New Writing

The Blight

Eamon Shanahan

I felt I’d walked for months without pause, and yet I’d only risen for the day an hour past. In my right mind, I’d have known that the pack was lighter today, was near-on weightless now that the last morsel was gone, but still it felt like a boulder strapped to my back. The straps rubbed my skin raw, the weight was unbearable, but it was nothing compared with the hunger.

The year was 1847 when I left the farm. It had been dead for some time already, along with the family that worked it. A family of fourteen, whittled down to myself and my young cousin Seamus.

Somebody told me that boats were leaving for Van Diemen’s Land, and some for America, if only we could make the trip to Dublin. That was long ago, when there was still a hope of scraping a stark living out of the earth. Nobody could say now whether the boats were still leaving, but there was no hope in holding onto the farm that had failed to sustain us. I’d watched it fail, day by day, and I’d watched a mother, a father, two sisters, an aunt and four cousins whittled away into nothing.

Worse, I watched Seamus’ face wither away in grief and starvation. He was nine years old when the famine struck, but now he looked like an old man. The cheeks were sucked in like the changing wind had caught him pulling faces, and the eyelids had turned dark. Great creases marked his once-smooth skin, and dirt clung in the crevices. He’d given up on crying.

Mostly we walked in silence. Seamus knew not to complain. He knew there was no point.

Occasionally, he asked for explanations, the same questions again and again.

“Why did all the potatoes die?” he asked.

All I could say was that tiny things had eaten them alive.

For most of each day, his face would be turned to the ground, and I could see him thinking over what I’d told him. An eternity could pass between one question and the next.

“What about the other crops?”

“The corn and wheat go to the English. They’re not for us.”

“But we used to eat corn.”

“Yes,” I said. “We used to, but now they want it.”

We trudged along unsteadily.

“Why can’t we keep the food we grow?” he asked.

“Because it goes to the English.”

“But why do they get everything?”

“Because they’re the ones in charge,” I told him.

Once more, he was quiet for the best part of the day. We walked right past the city of Limerick. There was no use begging there. Nobody had a scrap to spare, and the soldiers would arrest us for asking.

The sky was dark all through the day, but we didn’t stop until true night fell. I felt like a cripple as I lay down on the grass in my clothes. Seamus lay down beside me, and I listened to his stomach moan for a while.

“Why are the English in charge of us?” he said, just as I was drifting off.

My head was spinning with exhaustion and hunger, but I tried to think of a reason.

“Because they’re stronger,” I said.

He fell to thinking again. I tried to anticipate his next question, and we just lay there under the stars supposing together.

‘Because they’re stronger’ was not good enough. It made sense to the boy, but the longer I mulled it over, the stranger it became. It was like staring at clouds overhead – at first, you could see a clear shape, like a cow or an ear of corn, but before long the shape made no sense at all.

Why did being strong matter? I was stronger than Seamus, and we were both starving, but taking food from him would be as foul and unnatural as dashing his head on a rock.

So perhaps the English were not the same as us; were they somehow heartless and cruel by nature?

I’d once heard it pronounced that the English ruled through the Right of Sovereignty, but could that be? If we are subjects of the Crown, then the Crown is responsible for us. If we bow to the rule of the English, then they must be bound to assist us, else there is no right in sovereignty at all.

Seamus was asleep beside me. I could hear his shallow breaths slowly deepen, and I listened to his lungs rattle for a while before sleep finally enfolded me. It was the Right of Conquest then. The English ruled because they were strong enough to rule.

In the morning, the boy was dead. I’d lain with him curled beside me, unable to feel the chill of his body through our clothes. It might have been most of the night that I held him, not knowing that it was in vain.

His bruised little eyelids were shut. That was a mercy, but the only one. There was no peace in the sunken young face. His chapped lips were parted, as though preparing to ask one final question.

I retched beside the body, but there wasn’t a drop of fluid to expel.

What might the boy have been trying to ask me?

‘Where am I going now?’

‘Is this what happens to little English boys too?’

‘By what right am I dying?’

If I had any answers to give, I’d have lain beside him throughout the day to give them. Instead, I lay panting on the grass, staring into his deathly face. I tried to weep for the dead boy. I might have tried to pray, but that was no more use than trying to muster tears from dried-out eyes.

Seamus was no more. Even to my delirious mind, I saw that this body no longer belonged to a living spirit. The ghost had fled, and left behind a frail, lifeless form.

And what is flesh without life?

It is food.

If my stomach weren’t empty, and my head not feverish, the thought would never have entered my mind. Still, I thought of it, and immediately wanted to purge my guts onto the ground once more.

I spent half the day there, beside the dead boy. He didn’t smell the way the rest of my family did when they died. They all gave off the odour of decay, but now it was as though the very blood had dried out in his veins, and the boy was preserved, mummified, by his starvation.

I wished I’d had the strength to bury him. Even if I did, the dirt was too hard and rocky to dig by hand. I left him, still and pale, cushioned on the grass, and continued to walk.

I moved slowly the rest of the day. I was weaker than ever before, and the drive was gone from my step; no purpose left in my limbs. I’d failed to get Seamus off the diseased island, but now I carried on to escape the scene of death. My legs walked not by my brain’s command, but because they no longer knew any other use.

I didn’t know what I would do even if I did reach Dublin alive, but I walked on, deranged and haggard. I muttered half-imagined conversations with the boy I’d left dead on the grass.

Why are the English in charge of us? he’d ask.

“Because they’re stronger,” I’d say aloud.

Why are the English in charge of us?

“Because they’re stronger.”

Why are the English in charge of us?

“Because we believe that they’re stronger.”

And then the ghost-boy would vanish, and I’d walk on in silence until I collapsed and slept through the nightmares of the dying and the enraged.

Before I reached the capital, I’d been reduced to a mindless animal. In full sight of the road, and of the passing carriages, I fell to my knees and fed on the grass like the cows did before they died. All my shame was gone now, and my body worked only through half- remembered instinct.

I was so close to the city, within an hour of the port, but there seemed to be no purpose any longer. All I truly wanted was to do harm to the soldiers, as though they themselves had decided to drain my country of life.

Instead I wandered, mostly by habit, and made it to the city. At a gate, I passed the English soldiers with their fat stomachs, like a ghost. I found that even the rage had been sapped from me now. I wanted to see the water and the boats that might have saved Seamus from his lonely death.

The people here were strange. Some were haggard, others resplendent, and even the Irishmen sounded like strangers. None paid me any mind; just another shabby wraith hobbling through their streets.

For a while I sat on the stony edge of the River Liffey. Only a few boats passed by, cutting up the water in their wake, and as I swayed there on the bank, I dreamt of being swallowed up in it. I could feel the cool, consuming water bubbling around me. But I didn’t drop in, as I dearly wanted to. I stayed rooted to the spot and let the decaying city go on around me.

After a while, I heard the sound of two Englishmen wheeling a cart. They chatted indifferently as they passed, but I watched them closely. In the cart, barely covered by a ragged sheet, was a family-sized heap. There must have been ten withered bodies under there, and I caught sight of the angelic hand of a young boy hanging from one side.

Is this what happens to all Irish boys? asked a voice close beside me.

And once again, my legs were moving. I hobbled after the death-cart, listening to small-talk of the Englishmen. I felt as though I was pursuing the dead boy I’d left on the grass, and though I struggled to keep up, I followed them outside of the city once again.

Trailing in the Englishmen’s wake, I limped half a mile away from Dublin where the two men met with a small group of soldiers. They talked and smoked and chuckled, standing beside a great pit that smelt like the gateway to hell. The odour was of rotting meat and human waste and scorching chemicals. I watched the soldiers toss body after body into the mass grave. I don’t know how they didn’t notice me watching. Perhaps I’d wasted away into invisibility.

Finally, they hurled the boy into the pit and began shovelling white powder and dirt over the mess of bodies. Next, their work done, the Englishmen moved on, hauling their carts back towards the city for another load.

All along, I’d known no true despair. I’d been blessed so long by ignorance, now I felt this was my final punishment. I stared down into the pit and thought of the souls swimming in the underworld.

After their bodies had been buried, and drawn down into the earth, were they rejuvenated somehow? Were they rekindled and reunited?

If so, why do we mourn them? And if so, why do we cling so to the world above?

Finally, I took the plunge. I allowed my legs to give way one final time and dropped into the grave. The bony mound took my breath as I crashed upon it, but still it had the feeling of water and soft earth. I felt the limbs, the putrid quicklime and the dirt enfolding me, and I had the sensation of digging, clawing my way down. My skin was burned by the chemical dust, and my eyes swam with tears, but I felt only bliss. This was noble work, digging into the ground. Like harvesting crops, like digging a grave. I let myself be swallowed in the embrace of my countrymen, and I thought of the dead boy lying unburied above the ground.