Johannah traced a path, into the dark of the cottage and back to the road, sometimes pickin’ Bridget up and buryin’ her own face in the wee one’s neck and prayin’ to the Virgin to bring her boys back alive. Other times, she set the child back down again as if freein’ Bridget from her own neck would free the prayer.
Johannah squinted her eyes. Could that be the bairns acomin’ toward her, runnin’ fer sure and right fer her? Before she knew it, the three of them, her boys and their cousin, fled behind her and clingin’ to her skirts, they cried some and laughed some and cried some more. Finally Johannah stopped her own tears of relief and turned about flingin’ the boys, now scared again, away from her body. “Get out in the tatie field and make yoursels useful now, before your da gets home. I need a couple of handfuls of the new ones.” And that’s what Timothy and Patrick and Philip did, run up the hill behind the cottage to the lazy beds where the potatoes grew.
Grabbin’ up Bridget, weepin’ her own tears now at the loudness and fierceness of her mother’s words, Johannah fled into the house. Tonight the seanchai is comin’, she thought. That was what Mary had whispered the very morning. Of all the days for him to appear out of nowhere, as he always did, today he must come. She busied herself sweepin’ the clay floor with the twig broom, knowin’ the people would gather in the dark of that night to hear their stories told, listenin’ always to remember, knowin’ as well the storyteller was just ahead of the soldiers seeking to take away their stories, wantin’ to destroy their history, their stories and the storytellers. And now that there had been some kind of fightin’ with shootin’ and all, the soldiers would be wantin’ more Irish blood, she thought.
She heard John behind her. More she felt John behind her. “The bairns,” he asked searchin’ her eyes, and he didn’t have to ask more.
“I sent them to try the tatie field again. The seanchai is comin’ tonight and we ought to at least feed him. I could make some oat cakes and a pot of tea.Mary is bringing over some cabbage to go with the taties.”
Somehow the afternoon passed. The Boyos made it home with no dead and only two wounded, and the bairns stayed out of sight after handing their ma a dozen or so new potatoes, wantin’ to be struttin’ at their find, all the while knowin’ this was not the time for puttin’ on enna kind of show. Then when the late summer sun had set, the first of the neighbors arrived. Ryan brought his fiddle as did Daniel. The O’ Daughertys brought a bottle of whisky and the Flahertys a jug of ale. Some more oatcakes appeared on the table after Andrew and Mary arrived, but no one asked where they came from. They all knew someone’s children had slipped under the cover of darkness to fill their bags with someone else’s grain to make those cakes.
They had heard the priest talking about stealin’ after mass when they gathered at the church door to hello the neighbor. That’s when Father Peter said, “Sure as stealin’ is a sin, so is lettin’ yer children starve. So if ye must steal to feed the wee ones, steal food.” So with scarcely a twinge of guilt, they all sang and laughed and listened the night away, enjoyin’ the bit of stolen sweets and the time of fergettin’ what was outside the door. Quiet reigned only when the seanchai talked or sang the stories, their stories from back to the days before the English had tried to steal them all, the children watchin’ from the stairs until the late hour closed their heavy eyelids.
Johannah whispered to her sister-in-law Mary’s younger sister Rose, there for the first time as a young bride, “The English may have thought they could keep us down by destroyin’ our spirit after the Rebellion of 1798, back when my John was born,” doin’ her part to make sure their story was carried on. “Then when he was a lad and working at the gardens there in front of the big house, John heard them talkin’ right through the open windows sayin’, ‘Crush their stories and get rid of anyone seen as a threat. Send them away to work the English plantations far away and keep just enough of the hardest workers, those grateful to have a job, to run the plantations, the farms here. That’ll settle them down.’ My John niver forgot those words, he didn’t.”
“But the English did not know us, did they?” Johannah continued. “John told me how he could still hear his father’s words, ‘Instead of giving up our faith and forgetting our stories, instead of kneeling to the English, we’ll kneel only to God. They think to fill us with fear but instead they fill us with courage and determination to stay in our homeland and to remember our family history.’ John tells our boys that story over and over, as ye must tell your babes. So tonight, ye must listen closely and hear our stories so ye can tell your own bairns, if,” and she made the sign of the cross, “God wills to give ye a great family like mine and if the English keep after chasin’ the seanchai away. We still have to guard our stories.”
An Irish storyteller and writer Carol Brennan King, her husband Jim and granddaughter Connor. This blog is chapter 3 of my greatgreatgrandparents’ story of coming to America.
garden photo from http://www.betterhensandgardens.com/planting-potatoes-lazy-bed-method/
seachai photo from http://www.clandonnell.net/pages.php?tabid=459&pageid=2608&title=The+Seancha%ED