At this time the famine was beginning to be systematised. The sternest among landlords and masters were driven to acknowledge that the people had not got food, or the means of earning it. The people themselves were learning that a great national calamity had happened, and that the work was God’s work; and the Government had fully recognized the necessity of taking the whole matter into its own hands. They were responsible for the preservation of the people, and they acknowledged their responsibility.
And then two great rules seemed to get themselves laid down — not by general consent, for there were many who greatly contested their wisdom — but by some force strong enough to make itself dominant. The first was, that the food to be provided should be earned and not given away. And the second was, that the providing of that food should be left to private competition, and not in any way be undertaken by the Government. I make bold to say that both these rules were wise and good.
But how should the people work? That Government should supply the wages was of course an understood necessity; and it was also necessary that on all such work the amount of wages should be regulated by the price at which provisions might fix themselves. These points produced questions which were hotly debated by the Relief Committees of the different districts; but at last it got itself decided, again by the hands of Government, that all hills along the country roads should be cut away, and that the people should be employed on this work. They were so employed — very little to the advantage of the roads for that or some following years.
“So you have begun, my men,” said Herbert to a gang of labourers whom he found collected at a certain point on Ballydahan Hill, which lay on his road from Castle Richmond to Gortnaclough. In saying this he had certainly paid them an unmerited compliment, for they had hitherto begun nothing. Some thirty or forty wretched-looking men were clustered together in the dirt and slop and mud, on the brow of the hill, armed with such various tools as each was able to find — with tools, for the most part, which would go but a little way in making Ballydahan Hill level or accessible. This question of tools also came to a sort of understood settlement before long; and within three months of the time of which I am writing legions of wheelbarrows were to be seen lying near every hill; wheelbarrows in hundreds and thousands. The fate of those myriads of wheelbarrows has always been a mystery to me.
“So you have begun, my men,” said Herbert, addressing them in a kindly voice. There was a couple of gangsmen with them, men a little above the others in appearance, but apparently incapable of commencing the work in hand, for they also were standing idle, leaning against a bit of wooden paling. It had, however, been decided that the works at Ballydahan Hill should begin on this day, and there were the men assembled. One fact admitted of no doubt, namely, this, that the wages would begin from this day.
And then the men came and clustered round Herbert’s horse. They were wretched-looking creatures, half-clad, discontented, with hungry eyes, each having at his heart’s core a deep sense of injustice done personally upon him. They hated this work of cutting hills from the commencement to the end — hated it, though it was to bring them wages and save them and theirs from actual famine and death. They had not been accustomed to the discomfort of being taken far from their homes to their daily work. Very many of them had never worked regularly for wages, day after day, and week after week. Up to this time such was not the habit of Irish cottiers. They held their own land, and laboured there for a spell; and then they would work for a spell, as men do in England, taking wages; and then they would be idle for a spell. It was not exactly a profitable mode of life, but it had its comforts; and now these unfortunates who felt themselves to be driven forth like cattle in droves for the first time, suffered the full wretchedness of their position. They were not rough and unruly, or inclined to be troublesome and perhaps violent, as men similarly circumstanced so often are in England; — as Irishmen are when collected in gangs out of Ireland. They had no aptitudes for such roughness, and no spirits for such violence. But they were melancholy, given to complaint, apathetic, and utterly without interest in that they were doing.
“Yz, yer honer,” said one man who was standing, shaking himself, with his hands enveloped in the rags of his pockets. He had on no coat, and the keen north wind seemed to be blowing through his bones; cold, however, as he was, he would do nothing towards warming himself, unless that occasional shake can be considered as a doing of something. “Yz, yer honer; we’ve begun thin since before daylight this blessed morning.”
It was now eleven o’clock, and a pick-axe had not been put into the ground, nor the work marked.
“Been here before daylight!” said Herbert. “And has there been nobody to set you to work?”
“Divil a sowl, yer honer,” said another, who was sitting on a hedge-bank leaning with both his hands on a hoe, which he held between his legs, “barring Thady Molloy and Shawn Brady; they two do be over us, but they knows nothin’ o’ such jobs as this.”
Thady Molloy and Shawn Brady had with others moved up so as to be close to Herbert’s horse, but they said not a word towards vindicating their own fitness for command.
“And it’s mortial cowld standing here thin,” said another, “without a bit to ate or a sup to dhrink since last night, and then only a lump of the yally mail.” And the speaker moved about on his toes and heels, desirous of keeping his blood in circulation with the smallest possible amount of trouble.
“I’m telling the boys it’s home we’d betther be going,” said a fourth.
“And lose the tizzy they’ve promised us,” said he of the hoe.
“Sorrow a tizzy they’ll pay any of yez for standing here all day,” said an ill-looking little wretch of a fellow, with a black muzzle and a squinting eye; “ye may all die in the road first.” And the man turned away among the crowd, as an Irishman does who has made his speech and does not want to be answered.
“You need have no fear about that, my men,” said Herbert. “Whether you be put to work or no you’ll receive your wages; you may take my word for that.”
“I’ve been telling ’em that for the last half-hour,” said the man with the hoe, now rising to his feet. “‘Shure an’ didn’t Mr. Somers be telling us that we’d have saxpence each day as long we war here afore daylight?’ said I, yer honer; ‘an’ shure an’ wasn’t it black night when we war here this blessed morning, and devil a fear of the tizzy?’ said I. But it’s mortial cowld, an’ it’d be asier fur uz to be doing a spell of work than crouching about on our hunkers down on the wet ground.”
All this was true. It had been specially enjoined upon them to be early at their work. An Irishman as a rule will not come regularly to his task. It is a very difficult thing to secure his services every morning at six o’clock: but make a special point — tell him that you want him very early, and he will come to you in the middle of the night. Breakfast every morning punctually at eight o’clock is almost impossible in Ireland; but if you want one special breakfast, so that you may start by a train at 4 A.M., you are sure to be served. No irregular effort is distasteful to an Irishman of the lower classes, not if it entails on him the loss of a day’s food and the loss of a night’s rest; the actual pleasure of the irregularity repays him for all this, and he never tells you that this or that is not his work. He prefers work that is not his own. Your coachman will have no objection to turn the mangle, but heaven and earth put together won’t persuade him to take the horses out to exercise every morning at the same hour. These men had been told to come early, and they had been there on the road-side since five o’clock. It was not surprising that they were cold and hungry, listless and unhappy.
And then, as young Fitzgerald was questioning the so-named gangmen as to the instructions they had received, a jaunting car came up to the foot of the hill. “We war to wait for the ongineer,” Shawn Brady had said, “an’ shure an’ we have waited.” “An’ here’s one of Misther Carroll’s cars from Mallow,” said Thady Molloy, “and that’s the ongineer hisself.” Thady Molloy was right; this was the engineer himself, who had now arrived from Mallow. From this time forth, and for the next twelve months, the country was full of engineers, or of men who were so called. I do not say this in disparagement; but the engineers were like the yellow meal. When there is an immense demand, and that a suddenly immense demand, for any article, it is seldom easy to get it very good. In those days men became engineers with a short amount of apprenticeship, but, as a rule, they did not do their work badly. In such days as those, men, if they be men at all, will put their shoulders to the wheel.
The engineer was driven up to where they were standing, and he jumped off the car among the men who were to work under him with rather a pretentious air. He had not observed, or probably had not known, Herbert Fitzgerald. He was a very young fellow, still under one-and-twenty, beardless, light-haired, blue-eyed, and fresh from England. “And what hill is this?” said he to the driver.
“Ballydahan, shure, yer honer. That last war Connick-a-coppul, and that other, the big un intirely, where the crass road takes away to Buttevant, that was Glounthauneroughtymore. Faix and that’s been the murthering hill for cattle since first I knew it. Bedad yer honer ‘ll make it smooth as a bowling-green.”
“Ballydahan,” said the young man, taking a paper out of his pocket and looking up the names in his list, “I’ve got it. There should be thirty-seven of them here.”
“Shure an’ here we are these siven hours,” said our friend of the hoe, “and mighty cowld we are.”
“Thady Molloy and Shawn Brady,” called out the engineer, managing thoroughly to Anglicise the pronunciation of the names, though they were not Celtically composite to any great degree.
“Yez, we’s here,” said Thady, coming forward. And then Herbert came up and introduced himself, and the young engineer took off his hat. “I came away from Mallow before eight,” said he apologetically; “but I have four of these places to look after, and when one gets to one of them it is impossible to get away again. There was one place where I was kept two hours before I could get one of the men to understand what they were to do. What is it you call that big hill?”
“Glounthauneroughtymore, yer honer,” said the driver, to whom the name was as easy and familiar as his own.
“And you are going to set these men to work now?” said Herbert.
“Well, I don’t suppose they’ll do much today, Mr. Fitzgerald. But I must try and explain to the head men how they are to begin. They have none of them any tools, you see.” And then he called out again. “Thady Molloy and Shawn Brady.”
“We’s here,” said Thady again; “we did not exactly know whether yer honer’d be afther beginning at the top or the botthom. That’s all that war staying us.”
“Never fear,” said Shawn, “but we’ll have ould Ballydahan level in less than no time. We’re the boys that can do it, fair and aisy.”
It appeared to Herbert that the young engineer seemed to be rather bewildered by the job of work before him, and therefore he rode on, not stopping to embarrass him by any inspection of his work. In process of time no doubt so much of the top of Ballydahan Hill was carried to the bottom as made the whole road altogether impassable for many months. But the great object was gained; the men were fed, and were not fed by charity. What did it matter, that the springs of every conveyance in the county Cork were shattered by the process, and that the works resulted in myriads of wheelbarrows?
And then, as he rode on towards Gortnaclough, Herbert was overtaken by his friend the parson, who was also going to the meeting of the relief committee. “You have not seen the men at Ballydahan Hill, have you?” said Herbert.
Mr. Townsend explained that he had not seen them. His road had struck on to that on which they now were not far from the top of the hill. “But I knew they were to be there this morning,” said Mr. Townsend.
“They have sent quite a lad of a fellow to show them how to work,” said Herbert. “I fear we shall all come to grief with these road-cuttings.”
“For heaven’s sake don’t say that at the meeting,” said Mr. Townsend, “or you’ll be playing the priests’ game out and out. Father Barney has done all in his power to prevent the works.”
“But what if Father Barney be right?” said Herbert.
“But he’s not right,” said the parson, energetically. “He’s altogether wrong. I never knew one of them right in my life yet in anything. How can they be right?”
“But I think you are mixing up road-making and Church doctrine, Mr. Townsend.”
“I hope I may never be in danger of mixing up God and the devil. You cannot touch pitch and not be defiled. Remember that, Herbert Fitzgerald.”
“I will remember nothing of the kind,” said Herbert. “Am I to set myself up as a judge and say that this is pitch and that is pitch? Do you remember St. Peter on the housetop? Was not he afraid of what was unclean?”
“The meaning of that was that he was to convert the Gentiles, and not give way to their errors. He was to contend with them and not give way an inch till he had driven them from their idolatry.” Mr. Townsend had been specially primed by his wife that morning with vigorous hostility against Father Barney, and was grieved to his heart at finding that his young friend was prepared to take the priest’s part in anything. In this matter of the roads Mr. Townsend was doubtless right, but hardly on the score of the arguments assigned by him.
“I don’t mean to say that there should be no road-making,” said Herbert, after a pause. “The general opinion seems to be that we can’t do better. I only say that we shall come to grief about it. Those poor fellows there have as much idea of cutting down a hill as I have; and it seems to me that the young lad whom I left with them has not much more.”
“They’ll learn all in good time.”
“Let us hope it will be in good time.”
“If we once let them have the idea that we are to feed them in idleness,” said Mr. Townsend, “they will want to go on for ever in the same way. And then, when they receive such immense sums in money wages, the priests will be sure to get their share. If the matter had been left to me, I would have paid the men in meal. I would never have given them money. They should have worked and got their food. The priest will get a penny out of every shilling; you’ll see else.” And so the matter was discussed between them as they went along to Gortnaclough.
When they reached the room in which the committee was held they found Mr. Somers already in the chair. Priest M’Carthy was there also, with his coadjutor, the Rev. Columb Creagh — Father Columb as he was always called; and there was a Mr. O’Leary from Boherbuy, one of the middlemen as they were formerly named — though, by the way, I never knew that word to be current in Ireland; it is familiar to all, and was I suppose common some few years since, but I never heard the peasants calling such persons by that title. He was one of those with whom the present times were likely to go very hard. He was not a bad man, unless in so far as this, that he had no idea of owing any duty to others beyond himself and his family. His doctrine at present amounted to this, that if you left the people alone and gave them no false hopes, they would contrive to live somehow. He believed in a good deal, but he had no belief whatever in starvation — none as yet. It was probable enough that some belief in this might come to him now before long. There were also one or two others; men who had some stake in the country, but men who hadn’t a tithe of the interest possessed by Sir Thomas Fitzgerald.
Mr. Townsend again went through the ceremony of shaking hands with his reverend brethren, and, on this occasion, did not seem to be much the worse for it. Indeed, in looking at the two men cursorily, a stranger might have said that the condescension was all on the other side. Mr. M’Carthy was dressed quite smartly. His black clothes were spruce and glossy; his gloves, of which he still kept on one and showed the other, were quite new; he was clean shaven, and altogether he had a shiny, bright, ebon appearance about him that quite did a credit to his side of the Church. But our friend the parson was discreditably shabby. His clothes were all brown, his white neck-tie could hardly have been clean during the last forty-eight hours, and was tied in a knot, which had worked itself nearly round to his ear as he had sat sideways on the car; his boots were ugly and badly brushed, and his hat was very little better than some of those worn by the workmen — so called — at Ballydahan Hill. But nevertheless, on looking accurately into the faces of both, one might see which man was the better nurtured and the better born. That operation with the sow’s ear is, one may say, seldom successful with the first generation.
“A beautiful morning, this,” said the coadjutor, addressing Herbert Fitzgerald, with a very mild voice and an unutterable look of friendship; as though he might have said, “Here we are in a boat together, and of course we are all very fond of each other.” To tell the truth, Father Columb was not a nice-looking young man. He was red-haired, slightly marked with the small-pox, and had a low forehead and cunning eyes.
“Yes, it is a nice morning,” said Herbert. “We don’t expect anybody else here, do we, Somers?”
“At any rate we won’t wait,” said Somers. So he sat down in the arm-chair, and they all went to work.
“I am afraid, Mr. Somers,” said Mr. M’Carthy from the other end of the table, where he had constituted himself a sort of deputy chairman, “I am afraid we are going on a wrong tack.” The priest had shuffled away his chair as he began to speak, and was now standing with his hands upon the table. It is singular how strong a propensity some men have to get upon their legs in this way.
“How so, Mr. M’Carthy?” said Somers. “But shan’t we be all more comfortable if we keep our chairs? There’ll be less ceremony, won’t there, Mr. Townsend?”
“Oh! certainly,” said Townsend.
“Less liable to interruption, perhaps, on our legs,” said Father Columb, smiling blandly.
But Mr. M’Carthy was far too wise to fight the question, so he sat down. “Just as you like,” said he; “I can talk any way, sitting or standing, walking or riding; it’s all one to me. But I’ll tell you how we are on the wrong tack. We shall never get these men to work in gangs on the road. Never. They have not been accustomed to be driven like droves of sheep.”
“But droves of sheep don’t work on the road,” said Mr. Townsend.
“I know that, Mr. Townsend,” continued Mr. M’Carthy. “I am quite well aware of that. But droves of sheep are driven, and these men won’t bear it.”
“‘Deed an’ they won’t,” said Father Columb, having altogether laid aside his bland smile now that the time had come, as he thought, to speak up for the people. “They may bear it in England, but they won’t here.” And the sternness of his eye was almost invincible.
“If they are so foolish, they must be taught better manners,” said Mr. Townsend. “But you’ll find they’ll work just as other men do — look at the navvies.”
“And look at the navvies’ wages,” said Father Columb.
“Besides, the navvies only go if they like it,” said the parish priest.
“And these men need not go unless they like it,” said Mr. Somers. “Only with this proviso, that if they cannot manage for themselves they must fall into our way of managing for them.”
“What I say, is this,” said Mr. O’Leary. “Let ’em manage for ‘emselves. God bless my sowl! Why, we shall be skinned alive if we have to pay all this money back to Government. If Government chooses to squander thousands in this way, Government should bear the brunt. That’s what I say.” Eventually, Government, that is, the whole nation, did bear the brunt. But it would not have been very wise to promise this at the time.
“But we need hardly debate all that at the present moment,” said Mr. Somers. “That matter of the roads has already been decided for us, and we can’t alter it if we would.”
“Then we may as well shut up shop,” said Mr. O’Leary.
“It’s all very aisy to talk in that way,” said Father Columb; “but the Government, as you call it, can’t make men work. It can’t force eight millions of the finest pisantry on God’s earth — ” and Father Columb was, by degrees, pushing away the seat from under him, when he was cruelly and ruthlessly stopped by his own parish priest.
“I beg your pardon for a moment, Creagh,” said he; “but perhaps we are getting a little out of the track. What Mr. Somers says is very true. If these men won’t work on the road — and I don’t think they will — the responsibility is not on us. That matter has been decided for us.”
“Men will sooner work anywhere than starve,” said Mr. Townsend.
“Some men will,” said Father Columb, with a great deal of meaning in his tone. What he intended to convey was this — that Protestants, no doubt, would do so, under the dominion of the flesh; but that Roman Catholics, being under the dominion of the Spirit, would perish first.
“At any rate we must try,” said Father M’Carthy.
“Exactly,” said Mr. Somers; “and what we have now to do is to see how we may best enable these workers to live on their wages, and how those others are to live, who, when all is done, will get no wages.”
“I think we had better turn shopkeepers ourselves, and open stores for them everywhere,” said Herbert. “That is what we are doing already at Berryhill.”
“And import our own corn,” said the parson.
“And where are we to get the money?” said the priest.
“And why are we to ruin the merchants?” said O’Leary, whose brother was in the flour-trade, in Cork.
“And shut up all the small shopkeepers,” said Father Columb, whose mother was established in that line in the neighbourhood of Castleisland.
“We could not do it,” said Somers. “The demand upon us would be so great, that we should certainly break down. And then where would we be?”
“But for a time, Somers,” pleaded Herbert.
“For a time we may do something in that way, till other means present themselves. But we must refuse all out-door relief. They who cannot or do not bring money must go into the workhouses.”
“You will not get houses in county Cork sufficient to hold them,” said Father Bernard. And so the debate went on, not altogether without some sparks of wisdom, with many sparks also of eager benevolence, and some few passing clouds of fuliginous self-interest. And then lists were produced, with the names on them of all who were supposed to be in want — which were about to become, before long, lists of the whole population of the country. And at last it was decided among them, that in their district nothing should be absolutely given away, except to old women and widows — which kind-hearted clause was speedily neutralised by women becoming widows while their husbands were still living; and it was decided also, that as long as their money lasted, the soup-kitchen at Berryhill should be kept open, and mill kept going, and the little shop maintained, so that to some extent a check might be maintained on the prices of the hucksters. And in this way they got through their work, not perhaps with the sagacity of Solomon, but as I have said, with an average amount of wisdom, as will always be the case when men set about their tasks with true hearts and honest minds.
And then, when they parted, the two clergy-men of the parish shook hands with each other again, having perhaps less animosity against each other than they had ever felt before. There had been a joke or two over the table, at which both had laughed. The priest had wisely shown some deference to the parson, and the parson had immediately returned it, by referring some question to the priest. How often does it not happen that when we come across those whom we have hated and avoided all our lives, we find that they are not quite so bad as we had thought? That old gentleman of whom we wot is never so black as he has been painted.
The work of the committee took them nearly the whole day, so that they did not separate till it was nearly dark. When they did so, Somers and Herbert Fitzgerald rode home together.
“I always live in mortal fear,” said Herbert, “that Townsend and the priests will break out into warfare.”
“As they haven’t done it yet, they won’t do it now,” said Somers. “M’Carthy is not without sense, and Townsend, queer and intolerant as he is, has good feeling. If he and Father Columb were left together, I don’t know what might happen. Mr. Prendergast is to be with you the day after tomorrow, is he not?”
“So I understood my father to say.”
“Will you let me give you a bit of advice. Herbert?”
“Then don’t be in the house much on the day after he comes. He’ll arrive, probably, to dinner.”
“I suppose he will.”
“If so, leave Castle Richmond after breakfast the next morning, and do not return till near dinner-time. It may be that your father will not wish you to be near him. Whatever this matter may be, you may be sure that you will know it before Mr. Prendergast leaves the country. I am very glad that he is coming.”
Herbert promised that he would take this advice, and he thought himself that among other things he might go over to inspect that Clady boiler, and of course call at Desmond Court on his way. And then, when they got near to Castle Richmond, they parted company, Mr. Somers stopping at his own place, and Herbert riding home alone.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55