This was one of my favourite papers for Western Civ II. The assignment was to be creative (which I love) and to come up with historical fiction relating to the time period that included the European wars of 1848 through the end of the 19th Century. I had a grand time with it and incorporated a ton of resources of facts as to various events that would have occurred in the life of my character. Since most of my school papers are non-fiction, this one is special to me (a) because it’s different, (b) because it’s a bit long and (c) I got a 100. Not as long as my totally awesome Puppies research paper, but still special. 😀
Historical Fiction Essay: Reflections on the 19th Century by an Irish Peasant in the City
The world changes much in a lifetime. I was born Maeve Ni’Riain in Ballymore, northeast of Carrick in County Donegal, Ireland on a windswept little plunk of land just big enough to grow potatoes – and nothing but potatoes. To this day, I detest the horrid things. We also had a rooster and some hens for eggs, and it was my job as a wee-un to tend the lassies and gather up their eggs. In the early 40s, many of Donegal’s sons and daughters began to move sheer across Ulster to the British side to work the docks and in textile mills as spinners and weavers. Da said his parents and theirs before had spun and woven in the family home, but the wheel and loom had long since gone. Ma taught me how to sew repairs to our clothes and even how to do some fancy stitch work for decoration. We didn’t hear very often from my older siblings after they were away to Belfast. At first, some money was sent home to my parents, but when my sisters married, they needed their money for their own families.
The youngest of five, when I reached my teen years, I also wanted to go to Belfast so that I could send money home, but my mother was very ill and my father wished me to stay and tend her while he helped his brothers tend their fields. While repairing a stone wall, a rock rolled back and crushed my father’s foot. Ever after, he walked with a cane and a great deal of pain, and my uncles had to come and help with our potato planting. When a fungus blighted the potatoes in the ground the next year, I had all I could do to protect my poor hens from being stolen by our hungry neighbors, many of whom were also my uncles! We survived on eggs and made a little bit of money by selling the young roosters to other families for food, but I feared for the lives of my poor girls, and spent many nights bundled up outside sleeping in their coop to prevent thieves from taking them. I sure missed those bloody potatoes then!
There were several “worst days” of my life. I thought the worst day of my life was the day Ma passed. It was only me and Da at home then. We received word soon after that my only brother had died at sea. After the second year of rotted potatoes, my uncles began pressuring my father to sell them his tenancy land since he no longer had a son to inherit it. They also wanted my hens as part of the deal, and I remember screaming and crying because I knew they were just going to kill my little lassies and eat them. They didn’t understand how to coax eggs from the lassies reliably, proven by the fact that they had already long ago killed all of their own chickens. What kind of farmer kills the source of the eggs that make new chickens, I cried. The day my father let my uncles take all my hens was a worst day of my life. We had packed and were ready to leave when my godmother came to see us off and handed me a small cage with one of my young hens in it! She promised to not let my uncles kill the rest of them, and I felt better as we set out on the long journey to Belfast. Da said he would rather work for Protestants in Belfast than take their charity in one of the workhouses.
Once in Belfast, we stayed with my eldest sister and her family. She was very pleased that I brought the hen as the eggs really helped in feeding her two small children. I went with some of the young girls who worked in a nearby mill to see if I could get hired, but after weeks of knocking on the doors of several mills, I still returned to my sister’s tenement unemployed. My father sought work at the docks, but because of his injury, he was also turned away. The day Da was killed by drunkards ranting about politics was another of the worst days in my life.
Wanting to escape from this inhospitable city and having no home in Carrick to return to, I made up my mind to go across the water to Glasgow where I had heard so many other Irish folk talk about going. They said that there was plenty of work there and that so many Irish had moved there already, we would feel right at home. I did find work in a textile mill in Glasgow, but after two years, the dust, noise and monotony of my daily work of cleaning lint out of the noisy machines only made me pine for the quiet boglands of home and my lassies. While praying after Mass at St. Andrew’s Cathedral for the Holy Virgin’s intercession, I overhead the priest speak of needing to repair several vestments. I thanked the Blessed Mother, crossed myself and nearly tripped over several pews to get over to the priest and offer to make the repairs. The priest turned out to hail from Killybegs near my hometown and had been assigned to St. Andrew’s the year before. Not only did we both speak Gaelic, but I made those repairs and continued to do sewing for the rectory as needed. The extra money helped out a lot.
I was only eighteen when all of Europe seemed to be going to war with themselves, so when a group called the Young Irelanders staged a revolt the same year, the British came down hard on the rebellious Fenians, especially in Belfast. Over the next few years, I met the priest’s brother who had escaped capture and imprisonment after a skirmish in Belfast. We fell in love and were married at St. Andrew’s. I was soon pregnant and had to resign from the textile mill as they preferred unmarried and childless women there. My husband worked as a ship repairman on the Clyde River tobacco docks, and the extra money from my doing piece work for the rectory left us comfortable in our tenement. My son was only four years old when my husband was killed by a British unionist who claimed he recognized my husband as an outlaw and criminal: the worst of the worst days of my life. Now a widow with a small child, I had nowhere to go. My priest brother-in-law arranged for my son and myself to stay in a separate sexton’s quarters behind the rectory where I could do cleaning and cooking for the priests as well as tending to the vestments and a fine flock of hens. I cannot read, but the priests made sure my son received an education, and he left for seminary to become a priest himself.
As for me, a widow with a child no more at home and ever my father’s daughter, I felt guilty receiving such great charity from the priests for doing what anyone would surely do to tend any home and returned to the textile mills to aid in my own keep. At nearly forty years old, I was hired by a carpet manufacturer, once again cleaning lint out of the machines. The clacking of the looms, the long hours on my feet, the constant dryness in my throat from the dyed fibers in the air and the danger from sticking my hands into moving machinery dulled my spirit and my hearing over the next sixteen years. I kept stitching for the priests and cooking their Sunday meals and remained in the quarters behind the rectory at their insistence. Sporting between the English and Scots has led to camaraderie between them and a looking down upon the Irish in this town. The memory of the Scots is short-lived, and I was let go from the carpet mill in the 70s in favor of younger Scotswomen, but I still hear the looms whir in my ears.
That was over twenty years ago, and I continue to bide fits of coughing. Politics are tense on the homeland, and I recall boycotts, uprisings, Protestants and Catholics killing each other – all over the native sons’ desire to own land and have a say in their government. Many have left Ireland – and Scotland, too – both by their own will and by the government’s clearance. I hear about Ireland proposing to home rule itself, but I fear that it shall not come to pass before I am laid to rest.
In my mind, I recall sweeping vistas over the boglands and Sliabh Liag cliffs and long for the fresh air of home, but the Lord has deigned for me to live here on foreign soil at His mercy. Even in St. Andrew’s protective shadow I’m never far from the factory noise and the smell of burning coal, the grind of engines in the junction, the men yelling on the docks, nor the clatter of hooves on Clyde Street hauling wares to and from the depots. Progress, they call it all. Stink and noise, I call it.
I don’t know why God keeps me alive. I sit with my shawl, an old woman, fingering my beads and watching my lassies scratch this bare patch of dirt, feeling badly that they give me their eggs for my survival, yet if not for the priests’ charity, I would have no crusts to toss them for their own survival.