A fine evening towards the end of June a little while before sunset. Tuathal Mór and Síle Bhán were outside: they were looking at the potato field. Síle had the baby. It was wrapped up in a shawl. The other child was on his father’s shoulder. It was a pleasing scene. If you tried you might be able to picture it — far away from you though it is. A grand summer’s evening in Gleann Locha. Potato fields on both sides of the glen that would gladden your heart. A man and his wife, and their two children with them, looking at their own field in delight. They had a little house of their own far from the perils of the sea. And they had the best crop that ever yet was seen.
“Aren’t they great,” said Tuathal. I never saw such a crop of potatoes at this time of year.”
“Not a living soul ever did, according to what I hear,” said Síle. “Mícheál Eoghain Dhiarmada over there, he’s nearly ninety, and he says he never in his life saw such a crop of potatoes. And that’s the way they are all over. Mícheál Anna Móire was in Baile na Carraige the other day and he called into my parents’ house on his way back. He says the potato fields on either side of Gaoth Beara would charm your eyes. Glory be to the Everlasting Father for them. And do you know what, Tuathal,” she said, as if to let him in on a secret, “I was not untroubled when we came here. I was afraid that you would not be able to manage this kind of soil. But you’ve got it. Your potatoes are as good as the best of them.”
“Just wait until my sons are with me on the ridges,” said Tuathal, with a surge of joy.
“The creatures,” said Síle. “And they so small. But their time will come, God save them… We’d better be getting back to the house,” she said. “The dew is falling.”
“I’ll have to go to Carn na Madadh tomorrow,” said Tuathal, as they reached the house.
“So that you and Éamonn Óg can spend the day talking about the islands and the sea,” said Síle, laughing. “Two poor exiles by themselves among the lonely mountains.”
“I suppose we won’t leave the sea and the islands out of our talk,” said Tuathal. “But that’s not what’s taking me off tomorrow. He’s cutting the turf and I promised I’d go along.”
“And don’t I know,” said Síle. “You’ll be away early I expect?”
“At sunrise,” said Tuathal. “But that’s no reason for you to get up. I’ll take a couple of boiled potatoes with me to break the fast. That will keep the hunger at bay until I get to Carn na Madadh. And that Malaidh, well, she’ll have food ready for everyone when I get there. That’s the way they are in Carn na Madadh. And it’s a good way. There’s no need for anyone other than the one going off to work to get up when the night and the day are parting.”
The next morning Tuathal Mór got up at dawn. He put a couple of boiled potatoes in his pocket. Then he went out and closed the door after him — quietly, for fear that he would waken Síle or the children.
He went around to the upper gable of the house. What was that smell in the air, if it was in the air? A smell as if from damp hay that had been stacked and was beginning to heat up. There was a mass of thick fog on the floor of the glen. Tuathal looked across at the potatoes in the field (for he wouldn’t set off without looking at them). What a strange appearance morning fog gives to the world, he thought. Everything had a dark look. He had never seen that look on the island, and he had often been up as the night and the day parted from each other. But then, there were no hollows on the island where fog might lie. Or maybe it was the sea air that would scatter it!
Tuathal went up the hillside for about a hundred yards. Then he stopped. He was feeling somewhat uneasy. The dark look of the cultivated ground was troubling him. Finally he turned back and walked across to the potato field.
The blessing of the Eternal Father be upon us! The tops of the potatoes were decayed to the core. Black skinless twiglets and withered leaves hanging from them. It took Tuathal’s breath away. He had no idea whatever what decay had befallen his potatoes. He walked to the top of the field to see if any part of it had escaped. Nothing had. There was not a stalk in the field that had not been skinned, burnt, withered.
What had become of his potatoes at all? Was it the remains of an ancient curse on his land that had been concealed from him? Was it that someone had been killed there so that the ghost of the slain had come back out of the sky as a mist of poison? Was it that someone had been unjustly evicted there? Was the curse of a widow or of an orphan stalking the land? Had that curse fallen on him? On him who was neither criminal nor detractor. What would happen to him and to his family? He had left Oileán Eala (‘The Island of Swans’) because he feared the sea. Here in Gleann Locha he had a snug little house. A happy little while but such a short little while. Would he have to leave the glen as he had left the island?… The sea itself was quite bad enough. But he who knew it could be on his guard, most of the time, against the treachery it concealed. But as for the sky! When a curse fell on you from the sky you had no defence. You could not be on your guard. You were engaging an enemy you could not even see!
Tuathal Mór stood for a time at the top of the field thinking. Would he go back to the house to wake up Síle and tell her the frightening story of the calamity? Wouldn’t it be better to do that than leave her to discover the devastation for herself when she got up later on. He would be there to give her encouragement. He would take the bitterness from the news at the start. Then when she went out and saw the the extent of the damage it would not come as such a sudden shock as he had had!
He looked further away. The mist was coming up from the smaller glens and up the hillsides. He could see some more of the fields of Gleann Locha. And they all had a dark look. Tuathal walked down to the bottom of the glen and back up again. There was not a ridge in the glen that had not withered like his own. That gave him some little comfort, though that may surprise you. But he knew then that it was no special curse that had fallen on him alone. This comfort did not last long. Something else occurred to him. There would be famine in Gleann Locha the coming winter. If all the other families in the glen had plenty of potatoes he would not want for food, nor his wife, nor his children. They would get their share in generous plenty. They would not go hungry as long as the neighbours had the wherewithal to share. But they would not have that. No one would have anything to put in his own mouth. And if they had it would be too little, and there would be no sharing. Hardship was coming to them. And as Mághnus Ruadh Ó Domhnaill had said the previous year, hardship forbids generosity!
Tuathal returned to his house. Síle lay asleep. But she gave a start when he came across the floor and she looked over at him. “Didn’t you go to Carn na Madadh?” she said. There was an anxious look in her eyes as if she were afraid that he had been taken ill suddenly on the way. That was easy for her to suppose: Tuathal looked like someone in pain.
“I didn’t go,” he said brokenly and told her a little of the news. Then a bit more and a bit more until he had told it all.
“God Himself has heard this today,” said Síle, springing out of bed. She pulled on her red shawl and went out. Some time later she came back in. There were traces of tears on her cheeks. But she had some little hope. A heavy frost has fallen,” she said, “and they won’t recover from it: it’s too late in the year. But it only fell on the lower slopes. There will be plenty of potatoes on the higher ground. And the other areas won’t allow us to die of the hunger.”
The other areas. She did not know that there was no townland from Gleann Locha to the far side of Connaught nor from there on to Rosscarbery where they would not have the same story to tell that morning.
Later on the people of Gleann Locha got up and some of them went outside… were their eyes deceiving them? And if not what curse had fallen on the place?… It was not long before they were all out in the open. Men and women were walking around their fields like little birds whose nests had been destroyed. They were like people who had been struck dumb. No one spoke to anyone else. They were just there, looking utterly stricken. What dreadful curse had fallen on Gleann Locha. What calamity was it that had fallen on them treacherous0ly and suddenly? The previous evening, as the sun went down, the people had been out admiring their potatoes. Looking at them had been a delight. The best potato crop ever seen. Luxuriant tops and well–nourished leaves. Someone with a sense of history might well have recalled life in the days of Cormac Mac Art* — twenty twigs on every branch and twenty nuts on every twig! That was what Gleann Locha had been like as the sun was setting. The following morning everything had been wiped out. There was nothing in store for the people but the hunger. The hunger and even death itself, perhaps.
*King of Ireland a generation or two before the arrival of St. Patrick in 432 A.D.
Available on loan from the books in Irish in stock at Cardiff Central Library.
Set in Irish–speaking Donegal in the 1840s, it was published in 1961 and is one of the books in Irish in stock at the Cardiff Central Library.
We are grateful to the publishers, ‘An Gúm’, Department of Education, Dublin, for permission to reproduce it in this form. Translation: © The Wales Famine Forum.
Note that as a mark of respect the names of the characters and the names of those local places that would have been familiar to them have not been anglicised.
Published in The Green Dragon No 4, Autumn 1997.
John Breese Collection Part 2
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