A FEATURE and TRAVELLER’S TALE by Michael Meehan
It was my father who told me that they walked. It was in the summer of 1859. West to east, Sligo to Dublin, across to Liverpool and then on to Australia, on The Zoboah. The walking – no one else ever claimed that they actually walked, either at this end of their journey or at the other. I decided nevertheless to do it yet again. East to west, this time. Dublin to Sligo. The present moment, you see, had let me down. A long and drawn-out family death left me with a menacing form of freedom. My fleeing great grandparents took their bearings from some uncertain vision of a new world. I wanted to cross paths with them, in my own quest for the old.
Venerable Irish authority had it that they probably caught a train from Boyle, but in truth the trains only came to Boyle three years after their flight. All other details of their journey were long lost in the Fog of Indignant Righteousness. On both sides, Catholic and Protestant. Two young people had chosen to disappear from the face of the earth. From the pages of history. So should it be.
The business of walking across a whole
country confronts you with so much hard fact – the sort of boots you need, the maps you require, the places where you might stay, the need for wet weather clothing and for dry weather clothing. Once you have put together clothing and papers and camera and phone and chargers and their great tangle of cords, the whole starts to drag at the shoulders and set the back a-creaking, as the raw facts of the body and its limits begin to put a curb on what began in higher expectation, dragging you back from the tracing of a wild hypothesis, a riot of imagination, and into the dogged realm of simply ‘getting there’, of simply seeing it through.
The crucial moment and whole purpose of the walk lay in the crossing of paths that ran from west to east and east to west, an intersection in place if not in time, in mind if not in stony fact, of those determined to find a future, and someone for whom the future seemed denied, now chasing life’s extension in the past. The point where the paths might have crossed – fragile and fanciful indeed – was likely to be lost in a practical moment of bending to tie a shoelace or rearranging one’s pack or taking shelter from the rain with a pint in a local pub, knowing that those hardier and more intent souls with so much to lose and so much already lost might have ignored the rain and creeping cold or perhaps were even scarcely aware that it was raining as they fled in the counter-direction, towards the east and to the south.
Did they arrange to meet in the steep lane that ran up to the house, he crossing the valley as he had crossed it a thousand times before, always and for years now finding yet some further business that might bring him up the hawthorn and blackberry choked lanes where he might hope to catch sight of her? Did he offer attention to sick sheep needing care, or just neighbourly help in planting or in thatching, with her parents probably not at all suspicious of this quiet and courteous lad from the far side of the valley, known to them from his early childhood and a familiar companion to her brothers despite all differences in creed, this boy who had worked alongside them and grew up within their sight, but without their quite realising that he had indeed grown up. Perhaps they did not question why it was that he found his way across the valley quite so frequently, why he took such pleasure in taking a drink or piece of bread from the hand of their gentle daughter Elizabeth.
Did perhaps the steady work of the farm and the rhythm of the seasons mask their secret determination, year upon year until this final recklessness, the two of them now with the bloom of first youth gone and the future locked and barred and the dangerous prospect, as an old family story has it, of an arranged marriage for him and the prospect of an addition to the family’s few rocky acres, on the ridge above the lough?
So they locked hands and fled into the depths of night, seeking to put quick distance between them and any who might try to follow, defying the dead weight of the past and the scourge of present anger, with a light drizzle perhaps freshening the route and the light of the moon gleaming in the puddles as they left the familiar night sounds of home, the heavy movement of the cow and calf, the restlessness of sheep. They ran at first towards the north and over the high ridges and rocky slopes that rise towards Geevagh, glancing back perhaps over the moonlit mists that float across Lough Arrow, and then down to Ballyfarnon and into Leitrim, circling over Carrick and on towards Drumsna, determined to travel mostly at night and hoping for the guiding light of the moon to lead them away from the Thou Shalt Not of all that they had known until that time, resting now and then perhaps, just to swap their bundles from shoulder to shoulder, or to remove a stubborn pebble from a shoe.
I was only a few kilometres out of Maynooth when the rain really started. My boots were untested and perhaps indeed were waterproof after a fashion, but soon the water began to flow down from the top, with the waterproofing working more to seal the dampness in than to keep it out, with my rainproof jacket generating its own steam bath, my whole body soaked and slippery as I watched the sheets of rain moving across the paddocks and beating on the road ahead. I made my way against the deluge up through Kilcock and Summerhill and past Swift’s old parish of Laracor and on towards Trim, torn between wanting a lift and relief from the rain, and doing what I’d set out to do in the first place, to walk across Ireland the way they did and to feel ‘what it must have been like’.
Through Trim, Athboy, Kells and Granard I passed, across the Killing Fields of Ballinalee and on towards Carrick, and all the miles of wetness, of hedges and cattle and the thousands of slab-sided Tiger-era bungalows and discarded cottages in ruins that lay between. In reality it rained every day I was on the road, from Dublin right through to Highwood, in the west. I can’t say I wasn’t warned, and towards the end of it, when I dared to complain, I was treated to what I imagine is a very old Irish joke.
Rain? What rain? It only rained twice in Ireland last week. Once for three days and then for four.
How did it happen? What was it like? Did he meet her in the lane, she silent and scarcely to be seen in her dark shawl and bundle and he with his few things tied up in a hessian bag, and he clutching her hand, as perhaps their first moment of true intimacy. ‘Do you think it will be alright?’, she must have said, and of course he reassured her with a squeeze of that same hand, ‘Yes, of course it will all be grand’, while not knowing in the remotest way if it would be grand, knowing only the need to move on quickly through the night and as far as possible from the waking household, with all hope and expectation firmly lodged in ignorance of all that lay ahead, and even Carrick and the towns just beyond a new and quite uncertain territory.
Yes, it will all be fine.
It must be fine, as from that moment of their first touch of hands, there could be no way back. Did he lead, or was it her? Was it she who first suggested it, or was it he? For how long had the idea been shared between them, for how long had they saved every penny, every mite that came their way to put towards this wild adventure, their only real strengths lying in their youth and passion for each other, and in a blind and determined expectation that the Ends of the Earth had to be better than this site of its beginning?
Did they finally broach the idea with parents, on either side, or was the subject simply so forbidden that they just left without a word, perhaps just a warning whisper from Elizabeth to her sisters, but nothing more than that? Elizabeth, her very existence to become a ‘taboo’ subject to the family, almost from that moment when she touched his hand, and still a taboo subject, as I was to be told in Castlebaldwin by an ageing relation on the Protestant side, for more than a century to follow, with all the details suppressed of that leaving, of that flight across the country, with the two of them unwed and illicit and together day and night in those sheds and taverns and stables to the east.
In time they would have braved the more open roads, catching a ride here and there on a farmer’s cart, perhaps even paying now and then for a pony trap, from village to village and finally to Dublin and on to Liverpool. It seems they did have money – enough to buy themselves a passage to Australia. The family story had always been that they intended to go to North America, but as the next boat to leave Liverpool – where they were married – was leaving for Australia, and eager to avoid being ‘caught’, they jumped on board. This, I’m told, is almost certainly fond family nonsense. The Zoboah a new clippership did not take assisted passengers. They must have paid full fare for it, and indeed, paid a high price – the equivalent of three years wages for an Irish labourer. They must have saved, and prepared for this, for many years.
I imagine she wore one of those thick dark woollen shawls that you see in
photographs of old country Ireland, a cloak you could keep warm and dry in – for a certain period of time – a cloak you could sleep in under the hedgerows, if it came to that, as it did I’m sure as they fled across the country and down towards the city, taking lanes and back roads to avoid the chance of being followed. They chose a time of year when the rain was less plentiful and the hedgerow beds not so uncomfortable, or perhaps they slept in barns or inns along the way or even in the odd shebeen, a shebeen like the one below the house in Highwood, and which perhaps had earned them the coins they stored up for years in secret, to take the boat into the unknown world.
Farmers’ barns are more likely and I thought of how in the morning she must have spent some time picking the grass and straw from her shawl and probably with his help before they took to the road again, perhaps begging soda bread and milk from a kindly farmer before setting off again towards the east, with the farmer or his wife wondering who this couple might be and indeed whether or not they were in the bonds of holy matrimony or just running wild like tinkers and why they should be taking so obscure and uncertain a route towards the city, with the farmer’s wife perhaps touched by the hint of wild romance but thinking all the while that no such thing must happen to her daughters.
The old house is still standing, the most substantial building in the hamlet of Highwood, amid the lakes and ridges to the south of Sligo town. From a distance I could see it, as I toiled up from Ballyfarnon and the shores of Lough Arrow. I saw it in a brief flash of sunlight. The house is derelict but not in ruins. The last of the family to live there are buried down by the lake, within the ruins of Ballindoon priory. The old
farm is intact and still in family hands. To the north and on the far side of the valley, there stands another house. Her family’s house. Also derelict, though also not in ruins, but hidden from sight by a bold Celtic Tiger relic to the fore.
History can take you a certain distance. There are some meagre documents. There is a marriage certificate from Liverpool, from St Augustine’s, in the Irish quarter. There are records of the voyage, on The Zoboah. At the Ends of the Earth, though, the date of their arrival quickly became Year One. It saw the beginning of a new chain of stories, as of a young Irishman getting drunk and in remorse then promising his bride that he would not touch liquor for seven years. Of a victory in a ploughing competition at Meredith and a fine watch and chain still to show for it. Of the discovery of a mysterious hoard of gold sovereigns buried beneath the floorboards, and only retrieved on the old man’s death – all stories that told of a young rebel’s steady growth into patriarch and indeed, perhaps a tyrant – a ‘fine old man’, as he was described in the cautious argot of the time – with all shadow of youthful passion, defiance and excess bred over into tales of bushland heroics and the steadiest of pioneer tenacity, into stories that were designed to run forwards rather than backwards, with all the history that was needful to be found in the mark of the ancestral axeblade on the trees, in the large tracts of flattened and cleared Mallee scrub, in the site of the first slab hut, the well and forge and stables and stockyards, with the inner story and all the grandeur of that passion and that recklessness now lost in silent stone, in the stately monument to Michael and Elizabeth, late of Sligo, nestled amid the scrub and thistles and the tombs of their many descendants in the nearby cemetery.