Chapter Six from 'A Good Girl': 'The Walsh Family Leaves Galway'

Trading Fate

Fourteen-year-old Patricia Walsh, her mother, father, and six siblings, scratched out a living in the stone fields of County Galway, Ireland. Colum Walsh supported the family as a stonemason building estate structures and repairing the fences of an Anglo-Irish landlord. He rented a windowless cottage with a patch of wet, black dirt his wife and children dug in, producing their only crop, potatoes.

The family had always known the anxiety of hunger. His wife birthed their first son in 1831, the fourth year of the food shortages in Galway. When the second son came in 1842, there were food riots in the city. When their last child, a daughter, was born in 1845, the first potato crop failed.

“I swear, Aileen, they was loading potatoes at the docks today. Potatoes, grain, sheep, I seen it with my own eyes. You can’t buy a potato in Galway, but crate upon crate was loaded at the dock for England. Red coats and our own people holding loaded guns on us, like we was bank robbers, common thieves, daring us to come any closer to the boat. Our own people, Aileen. Feckless fools. There’ll be blood on their hands as sure as they pulled the trigger. Shipping food out, food raised by Irishmen, the same men starving in the streets like dogs.”

“Don’t fight them, Colum. Stay away from the docks. I hear talk leaving Mass on Sunday, people are stealing to get arrested and fed a meal in jail. Criminals, we’ll all be, God help us. The Fever Hospital on Beggar’s Bridge won’t take any more. There be no empty beds for the dying. People lying about the steps there and in the streets, dying of the hunger. What will winter bring? Ah, the miseries.” Aileen placed one-year-old Bridget to her breast, silently praying her body would produce enough milk for the child, although Aileen hadn’t eaten in a day.

By 1847, the unholy trinity of cholera, typhoid fever, and dysentery raged across the countryside, leaving a hundred wasted bodies a week in the streets of Galway. Those who survived the fevers, were tortured by the hunger. “Where’s God?” they cried in the street.

Over seven thousand were fed each day in the soup kitchens of the Protestants, Dominicans, Convent of Mercy, St. Vincent’s Convent, and the Monastery School. The irony of receiving “Daily Bread” from the churches of Galway was lost on the parishioners, listless and hallucinating from days without food.

“I’ll be more than a Cottiee, Aileen! I swear to Our Lady, I’ll not dig my children’s graves in the rotting soil of Ireland. There’s no money to be had, and I won’t wait to be evicted and turned on the road with the others. My family worked for the Stokes for as long as we’ve been here, my father and grandfather toiling for them. Our blood and sweat made them rich. They owe us . . . they owe us our lives.”

From "A Good Girl"

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Tags: A, Galway, Girl, Good, Ireland, Literature, excerpt, immigrant, novel, story


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