Authors: Anne Doughty
For Judith and Amanda without whom the story of the Hamilton family would never have seen the light of day
The winter of 1912 was not a severe one in Ballydown. There was very little snow and no long spells of bitter cold, though the regular hoar frosts iced the bare trees and left the straggling grass crisp and white in the morning sun. From the beginning of January, day followed day with cloud covered skies and sudden sleety showers. The small windows of the south-facing dwelling that looked out across the Down countryside towards the rugged mass of the Mourne Mountains rattled under the onslaught, then trickled with streams of raindrops that turned the green prospect into a smudged, watercolour landscape.
Rose had always felt the cold, even as a child. Now she gave thanks that February was over. The worst of the weather was certainly not past, no indeed, but with the evenings longer and the
mornings less dark, there was at least a promise of spring. It would take time, months perhaps, before the edge went out of the wind, but the days would grow like the grey-green shoots of daffodils in the garden, and finally bloom into light and warmth.
Half way through the first morning in March, she walked back into the kitchen from the chilly wash house where she’d been struggling with a pair of John’s overalls. The clouds had dissolved, sun poured down from great patches of blue sky, the light was so brilliant it dazzled her. She was amazed at the sudden transformation.
She bent down, propped open the front door, then leant against the doorpost. She closed her eyes and held up her face to the sun. To her surprise there was real warmth in its rays and the air was still and mild. Everywhere the birds were active and a robin was singing its heart out in a fuchsia bush on the eastern boundary of the garden.
‘A pet day,’ she said to herself, smiling.
It wouldn’t last, not at this time of year, but it was lovely while it did. Something to be cherished, to be stored in the mind, to be taken out on the days when grey clouds again cut out the light and one’s own spirits fell so low that an effort had to be made just to keep going, doing the ordinary everyday things like keeping a welcome by the hearth for whoever might come, daughter or son, grandchild, neighbour, delivery man or stranger.
She stood quite still, a small, composed figure, her once dark hair now streaked with grey, her creamy skin marked with the lines of almost six decades of joys and sorrows, and the sudden laughter which so often came to her, a defence against solemnity and the dark thoughts that so often now came unbidden to occupy her mind.
‘But not today,’ she whispered to herself.
Today she would not think about the troubles and discontents filling the newspapers, the drilling and posturing that threatened the peace of the whole island, nor the grief in her own family, the death of her daughter Sarah’s husband, Hugh, and the burden his going had placed on the shoulders of both Sarah and her own dear John.
Despite her resolution, she felt tears trickle down her cheeks. Still, after all these months, she could not bear to think of the magnitude of Sarah’s loss. Hugh Sinton was older, of course, but he was a fine man and fit. He’d been their dear friend for years, John’s employer, then partner, and for ten years Sarah’s husband and her own son-in-law. Past his prime, one might say, but full of the joy his love for her had brought and devoted to their two children. It seemed that every aspect of his life, even the heavy responsibility of running four mills when the times were so volatile, had become something he relished. And now he was gone. The typhoid fever that had taken its toll of both spinners and
weavers at the height of last summer had taken Hugh as well.
‘No, Rose, that’s not the way,’ she chided herself, as she wiped her tears on a corner of her apron. ‘You mustn’t dwell on what’s past or you’ll have no strength for the future.’
She gazed out over the familiar countryside and listened to the small familiar sounds that floated up to her on the still air, the muted pounding of the beetling hammers from Ballievy Mill, the bleat of sheep, the staccato bark of a sheepdog. From Rathdrum House further up the road at the top of the hill, where Hugh and John had worked together for so long and Sarah still lived, there was no sound at all.
As she stood listening, suddenly she detected a new sound, a rhythmic click that drew closer and then stopped. She opened her eyes promptly, just in time to see the postman prop his bicycle against the gate post and heave his sack of mail on to his shoulder.
‘Great day, Missus Hamilton,’ he greeted her easily, as he opened his sack. ‘It’s the quare while since I saw ye stanin’ at yer door.
‘That must be one of the we’ans,’ he went on cheerfully, as he handed her an envelope addressed in a large, childish hand which started well enough but then rapidly ran downhill.
She beamed at him. There were those who
might think such a comment impertinent, but for Rose every word Dan Willis spoke was a pleasure. When he’d first got the job he was so shy and so uneasy he’d hardly been able to look at her.
Dan had lived on a remote farm with his mother for so long, seeing no one, visiting no one, that the world was a terrifying place for him. When she died their neighbours at the foot of the hill had come up to ask John if he could find something for Dan in one of the mills. The poor man was dying of loneliness, they said. John had indeed found him a place, but after years of working on the farm, Dan couldn’t bear being shut up indoors. It was Sarah who had found him a job he could manage. She’d gone to see an old friend of hers, Billy Auld, now postmaster at Banbridge post office and found that he needed another postman.
‘An’ there’s another forby,’ Dan continued, delving in his bag as Rose stood smiling down at the envelope she already held. It was from young Hugh, Sarah’s boy, writing from Friend’s School in Lisburn.
‘It’s from Donegal,’ he added, as he passed over a bulging envelope. ‘Full o’ news by the luk of it.’
‘It’ll be from my brother Sam. Do you remember him? You met him in the autumn when he stayed with us.’
‘Aye, I mind fine. Mister McGinley. The man with the red hair from New York. Nice man. He
was goin’ up to stay with yer sister in Donegal afore he went back to Amerikay. He’ll likely be comin’ to see ye again afore he goes,’ he said reassuringly, as he humped his bag up on his back. ‘Have ye any message for Missus Sinton?’
‘Just the usual, Dan,’ she said warmly. ‘She’ll be down this afternoon when she’s finished her work.’
‘Aye, well,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘I’ve a whole pile of stuff fer her. I hope it’ll not houl’ her back,’ he said, over his shoulder, as he picked up his bicycle and prepared to wheel it up the steepest part of the hill.
Rose hurried back indoors, fetched her spectacles from her workbox and tore open her brother’s letter. It was not that she was anxious about him, for her older sister, Mary, with whom he was staying, would have let her know if he’d been ill, but it was some weeks since he’d written and Sam was normally such a regular correspondent. Over the long years he’d been in America, there’d been seldom a week he’d not penned a few lines. He always said writing to her helped clear his mind. Indeed, her letters to him had become such a part of her own life that she’d missed her own weekly effort when he’d arrived last autumn.
‘Isn’t it silly, Sam. I’ve got you here and I can talk to you till the cows come home, but I actually miss writing to you?’ she said one afternoon as she sat sewing by the fire.
‘Not a bit of it,’ he replied promptly, looking up from the letters he was writing to his sons and daughters in New York and upstate Pennsylvania. ‘The written word serves many purposes. For the writer as well as the recipient. Sometimes we don’t know what we think till we write it down and look at it.’
She tore open the envelope and pulled out the thick wad of neatly written sheets.
My dearest Rose,
I hope you are sitting comfortably by your fireside as I propose to make up for my neglect of these past weeks. I really had not realised what an active life the Doherty’s have here in Creeslough. I had, of course, committed myself to helping where I could with the shop and the farm, but I had reckoned without the social life. It seems all our nephews and nieces have some musical talent, which must come from their father’s side, and consequently the house is never empty and certainly never quiet. I have had to excuse myself today from helping Michael with his drapery collection to find time and quiet to write.
Rose smiled to herself and breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever his news, at least she was sure he was
well and in good spirits. She had quite forgotten to tell him how, one by one, Mary’s children had taken up some instrument, except for Brendan, the youngest, who needed nothing but his own light tenor voice.
I have come to a momentous decision and having come to it, I now feel somewhat sheepish about confessing. I have bought a farm of land. What a resonant phrase that is,
A FARM OF LAND
. Having done so, I have to face the fact that there is, after all, a peasant in me trying to get out. Despite all my education and my literary aspirations, I have purchased thirty acres of the most unprepossessing land I have ever surveyed. What madness can it be, Rose, that I, who have seen the richest land in North America and could have had a holding in Saskatchewan for the asking, return to visit my native shores and buy a slice of bog and mountain fit only for a few rigs of potatoes and a handful of intrepid sheep?
You know, of course, that Eva and I always planned to come on a long visit when the last of our six was settled, but when I lost her, I put the whole idea out of mind. I kept myself busy and travelled more than ever. That’s why I took on the contracts
for Western Canada. But I have to confess I found no rest from the loneliness that pursued me wherever I went until a few weeks ago when I stood in the rain on a hillside some six miles, as the raven flies, from our old home in Ardtur, a home which I have never even seen.
Rose blinked sharply. How long was it since the name Ardtur had entered her mind? Hardly surprising. It was more than fifty years since she’d held Sam in her arms, a red-headed baby wrapped in her mother’s shawl, crushed into a wooden cart as the family made their way along a mountainside, their home in ruins behind them. Evicted. Sent out into the bitter wind of late April on a day of sleet and showers.
Despite the warmth of the stove and the golden light falling in patches on the well-swept stone floor, she shivered as her mind moved back to Donegal, to Ardtur where she’d been born, to Creeslough, where her elder sister Mary had married a man who made a comfortable living from distributing and collecting the embroidery, the napkins and the hand-sewn shirts women worked in their own cottages.
Suddenly, she remembered a visit to Mary when Sarah was still a little girl. She’d met a man one evening, newly returned from America, who’d
come to join the music making. A man in his sixties who’d once lived in Kerry and was so happy to talk to her of the places she too had once known. She’d enjoyed his songs and his remembrances of Kerry, but one thing he said to her often returned when she thought of her dear brother and read his letters.
‘It’s a strange thing, Rose, but there’s thousands go to America every year and we hear a lot about it. Sure the politicians are always talking about it. But you’d never hear of those that come back. They’re the ones that hear
. I’ve met dozens of them. And I’ve met hundreds who’ve heard the same calling and either can’t or won’t come, but they die with that longing upon them. But what is even stranger,’ he went on, leaning towards her, ‘And you can believe me, or believe me not, as the saying is, that the calling is not to be denied. If it’s not fulfilled in one generation, it passes to the next. We may not see it in our lives, Rose, but a time will come when the young will come back home, but they’ll not be the same young that went away.’
Of course, I should have begun by saying that I am not going back. I had decided to treat myself to a passage on this great new ship out of Belfast, but if I do go at all it won’t be this April. In a couple of years, I’ll go over and visit the family. Even if my piece of bog is a piece of fantasy that will not yield
to the light of reality and is totally unable to support me, I am in the happy position of being able to stay regardless. The hard work of my lonely years has left me very well provided.
Do you remember, Rose, when I travelled steerage on the Germanic before the Rail Disaster? You and John were thinking then of coming over and I advised you to try and afford second class as steerage would be so hard on the children. And now I can afford to travel First Class! Grand staircases and potted palms and a la carte restaurants in the French style. Can you believe it? I haven’t been able to decide whether my reluctance to book my passage was my inability to square my conscience with my former poverty, or my feeling that there was something here still to be done. But now the die is cast. I’ve answered the calling. Uncle Sam America no longer exists. I’m here for good. To be called no doubt by whatever name your grandchildren dream up for me.
Rose burst into tears and wept unashamedly. Apart from John and her own children, there was no one she loved more than Sam, the little brother whom she’d always cared for and been so proud
of. Now he’d come home. It wouldn’t matter what he was doing, whether he was farming in Donegal or visiting Dublin, or their former home in Kerry, or renewing some of his old contacts in Belfast, or Limerick. What mattered was that he was here. In Ireland. No longer separated by the width of the Atlantic and the perils of ocean travel.
She sniffed and began to search for her handkerchief, finding one eventually in the pocket of her apron.
There is a farmhouse in keeping with the property. Small, rundown and neglected. The fuchsia bushes have grown so high they cut out all the light at the back of the house and getting round there is something of an obstacle race, the space full of rotting carts and rusting machinery. The roof, however, is slate and in remarkably good condition and despite the dirt and the debris the place is not actually damp.
So far, I have made no improvements except for removing a somewhat faded Virgin that dominated the downstairs room I propose to make my study. But I have beaten a path through the bushes to gain access to my stretch of mountain. You will notice the proprietorial tone has appeared even before the papers are signed!
Behind the house, outcropping some yards above roof level, is a slab of rock from which I can watch my rush-filled fields and the track that runs along the mountainside from Swillybrinnan towards Derrykeel. It is a noble prospect, dominated by the full rise of Muckish Mountain to my right and the inlet of Sheephaven to my left.
If I am in danger of being overcome by the beauties of my new abode I have only to remember the days not so very long gone when all this land belonged to one landlord and my job was to keep their evicted tenants from starving. There is no eviction now, but the poverty of the small farmers and the labourers is crushing. Perhaps there is still something useful I might do.