|Famine. Famine is the story of three
generations of the Kilmartin family set in the period of the Great Famine
of the 1840s. A `masterly historical novel', rich in language, character
and plot, a panoramic story of passion, tragedy and resilience.
`O'Flaherty is one of the most heroic of Irish novelists, the one who has always tackled big themes, and in this great novel, succeeded in writing something imperishable... Mary Kilmartin (the heroine) has been singled out by two generations of critics as one of the great creations of modern literature. And so she is.' From review by novelist John Broderick, Irish Times
|In spite of the previous year’s blight and the scarcity of food, the
quantity of potatoes planted that spring was even greater than usual. Now
the crop showed signs of being a bumper one. The spring had been severe.
There had been frost and snow even in the first part of April. But June
brought a heat that was almost tropical. Under the urge of this heat, the
potato plants grew to an enormous size and their luxuriant foliage, dotted
with beautiful white and pink blossoms, made Black Valley look like a flower
garden. The people began to hope that their hardships were nearly over
and that God would again bless their labour.
On St. John’s Eve, they made bonfires in accordance with the ancient custom. Then they took coals from the fires and carried them around the boundaries of their gardens, to ward off evil from the earth’s fruit. Next morning, they went out and plucked a few stalks in each garden. Lo! the seed had increased abundantly. There was wild rejoicing everywhere. Old Kilmartin was exalted.
‘What did I say?’ he shouted, as he spilt a small kish of the new potatoes on the kitchen floor. ‘God doesn’t send hunger for long. He sends it to remind us of our sins. But when we repent he sends riches. The earth is rich. God has blessed our earth.’
It was at this moment, while they were happily eating their meal, that the destructive attitude of Divine Providence again manifested itself. All morning, the sky had been spotless and the sun shone in all the glory of its summer heat. And then, suddenly, the sky darkened. Lightning flashed. A torrent of rain began to fall. Thunder rolled across the firmament. It grew as cold as in the midst of winter. It was horrifying. It all happened within the space of a few minutes. They were struck with awe. They dropped their knives into the kish and stared at one another. They crossed themselves.
Thomsy was the first to speak.
‘Has it come again?’ he whispered. ‘That’s how it started last year.’
‘Silence,’ said the old man, rising from his stool. ‘Do you know what you’re saying?’
‘Let’s go on our knees,’ Mary said, ‘and ask God to have pity on us.’
They all went on their knees and recited the rosary, begging God not to send the blight on their crop. When they had finished, it seemed that the Lord heard their prayer, for the storm ended as suddenly as it had begun. The sky did not clear, but the thunder and lightning ceased. A drizzling rain continued to fall and it became very hot. The old man then suggested that they should sprinkle holy water on the gardens. Mary took a bottle of holy water they had in the house and went with him. They visited all the gardens and sprinkled the water on the plants here and there, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. A number of other families, seeing them so engaged, came forth and did likewise.
It was a strange sight, truly, in the drizzling rain, under a dark sky, to see all those simple people going around their gardens with holy water, asking pity of the Lord.
Next day, the sky cleared and the sun came forth. It had rained heavily during the night and the blossoms had been washed from the stalks by the downpour, but when the old man went out with his spade once more and dug, he found that the crop was still wholesome.
‘Praised be God!’ he said.
Mary and Thomsy had come out with him and when they saw that the potatoes he threw out with his spade were whole, they burst into tears with joy.
‘Oh! Aren’t they big?’ Mary said, as she went on her knees to pick them carefully. ‘I never saw them so big at this time of year.’
‘True for you,’ said the old man, digging eagerly. ‘That proves to you how it pays people to stint themselves. There are fools over there in Glenaree that ate some of their seeds and now they’ll only have half a crop in spite of the great harvest that’s coming. Two extra gardens I sowed. We’ll have seventy bushels this year instead of the usual forty, or my name isn’t Brian. Don’t be talking, woman, we’ll soon be on our feet again. Never say die. If our stock is taken, we’ll begin again little by little. While we have the land we have the riches. Now that the tyrant is dead, we’re safe from persecution. The new agent that will come to be over us might be a Christian man. He’ll give us time over the rent and maybe the government might step in with a loan. It happened before in the time of the great hunger. Ah! If only Martin was here with us, to see this great crop. Poor man! Many a drop of his noble sweat he gave sowing them.’
At the mention of Martin’s name, Mary stopped picking. She felt a sharp pain in her bosom and then a terrible emptiness spread all over her body, as if she had been suddenly disembowelled by a monstrous hand that carried off at one scoop, her heart, her lungs, all her vital being. With a rush, the agony passed into her brain and a feeling of shame made her go weak, so that the colour left her cheeks and she rose to her feet trembling. The thought flashed through her head.
‘For days I haven’t thought of him.’
Thomsy looked at her anxiously and said:
‘What ails you, Mary?’
‘Nothing,’ she said, laughing foolishly. ‘Only I got so excited and ...’
‘Go on into the house,’ said the old man, too intent on his own joy to notice that it was Martin’s name which had disturbed her. ‘You’ve been doing too much lately. Rest yourself. Pick those potatoes, Thomsy.’
Mary went towards the house. What heavy heat it was! The smell of the growing plants was still in her nostrils even after she had left the garden. It was sickening. Tears were now streaming down her cheeks.
‘Oh! darling,’ she muttered, ‘it wasn’t for want of love of you that I didn’t think of you this while. I was afraid to think of you. Oh! I’m afraid of the hunger, and the little milk I have for our Michael.’
Indeed, such was the case. Every moment of the day and during most of the night, her mind was tortured by the terrible thought that soon there would be nothing for the little child and that she would have to go out on the highways with him, begging. And this torture dulled all else, dulled even the torture of Martin’s absence. Only once had she heard of him since Chadwick’s death. A man brought news that he was with a band of men on an island off the coast, away to the west, and that he was safe there, at least for the present. But that was a poor consolation. What of the future? What prospect was there of ever being with him again, or of escaping from the country? It was this awful thought which made her afraid to think of him.
Another violent storm came on the last day of the month. They did not trouble greatly about this one, since the first had done no damage. even so, a rumour got abroad that the blight had struck in the County Cork. Would it come this far? Every day, they anxiously inspected the crop. But the days passed without any sign of the evil. The potatoes that were dug for food still remained wholesome. It promised to be a miraculous crop. Even Mary began to take courage. And then, on the fifteenth of July, the bolt fell from the heavens.
When old Kilmartin came into his yard shortly after dawn on that day, he looked up the Valley and saw a white cloud standing above the Black Lake. It was like a great mound of snow, hanging by an invisible chain, above the mountain peaks. It was dazzling white in the glare of the rising sun.
‘Merciful God!’ he said. ‘What can that be?’
The rest of the sky was as clear as crystal. The old man stared at it in awe for some time. Then he ran into the house and called out the family to look at it. Mary and Thomsy came out. They were as startled as the old man.
‘Did you ever see anything like that?’ the old man said.
‘Never in my natural,’ said Thomsy. ‘It’s like a ...’
‘Snow,’ Mary said. ‘It’s like a big heap of snow.’
‘How could it be snow?’ said the old man. ‘And this the middle of summer? It’s a miracle.’
‘Or would it be a bad sign, God between us and harm?’ said Thomsy.
Other people came from their cabins and stared at the cloud. There was a peculiar silence in the Valley. The air was as heavy as a drug. There was not a breath of wind. The birds did not sing. And then, as the people watched, the cloud began to move lazily down upon the Valley. It spread out on either side, lost its form and polluted the atmosphere, which became full of a whitish vapour, through which the sun’s rays glistened; so that it seemed that a fine rain of tiny whitish particles of dust was gently falling from the sky. Gradually a sulphurous stench affected the senses of those who watched. It was like the smell of foul water in a sewer. Yet, there was no moisture and the stench left an arid feeling in the nostrils. Even the animals were affected by it. Dogs sat up on their haunches and howled. Not a bird was to be seen, although there had been flocks of crows and of starlings about on the previous day. Then, indeed, terror seized the people and a loud wailing broke out from the cabins, as the cloud overspread the whole Valley, shutting out the sun completely.
All this time, the whole Kilmartin family had remained in the yard. Mary clutched the baby in her arms. Nobody thought of preparing breakfast, although the morning was now well advanced. It was only when the wailing began and Maggie joined in it, that Mary came to her senses and said:
‘Don’t frighten the child with your whining. There’s no harm done yet. Hold the baby, mother, while I get breakfast ready.’
‘True for you,’ said the old man. ‘There’s no harm done yet. Into the house, all of you. Pooh! Afraid of a fog, is it?’
Maggie stopped crying, but she went back to bed and closed the door of her room. The others made an attempt to be cheerful. Like people who feel the oncoming panic of despair, they gave voice to expressions of optimism which they knew to be false.
‘I often saw fogs heavier than that,’ Ellen Gleeson said, as she rocked the baby in the hearth corner.
‘As heavy as that?’ said Thomsy. ‘Sure that’s not a heavy fog. I saw a fog once that was as thick as night. You can see to the end of the yard in this one.’
‘You can see farther,’ said the old man. ‘On the south side there, you can see as far as Patsy O’Hanlon’s house. It’s not a thick fog. It’s funny the smell that comes from fogs.’
‘I never smelt a fog before like that,’ said Mary. ‘It must be a new kind of fog. But a fog can do no harm in any case. If it was rain now, that would be a different story. Rain might rot the potatoes and they ...’
‘Nothing will rot the potatoes,’ said the old man. ‘God forgive you for saying such a thing.’
Mary cooked some Indian meal and turnips, of which a few still remained. While they were eating, a further astonishing thing happened. The sky cleared almost instantaneously. The sun shone brillantly. Yet this change, which should have cheered the watchers, only increased their awe, for the stench still remained. They all stopped eating. The old man got to his feet. He reached for his hat and fumbled with it, looking about him at the others with the expression of a small boy who has committed some offence of which he is ashamed.
‘Blood an ouns!’ Thomsy said, jumping to his feet.
With his mouth wide open, he stared at the old man. Then they both clapped their hats on their heads and rushed from the house. Mary ran to the cradle, picked up the child and pressed it to her bosom.
‘What ails ye?’ her mother said.
Maggie began to wail in the bedroom. All the colour had gone from Mary’s cheeks and her eyes seemed to have enlarged. She handed the baby to her mother and whispered:
‘I’m going out to look at the gardens.’
Thomsy and the old man, one after the other and with their hands behind their backs, were walking slowly down towards the potato gardens. Mary ran until she reached them. Ahead she could see the gardens, still shining in all the glory of their dark-green foliage, under the radiant sun. But the stench was now terrible. In single file, they came to the first garden and leaned over the stone fence close together, staring at the plants.
‘They’re alright,’ said the old man. ‘There’s nothing on them.’
‘Whist!’ said Thomsy. ‘What’s that I hear?’
Towards the north, in the direction towards which Thomsy pointed, Mary and the old man saw people looking over fences, just as they themselves were doing. These people had begun to wail. In this wailing there was a note of utter despair. There was no anger in it, no power, not even an appeal for mercy. It was just like the death groan of a mortally wounded person, groaning in horror of inevitable death.
‘It’s the blight,’ Mary whispered. ‘Oh! God in Heaven!’
‘Look,’ gasped the old man through his teeth. ‘Look at it. It’s the devil. It’s the devil himself.’
With outstretched hand, that trembled as if palsied, he pointed to a little hollow about ten yards within the fence. Here the growth was particularly luxuriant and the branches of the potato stalks were matted as thickly as a carpet. Mary and Thomsy followed the direction of his hand and while he babbled foolishly they saw the evil appear on the leaves. A group of little brown spots had appeared and they spread, as if by magic, while they watched. It was just like the movement of an incoming tide over a flat, sandy shore. It was a rain of spot spreading rapidly in all directions.
‘Oh! God Almighty!’ Thomsy cried. ‘Save us, oh, Lord! Jesus! Mary and Joseph!’
Rubbing his short, fat arms against his sides as if he itched, with his round, bearded face turned towards the sky, he prayed for mercy. Mary felt the same emptiness within her as on that other day when the old man mentioned Martin’s name. Now, however, she did not think of Martin. The whole world seemed to have become emptied. The hand had scooped out everything. There seemed to be weights at the back of her eyes and her forehead became deeply ridged by the labour of keeping them open. Then a violent sobbing shook her. She closed her pained eyes and covered them with her hands. She leaned against the fence and gave way to a fit of sobbing. Yet no tears came from her eyes.
‘The devil,’ shouted the old man, ‘he’s on us. He’s on us.’
Uttering shriek after shriek, he climbed over the fence, fumbling so much that he dislodged several stones. He strode through the stalks, that came up to his waist, across the ridges, until he came to the affected spot. The stench was now that of active corruption. The old man seized the stalks that were marked with spots and began to pull them. The leaves withered when he touched them and the stalks snapped like rotten wood. But the potatoes clinging to the uprooted stalks were whole. The old man dug into several of them with his nails.
‘They’re not rotten,’ he cried, laughing hysterically. ‘Come on, Thomsy. Pull the stalks that are rotten. We must stop it spreading. Mary, you come as well. Pull the stalks. Pull. Stop it spreading.’
Excited by the old man’s frenzy, Thomsy also climbed over the fence and waddled through the stalks, but he halted when he was a few yards from the old man, who was pulling feverishly and shouting. The old man was now surrounded by a widening lake of spots.
‘Sure, it’s flying all over the garden,’ said Thomsy. ‘Look, man. It’s all round you. You can’t stop it.’
‘What’s that?’ said the old man, raising his head.
He looked all round him pathetically. Then his mouth fell open and he stood up straight. His hands dropped to his sides.
‘You’re right,’ he said faintly. ‘It’s the hand of God. God’s will be done.’
Thereupon he crossed himself and bowed his head. Not troubling even to collect the potatoes he had pulled up with the stalks, he marched slowly back to the fence, carelessly trampling over the stalks that were still untouched. Mary turned away from the fence as he approached. She began to walk back to the house.
The wailing was now general all over the Valley.