Commencing in the early 1830’s in Ireland, Exodus from Hell traces the life of Liam, one of the countless victims of the English invasion and the Great Famine (1845-1847). The devastating effects of the period were marked by extreme poverty, starvation, death, and mass emigration. Let us never forget the cruelty, inhumane conditions and untold sufferings wrought at the hands of the invader.
Living out there in the wild countryside of Connemara had never been easy. The damp and cold coursed through one’s body and the weak sunshine mocked the people from above. Liam was moving stones from the field as far back as he could remember. They seemed to grow there. It was pure torture for the lad. His skinny, little legs could hardly carry himself not to mind the heavy stones that lodged deep in the ground. His father, Ronan wanted him to learn from the beginning that being Irish and being on the land was a curse. The landed gentry from across the water had taken care of that.
“Don’t be thinking that life is going to get any easier as you get older. You might as well learn straight away, there’s no joy in this world. We’re suffering at the hands of the English and nothing is going to change that.” Ronan’s bitterness was evident as he recalled scenes of eviction and deprivation from his own childhood.
“Yes, Da” was all the child could respond. His father scared the life out of him.
Ronan was not a cruel man. He loved his family dearly they were everything to him. However, he saw no sense in giving the boy a false sense of security and hope.
“Liam, lad, you’ve got to understand, there are no handouts in this world. You’re going to have to work every day of your life to put food on the table and clothes on your body.”
Ronan’s dark eyes looked directly into his son’s face and although he was only six years of age, Liam understood. He could count the wrinkles on his father’s weathered face and see the grey hairs starting to grow in his thick eyebrows. Ronan couldn’t have been more than thirty at the time, but working the land for the foreigners had sapped the strength out of the man. He had a thick head of dark hair but when the sun shone down on it, red and saffron glistened through. He was still a handsome man, skin darkened by exposure to the harsh, cold winds, and he stood about six feet tall. His fingers were gnarled and soil was embedded in his hands and fingernails. Try as he might, he could never clean it all off. His face was rarely smooth shaven; theirs was a rough way of life. He wore a collarless, worn-out shirt and shapeless, nondescript trousers held up with some cord.
Liam and his parents lived in a stone, thatched cottage with a solitary window, a wooden rotting half-door and a single cot in the far corner. The window was mean and the aspect was dark and miserable. The stonewalls were icy in winter, draughts coming in through the gaps and holes, filled only with bits of earth and straw, often blown away by the fierce winds coming in off the Atlantic. The cottage was near the edge of a narrow dirt lane. The landscape was devoid of trees. Comfort was the warmth of the fire whenever there was enough turf to feed it. It was smoky, dank and depressing.
Liam used to sit on a three-legged stool and watch his mother as she spun wool on the old pine spindle.
“Is that hard to do, Ma? I mean spinning. It’s mysterious to see sheep’s wool turning into something you can knit with. It’s kind of magic, isn’t it? Can you teach me?”
“My mother taught me and her mother taught her. It’s women’s work, Liam. I could show you how it works but your father wouldn’t let you spin. He’d be really angry. He wants you to learn men’s work: like digging, plowing, sowing seed, caring for the animals. And he’s right. You’ll need to know those things for when you grow up and have your own family.”
“Ma, I want to stay with you always. Can’t things stay the way they are now?”
“Away with you now and milk the goat. Your father will be in soon for his dinner and he’ll need a cup of milk after his hard day working on the landlord’s estate.”
“But why does Da have to work for someone else? Why don’t we have our own land, Ma?”
“Liam, you’re too young to understand. The English came and took everything we had. We couldn’t stop them. Now if we want to eat, and have a roof over our heads we have to work for them. If we’re not very careful we’ll be on the side of the road. Now come here and give me a kiss and go and do as I asked you.”
In spite of the heaps of questions that were building up in his little mind, Liam did as he was told. But before he went he put his arms around his mother’s neck and kissed her on the lips and then pulling himself away from her embrace, he walked slowly towards the cottage door, reaching for the latch that was barely within his grasp.
“Make sure you close the door, will you? she said. “There’s a howling gale coming in from the sea today.”
Liam picked up the tin milk bucket and pulled the door until he heard the click in the latch that meant it was properly fastened then he walked the short distance on the icy dirt path to where the goat was tethered by the shed. She could be really nasty and kick out at Ronan, but was always docile with him. Putting down the bucket, he went inside the shed and found the stool that they used for milking. Seating himself down beside the nanny goat, using her body as shelter he started milking her, humming away to himself. Soon he had her milked and brought the quarter-pail carefully back to the house, standing on his tippy toes to open the latch. Gusts of wind threw the door back on its hinges and he wasn’t strong enough to push it closed. He placed the pail near the table as he usually did and then looked at Brigid.
“I’m sorry, Ma, I can’t do it. Will you help me? The wind is too strong for me.”
He put his back to the door, trying to reverse his steps but he couldn’t close it. His mother smiled at his efforts and got up from the spindle, which she placed against the stonewall.
“Of course, I’ll help you. The wind is very strong today. I’d say rain is coming. Next time you’ll do it yourself. I know you will. You’re getting bigger every day. Now, put some water in the pot for the potatoes, there’s a good lad,” swooping down to place a kiss on his cheek and hug him to her.
“Ma, why don’t I have any brothers and sisters? Micheal has three sisters and Mrs. O’Connell has four children in the house down the lane. I’d love to have someone to play with sometimes. Couldn’t you find another baby, Ma?”
“Tisn’t as easy as all that, Liam. Now, run to the well and get some more water and stop with your questions before your Da comes in.”
Brigid did the best she could: refashioning secondhand clothes from the church to fit them all. When Ronan’s only white shirt became scuffed and worn, she turned the collar and cuffs. She also washed and stitched old used corn sacks then filled them with straw to provide them with bedding. Liam’s bed was a stuffed sack in the corner away from the cot where his parents slept. He had a couple of clean rough sacks to cover him but they gave little or no warmth in the chill of winter.
Sometimes in the middle of the night Liam would creep over to Brigid, asleep in the cot that she shared with Ronan and tug at her hair. Then he’d whisper in her ear, cupping his hands, “Ma, can I get in beside you? I’m fierce cold.”
“Sure you can, but be very quiet and don’t wake your father,” she’d respond softly.
Then he’d scramble over her tummy and snuggle between his parents where the warmth of their bodies would have him asleep in no time. Liam was sure his father never knew he was there, but Ronan used to wake up and cherish the moments of peace quietly in his heart.
Despite their poverty, Liam was a good-humored boy with an appealing face, with freckles that danced all over his nose and cheeks in summertime. His foxy red hair stood out in clumps on his head, refusing to sit down. He had a skinny body but it was well proportioned even if his knobby knees did stick out from below his short pants. His curiosity for everything around him was astounding – he constantly tired Brigid out with his never-ending list of questions, many of which she had no idea how to answer.
“Ma, why do you think so many people go away across the sea on those boats?” he asked. “I can’t see any land out there except for the Aran Islands and nobody goes there except for the Islanders.”
His mother knew Liam was fascinated by the ocean, its high seas, the currents, the waves and the tales that were woven by the locals. She often tried to quell his desire to know more about the emigrants. Perhaps secretly she was afraid that her only son would take off across the sea to some unknown land. She had heard that some communities over there were a different color, that they didn’t wear any clothes nor did they believe in Our Saviour. There was no way she wanted Liam being affected or influenced by those strange ideas.
“Shush, Child, don’t be filling your mind with such nonsense. Some of the homeless take off to places I know nothing about and more of them drown trying,” she added.
“But Ma, I want to see what’s on the other side of the ocean.”
“And what would we do without you here? This is your home. We are your family. Our faith is built on the family: your Da, you and me. I don’t want you thinking like this anymore, do you understand me?” she said.
Yes, Ma,” he answered obediently, but the truth was that every time he looked out on the sea, he longed to know what was out there. He felt a tug calling him over the horizon although he was too young to articulate his ideas.
Hunger was a common visitor to their home. Liam could remember crying with the pain in his belly and his mother holding him to her, rocking him; the warmth of her body and her comforting motherly scent sometimes lulling him off to sleep. His dreams were random and wild. He dreamt of huge waves carrying the fishermen out to sea, of happier times with his Da and Ma laughing, of berry picking in the autumn and of food on the table.
Patricia Hegarty was born and brought up in Ireland. She has travelled extensively and is very interested in foreign languages, peoples and cultures. After a four-year stint in South Korea, she has finally decided to return home to Burlington to be with her family and friends. It is her ambition to be a successful published author. She would like to thank me Brian and her fellow writers for their continued advice and support, without which she doesn’t feel she could progress. Paddie gave a reading of this excerpt from her novel in progress at CJ’s Café on June 20.
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