The Irish Farmer, Perplexed
Along the scariff road, heading northeast toward home, Farmer
Carmichael rides his old red mare Sally through the wreck of Ireland. The cabins are roofless, abandoned. He encounters an ejected family at a crossroads and
hands the woman a penny, for which she blesses him, while her children stare
and her man, a hulk, squats on the grassy verge, head sunk between his knees.
Saddle creaking, still four miles from his farm, Carmichael rides along a
straight, well-made highway, the pressure of changing weather popping in his
ears and the old mare between his legs, solid and alive.
Owen Carmichael is a lean but well-proportioned man. All his parts fit
together admirably. He wears a straw hat tied under his chin with a ribbon, a
black coat weathered purple, and boots that once belonged to his father. His
town clothes are in a snug bundle behind his saddle. Looking up, he sees
clouds skirl the sky, but along the road the air is mild, with a slight breeze out
of the west, and he has not been rained upon since he started this morning. He
often watches the sky. It provides a vision of cleanliness, of possibility, of eternal peace.
Sensing a flicker in the mare’s pace, he lowers his gaze. Studying ahead, he
sees a pile of rags humped in the middle of the road.
The mare gets the stink first, begins to flare and whinny, then Carmichael
sniffs death, sour and flagrant on the light wind.
He gives her rein and nips her with his heels, pushing the mare into a steady,
purposeful canter. He steers her wide around the pile of flapping rags. There is
a white forearm stiff upright and a fist and a crow perched boldly on the fist.
More birds are hopping furtively in the grassy ditch . . . if he had a whip he
would take a crack at them . . .
Upwind, the stench evaporates. Carmichael halts the mare, swings down.
Clutching reins in one hand, he bends to pick up a stone. He takes aim and fires
at the crow but the missile flies past its target, clatters on the metaled road. The
bird hesitates then beats up into the air, cawing lazily, circling the corpse, and
Depressed, anxious, he remounts and continues homeward.
He has been to Ennis to see the agent who manages the affairs of his landlord, the sixth earl. Remembering the interview causes Carmichael’s back to
stiffen. He hates it all -- the pettifogged transaction of legal business, the rites
of tenantry, the paying of rent, the dead smell of ink.
He himself is a man for the country, for the scent of a field and the promising sky. He has the hands for the red mare, a strong-willed creature. He paid
too much for her, twenty-five pounds, but it was long ago, and he has forgiven
himself the debt.
He had been glad to get clear of Ennis, those awful streets pimpled with beggars. Wild men and listless women sheltered beneath every stable overhang, the
women clutching infants that looked raw, fresh-peeled.
The fifth earl’s sudden death, in Italy, of cholera, had revealed encumbrance
and disarray, legacy of a profligate life. Now the affairs of the infant heir are
being reorganized on extreme businesslike principles.
"Meat not corn. Beef and mutton is what does pay," the agent had explained.
"That mountainy portion of yours -- sheep will do nicely up there."
Flocks of sheep and herds of Scotch cattle were being imported.
"I have sixteen tenant families living up there," Carmichael protested.
"Too many. Can’t be work for all of them."
"There isn’t," Carmichael admitted.
"Get rid of ’em," the agent said briskly. "Ejection. That portion ought to be
grazed. You’ll have to graze, indeed, if you expect to meet your rent. Whatever
sort of arrangement you have with them, it gives no right, no tenancy. You don’t
require the hands but two or three weeks in the year. You can get hands at wages
and not have them settle. You’ll have to move them off."
Carmichael has spent his life watching, coaxing mountainy people, and he
knows them. The peasants are peaceful, in fact sluggish, if only they have their
patch, their snug cabin, their turf fire. They breed like rabbits and content
themselves with very little, but if you touch their land, attempt to turn them
out, they get frantic and wild.
"If I throw them off they’ll starve."
"And if there’s blight they will starve anyway, sir! The only difference being, you
shall starve with ’em, for you’ll be paying the poor rates on every blessed head!
No, no, rid yourself of the encumbrance. There’s a military in this country, thank
the Lord. If you’ve whiteboy troubles we’ll set a pack of soldiers on them. Sheep,
not people, is what you want to fatten. Mutton is worth hard money. Mutton is
wanted, mutton is short. Of Irishmen there’s an exceeding surplus."
A brass clock ticked on the mantelpiece. The ashes of yesterday’s fire had not
been swept from the grate. The agent had previously begged Carmichael’s pardon to eat his dinner of bread and cheese. Crumbs of wheat bread on his desk.
Waxy yellow cube of cheese.
Soldiers were no good. No protection on a lonely farm.
"Whoever ejects them -- people like them, mountain people, cabin people
-- stands to get himself killed," Carmichael heard himself saying.
Was he afraid? Fear had always been his goad, a spur. He’d always thrown
himself passionately at what he feared most.
"Oh dear," the agent drawled. "I was assuming you would be eager to incorporate the mountain to your --"
"It’s shoulder bog," Carmichael said sharply. "Good for nothing but mountain men and their potatoes."
It wasn’t fear, no. He wasn’t afraid of whiteboys and outrages. It was a sense
of hopelessness he felt. There were too many of them. He had always been too
generous, granting too many conacre arrangements as his father had before
him. Now there were dozens of wild people living up there toward
Cappaghabaun, dug into the mountainy portions of the farm that they’d overrun. They’d woven themselves into his land like thistle.
"Sheep," the agent said. "Scotch cattle and sheep."
"I can’t get ’em off." Carmichael heard the weakness in his own voice and it
disgusted him. It reminded him of his own tenants, their various cadging pleas.
"Is there blight in your country?" the agent asked. "I heard there was. Is my
"On the mountain they haven’t lifted a crop yet. So it’s too early to tell."
"But there is blight around Scariff, yes? Lands along the river, yes? Leaves
"Yes." He’d seen it that morning.
"Then they will suffer it on the mountain," the agent declared with satisfaction. "There ain’t no dodging. Without the praties, if they linger, they will
starve. I tell you, one way or another you will be clear of those people. Overpopulation, sir, is the curse of this country."
And it is the truth.
Another mile closer to home, and Carmichael finds himself riding alongside a turnip field. There is not a man in sight, but females in cloaks and little
naked children are scattered across the flat field like a flock of seabirds blown
off-course by the wind.
Owen Carmichael tries to fix his vision upon the straight, well-made highway. He tightens his knees and nudges the mare a little quicker. He will certainly be home in time for his dinner. Afterward he will inspect his early cornfields to determine if the crop is ripe for cutting.
Women close by the road straighten up from their scavenging to stare.
He has no cash and cannot meet the poor rates on paupers breeding like rabbits and overrunning his farm. No, he cannot possibly.
The agent’s voice, flat as paper. "Any investment, Mr. Carmichael, must show
a decent rate of return."
A woman calls out in a language Owen Carmichael has heard all his life but
does not understand. Instead of ignoring her, he makes the mistake of turning
his head, and instantly there are a dozen or more paupers closing in on the road,
a tide of females with gray mud on their legs, holding up naked children
screaming with hunger.
Copyright © 2006 by Peter Behrens. All rights reserved.