- Published: 1 November 2022
- ISBN: 9780143777816
- Imprint: Vintage Australia
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 464
- RRP: $32.99
Famine Epiphany, Summer 1847
This was a hard summer but people were getting used to corpses by the road and along ditches and did their best not to step on them. John Mitchel was shocked himself, at how he could leave home in Ontario Terrace, having kissed his children’s heads and absorbed the smell of warm oats they exuded, and then stride down Mount Pleasant Street barely noticing the ragged old man on the corner who might both be younger than him and have typhus. Or the hollowed country girl with her face in a skeletal rictus of pleading, seemingly unable to ask anymore, for anything.
But there was one incident in that year that came to his mind whenever the word ‘Famine’ was used in later times. William Smith O’Brien, a member of the Irish Party in the House of Commons and the leader of their faction, Young Ireland, that Mitchel himself belonged to, had been in Limerick. There he wanted to give a speech for his re-election to the House of Commons, and he needed conservative votes to bolster his normally progressive ones. He had been embarrassed that John Mitchel, seen as a firebrand, had turned up in town to visit some fellow radicals to talk about necessary matters, like stopping the next harvest ever being shipped out of the country.
Tom Meagher, who accompanied Mitchel, did not necessarily like to stay around in Limerick while Smith O’Brien pretended to be a harmless and hopeful improver of things that Westminster had no intention to improve. Meagher was young and, even with a rough country walk in mind, appropriately dressed and shod and looked the very essence of the healthy and alluring orator unleashed on nature.
He and Mitchel both happened to like those Comeragh Mountains just south of Clonmel, and John said he knew the way to a clachan on the southern end, close to the sea and on the banks of a stream, that he had visited in years past. He had for some time wondered how they were faring down there, the people who had been so hospitable in his earlier visit.
When they departed the public house at Knocknacullen, where they had left their horses, John carried some bacon and bread and wine in his satchel, and the two set off over the slopes of Crohawn, from which, that clear day of late April, they hoped to see the coast. A lovely wild scene faced them at each step, a shaggy country of great boulders and scooped loughs under blue mountain bluffs. The white-mantled hawthorn bushes lent a brightness to the scene, though, and reminded John of paintings he had seen of the branching coral of the South Pacific.
After much tramping, they saw the clachan, the hamlet, below on the banks of its lough, under the scarps of red and black. Meagher frowned. His riding jacket shone in a brief, light-infused shower of rain. ‘Where’s the smoke?’ he asked. ‘Where’s the turf smell?’
In fact, there was not a twitch of life. They caught instead what Mitchel thought a particular hellish smell, a stink empty of hope and human expectation. He wondered had he been too optimistic that a village so remote would be exempt from the curse of the times? As if the lack of a post office meant the pestilence couldn’t reach them?
‘Oh, loving Christ!’ said Meagher as they stalked through the little gathering of houses. Meagher was like a young land agent expecting his tenants to emerge. Mitchel walked beside him, heartsick and with swimming eyes. Knowing they would need to examine the cabins, the laneways between each as cold as absence. Though most doors seemed open, or off the hinges, the friends delayed entering the first of them, exchanging wary glances with each other.
Despite their reluctance, the truth was, Mitchel knew, that they felt a powerful obligation to witness for themselves the fate of those whom they considered brethren.
It was as wretched a scene here as it was elsewhere. In one dwelling and then another, the stench they set themselves to endure was a variation on putrefaction. The yellow, dried-out, grinning corpses did not reek like the corpses of well-fed men. It was as if they had been mummified from within – those who’d starved so long that a fever devoured them in the end, leaving little enough for wasting away. The two friends were encountering that stench.
As they walked amidst the houses of the dead till they reached the end of the cluster, not one did they dare to enter. Turning around, they stopped now at what Mitchel recognised as the threshold of the house of his host two years before. He shut his eyes and put his head inside the door jamb and stupidly said, with shaking voice and eyes shut, ‘God save all here!’ As if he were dropping in for breakfast.
There was no answer. Ghastly silence and the subtle reek of starvation and fever dead. Mitchel opened his eyes to see the bodies dimly, spaced around the fire someone had managed to light in the past winter but dead now. They were all dead. The strong man and the dark-eyed woman and the little ones, with their liquid Gaelic of two years ago mute on their tongues. Mitchel met a skeletal child, a mummy, on the floor between the hearth and her parents’ bed. He smelt the blinding particular fetor until he turned, saw Meagher’s handsome shape in the door, and rushed past him. Out in the laneway, being well fed, he was violently sick and became aware of Meagher beside him, and of his hand on his left shoulder.
Mitchel said, ‘This is not human, Tom. Not human that we let it . . . I don’t know . . . take place.’
‘They can’t know it’s like this, Mitch,’ said Meagher. ‘They can’t imagine . . .’
Mitchel knew Meagher meant, ‘Over there. Downing Street.’ The British government’s imagination seemed able to cross oceans, penetrate Asia and even the Antipodes. But they couldn’t ever imagine Ireland.
‘They can’t imagine,’ John Mitchel agreed. He stood upright. The stink of that cabin was still stinging his eyes. ‘We can’t bury them,’ he mourned.
‘Oh, Jesus,’ said Meagher. ‘You know we’d be looking for trouble from fever, Mitch, even had we a shovel. But I’ll let my father know, and maybe something . . . pulling the ruins down over the bodies at least, with a priest to recite the rites.’
Meagher’s father was a powerful man in the county, and mayor of Waterford City. The first Catholic in the post, they said, since the Reformation.
Mitchel knew precisely what had befallen the people in that cabin. They’d shut their door so neighbours did not see the shame of their starving. The other families did the same. On their own hearth, they shrank and grew fevered together and raved with hunger and delirium until they hardly knew one another’s faces. Mitchel surmised that at some point, with eyes the fever had made mad, they scowled on each other with a cannibal glare.
The father had scrounged a few pennies on a ‘public work’, make-work sites for hungry labourers, men, women, children – heaving rocks and moving soil on some vacant place of torn-up soil and rock leading nowhere. There he earned perhaps the sixth part of what would have maintained his family. Not that it was always dispensed by those officials who set up their pay desks on a heap of stones. But when it was, it kept the family half-alive for three months, and so instead of dying in December, soon after the blight struck, they were dead in March. And the agonies of those three months? God would not want to recount them.
‘Fatal times!’ declared Mitchel.
‘It is getting late,’ Meagher said. His eyes shone, blue as a wraith’s, in the half-light. ‘You are hard hit, my good friend,’ he told Mitchel. ‘I’ve never seen you so distressed.
I fear you can never forget this.’
And that was right.
You don’t need me to tell you Keneally is a brilliant storyteller, but with Fanatic Heart he proves it once again.ARTS HUBThe novel’s resonance for our own times is deafening.SYDNEY MORNING HERALD A retelling of the life and exploits of Irish patriot John Mitchel, with a particular focus on his time in exile on Van Diemen’s Land.Buy now
Prologue Parramatta, November 1825 He really must do something about that door, he thought as he crossed the yard back to his quarters.
At the time of the discovery of the astonishingly ancient Learned Man, some decades back, my friend Peter Jorgensen, a scientist from Melbourne, was testing dried lake basins and their sediments for records of ancient rainfall oscillations.
On Friday afternoons Flo Honeywood, wife of the eminent master builder Burley Honeywood, was required to go forth
Grunting, sullen, in spumes of leaden smoke, the black Daimler with diplomatic number plate noses onto Via Diciannove, beads of sleet fizzling on its hood.
One violet twilight, I sat motionless on the grassy edge of a small neighboring meadow.
If every man is guilty of all the good he did not do, as Voltaire suggested, then I have spent a lifetime convincing myself that I am innocent of all the bad.