“O God,” she said hoarsely, “weren’t things hard enough for me without this snow!”
Her fingers were so frozen that it was only with a great effort that she succeeded in tying the laces of her worn boots. She headed east over the ridge towards the sheltered clearing where the rest of the tinkers were camped together. She tightened her little shawl around her bare shoulders against the bitter wind.
“Ah!” she said through clenched teeth, “this cold will quench any spark of life left in me.”
She moved awkwardly with a kind of trotting gait as she sank to her bare ankles in the soft snow. Her painful exertions caused her to pant and to become very short of breath. She stopped, trembling with cold, until the fit of weakness passed. She hurried on more quickly then and tears streamed from her eyes, cut by the wind. She wiped her running nose with the top of her shawl and began to climb over the slippery granite crags. Her foot slipped and she fell on her face.
She screamed with pain as the weight of her body came down on the wrist of her left hand. When she had got her breath back she rose weakly to her feet and pulled up her apron to look at her shrivelled knees. With the sleeve of her coat she wiped the thick streak of blood from her left knee and shook the wet snow from her hair and face.
“O Blessed Virgin Mary, what misfortune has come upon me?” she said. She hurried down the slope, whispering mournfully to herself.
She had a bigger shock when she found the clearing empty. She stood and looked around her fearfully. There wasn’t a trace of horse or cart. They had gone during the night as if the ground had swallowed them. It looked as if they had slipped away early because not even the mark of a wheel could be seen in the fresh, powdery snow.
She stood for a few moments, as motionless as a stone statue. It was a shattering blow to be abandoned there with no living soul for company. Her wretched plight became ever clearer as she reflected that she was all alone with the bitter winter threatening her on all sides. Across the valley and as far as the shore of the lake she could see nothing but snow and want. She choked back the instinct that gripped her - she wanted to cry. Certainly, as she had learned in more than sixty years of struggling with hardship, it was no time for self-pity .
Crouched low against the wind she walked back to her bleak shelter. “Ah, it was well I knew that no good would come of it when the two gardaí came into the camp yesterday morning,” she said to herself. It wasn’t for a stroll they had come out that way anyway. They had good reason to come in uniform along such a lonely out-of-the-way road. There must surely have been a complaint by the local people about the damage done to farmers’ property by some ruffian among them since their arrival. She had no idea what their business was because she had been drinking a mug of soup away from the others in her own shelter. It was obvious, however, that they had been asking about some crime for no sooner had they left than there was a fearful row in the camp. The fear caused by the ferocious quarrel soon killed her appetite for soup. The stone throwing that took place would have resulted in heads being broken if the gardaí had not come rushing back to the camp on hearing the shouting and the mayhem.
It had surprised her at first that the local farmers had sent the gardaí after them at all. For fifty years she had camped from time to time in that wooded spot and the locals had never objected to them even though they rarely stayed there without someone in the neighbourhood having cause for complaint. For all that it never got beyond a complaint and very little was done out of the way that a new bucket or two could not make up for.
She found it difficult to understand what had possessed them to do so much harm that the law should be making enquiries. They all knew very well that this clearing on the edge of the bog was the only shelter left for them as the winter closed in. There wasn’t a town or townland from Kerry to Mayo from which they had not been driven out during the past two months. As they had reached the clearing the other evening she had heard the elders threatening rough treatment to the youngsters if they so much as laid a finger on the neighbours’ property for fear they would be driven off again.
They had been given a warning and more than likely not even the wildest in the camp would have ignored it but for the bad influence of Mickileen the Bags. They had not received much of a welcome when he and his followers made a bustling arrival at nightfall two evenings earlier. Everyone had been happy and contented until that gang had joined the group.
“Mickileen was stealing potatoes as sure as a cat has a tail,” was her first thought when the gardaí came yesterday. “Wisha, may you have no luck, Mickileen. You never did give up the potato stealing,” she said bitterly as she struggled through the snow. “Ah, Mickileen, you scoundrel, may you never have a day’s peace. I suppose you persuaded the rest to go with you last night to give the farmers good cause for complaint and revenge,” she added in a thin hoarse voice.
She understood quite well that they had been planning something illegal as they whispered around the fire last night. Whatever had happened afterwards while she tried to get some sleep in her shelter they must have had good reason to dash off quietly in the dark of night. They had left her completely alone as they went, leaving her to fend for herself or die of hunger.
She sighed. “Wisha, why wouldn’t they go off unknownst to me?” she said aloud. “Wouldn’t I only delay them as they were running away from the law? Who could blame them for not caring a fig about a worn out old woman who was not related to any one of them?”
One of her laces broke, but her fingers were so frozen that she did not even try to tie it. She carried on, plodding awkwardly and wearily through the snow. “Ah, Mickileen, you wretch, you were the cause of the trouble. There was no bad blood in the others. No, indeed. They were so scared after their night of crime that they thought only of their own skins and the heavy hand of the law,” she said bitterly.
She dragged herself into the shelter of her canvas tent. She drew up her knees and considered her plight. It was a poor lookout. She was without friend or companionship, without cart or fire. She had nothing to eat. In front of her shelter was a yellow patch of melted snow where a fire had burned cheerfully last night. She rummaged in her basket looking for a scrap of food to ease the pangs of hunger. All that she found in all the rubbish was a boiled potato as cold and as hard as a stone. She took a voracious bite of it and spat it out at once. It would kill her immediately if she swallowed it. She flung it out into the snow and rubbed the back of her hand against her mouth.
She spent a long, miserable time wandering about in circles in the clearing where the group who had abandoned her during the night had kept their tents and carts. She made a careful search for any leftovers of food that she might find. She did not care as long as she could find some edible scrap that would lessen her gnawing hunger. She would have welcomed any piece of bread, however repulsive, if she had come across it. She groped in the snow with her hands until her fingers lost all feeling. If she could even find a match she would have a chance to kindle a fire to restore the heat to her frozen body, but in spite of her best endeavours she found neither. She examined every nook and every cranny so carefully that she half perished from the cold as she starved on an empty stomach. She was hesitating as to which would be the best direction to go begging when she saw a uniformed garda approaching. She huddled behind a furze bush and watched him closely. He came on in, raising his feet high with every step, because of the effort required to walk through the snow. When he saw that the clearing was empty, he stopped suddenly and began to scratch his head. He looked around suspiciously and then left again.
She remained in hiding until he had gone completely out of sight. She then emerged cautiously and made off across the bog in the direction of the lake. She walked slowly and unsteadily with great effort. She had to stop every few yards to recover from weakness. The cold, frozen snow stuck to her thin, bare ankles until they were the colour of cooked lobsters. More of the snow seeped into her boots until there was no more feeling in her feet than if they had been blocks of iron. She drew her thin shawl more tightly around her and moved on, hungry and out of breath.
“It wasn’t for the good of his health that that clumsy garda came to the clearing on such a cold day as this,” she said. “He had good reasons for his visit.” She stopped on top of a rise and looked intently around her. As far as the horizon there was not a living thing to be seen. God alone knew what damage the group had done last night when Mickileen had set them on the road to misfortune. Whatever harm they had done in the dark they were now well away over the hills leaving her like a hostage on the field of slaughter. She would prefer not to meet any of the local people – just in case.
She was heading for Big Burke’s farmhouse. Fifty years earlier her own mother had brought her there for the first time. She had always been welcome there and no matter how often she came was never sent away empty-handed. Burke had a big heart and so had his mother, God bless them both. He had been about to marry the last time she had seen them and she had no doubt but that the young woman would have a big heart too. They were people who had always been kind and generous in giving to the poor and now they wouldn’t see her short of a bite to eat in her hour of greatest need.
She was soon completely worn out from walking. She sat on a rock on the sheltered side of a large boulder to get her breath back. She was hungry and cold. She lay her head back against the boulder. Before long she was fast asleep and all the hardships and miseries of life were forgotten. And that’s where she would have remained, a dead and frozen heap, if the dog had not woken her abruptly with his barking. There was a big, well-built man standing beside her, his face dark with anger. “Good day to you, sir. May you never see....”
“Ah, to the devil with you, you cursed shrunken crone,” he said in reply to her greeting. “ You said few prayers yesterday when you were stealing my potatoes. Yerra, I ought to split your old grey head open,” he said at the top of his voice as he raised his stick threateningly over her.
Before Biddy could say a word for herself he raged on again: “Get away out of that place over there before dinner time and take your filthy robbers with you. Do you understand me? Do you understand me?” he said, hoarse with rage.
Biddy took a roundabout route in an effort to get away from him. He had filled her with fear and all she wanted now was to keep as far away from him as she could.. Such a fit of anger she had never before seen in any man. He followed her for some distance, hurling abuse at her hoarsely. She hurried away from him panting, too afraid to utter a word. The brutish dog stayed at her heels for quite a long while, barking until it, too, became hoarse.
By the time she reached Big Burke’s farmhouse her knees were so weak she could hardly stand. She propped herself against the gatepost till her strength returned. She couldn’t remember ever being so faint and so weak as she was now after the trek through the snow. She felt the pangs of her long fast even more. She pressed a small amount of the snow, that lay in a smooth powder on top of the gatepost, into her mouth in the hope that it might take away her fit of weakness. Her knock on the closed door was quiet and timid. After a while she knocked again, this time with more force.
She listened intently. She heard the footsteps, quick and light, as they approached. The door was swept open. A smile, gentle and appealing, appeared on Biddy’s worn face. The pretty young woman looked down at her, her eyes flashing. Without a word she slammed the door in her face. The shock of the slammed door made Biddy leap into the air. She backed away, her two eyes riveted on it. Greater even than the slam of the door was the shock of the contemptuous act. By the time she had regained control of her scattered thoughts it was all too obvious to her what was the reason for it.
She went into the yard where she had spent many a session discussing the ways of the world with Burke’s mother before that ferocious slip of a girl had come along. She found a piece of raw potato - half eaten - in the hens’ trough. She wiped it with her apron and soon swallowed it. It was as cold as ice but in her famished state no food ever tasted finer. By searching in the ducks’ food she found a few more scraps. Even though it disgusted her to be eating such unsavoury rubbish the intense hunger pangs permitted no delicacy.
After a time she knocked on the door again. “I’d like to see himself. I know him well,” she said as soon as it was opened.
“Get away out of here as fast as your legs can carry you! He has enough on his mind now because of you,” the young woman replied fiercely.
“But I’m sure he’d listen to me. I was great friends with his mother,” said Biddy pleadingly.
“Be off with you while you’ve got the chance! He’ll break every bone in your body if he sees you here,” said the young woman in the door. Biddy looked at her imploringly.
“You are a fine and lovely young woman and may you have a long and happy life. You have found a good husband and I’m sure he would listen to me if you would let me in till he comes,” she said.
“Now look,” said the young woman caustically, “that kind of flattery will get you nowhere. Be off with you while you have the chance.”
“But he knows me well,” cried Biddy.
“He’ll know many of your kind very well indeed after last night’s carry on,” said the young woman sharply.
She was on the point of shutting the door again when her desperate plight spurred Biddy to boldness. She put her foot in between the door and the frame. “Give me a bit of bread in the name of God. I’m starving with hunger,” she said, her voice shaking with fear.
The impudent behaviour of the old woman brought a blaze of anger to the young woman’s face. “I won’t give you anything at all now, no matter how small,” she said. “Get away! Get away!” she said and pushed the door out as hard as she could Biddy’s ankle was squeezed so tightly that the pain took the sight from her eyes. She pulled fiercely trying to free it. The young woman inside pushed even harder. Biddy put her shoulder to the door and heaved till her foot broke free. The door slammed shut. Biddy dragged herself to the gate, hobbling in pain from the injury to her ankle.
The flood of hope in her heart as she arrived had now ebbed completely away. She started to cry, a weak half choked crying that came in heavy sobs. Once more she turned her face towards the bleak clearing where her poor small shelter lay. She headed slowly towards it, moving with no more feeling than if she had surrendered all her being to some evil spirit. No grain of hope remained to her now that her last remaining source of assistance had failed her.
Burke had been on the road quite early to lodge his complaint with the gardaí about the damage done to his property during the night. He had got a nasty shock when he discovered that almost half of his pit of potatoes had been taken. There and then he blamed the tinkers in the clearing, though he was not quite certain that his suspicions were correct when he thought about the matter on his way back from the field. The group who had stayed in the clearing from time to time ever since he had been in the cradle had never given his family any cause for complaint. “I don’t suppose they did this either,” he said to himself. “Some night prowler with a cart? Perhaps. But the tinkers?” He shook his head.
There was uproar at the Garda Station. Seven of his neighbours had already turned up and had the Sergeant at bay. They were all complaining angrily at the same time while he, in desperation, tried to silence them.
“Be quiet! Be quiet!” he shouted at the top of his voice. Suddenly there was a pause in the clamour.
“Now,” he said, when he was seated comfortably in his chair, “ I’ll deal with all your complaints in turn, if only you’ll be patient.”
They all began to complain noisily together.
“Be quiet for God’s sake!” roared the Sergeant and jabbed his notebook angrily with his pencil.
By the time Burke began to make his complaint the Sergeant was tired and ill-humoured. He had sent the four gardaí in his charge out along the roads in search of the information that would substantiate the farmers’ complaints. He had already heard so much that he didn’t keep him long. This pleased Burke because he had already wasted quite a lot of the day.
“Phew,” said the Sergeant with a sigh. “Did you see the tinkers as you came in along the road?”
“I didn’t set eyes on a living soul. I came by the back road,” said Burke, anxious to be on his way.
Late though he was, he made a long detour on his way home in order to go past the clearing. He saw neither horse nor tinker in or near the place. “I suppose they skipped off after the damage they did all over the locality last night. Well, what else would anyone expect with the law hot on their heels?” he said to himself.
At the same time he found it hard to believe that a group who had always been honest could have done so much mischief in a single night’s rampage. Far away from him on the edge of the bog he noticed a black shape. “Someone looking for a sheep, I suppose,” he said, and paid no further attention to the matter.
It was sometime after dinnertime when he reached his own house. His wife still looked angry.
“What did the Sergeant say?” she said.
“Not a lot. All the gardaí are out looking for the criminals,” said Burke.
“Looking!” she said with contempt. “I don’t believe it will get any further than looking either. They are the great detectives.”
“They can only do their best,” Burke replied impatiently.
“Their best! That’s little enough if they don’t display more energy than they usually do.. Did you tell them that almost half our potatoes have gone?” she asked angrily.
“I’ve spent enough time with them. I have no intention of spending more time teaching the gardaí their business,” he said curtly.
“A fine farmer you are! Tinkers take half your potatoes and you do nothing about it,” she said and in a fit of anger brought the jug she had in her hand down on the table.
Burke jumped up from his chair. “Well, what would you like me to do? I told the story to the gardaí. What else can I do and to the devil with them! What would you have done that I haven’t done already?” he demanded at the top of his voice, shaking with emotion.
“That filthy lot are let get away with too much. One of their old crones came here a couple of hours ago looking for charity. Well, I slammed the door in her face. And would you believe it! She came back and put her foot in the door on me. She put her foot in the door! I pushed it on her ankle until she screamed with pain. I couldn’t have cared less if I had broken every little bone in it. That sent her on her way and not an iota did I give her. Nothing should be given to that filthy crowd,” she said, perspiring with anger.
“Treating old women harshly won’t get you very far in life,” Burke retorted angrily and hurried out.
The power of her limbs failed Biddy long before she reached her destination. On her hands and knees she dragged herself through the wet snow on the last stage of her journey. She was wet through and longed to reach the protection of the shelter. It took an enormous effort on her part to drag herself over the rocks – she was like a wounded animal trying to gain the shelter of its den. She lifted up her old grey head and then she let out a cry of despair. The little shelter had been torn to pieces. Its thin covering of canvas had been cut into thin strips and scattered all over the snow. She let out a tormented wail and beat her withered fist on the cold ground. Oh, and why were they so pitiless as to take their revenge on her, on her who had taken no part in the looting of their property. . .
The Sergeant himself joined in the hunt after dinner. From the reports of the other gardaí he was very much of the opinion that it would be a vain pursuit, but he had to satisfy the farmers. He turned his steps towards the tinkers’ clearing. One of the gardaí had already been there, but he wanted to see with his own eyes that they had cleared off.
“Damn the lot of them, potatoes, farmers and tinkers,” he said as he sank to the uppers of his boots in the snow.
Night was drawing in again and the dark clouds portended more snow before morning when the Sergeant came into the Burkes’ farmhouse. He was clearly agitated. “My goodness, Sergeant, don’t those tinkers put you to a lot of bother. Have you got them locked up yet?” Burke’s wife asked him.
“There are two sides to every story,” he replied.
She exploded. “You’re not telling me that you’re on their side as well,” she said. “Oh, I’m nearly out of my mind from listening to complaints since morning,” said the Sergeant. “I was over in the clearing a short time ago. . . .”
“And what did you find?” she asked contemptuously.
“Well, it was the body I found there that brought me here to ask for your help, Mr. Burke. They left a poor old woman behind when they went away last night, or maybe she was dead before they left. You know her well, Mr. Burke. It’s old Biddy,” said the Sergeant.
“May God be merciful to her, the creature,” said Burke sadly. “I knew her well. Many’s the good day’s work she did here for my mother during that final bout of that sickness of hers. She used to come here long before I was born. She was a kindly creature. She had no part in last night’s stealing. Of that I am certain.
“Well, maybe you would give me a hand to bring her body down to the station,” said the Sergeant.
“To be sure,” said Burke. “The most lovable creature that I ever saw has been mercilessly wronged. I will be with you right away, Sergeant.”
He looked fiercely at his wife. She lowered her head and looked away from him.
Translation ©: Wales Famine Forum.
This story relates to imaginary events in Ireland in the 1940’s but may be read as a description of many similar lonely deaths from cold and hunger during the bleak and pitiless years of the Great Hunger as well as painting a horrifying picture of the destructive consequences of prejudice.
Published in The Green Dragon No 2, March 1997.
The John Breese Collection Part 2
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