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"I don't read Thomas Fleming just to learn about American history. I read Thomas Fleming because I want to smell what the Americans in that time smelt, to see as our ancestor's saw, and most important to feel every emotion, every thought, and every moment that the people of our country felt."—W.E.B Griffin
I can remember as if it were yesterday the moment when our lives changed forever. We were kneeling in the parlor on the night before May Eve, in 1865, reciting the rosary. Before we began, Mother had asked us to remember the soul of Peter Malloy, our cook's oldest son, who had been killed in a great battle in Virginia, one of the rebel states of America. We had heard the sad news on the same day that we learned that the war between the northern and southern parts of America had finally ended. As Mother was halfway through the third decade of the rosary, my brother, Michael, entered the room. He looked neither right nor left, nor at Mother, nor at me or my sister Mary, nor at the two maids who knelt with us. He walked past us as if we were invisible and took Father's hunting gun from the wall and turned again to vanish into the night. As the door closed, I heard one of the maids whisper, "God be on the road with you."
I looked at Mother and saw death on her face. But I felt not a shred of pity for her, though I can feel it now. I felt only pride, passion, fury. I was a living, breathing contradiction of the soft, sweet words of the rosary. "Hail Mary, full of grace," Mother said, continuing the decade as if nothing had happened. But she knew, as I knew, what it meant. Michael had defied Father and joined the Fenians, the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He had sworn an oath that cut him off from the sacraments of the Church and the forgiveness of God and promised to commit any crime, even murder, to free Ireland from the British. In my heart I had sworn the same oath.
That night, in our bedroom, I rejoiced in Michael's courage. "I wish I were a man. I would have walked out with him," I said. My sister Mary could only think of the pain he was causing Mother and Father and wondered why Michael had had to make his declaration so brutal, almost sacrilegious. "Couldn't he have waited until we finished the rosary?" she said.
"It's that kind of thinking that has made slaves of Irishmen and Ireland for the last six centuries," I replied.
"Oh, Bessie, Bessie," Mary said. "Remember what Father told us only last week, when we were talking about old Ireland?"
"I remember," I said. "I hated him for it."
"Bessie," Mary cried. "That's a sin. Even to say it."
"I love him, too, as much as you do. But not when he talks like a coward."
That was Bess Fitzmaurice to the inch in those days. Loving and hating within the space of a breath and meaning both to the utmost throb of her wayward heart. Mother used to blame it on my Fitzmaurice blood, plus a draught from my paternal grandmother, who was an O'Brien, thus combining two of the wildest families in old Ireland. The Fitzmaurices were royal bastards (signified by the "Fitz"), and the O'Briens, the ancient kings of Thomond, were famous for the way they blinded their enemies when they captured them. Mother's people, the MacNamaras, were the opposite sort, all peace-loving scholars. Which explained my gentle, obedient sister Mary.
Father had told us these bits of lore, along with a lot of other things about old Ireland, at supper one night. He was trying to explain to me and my glowering brother why he would never join the Fenians nor any of the other wild men who thought they could right Ireland's wrongs with a gun. Wrongs there were aplenty, he admitted, but we were one of the families who were exempt from the worst of them. We had one of the finest farms in the county of Limerick, on the shores of shining Lake Fergus. True, we did not own it, we had to rent it from Lord Gort, whose ancestors had no doubt seized it from an Irishman long ago. But the rent was fair, and we had enough money to hire four families to do much of the work and show an honest profit at the year's end.
Would it have been better to have had such a farm in old Ireland? Father asked. The answer was no, he said. If you stopped to think of it, the British had done some good things in Ireland along with the bad. They had made a nation where before there had been three or four hundred petty chiefs, each of them calling himself a king. "Sure the country was a puzzle map," Father said, "never at peace long enough to let an honest man get in a harvest. There was always King This or King That cantering down the road on a rough little pony at the head of his army of barelegged gossoons to fight the king over the river or the king beyond the bog."
"Better to fight and die as free men than farm as slaves," I said.
I was the only one who would dare to talk back to Father, but this time even I went too far. He ordered me away from the table, and the next morning Mother made me apologize to him.
On the morning after Michael took the gun, there was nothing but gloom at the breakfast table. Mother had told the news to Father when he returned from the meeting of his Freemasons lodge in Limerick. Father was a Protestant, which was how he had come to obtain our handsome farm in the first place. His grandfather or his great-grandfather had quit being a Catholic to avoid the laws and prejudices that prevented any man of the old faith from rising in Ireland. But Father put no stock in creeds and articles of religion. What counted with him was an honest and loving heart, he often said, looking at Mother while he spoke. He had no objection to our being raised Catholic, even Michael, his only son, because he was sure the old prejudices were dying away on both sides.
But this new passion swirling through the land, this fury for Ireland's freedom, found him totally unprepared, especially when it confronted him in his own home. Michael had caught the fever at the university in Dublin and had passed it on to me. All Father could do that morning was stare past us at the empty place above the mantel where his gun had hung. Mother had warned me in advance to say nothing, and for once I thought it prudent to obey.
Our maids, Bridget and Peggy, were in a pother because it was the day of May Eve, when the old gods were supposed to come back to earth and the fairies were out in throngs looking for victims. Bridget, the fat one, strewed primroses at the front and back doors to keep the little people out and told us how she had been sure to make the sign of the cross with the froth from the milk pails first thing. No food was given to any beggar on May Eve for fear that he might be one of the little people in disguise come to steal a coal from the fire and weave an evil spell around the house. We believed none of this, of course, but Mother had long since given up trying to change the minds of the maids and other country people who worked for us.
Peggy, the thin maid (the skinny melink, we called her), undid Father by asking him in all seriousness what she should do if a man on the run came to the door. "What in God's name do you mean by that?" Father snapped.
"Sure there's going to be a row, is there not?" Peggy said in her brainless way. "Hasn't Master Michael gone to fight with the Fenians in Limerick city? I heard him telling Miss Bessie here the other day that they had taken a vow to avenge the old treaty or die."
She was talking about the Treaty of Limerick, which the Irish signed in 1691, surrendering their army to England. The treacherous British promptly violated the treaty, creating one law for Protestants and another for the Catholic majority.
Father looked like he might weep at any moment. I had never seen him so undone. "Any man who comes to this door will be given the charity of the road, even though it is May Eve," he said. "We will ask no questions about where he is going or where he has been."
Mother thought this a good time to summon me and Mary to help her with the breakfast dishes. Further contriving methods to get me out of Father's way, she announced that I was to accompany her to Mrs. Malloy's cottage on the lakeshore to see if she was all right. I groaned but acquiesced. To tell the truth, down deep I was a little frightened about what might happen to Michael with that gun in his hand. He was no soldier. At heart he was a poet, a writer. Indeed I may be writing these words now, so many years later, as an attempt to tell, in place of him, the history that engulfed us.
Obedient as my sister Mary for a change, I put on my cloak and seized the basket of meat and vegetables Mother packed for old Mrs. Malloy. The poor thing was a dear person, but she tended to be tiresome, now that I was a grown woman of nineteen. More than anyone, perhaps even more than Mother, Malloy knew I felt cast under by the beauty of my older sisters, Annie and Mary. Not that I was ugly. But they had Mother's pure white skin and calm presence and dark green MacNamara eyes. They were always perfectly composed, every ringlet and ruffle in place, while I was always in disarray, my hair flying, my lip curling. I was out of tune with the times, which treasured women like Annie and Mary, delicate creatures who seemed to breathe poetry, when actually they had scant use for it.
Although Malloy wearied me somewhat now, I was loyal to her forever because of what she had done for me when I was eleven or twelve. My mother's nephew, Barry MacNamara, was visiting us. He saw me with Annie and Mary and called me the Ugly Duckling. I ran crying into the kitchen, where I collided with Malloy. When I sobbed out my woe, she grew vastly indignant. Her round red cheeks inflated like a balloon until I thought she would explode.
"Sure you're never cryin' about the face that God Almighty chose for ye!" she said. "Haven't ye a nice white skin where there's many a one born black as our ould turkey and blacker! Haven't ye soft fair hair and a fine pair of eyes when there's them that's born white-headed with eyes as red as a pet rabbit's? And haven't ye a mouthful of strong teeth when ye might have them black and crumblin' like Casey's youngest, her with the hump and the squinny eyes, God help her?"
She swept me to her ample bosom and dried my eyes. "Cushla mavourneen," she said. "Did I ever tell ye the tale of the duke's son who got sot on a poor lovely young girl? 'I'll marry ye, poor as ye are,' he said to her, 'if ye'll promise me ye'll hold up your head and not care a tinker's curse what anyone says to cheapen ye.'"
"'I will,' says she. 'I will hold up my head.' And what'd she do but go into a little lane and cut a twig of furze and pin it in her dress so that every time she hung down her face the way poor folk do the furze druv it up with its sharp spikes and by the next day she held her head as high as the queen of England."
Mother would never have told me a story like that, because she did not want to make me proud. Her faith taught her that humility and forgiveness were the great virtues. I instinctively disagreed with her, and Malloy's folk wisdom gave me a first glimpse of why. There was something in me, a spirit, a voice, call it what you like, that despised the thought of bowing my head, begging pardon, turning the other cheek, all the habits of meekness that a woman was supposed to cultivate. I imitated Malloy's heroine from that day and cultivated the habit of holding my head high and looking everyone straight in the eye.
I found deeper justification for my ways when Michael came home from the university with his mind aflame with love of the old Irish sagas, the tales of Finn and his warriors, of bold Cuchulain and his exploits. I stayed up a hundred nights reading them, too, wearing out my eyes by a flickering candle in my convent school in Limerick. I found in them not only Michael's pride in ancient Ireland and her fighting heroes but women like Queen Maeve and Emer and Dierdre of the Sorrows, beings who leaped from the pages as creatures of fire and ice, who dealt with men not as meek helpmates but as equals, even superiors. These became my heroines. I secretly worshipped them, not only for their independence but for the free proud way with which they gave themselves to men, with none of the creeping shame and guilt about sexual love that the priests had inflicted on Ireland.
Mother could not understand what had happened to me when I came home and announced that I would read aloud none but Irish writers henceforth. She would have preferred to go on reading Charles Dickens or her favorite, Charles Lamb, who had filled our childhood years with their charming stories. But I condemned them now as spokesmen of the hated Sassenachs, the Gaelic name for the Saxons, which Michael and I took to calling the English. Although he was two years older, it was I who insisted on this ban. He was as fond of Wordsworth as Mother. But I insisted "Wordy," as I called him, and all other English poets had to go, to be replaced by Egan O'Rahilly and Owen Roe O'Sullivan and blind Raftery.
I can still see myself before the fire that last winter, reciting O'Rahilly's poem, "A Gray Eye Weeping," in which the penniless poet addresses one of the new English gentry. My heart almost burst inside me and tears streamed down my cheeks as I spoke the words.
That my old bitter heart was pierced in this black gloom,
That foreign devils have made our land a tomb,
That the sun that was Munster's glory has gone down,
Has made me a beggar before you, Valentine Brown.
But on the day of May Eve, the day after Michael disappeared with Father's gun, I found it hard to think brave or angry thoughts as I lugged the basket of food down to Malloy's cottage. Her son's death in that foreign American land about which we heard so much seemed a dark omen for Michael, who was fascinated by America. He talked constantly of the help the Fenians would receive from our brethren who had fled there by the millions since the famines began in the 1830s.
As we approached Malloy's cottage by the lakeshore, after a mile's walk in the hot sun, I heard a sound that embarrassed me intensely. It was familiar enough, the wild mournful wail mingled with tumbling words in our own Irish tongue. Malloy was keening for her dead son. The peasants still retained the custom. But for educated folk like us, it was an embarrassment because it enabled the English to point to it and other habits of the peasantry, such as a love of strong drink, and sneer that we were still primitives, incapable of governing ourselves.
We stood outside the cabin, hesitating to interrupt the old woman, as the sad cry rose and fell. I could make out the words, full of the natural poetry of our people.
"My Grief! I have lost my dear boy, my warrior lad, who was rough in the fight.
"My Grief! His father gone before him into the dark ground, and his brothers and sisters scattered.
"My Grief! The portion of my old age, my one hope of joy. I knew by the voice of the crow on the lake that misfortune was at hand.
"My Grief and Ireland's grief, to have lost such a son."
At length her lamentation ceased, and we knocked on the door. Mrs. Malloy met us with her rosary in her hand. It always amazed me to see how easily the peasantry mingled the ancient pagan traditions and the Catholic faith. Old Malloy's face was like a withered apple now, but she still dressed herself with care. A fresh frilled cap was on her head, her homespun gown was spotless, and her plaid shawl was as fine as when she wore it on her wedding journey.
"Oh, Miss Bessie and Mrs. Fitzmaurice. I was hopin' ye'd come," she said. "And bring me a bit of bread and meat, too. I hadn't the heart to touch a match to a fire with the thought of poor little Peter dead over there in America. He was me youngest and best, ye remember the last letter he sent me with the draft for twenty dollars in it. I've been sittin' here thinkin', will he be waked and prayed for by a priest to lay his soul at rest? If not, ye know his fate will be to join the army of the old kings and live underground for all eternity as a slave to them heathens."
"I'm sure his friends said their prayers for him and a priest was at his side, Malloy," Mother said. "He was in an Irish regiment; you remember he said that in the letter he wrote you."
"Yes," Malloy said, dabbing at her eyes. "I do remember and thank God for it. But it's still a strange fate, isn't it, Mrs. Fitzmaurice, to go over the ocean to be killed by the bullet of a man you never had a quarrel with in your life?"
"America is a strange country," Mother said. "I'm not at all sure it's the best place for our young people to go."
"But they must go someplace, there's no work for them in their own land," Malloy said.
"Yes, that is Ireland's shame," Mother said with a sigh. "Our best young men--and women--leave us."
There was a sad story behind Mother's sigh. My older sister Annie had gone to America six years ago. She left as the bride of an Irishman who had come back to Limerick a rich man from twenty years in New York. He drove about the country in a Dublin coach pulled by four fine black horses. One of our Limerick town aunts, Mother's sister, had brought him calling on us, supposedly to show him the best-run farm in Ireland. He had been far more interested in Annie. His name was Kelly. He was hardly the sort of man to stir romance in a young girl. He was at least forty-five and fat in the neck and red in the face. But the offer of a wealthier, more interesting life than any local suitor could promise a bride persuaded Annie.
She arrived in New York to discover the stunning fact that her husband was already married and the father of four children. Kelly assured her that his political friends would have no trouble obtaining a divorce for him. The priest whom Annie consulted told her that the state of New York could do what it pleased, but the Catholic Church would never recognize such a decree, which meant that Annie would sin her soul--commit a mortal sin--every time she lay with him as his wife. She left him, but she could not stand the thought of returning home to be the laughingstock of our village.
For a while her letters were frequent. She seemed to like America in spite of her awful disappointment. She made new friends who seemed to please her as much as she pleased them. She wrote of grand parties with enough silver on the table to buy dowries for all of Limerick county. Lately, though, her letters had dwindled. I knew that Mother often thought of her with that heavy sigh on her lips.
Listening to Malloy lament the hard necessity that had driven her son across the water, I found myself biting my tongue to prevent spouting angry words about what must be done to keep our youth in Ireland. The musket and the pike, the bullet and the shell, will do it, I wanted to say. Not prayers that God ignores or promises the British break. I found myself fearing less for Michael's fate and wishing only that I could share it with him.
"Has Mr. Dolan called upon you again this month, Miss Bessie?" Malloy asked, changing the subject with her usual disconcerting dexterity.
"No," I said, silently adding, Thank God.
"He's coming this afternoon," Mother said. "I thought it best not to tell her, because it would only give her more time to think of spiteful things to say."
Patrick Dolan was the merchant and moneylender of our village of Ballinaclash. We called him the gombeen man, from the Irish goimbin, meaning usury. He had inherited the business from his father, who was a Protestant like my own father. Patrick Dolan was no more than twenty-five or twenty-six and considered the catch of the countryside. Girls swooned at the mere sight of him, and more particularly at the thought of living in his house on the hill above the village, with Waterford cut glass on the table and a fireplace in each of the five rooms. But few had the dowry he could rightfully expect, except people as well off as the Fitzmaurices.
This was easy enough to understand, but I was amazed when he fixed on me as his choice. I thought sure it would be my sister Mary, who almost melted every time he looked at her. But he soon made it clear that I was more to his taste. He liked my "maturity," he called it, the confident way I carried myself. He carried himself in much the same fashion, I should add. He was a big, broad-shouldered fellow, with a wide brow and brown eyes that were clouded by a certain sadness yet retained a resolution to resist the envy and hatred that were often flung at him in the village. The people had no love for a gombeen man. In hard times when they could not pay what they owed him, he could take their land from them, seize their crops, their very furniture.
I told Patrick Dolan that I would never marry a man who made his living by tricking money from the pockets of poor men who needed it to feed hungry wives and children. "You may call it lending at interest, but I call it robbery," I said.
He smiled at me as if I were a charming child and said he was glad to see I did not accept him at face value. He assured me that he could dispose of my prejudices, if I would give him a chance. His money fed women and children who would otherwise starve when a man's crop failed or his cash ran short. His money sent younger sons and daughters to America, where they found jobs that supported half the families in the village.
I scoffed at his pretended benevolence and remained as disdainful as a duchess. I insisted he was part of the British system, an enemy of Ireland. He continued to call once or twice a month, while Mother, Mary, and Malloy urged me to be sensible. Lately Father had joined the campaign, telling me in his brusque way that I would never get a better offer. Malloy, perhaps prompted by Mother, returned to the charge now. "Sure I haven't a doubt you're to wed a rich husband. I've always seen it in your tea leaves. Get up tomorrow first thing and catch yourself a snail and your happiness is assured."
On May Day young girls were supposed to get up before sunrise to look for snails. If the creature was still entirely inside its shell, the finder could expect a rich husband. If the snail was outside his shell, beware poverty, if she married before the next May Day.
I told Malloy I would be sure to get up and find my snail. "But if he's inside his shell I'll pull him out by the nose to make sure I have naught to fear for another year."
Malloy laughed and said she always knew I had the devil in me. We left her looking through her food basket. Mother gently lectured me all the way back to the house. Where did I expect to find a decent husband? she asked. Did I want to end up married to some ignorant tenant farmer? Or an old maid like my Limerick aunts, her sisters? By the time we got to the house I was feeling quite desperate, and my turmoil was not alleviated by the sight of Patrick Dolan's assured smiling face. A sense of doom descended on me. I could see that it was only a matter of time before my resistance would crumble before the combined assault of his confident persistence and Mother's realistic logic. It was unquestionably true that eligible bachelors did not abound in our vicinity, especially bachelors who had some education and would not take to drink at the sight of a wife reading poetry.
Patrick Dolan suggested a walk. I said I had just walked my feet off. He suggested a ride. He had his jaunting cart at the back door. Mother said she had no objection, and we were soon jogging down the lanes past the green, sun-drenched fields. Mute Mick, son of Conn the plowman, waved to us as we passed. Down we went to the shore of the lake, a mile beyond Malloy's house, and across the causeway to Knockadoon Island, where the ruins of Earl Garrett Desmond's castle stood like a monument to Ireland's sad fate.
According to the legend, Lord Desmond made a pact with the devil to keep his power when the English came and the old gods put a curse on him. Once in every seven years he was doomed to gallop over the water and around the lake on a milk-white horse shod with silver shoes. Not until the silver shoes were worn out would be he loosed from the enchantment.
Patrick Dolan helped me down from the cart. We gazed up at the castle's battered walls, and I told him that this was a seventh year and time for Lord Desmond to circle the lake once more.
"You don't believe that old trash, do you?" he asked.
"No," I said. "But I think it's good for the people to remember the great old names. It will encourage them to fight for Ireland when the time comes."
"What time will that ever be?" Patrick Dolan said. "Do you think that men can fight riflemen with pitchforks? Will they make battleships out of the fishermen's curraghs and duel the British fleet? Face it, Bess, we're a conquered people and must make the best of it."
"Never!" I said. "I will never make the best of it. And I will never marry a man who thinks we should."
"Bess, Bess," he said, seizing my wrist and turning me to him. "Can't you see I'm dying for a kind look from your eye? Do you think a man with as much pride as I've got in me would come back again and again to take your insults and your temper if it wasn't for the love that was eating his insides?"
For a trembling moment I almost surrendered. But he made the mistake of carrying us back to the argument. "It's only common sense I ask of you, Bess," he said. "The common sense to see that there's no help for Ireland anywhere but in lifting herself up by slow degrees to where the British will respect us. I want to do that as much as you do. I honor your love for Ireland. I share it."
This was Father's thesis, almost to the word. My gorge rose all over again. "What kind of thinking is that for a man your age?" I said. "Isn't there a wish to strike a blow now, to right the wrongs of centuries instead of letting them go on and on? Sure I think you're as bad as Lord Desmond. You've made your pact with Satan, too. But for you his name is Usury."
"I loan money but I'm no usurer," he said, his own temper rising at hearing that slur on my lips. "And I've made no pact with Satan. Unless his name is Love."
He picked up a piece of the shattered masonry from Lord Desmond's wall and flung it into the lake. "All right," he said. "Here's my last offer. I'll sell the business and we'll go to America. Forget Ireland."
"If I go to America," I said, "it will be to join the Irish there, the tens of thousands of them that are ready to fight for old Ireland. Some of them are already here, guns in hand. My brother Michael is with them this very moment in Limerick."
"God help him," Dolan said. "And God help me."
I didn't see, I wouldn't see, his torment. "It's from America that the help will come," I said.
"The kind of help your sister Annie got? Get the poetry out of your eyes, Bess. See the world as it really is."
"'Tis the poets who help us see the glory and the tragedy of life. See courage, faith, beauty, all the things money can't buy."
"Jesus God, Bess, will you stop seeing me as a man of money? Do I have the queen's head stamped on my face like a sovereign? I'm a man, Bess, a creature of flesh and blood, and I love you."
"You want to buy me," I said.
The word "love" aroused a blind anger and fear in me. I see now it was not fear of his love but of my idea of it as a prison that would turn me into a meek forgiver, like Mother.
"I would buy you if I could," he said. "I'd buy you to stop the thing that is destroying my sleep and my waking. But I know you can't be bought. It's what I love most about you, Bess."
A great dark thundercloud was moving down the lake from the direction of Limerick. I chose to look at it rather than at him. I would not let him buy me, either with his pleas or his money. I told myself the cloud was an omen; it carried within it the hosts of the air, the armies of the old kings and heroes. "Take me home," I said. "Can't you see it's going to thunder and rain?"
In front of our house, I sprang from the jaunting cart without a word of good-bye to him. I watched him drooping at the cart's head until he disappeared around the bend in the road caused by the cairn. This burial mound of the old kings had stood beside the road, covered with bright quartz stones, untouched for two thousand years for fear of the curse the ancient dead could lay on you. The conjunction of Patrick Dolan, the sad collaborator of defeated Ireland, and this silent symbol of our glorious past stirred wild thoughts in my head and wilder feelings in my heart.
A moment later I noticed how the sun was dwindling as the thundercloud mounted over lake and farmland like the frowning forehead of an angry god. Suddenly I knew what I wanted, what I must have, a love as wild and reckless as the one in the song that every Irish girl sang in her secret heart, while her mother frowned on her. "Donal Ogue," which is Irish for "Young Dan," was its title. I began to whisper it as the first drops splattered on the grass around me.
"Donal Ogue, when you cross the water
Take me with you to be your partner.
And at fair and market you'll be well looked after
And you can sleep with the Greek king's daughter."
Behind me came squeals of fright from the maids and the slamming of windows. They were rushing around in a terror, certain that one of the old gods was riding the thundergust. Let him, I prayed, let him, and went on with the song, with the words of the long-dead girl to her warrior lover, whom she knew to be faithless but whom she loved nonetheless.
"You said you'd give me--'tis you talk lightly
Fish skin gloves that would fit me tightly
Bird skin shoes when I went out walking
And a silken dress would set Ireland talking."
"Miss Bessie," bawled Bridget, the fat maid, "For the love of God come in. Lord Desmond himself could be in that wind, ready to seize your very soul."
I ignored her, letting huge drops of rain dash against my upturned face. "I'm not afraid of Lord Desmond," I shouted. I clung to the white pickets of the gate and chanted:
"To lonely well I wander sighing.
'Tis there I do my fill of crying
When I see the world but not my charmer
And all his locks the shade of amber."
A hand seized my arm. My sister Mary pulled me off the gate. "Good God, Bessie," she said. "Can't you let poetry alone for a bit? Hasn't Mother enough to worry about this day without you catching pneumonia?"
I whirled on her. "Let poetry alone? That's just like you, Mary, you keep poetry in a cage like your old bullfinch and let it hop out now and then. I've got it in my inside, all through me, and it comes out and in like breathing."
A tremendous bolt of lightning split the sky above the lake, and a crash of thunder followed it. "You can breathe in the house as well as out," Mary said. "Come on or I'll lambaste you one like I used to do when we were little."
"I'll submit to your pedestrian spirit," I said, holding out my arms to her. "Place the manacles upon my wrists and lead me to your dungeon vile. Tomorrow or the next day, Donal Ogue will come to liberate me."
Mockingly I chanted another verse from the poem:
"I saw him first on a Sunday evening
Before the Easter and I was kneeling
'Twas about Christ's passion that I was reading
But my eyes were on him and my own heart bleeding."
"That is the worst yet," Mary said. "Pure blasphemy. Pride rules your will, Bess."
Mary fled back into the house, abandoning me to Lord Desmond or pneumonia. By now the rain was starting to splash down in a torrent. I followed her into the parlor and felt contrite. Mother bustled in the kitchen, and Father read his paper by the oil lamp. I dried my hair and offered Mary a game of dominoes. We matched pieces while the storm beat on the roof and windows of our sturdy house. Hearing the wind howl, Peggy, the thin maid, wondered if it was the dwarf, Fer Fi, who haunts the lake, playing his magic music on his three-stringed harp. "Let's hope it's gentraighe," I said, using the Irish word for "laughter music." Fer Fi only played three tunes, ceolsidhe, wail music for mourning, suantraighe, sleep music for dreamers, and laughter music.
The door burst open and Michael reeled into the room, soaked by the storm, his boots streaming, his black hair in a wild tangle. "Father," he said. "You must help us. I have a man with me from America--"
The man himself stood in the doorway. He had the ripest curl to his smile and the whitest teeth and hair of the softest golden-yellow amber and the most reckless gray eyes I had ever seen. He stood well over six feet and carried himself like a soldier, his back straight and his shoulders squared.
"Dan McCaffrey," he said.
He wore expensive clothes, a stone-gray cloth-lined raglan coat and a dark gray suit that fit him beautifully. He closed the door against the storm and stood there while Michael told Father what had happened. McCaffrey was a major in the Fenian army in America. He had come to Ireland to help organize a rising. They had called a meeting of the Fenian circle, as their groups were called, in the cellar of a pub in Limerick. Only thirty men came, though a hundred had taken the oath. As they talked, a pounding of feet was heard outside, and the Peelers--the Royal Irish Constabulary--burst in through doors and windows. Someone had turned informer. McCaffrey had seized Michael's gun--the only weapon the circle owned--and cut down the first man who came at him, then drew a pistol and fought his way to the stairs, with Michael on his heels using the old hunting gun like a club. Only a few followed them; most of the circle were now captives.
Father groaned aloud and held his head in his hands. "Michael, Michael, you've ruined us," he said.
"What do you mean?" Michael said. "This has nothing to do with you."
"We need horses, Mr. Fitzmaurice," McCaffrey said. "There'll be a boat in Bantry Bay in five days to take me back to America. I'll take Michael with me."
I listened, fascinated. It was the first time I ever had heard an American talk. It sounded utterly strange. He said "hosses" and "Baantry Baay."
"Take him with you?" Father said bitterly. "Just like that? Take a man's only son, and leave him in his old age with a wife and daughters to support and no farm to his name?"
"What do you mean, no farm?" McCaffrey said.
"They'll take this farm and any other I can get."
"Where my father's people came from, County Mayo, they had men who wouldn't let that happen. The Molly Maguires."
If he had tried for a month, Dan McCaffrey could not have chosen a more offensive topic. The Mollies, so called because they sometimes wore women's clothes on their midnight forays and signed the single name Molly Maguire to their warnings, were a menace to the peaceful, law-abiding Ireland Father yearned to see. He had denounced them at our dinner table more than once and now proceeded to do so again, in even more sulphurous terms.
"In my most desperate hour, I'd never turn to the help of such scum," he roared. "I'll have nothing to do with men who murder their fellow creatures and maim cattle in the dark."
"My Dad said they fought for Ireland," Dan McCaffrey said. He was angry but also puzzled. As I soon discovered, his knowledge of Ireland was nothing but a patchwork of his father's nostalgic memories.
"They fight for their own empty pockets," Father shouted. "Lazy tinkers, most of them, who wouldn't do a day's work for double a blacksmith's pay. Like every Connaught spalpeen I've ever hired."
I shuddered to hear from my father the terrible prejudice that the different parts of Ireland bear against each other. The men of the west, like the day laborers (spalpeens) from Connaught that my father was talking about, were regarded with severe disfavor by us of the south. But we reserved our worst words for the "Far-downs," as the men of the north were called.
McCaffrey looked like he wanted to avenge Father's insult, but he was in no position to do so. "Will you give us the horses, Mr. Fitzmaurice?" he said.
"Yes," my father said. "Of course I'll give you the horses. You've taken my son. You can surely take my horses."
"You must have food for the road," Mother said. She drew me and Mary with her to the kitchen and put us to work with the maids. I could see that she did not like the way I was staring at Dan McCaffrey. Another verse from "Donal Ogue" leaped into my mind.
You might as well let him have me, Mother,
And every penny you have moreover;
Go beg your bread like any other
But him and me don't seek to bother.
Slicing meat by the door, I was able to hear the conversation of the men in the parlor. Michael tried in vain to impress Father with the certainty of victory in the crusade that McCaffrey and others were launching. The Civil War had ended in America, and there were fifty thousand Irish veterans ready to fight England. There were Irishmen of wealth, with mansions as great as any English lord's, ready to pledge their fortunes for Ireland's freedom.
"And how will the fifty thousand men get to Ireland?" Father asked. "Will you launch a navy strong enough to fight the British fleet?"
"Could be we'll get the American fleet, now that the war's over. The Union government's real sore at the lime-juicers for the way they backed the Confederacy. There's talk they're goin' to sell us half their fleet for a few bucks," Dan McCaffrey said.
I'm sure Father had never heard "sore" or "a few bucks" before, but he got the general meaning. He shook his head. "The cost would beggar any group of men. None but a government can pay the monstrous expenses of a fleet and army."
"We got a government," Dan McCaffrey said. "The Fenian Brotherhood's got a headquarters on Union Square in New York, a mansion big as the White House. The head center and the council operate from there, like the president in Washington, D.C. They're raisin' money by the ton."
"It's the love of Ireland working in their hearts," Michael said. "Major McCaffrey says if anything it's stronger among those born in America like himself."
"Our fathers taught us to hate the lime-juicers." McCaffrey said. "My old man saw four brothers and two sisters die in the famine of '31. He was half dead himself when he got to America, but free air and good money made a new man of him. What can be done for one man can be done for a country. Stick a pin in that."
This last, a favorite American phrase, baffled Father. He asked Major McCaffrey what part he had played in the Civil War in America.
"I was a major under Jeb Stuart," he said. "The best cavalry in the Confederacy."
"The Confederacy?" cried Father. "You, an Irishman, fought to keep slaves? And now you're coming to free Ireland. What sense can a man make of that?"
Dan McCaffrey admitted it sounded confusing, but the war had not been fought over slavery, he said. The Irish in the Southern army were supporting their section of the country against the oppression of the North. Now the South was an occupied land, like Ireland. This was hard for the South but good for Ireland. It made the war hardened Irish veterans of the South ready to throw in their lot with Ireland's army of liberation.
Father was unimpressed. He talked passionately of his youth, when he heard the greatest Irishman of the century, Daniel O'Connell, denounce slavery and hold out the hope of an Ireland in which Protestant and Catholics could live as equals. From O'Connell Father also came to believe that Irishmen could win their fight against England without bloodshed, if they united and relied on moral force and legal protests against injustice.
Dan McCaffrey scarcely knew what he was talking about. Daniel O'Connell was a dead forgotten name to him. "Here's the only force that England understands," he said.
From within his coat he drew a great black revolver. I never thought that in our modest parlor I was seeing the argument that has broken heads and hearts not just in Ireland but the world over. Now I know that my father and McCaffrey stood for two different ways of thinking and feeling, two different attitudes toward the world. All I knew at that moment was how irresistible that gun looked in the fading light of May Eve. Within me a voice began whispering:
Donal Ogue, when you cross the water
Take me with you to be your partner.
A PASSIONATE GIRL Copyright © 2004 by Thomas Fleming All rights reserved.