Thinking Back

by Thomas John Mulvey, PhD

shamrock Childhood reflections of rural, 1870s Ireland and Celtic history. shamrock
Edited by Eric C. Biemiller and William L. Mulvey
Grandsons of Thomas John Mulvey, PhD

Copyrightę William L. Mulvey, all rights reserved

Old Stories


My Father Leaves For America

One morning in the late spring of 1879 while we were all having our breakfast of hot stirabout and milk, with bread and tea in addition for my mother, grandfather and grandmother, a great and sorrowful silence on the part of our elders seemed to grip everyone around the table. My mother's eyes were red as from weeping and our grandparents didn't have a word to say as we dug into our bowls of stirabout.

My sister Ellie and I were to be made ready for school, so we hurried up with our eating. Soon the meal was finished and we got our slates and pencils and were about to start out across the meadow for Master Murray's school. Then my mother told us.

She beckoned to Ellie and me to follow her into her bedroom. She put her arms around both of us and said, "Your father is gone to America. He kissed you both goodbye before he left early this morning. Now, Thomas agrah, and Ellie asthore, you'll be good children while he's gone. The rest will hardly understand. Now, be off with you to Master Murray." And she hugged us tightly for a few minutes, not shedding a tear. The lines of her face were drawn and haggard.

We did not fully take in what it was all about or what it must have meant to her. We gathered our few school things and started out around the causeway and along the path that crossed the field to the roadway, where we went over the stile on the road and so into the schoolhouse.

Gradually my mother told me how it was on that last night before my father's departure. His leaving was, of course, contemplated for some time. Steps had to be taken to secure the money for his expenses and for his ticket on the ship from Liverpool to New York. To raise the money, he had to pledge our only cow to somebody in the neighboring town of Drumshanbo. Just then we had besides the cow, a growing young heifer, which the loan did not cover. She was the calf at whose birth I had attended.

I did not notice anything unusual on the days immediately preceding the night of his leaving, for they were rather busy days for my father, what with getting out and spreading the manure for the potato and vegetable patches. Everything went forward as was customary on our little farm. To be sure there weren't any celidhiers on an evening: my father was too tired and spent with the work of the day. Besides, Mother, grandfather, and grandmother were very quiet just then, and that atmosphere communicated itself to all of us children. Any way, the weather was increasingly mellow so that we played, or were sent to play out of doors, with an occasional word from grandmother, "Go 'long width yees! Clear out now and blow the stink off yees!" referring to the smoke of the turf fire, as well as to the need for fresh air.

It was a long wait for that first letter from my father, easily six weeks or more. Meanwhile, my mother and all of us went about the business of living. The supply of turf was dwindling. To supplement it, my mother gathered all the dry twigs, branches, and brambles, she could; "bresnach" she called them. During the middle of the day they served to keep the fire going and thus spared the turf. I well remember her gathering this "bresnach" and my helping her in the gathering. At times she had to climb the trees around and near the house, break off dead and withered branches and throw them to the ground where I picked them up and carried them to the house.

Nearly every day she took time out after a midday cup of tea to retire to her bedroom to read her prayer book, a rather big book printed in large type that could be easily read, for her eyesight was not of the best, though it did not in any way affect the appearance of her dark brown eyes which shone with animation when she talked. On Sunday morning she went to Mass in the church in Drumshanbo. She wore a black dress, a Paisley shawl over her shoulders, a bonnet tied under her chin, and a veil partially covering her face. She took me with her as the spring slipped into summer, partly to hear Mass and partly to let me become acquainted with the town. I was not morally obligated to trudge the distance, which was more than a mile, for I was very small for age, not being nine years old until the June after my father left for America.

After the late Mass, which was over about midday, we would take a walk about town so that I might become familiar with the location of the few shops that sold dry-goods and notions, as well as with the market place in which the cattle were offered for sale on fair or market days, for she foresaw that I should have need of the information some day soon.

On one such Sunday we stopped in front of a shop kept by a man named Cathcart, a Protestant, as were nearly all the shopkeepers in the town of Drumshanbo. My mother was well known to him, for she did nearly all her little buying in his place of business. He greeted her cordially and, after exchanging the time of day, said to her with a twinkle in his eyes, "Well, now, Mistress Mulvey, I suppose you'll be going home to Aughagrania to read your Bible this beautiful day after hearing Mass?"

"Arrah, go 'long width ye, Misther Cathcart! Glory be to God, now, an' what would the likes of me be afther reading the Holy Bible for? I'll have ye to know that I lave that to them as have the knowledge an' the learning to read an' interpret the Holy Book for the rest of us."

She said this good naturedly, as was the custom between Catholic and Protestant thereabouts.

After all, she was fundamentally right. For certain parts of the Scriptures are difficult of understanding without an interpreter, as witness the many meanings given to the same passage by many different individuals, interpretations resulting in sects of Protestantism too numerous to mention. My mother left the interpretation of the Scriptures to the duly constituted authority, in doing which she was right; for laymen have to leave the interpretation of the civil and criminal law to lawyers, who in turn have to refer the meaning of some passage in the law to the interpretation of the courts. If there is a question as to the correctness of such interpretation by a lower court, an appeal can be taken to a higher court, and so on up to the Supreme Court of the United States, which in turn has been know to reverse itself at a later date when the personnel of the Court may have been changed or when some of the individual members may have changed their minds. The layman, left to his own untutored opinion, stands a poor chance of arriving at the true meaning of an obscure passage in the law and, a fortiori, at the true meaning of a difficult, and often, an esoteric passage in the Scriptures. It has been well said that "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose."

Our way of life between my father's going to America and his sending for us to follow him, went forward pretty much as usual. A neighbor or two helped my grandfather cut the turf, cure it, or "rear" it on the bog, bring it to the house and stack it neatly against its use until another cutting. Then the meadow had to be mown, the swaths turned to dry in the sun preparatory to being made into haycocks and ultimately into a hayrick up by the byre.

My mother had a small flock of geese and a gander, some half dozen ducks and a drake, and a dozen or so hens and a cock. We never called the cock a rooster; that was a name we learned on coming to America.

One time my mother put a setting of duck eggs under a brood hen to be hatch out. I remember well what fun my sister and I had seeing the hen's frantic actions when her brood of little ducklings first made for the river, waddled into the water, and began to swim around. She ran up and down the brink of the stream, her feathers all ruffled, and cackled wildly to her foster children to come away from what she thought was instant death. When they didn't seem to mind her, she gradually calmed down, but kept up her scolding, cackling and clucking until they had their swim. It was amusing to watch the antics of the ducklings diving under the water, especially as they grew older, and bringing up their little beaks with what plunder they could capture beneath the surface.

Shortly after I was nine years of age, my mother sent me to the Drumshanbo fair to sell our young heifer. She gave me explicit instructions as to what I should do when I reached the fair grounds. The place was crowded with people and with livestock of all kinds. The buyers went around inspecting the animals for sale. Finally one of them let his eyes rest on the heifer I had in charge and asked to whom she belonged. I spoke up and said, "To me, sir." He made an offer of a certain sum, and I said I wanted a better price. He looked at me and smiled, then said he would split the difference between his offer and my asking. "Done," said I, "I'll take it."

I took the money, put it in my jacket packet, and went to make a few purchases for my mother. One such purchase was a hairnet. While I was in the shop getting the net for her hair, I saw some sticks of peppermint candy and coveted one very much. I bought one for which I paid a hapenny. I saw some attractive loose sweets the like of which I had seldom seen before. The shopkeeper was very helpful with suggestions: I bought a penny's worth. Three hapence altogether!

I proudly took my way home to Aughagrania, a good Irish mile, getting more and more apprehensive as the distance to the house grew shorter of what my mother should say when I confessed my extravagance.

I told her how much I had received for the heifer, then what I paid for the hairnet, the spool of cotton, and the few other things I had bought for her. I counted the money out to her and then I told her of the tree hapence I had spent for the candy.

At first she was taken aback, then slightly displeased, but finally sorrowful. She had never punished me with a beating, neither then, nor later. Nor did she scold me for spending the three hapence. She just said, "Thomas ahasky, you know I need every hapenny I can get my hands on, what with paying the rent and saving enough for clothes for you children against the time your father sends for us all. But there, now, give your sister Ellie some of the sweets you have left and be a good boy for your mother."

From time to time my father sent my mother some money consisting of drafts on the Irish Immigrants Savings Bank of New York. Almost immediately I became my mother's confidant. She showed me and let me read all my father's letters. I became expert in calculating in Pounds, Shillings, and Pence. She treated me as an adult, though I did not turn my ninth birthday until the ninth of June in 1879. The consequence was that the other children began to look up to me as more than their eldest brother; or, rather, as the eldest of the family who was taking our father's place. I slipped into the role unconsciously, naturally, and somehow, it stuck to me all my life.

During that summer of 1879 I heard my mother and grandmother talking of some acquaintances of theirs in Drumshanbo who had gone down to the West Coast of Ireland "to take the salt water," meaning to go bathing for their health and, perhaps, to drink some of the seawater. What interested me most was the dilsk, or dulse, they brought back with them and gave to my mother for us children as a treat to eat. It tasted delicious.

The dilisk, as I remember the name, or dulse of the dictionary, is a dark red seaweed. It came to us in narrow ribbons all tangled together. It had a sharp, sweet, saline taste that we liked immensely. We were told that both the people along the West Coast and the visitors going down "to take the water," eat it as food and sometimes with gusto. We could well imagine that. I believe the dilisk, or dulse, is akin to what is know as kelp, a source of iodine.

Grandmother Mulvey was, of course, too old to be of much assistance to my mother in attending to the chores of our little farm. She did help with the younger children, helping them with their simple clothes and tidying up around the house. She wielded the besom, or broom of heather, to sweep around the hearth and the hard clay floor of the big room. Once in a while in her sweeping, she killed a dthorodeel, our name for a speedy thousand-legger which the warming days brought out of hiding, and of which we children were mortally afraid.

As twilight came on in those early summer evenings and the chores were done, she would entertain my sister Ellie and me with stories of the olden time. She wasn't much of a singer, but she could lilt the words of a song very well. A favorite of hers was "The Shan Van Vocht," which is a corruption of the Irish title meaning "The Poor Old Woman," that is, Ireland. It took the place of, or rather, became the Irish Marseillaise for the revolutionists of 1798, and in her young days had a great vogue among the people of Ireland; and no wonder, for the last stanza of it goes like this:
    "Will Ireland then be free?"
    Said the Shan Van Vocht;
    "Will Ireland then be free?"
    Said the Shan Van Vocht.
    "Yes, Ireland shall be free
    From the center to the sea,
    Hurrah for liberty!"
    Said the Shan Van Vocht.

Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five
Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
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