted with humanity and had to live by my wits. I loved being on the road. Because of Michael’s reluctance to leave San Francisco, I had two homes, one on each coast. My mother’s in Miami, and wherever the hell Michael was staying at the moment in San Francisco.
On one of my forays to San Francisco, I was introduced to Linda, the love of Michael’s life—his soul mate. They had met at a Clint Eastwood marathon. A movie house was playing the three Sergio Leone films. You know, A Fist Full of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly … non-stop, twenty-four hours a day. Michael had a bag of Red Acid, and in 1969, what girl wouldn’t swoon toward a man who was into Clint Eastwood and had a bag of LSD? It was love at first sight.
sister help to trim the sails
Now that Michael had himself a woman, he got his own digs. Every time I hit town they were living in a new place. It wasn’t always easy to find them, but somehow we would always meet up on Haight Street. I stayed with them on Geary in the Tenderloin. We stayed south of Market in the low rent district, we stayed across from Golden Gate Park, and at the end, we were again in the Haight-Asbury district.
One thing I must tell you about Michael so you can get a sense of the man. And yes, he was a man; though we were the same age, he was a man, while I was just a kid. I think Michael knew he did not have much time in this world. He could not wait for anything. Back then, we were doing acid all the time. Normally, you would swallow a pill and wait for it to take effect. But not Michael. The twenty minutes or so that it took was just too long for him. He had to shoot the acid into his vein to get off instantaneously. Of course Linda and I would have to follow suit or there would be no peace. And in those days, I just did not have it in me to stick myself with a needle. Michael did the honors.
the river is deep and the river is wide
The last time I came into San Francisco and saw Michael and Linda was in 1970, it was July. They were living in the Haight. It was a crummy neighborhood; the Summer of Love was three years gone by then. All the shops on Haight Street were boarded up with sheets of plywood, and the denizens of the street were the leftovers from that long ago summer.
True to form, it was not Michael’s apartment he took me to; he and Linda were living with a guy named Bobby. Bobby was a likable enough fellow. He just didn’t know bad men when he met them. Bobby had set up a “drug” deal to buy two pounds of marijuana. Nowadays it seems ridiculous to term buying two pounds of pot a drug deal, but in those days, that was heavy shit.
It was my first night in town and we were sitting in Bobby’s pad smoking a joint when Michael told me he was going to be a father. I looked over at Linda, she was radiant, and she was also blushing. I was just about to say something appropriate when the door crashed open, and two guys burst through the entrance. They were the assholes that Bobby was supposed to buy the pot from.
Michael row the boat ashore
Only one of them had a gun, but that was enough for us. When told to lie on the floor, we did so without protest. They then said to Bobby, “Where’s the cash?”
Bobby answered, “In my pocket.” The guy covering us with the gun told the other guy to get the money. Bobby, trying to be helpful, reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. Then it seemed like a lot of money, but now, as I look back on that night, it couldn’t have been more than $500.00.
As soon as the money was in the asshole’s hand, the other one with the gun walked over to Bobby, placed the gun to the back of his head, and killed him. Upon hearing the shot, Michael and I looked at each other and knew that we were next.
the river is deep and the river is wide
Before I could think of anything to do, Michael bounded to his feet and rushed the guy with the gun. When I saw Michael go into action, it released me from my paralysis, but not soon enough to help Michael. He took a bullet to the chest. While Michael was being shot, I picked up a lamp from a table and smashed it over the gunman’s head while his partner stood frozen in place.
it chills the body, but not the soul
The man with the gun went down hard and the gun fell from his hand. All this went down fast; in a blur, I did not have time to think. I picked up the gun from the floor while the other guy still stood frozen. Obviously they were not professionals, though, at the moment, that did not enter into my thinking. I aimed the gun at the one standing and shot him dead with two shots. Then I turned to the one on the floor. He was moving and about to get up when I put a bullet into his head.
sister help to trim the sails
By the time the second one fell to the floor, Linda was bent over Michael. I dropped the gun and went to them. He looked at her and smiled, then he looked at me and said, “Get her out of here.” We both, Linda and I, said at the same time, “No!” Then Michael died.
Michael row the boat ashore
It took me a full minute, which at the time felt like an eternity, to make a decision. I grabbed Linda by the arms and pulled her into a standing position. She was numb. I told her we had to get out of there; that this was a drug deal gone bad, and there were dead bodies—four of them! I told her prison was no place to have a baby, and Michael knew that. That is why he wanted her out of there.
if you get there before I do
I told Linda to collect everything of hers and Michael’s that could identify them. I had the presence of mind to wipe the gun clean, but not to pick up the cash lying on the floor. Linda could have used it; she had a baby on the way. I took Michael’s wallet. He had never been arrested so I knew they couldn’t identify him by his fingerprints. After I had Michael’s wallet, and while Linda went about collecting her things, I took the time to vomit all over Bobby’s carpet. It was, after all, the first time I had killed. We left Michael and never looked back. Though it wasn’t actually Michael we left, only the body that housed that wonderful, brave man.
tell all my friends I’m coming too
Linda’s folks lived in New Jersey, so I hitchhiked with her to the east coast. She was in a state of shock, and because Michael’s last words, though not implicit, were to look after her, that is what I did. After getting her to her parents, I stayed in the northeast for the next seven months. I kept moving, but would drop in to see her every few weeks. Seven months later, when the baby was born, I was there. I was there for my friend Michael. It was a boy and I was asked to be his godfather.
milk and honey on the other side
Once Linda had the child, and I knew she was in the goods hands of her parents, I said good-bye. And while still on the road, I dropped in to see Linda and my godson every few months.
There are three human beings extant on this earth because of my friend Michael James. I am one of them.
Michael row the boat ashore . . . Hallelujah.
You guys are sensational. You looked over my first chapter and made astute observations and suggestions. Some, I have already incorporated into the manuscript—others, I’m giving serious consideration to. I had not intended to post any more of the novel, but then I woke up this morning, I thought, Why the hell not? Getting input from as many people as possible before publication can only make my humble offering better. And don’t worry. At the rate I’m writing, after the first five chapters, you’ll be let off the hook indefinitely. I’m not working that hard. I’m too busy out smelling the roses, so to speak. And if I smell many more roses, my liver is going to explode.
By the way, the horrors you are about to encounter are real. Maybe the reason the book is going so slow is not my drinking. Maybe it’s my research. For every ten minutes of writing I do, I spend twenty minutes in research. I’m not saying that is a good thing. Perhaps it’s my way of avoiding that dreaded blank page.
If you remember, chapter one ended with my protagonist stepping out onto the road for his journey to Cork.
An ancient road it was. The Roman Christians had used it in the fifth century to spread the Word and baptize an entire nation. Then it was the Danes, or Vikings as they were known, who had come to conquer the isle late in the eighth century, deepening the wheel ruts laid down by the monks. By the time the Normans arrived in the twelfth century, it was a well-worn track that led from Cork to the Western shore. Along its length, the Danes built their castles. In the sixteenth century, Henry the Eighth’s soldiers used the road in their subjugation of an unruly people. Three hundred years later, Devin Mahoney, in solitary desolation, followed the wheel-rutted lane to an uncertain future.
With a pale dawn approaching, Devin made his way east into the face of the rising sun. It was an exceptionally clear day—not a cloud in the sky. He saw no children playing on the side of the road as in years past. Occasionally he would pass a work gang, but for the most part he had the road to himself.
As he approached the town of Coom, he came across the body of a dead man right there on the side of the road. There was little doubt that he had died from starvation. The body was barely more than a skeleton. It was not the first dead person Devin had seen. Over that last fifteen months, he had seen many. Devin wore no hat to doff as he passed by, but he did nod in that direction as a sign of respect.
He made it as far as the outskirts of Glenflesk before deciding to stop for the night. He went into the woods off to his right while the last rays of the setting sun reflected off the somber grey clouds in the west, turning them a soft pink around the edges. He found a small clearing after a few steps. This will do, he thought.
The road followed the River Lee, so water was easily accessible. He had not stopped during the day to eat, for his strategy was to make what he carried in the sack last as long as possible. Besides, he was used to going without food. Nevertheless, he now eagerly anticipated a bowl of bland cornmeal or perhaps a little oatmeal.
He put the sack down and collected what dead branches he could find in the vicinity. After clearing a space for his fire, he snapped the thin wood into foot-long lengths and laid them on a small pile of dead leaves. Next, he reached into the sack for the matches. While rummaging around, he also brought out the small kettle and the larger of the two bags of food, figuring it to be the cornmeal.
Once the fire was going, Devin went to the river and drew a kettle half-full with water. On the way back to his camp, the thought suddenly struck him that Missus Meehan had made no mention of a spoon. How was he to eat his stirabout?
He need not have worried. Missus Meehan was a good woman, indeed she was. There was a large, wooden-handled spoon at the bottom of the sack.
With the meal mixed with water, he held the pot over the fire using a three-foot-long branch and waited for the concoction to start its contented bubbling. Then he would stir it, and before long, he would have warm food resting comfortably in his empty stomach.
Devin’s eyes were fixated on the dancing flames of the fire. They were mesmerizing. His body was warm, wrapped in the fine overcoat; his thoughts wandered. Little doubts silently crept into his contemplations. It was a long way to America. Did he really want to leave The Auld Sod? But if he stayed, what hope would there be for him? Half the country was slowly starving to death.
His thinking was abruptly interrupted by a thrashing noise behind him. Quickly he turned his head, but he could see nothing. He was blinded—he had been looking into the fire. In fear, he cried out, “Who goes there?”
A voice sang out, “’Tis only I, Tom McNevin from Kinsale, County Cork. I saw your fire and thought you might be wanting company on this grand night.”
When his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, he saw a man standing a few feet away, wearing a smile, his hat in hand. Devin relaxed. “Come in, Tom McNevin. Come and sit by the fire.”
McNevin squatted opposite his host and held his hands over the fire to warm them. The firelight reflected off his gaunt face, showing him to be about forty. His hair and beard were dark, but starting to turn a little grey. His eyes were laughing eyes—merry eyes. His clothes were little more than rags and he sported no overcoat—he wore no shoes. He looked across the fire at Devin and saw a young man with a sparse brown beard and stormy blue eyes. He was a good-looking lad and his welcoming smile made Tom McNevin feel right at home.
“’Tis a grand night to be sitting by a warm fire, such as yours, and in such in such fine company,” said McNevin.
“So ’tis. I’m Devin Mahoney.”
Devin noticed McNevin eyeing the pot he held over the flames. “Have you eaten recently?” he asked in a soft voice.
“I cannot say that I have. But I have not come to eat your food. ’Tis a cold night and your fire looked inviting.”
“You are welcome to anything I have. I too know what it is like to go without.”
Devin handed the stick holding the kettle to McNevin. “Here, take this. Keep it over the top of the flames. I’ll do the stirring and soon we’ll be eating like kings, we’ll be.”
As Devin gingerly stirred the cornmeal, he asked of McNevin, “When did you last eat?”
“Like many of our countrymen, it’s been a little while since a bit of food has passed these lips. A day or two days, ’tis all the same. Since the blight came upon us, one day seems like all the others. I don’t count time by days anymore or even hours. Time is the distance from one meal till the next.”
When the stirabout was ready, McNevin placed the pot on the ground next to the fire and eagerly looked in Devin’s direction. He was trying to be polite and wait, but the pain in his stomach willed him to inquire, “Do you have two spoons?”
“Only the one; you are my guest, you eat first. When you have had your fill, then I will eat.”
They took turns eating and when the pot was empty, McNevin insisted that it would be he that took it to the river and cleaned it. While he was at his task, Devin searched out more firewood. It was a cold night and they would have to keep the fire going. Devin would be warm enough in his heavy coat, but McNevin would need the warmth of a fire so as not to shiver throughout the night.
With things taken care of, the two men sat down next to the fire, one on each side, and looked into its flames. They were grateful to have eaten this evening. Their stomachs were full. Tomorrow would bring what tomorrow would bring. But for the moment, they were two contented Irishmen.
Without taking his eyes off the fire, Devin asked, “Are you going or coming from Kinsale?”
“I’ve been to Dublin. I’m going back to Kinsale, but there’s little of any worth there for me, no more. These days there is very little for me—and people like me—anywhere in all of Blessed Ireland.”
“You’re slightly out of your way.”
“When I left Dublin, I thought I’d roam a ways to the west and see if there was any work for an able-bodied man. I’ve been all the way over to Glenbeigh. There is no work—and very little food that I’ve come across in my travels.”
“I’ll tell you true, Tom McNevin, there is very little for us poor folks here in Ireland. The land of St. Patrick, fairies, and the little people. The land of ruins. Of standing stones that have stood since the beginning of time. The land where my ancestors vanquished the Danes and ruled all this land hereabouts. I tell you true, Tom McNevin.”
McNevin moved a little closer to the fire.
Devin threw on a few sticks to build it up. “Tell me, Tom. What is it like in a big city like Dublin? Are there hungry people there too?”
“If you are not ready for sleep, I’ll tell you what I’ve seen from Kinsale to Cork to Dublin and back. Me thinks that somehow we Irish have angered the gods. What misery I’ve seen. But I have also seen acts of boundless Christian kindness.
“Before I tell my story, you must tell me what it is that you are doing out here on a cold night, mixing stirabout and wearing a fine gentleman’s coat. I would think that you could afford to stay at an inn.”
Devin laughed. “The coat was given to me by a kind woman. Underneath, I am dressed much as you are.” He then told his story and ended it with, “I’ll be going to America now. When I return, I’ll live in as fine a manor house as you have ever seen and have a coach-and-four to draw me to and fro as befits a man of my standing. No longer will I be walking from town to town.”
McNevin warmed his hands over the fire. “I’m sorry about your family. Me, I never had much of a family. My mother died giving bringing me into the world and, for one reason or another, I never married. Perhaps it was for the best. I don’t know how I’d survive having my whole family wiped out in a trace.”
Devin shrugged and said, “My sister is safe up in the North.”
“’Tis good to hear,” affirmed McNevin.
Devin threw a few more dried branches onto the fire. “Now, you tell me what is happening outside of County Kerry, in the rest of Ireland.”
McNevin leaned back as the fire flared up. “I’ll get to telling you, to be sure. I am a seanchaí of renown. An Irish teller of tales am I. You make yourself comfortable and I’ll pay for my supper this night with a tale that you will remember and pass down to your grandchildren as they sit upon your knee in that fine manor house that you will one day be building.”
Devin pulled his knees up, wrapped his arms about his legs, and waited for the seanchaí to begin his story.
“I had six acres that I planted every year for twenty years. The crop fed me with enough left over to sell at market and keep me steeped in whiskey for a few weeks after harvest. My rent was always paid. But then the blight struck. The leaves withered, the stems rotted, and my beautiful praties were covered with dark and black patches. It all happened very quickly.
“Without a crop, my rent I could not pay. The owner’s middleman badgered me daily and told me I’d be thrown out onto the road unless I came through. This after twenty years on the same plot of land. I had always paid my rent, but would the landlord give an understanding to the blight and what it has done to this country? No, he would not. He wanted only his money and his tenant of twenty years be damned! I told the middleman that you cannot get blood from a turnip.
“As a result of the agent’s badgering, I took myself off and joined one of those work gangs that the government had set up. We went out at dawn each day to dig holes. There was no reason to dig those holes, but if we wanted to be paid, we’d have to dig them damn holes. The next day we would go out and fill in those very same holes. Sometimes we would build stone walls that enclosed nothing or made an existing wall higher by two feet or more. All for no rhyme or reason, only to keep us busy.
“At least we were fed twice a day. Once at ten and then again at four. But it was very poor gruel they gave us, it was. And you had to work the full ten hours to be given even that.
“At the end of the week, I would turn my pay over to the middleman to keep a hold on my farm. But he always told me I still owed. Finally, I had had enough. I was working ten hours a day, six days a week for two miserly meals a day. And after all that work, I still went hungry on Sundays!
“The summer of last year I gave up my farm and left Kinsale. I thought I could find work in Cork, loading boats. It was on my first day out that I saw my first horror. I came across a woman walking my way, holding a bundle in her arms. Like me, she was dressed in rags, and like me, she was thin, her face drawn. I could tell by her looks that she had not eaten in many a day. But unlike me, she had a look about her that I cannot describe.
“When we came abreast of one another, I stopped and asked, ‘Are y’ alright?’ She looked at me with a blank stare and says she, ‘I do be alright, but my baby is hungry. Can you spare a morsel of food for the wee little one?’
“I had a biscuit in me pocket that I was holding for dinner. How I could I say no to her plea even if I had wanted to? I withdrew the biscuit and held it out to her. She says, ‘You give it to him.’ She unwound the swaddling to reveal her child. It was horrible, it was. The infant was dead, and from the look of it, had been so for some time. I looked at the woman smiling down at the lifeless baby boy as though he was alive. She had lost her mind either from hunger or grief—or both.”
Devin exclaimed, “That is horrible. What did you do?”
“I did the only thing I could do. I pressed the biscuit into her hand, saying, ‘You feed him and have some for yourself.’ She did not try to feed her baby and she did not raise the biscuit to her mouth. So, the only other thing I could say was, ‘Mind yourself, mother.’ She thanked me and resumed her slow wanderings. I stood in the middle of the road watching until she was out of sight.”
“Yesterday, I came across a dead man lying in the road just outside of Coom,” volunteered Devin.
“Aye. Corpses lay thick upon the roadside these days. I’ve seen a few myself. A month back, I stepped into a burying ground to avail myself of a little shade from the beech trees lining its walks. There was a funeral taking place and I decided to linger until the service was over. After the mourners had left, the burying men held the coffin over the dug grave. One of them pulled a string and a spring mechanism popped open the bottom and the body wrapped in old potato sacks fell six feet to its final resting place. I asked about it. ‘We have run out of wood for making coffins—there are just too many dead,’ informed one of the men. ‘Undertakers all over Ireland are doing the same,’ said another.”
“Now tell me, Tom McNevin, what is life like in the cities of Cork and Dublin?” questioned Devin.
McNevin leaned toward the fire—his face a ghostly yellow from the reflecting flames—and said, “’Tis a little better than the country, but not by much. There is no work to be had in either place. People from the country have crowded the streets looking for work and the police do not like it. But they arrest no one because then they’d have to feed them. What they do is give beatings in an effort to drive them back to the country. I’ve been on the receiving end of a few beatings myself.”
“Do they beat the women also?”
“To be sure, I have seen it done, so I have.”
“Then glad I am to be going to America,” sighed Devin. “What else have you seen? I want to know so that I can tell the people of America the true story of what is happening here. They are a rich people, and a kind people. They would send relief if they only knew.”
McNevin threw a few more sticks onto the fire. When they had caught, and the flames danced about in the slight wind that was coming down from the north, he said, “’Tis to be a cold night this night. I am grateful for the warmth of your fire, and I will tell you of more things that I have seen. I cannot understand how we have fallen so low.”
Devin braced himself for what he about to hear.
“From Dublin, I walked west to Galway. ’Tis on the coast that I saw what cruelty really is. There were two women collecting seaweed and putting it into baskets. Having nothing better to occupy my time, I approached them with an Irish greeting, ‘Dia dhuit.’
“‘Hello to you,’ answered one of the women.
“They were both older than I, grey-headed, and dressed in rags. One of ’em had a ratty old red shawl about her shoulders. The other one’s dress was in such tatters that it was cut off above the knees. Both their dresses were heavily patched and neither of the women wore shoes.
“They continued with their work, picking up the seaweed below the high water mark, as we walked along the beach. ‘There be plenty of what you’re after just a few feet away, above the high water line,’ says I. ‘Why do you scavenge for the scraps when the bounty is within reach?’ ‘We dare not,’ said the one with the red shawl. ‘’Tis the landlord’s property above that line.’
“The wind was blowing in off the ocean and it felt good, being the warm August day it was. We walked in that manner for a short while, when, from the north, three policemen came running towards us, making heavy footprints in the sand.
“When they caught up to us, two of them pulled the baskets out of the women’s hands. There was a sergeant and two privates. The sergeant said, ‘I arrest you for thievery. You three are to come along with us. And come peaceably if you know what is good for you.’
“I was shocked at the turn of events. Not so much that I was being arrested, but by the fact that it was against the law to collect seaweed. Since when?”
Devin shrugged his shoulders.
McNevin answered the shrug. “I’ll tell you since when. Since those damn English came here with Henry II hundreds of years ago. Those damn English think they own the whole damn island and all of us too! But enough of that. Back to my story.”
Devin broke a dead branch in two and threw the pieces onto the fire. “Please continue,” he urged.
“The women told the police that they took seaweed only from below the high tide mark. ‘That is surely not against the law,’ pleaded one of the women.
“Apparently it was. The constable’s rejoinder was short and to the point. ‘One of the landlord’s drivers saw you and reported you. There is nothing that we can do here. You must face a judge in a court of law. But why were you collecting seaweed? You do not look like you have a crop that needs fertilizing.’
“‘We was gathering it to eat,’ said the woman with the torn dress. At that point, I spoke up. ‘I was not stealing seaweed. I was merely walking along with these two grand ladies, enjoying the smell of the ocean air and their good company. You do not see a basket in my hands.’
“The women corroborated my words. And the sergeant, being a fair man, said, “Seeing as how the report was about two women and there was no mention of a man, you be on your way now.”
“I wished the women well and continued down the beach until I came to a path that led back to the road. I’ll tell you true. There have been times since then that I wished I had allowed myself to be arrested. At least I would have been fed twice a day while in jail.”
Devin shook his head and said, “’Tis a sorry thing to hear.”
“Aye, it ’tis,” concurred McNevin. Then added, “But not as bad as seeing it.”
Devin fed the fire and said, “We should sleep. We have a good walk ahead of us tomorrow.”
“Are you saying you want me to travel the road with y’?” asked McNevin.
“Sure. You are my seanchaí. As we walk, you’ll be telling me tales of things you’ve seen in this last year and I’ll be sharing my food with y’.”
“It will give my head peace to travel with you. May your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow.”
“Thank you, Tom. There’s enough wood to sustain the fire throughout the night, but I’ll have to depend on you to keep it going. According to my brothers, I’m not very good at that sort of thing.”
“I’ll see you on the morrow, Devin Mahoney.”
You can read the original letter here.
I forgot to mention that publishers, for the most part, do not take on books that have already been published. And agents think the same way. If your book is selling maybe 1,000 copies a day (or even 500), and all by word of mouth, then they’ll knock down your door to sign you up.
I don’t know if you are in the process of writing another book, but if you are, you might want to save all that energy and work sending out your query letters for the new book.
You probably already know this, but there are sites that will teach you how to write a dynamite query and their members will critique it for you and add advice. That’s what I did. I think the site’s name is Agent Query. They also have up-to-date lists of agents to work from when sending out your letters.
Finally, have you ever thought of doing paid promotions with the likes of eReader News Today, Choosy Bookworm, or Free Kindle Books and Tips? For $30.00 or $40.00 they’ll send out an email to their thousands of subscribers and you’ll get some sales. You’ll have to drop your price to $0.99 for the day of the promotion. Remember, the more books you sell the more reviews you’ll get, and the more reviews you get the more books you’ll sell. I never give my books away for free. When people get books for free, many of them stick it on their Kindle and forget about it. But if they pay for a book, they’ll read it. Even if the book was only $0.99.
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.
The Magic Happens Radio Network welcomes the award-winning historical author and side kick to Danny the Dog, Andrew Joyce to Tell Me a Story.
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Follow the link and put a voice to the face and learn the history of how he became a writer. Be advised, there is Adult Language throughout this interview.
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