Sunday, March 17, 2013

Beyond the Green Hills

Beyond the Green Hills

by Tom Gahan 

He walked slowly at first. Then blending his steps with an awkward jog, he traveled the muddied path alone. Curls of mist rose from the peat. The morning fog that had kissed everything with wetness, now lifted with the brilliant sunrise. Seamus McDonough was on the first leg of a journey that would last the rest of his life. Times at home had not been good. Not good at all. 
His grandfather had survived the famine and stayed. Nothing much came of that. He was nothing more than a slave to the landholder of his small sharecropping farm. Wrongfully accused of poisoning the landlord's horse, he died in prison a defeated man. Seamus’ father worked Grandfather's farm hard enough to feed seven children. Other than being blessed with them, he didn't have much to show for his troubles. His wife died at the birth of his last.
A hay wagon sat at the side of the lane headed in Seamus' direction. “Going my way, are you?” he calls out to the driver.
“Where are you headed, lad?”
“America, I am.”
“I’m not going that far. I’ll be tuning round at Kilcoole. I was restin’ me horse here for a bit. She’s gettin’on.  I suppose I am, too. Hop on. I'll take ya that far at least.” The driver motioned to the place beside him. “Martin Herlihy is the name.”
“Thank you, Mr. Herlihy. Much obliged.”
“I’m glad for the company,” Herlihy said.
“I’m even more glad for the occasion to rest my legs,” Seamus replied as he tossed his bag in with the hay. Herlihy’s gnarled hands flick the reigns and the dappled mare pulled against the harness.
“Ah, boyo, I recall yer face and voice. Y’re in the pubs givin’ them fiery speeches. You live out beyond the green hills.”
“Well, now, yes t’is me.” Seamus shifted uncomfortably on the wagon seat.
“Made good sense to me. What you were sayin’ and all. Even with a belly full o’ potcheen.”
“I don’t touch it,” Seamus countered.
“It was me self I was referin’ to. Why don’t you drink?” Herlihy questioned.
“I’d rather be spending my hard earned bit of money on tools and books. And…this new adventure.”
“I see. Ah, yes! You’re the horse-shoer from Wicklow.”
“Yes, a farrier I am. I remember you and your horse. Shoed her up a couple of times.”
“What’s sending you to America?”
“A steamship out of Liverpool. I’ll catch a boat over from Dublin to connect.”
“Right, then. What I’m askin’ is—what’s chasing you? Have ya thought aboot stayin' and fightin'?”
Seamus measured his words carefully. “Sure I've thought about it. We all have. But what's the point?”
“Right, then. Don't be forgettin' your homeland, lad. It's made you who you are.”
Seamus thought about it for a while. “Sure it's true. The dirt under my nails and on the scruff of my neck is from the turf,” he said.
“The revolution is what will put this good land back in the hands of its people,” the driver said.
Seamus was usually a quiet young man with the ability to read and write very well. His mother had taught him to read by candlelight. When she died, the village priest educated him on the finer points. McDonough always wanted more and something better. It drove him.
“The revolution is the answer for all that troubles us,” Herlihy said and wiped his stubble with the back of his hand.
“Those in the fight will wind up on the losing end of a long rope, courtesy of the crown,” Seamus argued.
“You’ve already been involved. Givin’ those strong words in the pubs. Never know when a constable’s man or a double-agent is listening.”
“I’m careful about that. I always know who’s in the room.”
Herlihy turned and looked his passenger square in the eye and said in a low voice, “You can never tell who might be a turncoat. In these hard times, a little money, a pig, or the promise of an easier life for a workin’ man’s family can turn the weak. A man bribed with whiskey could loosen his lips just the same.”
“Right, then. Just as well I’m leaving. Wouldn’t you think?”
“Probably so.” Herlihy spat over the side of the cart into the dirt. “Boyo, I’m hoping you set foot in America long before the Black and Tans even know you’re gone.”
Seamus knew Herlihy was right. Although he was a skilled tradesman and could likely eke out a little better living than most if he stayed; it would only be a matter of time before they caught up with him. His cousin Kate had gone ahead of him two years ago. She had sent him some money to help with his trip. There was the promise of a job for him at the house where she worked as a domestic at the estate of Patrick Sullivan. Kate arranged for Seamus to work in the stables. Sullivan, a wealthy merchant, was a second generation American. A plan was in place, but McDonough feared the unknown. Word had gotten to him that his compatriots were being treated very poorly in America. They couldn’t apply for most good jobs and were paid lower wages when they did find work.
The two traveled on in silence. Herlihy spoke first, “You’ll be shoeing horses in America, then?”
“Hopefully so,” Seamus replied.
“I hear tell that motorcars are becoming all the rage in America. They don’t need shoes.”
“Well, there might be an odd one here or there. My cousin has arranged stable work for me.” Seamus leaned back in the seat with a smirk. “Of course I’m sure those motorcars will need fixin’ soon enough. I’m fine with that.”
A lone horseman approached. Sitting tall in the saddle, he wore the dark green uniform of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
“Say, old Herlihy. What's in the wagon?” the constable asked. He spoke in a clipped, staccato rhythm.  
“Hay, of course. Can't you see? It's as plain as day.” What a fool, Herlihy thought to himself.
“Mind if I have a look?”
“Suit yourself,” Herlihy said and pulled on the wagon’s brake.
“Who's your passenger?”
“He’s my smithy. Came along to look after old Nell's hooves, he did.” Herlihy grinned.
“A might well dressed for a smith, don't you think?” said the constable.”
“Aye, maybe so, but it doesn’t seem to bother the horse.”
“Don't be a smart-arse. Hold your tongue, Herlihy. Your face alone is ugly enough to get you arrested,” the constable said as he dismounted his horse.
“Did you want to inspect my wagon?” Herlihy jerked his thumb toward the hay pile.
“We've got word the rebels are running guns through here. What do you know about that?” The constable leaned his face to within inches of Herlihy.
“Nothing,” Herlihy replied and turned his head away from the constable’s acrid breath.
“And how about you, mate?" The constable now glared at Seamus. He unsnapped his holster’s cover and drew his Webley revolver.
“Easy now. There's no call for that,” Seamus said. Ashen faced, Seamus held up his hands.
“I'll be the judge of that. Get down off there and help Herlihy unload that hay.” He pointed to the load with the gun.
“Right here?” Seamus asked.
The constable waved the pistol. “You seem like a sturdy enough young man. Right here. Right now,” he said.
Seamus and Herlihy fiercely tossed hay over the sides of the wagon. Seamus prayed that Herlihy wasn't in the business of running guns along with his fodder. The constable took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He began to question Seamus. “The R.I.C.'s barracks up the road were burned the night before last. I'm told they started the fire with tallow and common straw. You've got enough here to start quite a blaze. Wouldn't you say? Carrying baggage and dressed as you are… might you be running away from that job?” He pressed the Webley 450's cold muzzle under Seamus' chin to emphasize his point. Beads of perspiration began to glisten on Seamus’ forehead. “You seem a might nervous, mate. You have all the makings of I.R.A. scum.”
“Sure enough. I'm hoping all the saints in heaven make sure that gun of yours doesn't go off by accident,” Seamus said.
“Don’t be so cheeky. I'll just wait for the next patrol of lovely Black and Tans to take over the questioning. I’m sure they’d like a word with you.” Seamus cringed at the thought of the ruthless Black and Tans interrogating him. He knew they had murdered a local priest in cold blood a week ago.
“If you’re about shoeing horses; where are your trade tools?”
Seamus changed the subject. “I'm off to America to see my cousin Kate McDonough of Wicklow. Perhaps you know of her?”
“Indeed I do,” the constable answered. “Fine lass. Too bad she went packing for America. Is she coming back? Her uncle could have used her help at home. What with seven children and all…”
“Aye, I'm the oldest of them.” Seamus sensed the tension drop and he backed away from the gun.
“Nothing to be proud of. You come from a long line of criminals. Your grandfather died in jail. And rightfully so, for killing a man’s horse,” the constable said. Seamus felt the anger rise in his veins and decided to bite his lip.
“As you say, sir.” Seamus looked to Herlihy, then the wagon’s empty bed and finally to his interrogator. He held his hands out to the side, his palms turned up. “Will there be anything else, sir?”
“Looks as though you’re not carrying any contraband. I guess most everybody’s got a pile of straw somewhere that could be used to set fire. That’ll be all. Load up and be on your way.” The constable climbed back on his horse. “Give my regards to your cousin Kate. I remember her fondly. Let her know her good name and the memory of her fair face got you off the hook.”
Herlihy dropped off his passenger on the outskirts of Kilcoole village. He snapped the reigns and pulled away with a half-dozen American made .30-06 Springfield rifles still safely hidden beneath the floorboards of his wagon.
Seamus finished the remaining twenty-five miles of his journey to Dublin on foot. He had only been there once before as a boy. He had forgotten about the aromas drifting from the bakeries and pubs. Streets bustling with activity greeted Seamus as he made his way to the pier. A boat crowded with people waited for the trip across the Irish Sea to Liverpool.
In Liverpool Seamus threaded his way through the streets. Sooty smoke spewed from factory chimneys and the stacks of ships loitering in the harbor. His ship to New York wasn’t set to sail until the next day. He wandered from the park to a pub and back again to kill time. He read three newspapers. Night was falling and Seamus thought about getting a room for the night. His meager pocket money would have to last until his first paycheck. He reconsidered. The weather was almost mild enough; sleeping in the park seemed to make sense. He then considered the risk of being rousted by the police, harassed by pickpockets, or worse. Seamus chatted up the pub’s proprietor who agreed to let him sit at the bar until closing. Being amiable, and crafty, Seamus negotiated a deal with him to sweep up the place, wash the dishes and stock the bar in return for a meal and being allowed to stay the night inside.
“I’ll come round first thing in the morning to unlock the door,” the barkeep said and poured himself one last draft. Seamus sighed in relief. He was in a country that didn’t take kindly to his lot. Although the owner had a brother-in-law from Limerick, that was about as far as the diplomatic relations extended. In the morning Seamus was up and ready to leave before he heard the key turn in the door.
Seamus bounded up the gangway and produced his papers and ticket for boarding the ship. He had heard horror stories about the coffin ships in days gone by. This ship seemed far better than the ones in the tales. It was booked to capacity and steerage was his only choice for passage. He was okay with that. Making his way below, he found a bunk and stashed his bag.
In crossing the North Atlantic Seamus gained an appreciation for the vastness of the world. Sky merged with the water on the horizon and blended into an indiscernible boundary. Half way into the trip clouds began to thicken and the winds increased. Gradually at first, stiffening the flags, and then whipping into a full gale. What had been a tolerable bobbing of the ship in the sea now changed to an undulating ride. Green water broke over the bow and coursed over the top deck. Seamus watched with a mixture of fear and amazement. Best to go below, he thought, this is no place for horseman. A sudden slash of cold rain chased him down the steps. His knuckles whitened as he gripped the rail. He made his way to his bunk and stumbled in. Women huddled with their children as the ship pitched. Many heaved with seasickness. Even more prayed for their lives.
The storm kept on for two more days. During most of that time, Seamus, and most everyone else aboard, figured they were goners. On the third day the winds dropped, the skies cleared and the crew announce that New York Harbor was only a half-day away. The passengers didn’t have enough energy left to express any joy. Lack of bathing and the effluents of seasickness made the odor below decks unbearable. Seamus longed for the earthy smell of the farm. Even the dung heap smelled better, he thought.
They arrived in New York as the sun set behind the Statue of Liberty. All those in steerage were transferred by ferry to Ellis Island for immigration evaluation. Given the hour, they would have to wait until the following day to be processed. Passengers on the upper decks were granted the luxury of on-board inspection and immigration procedures and the courtesy of being let off in lower Manhattan.
“Where are you from?” a man wearing dark clothes and a thick black moustache asked Seamus. They sat on the long wooden benches under the vaulted ceiling in the Great Hall of Ellis Island waiting for their number to be called. Seamus didn’t recognize the man’s accent. Scores of others sat in the rows. Their accents and languages echoing off the tiled walls were unknown to Seamus.
“I'm from beyond the green hills,” Seamus said.
“Which green hills?” He looked puzzled.
“The ones back home,” Seamus replied and arched his back in defiance of the hard bench.
“That is good. Welcome to America, I think, yes? And maybe yes, this will be our new home?”
“Maybe, yes,” Seamus said.
“Do you have someone here for you?” The man squirmed and tugged on the number card hung around his neck. 57612 it said.
“Yeah, me cousin. Me cousin, Kate. She wrote. Told me to meet her outside Castle Garden in a place called the Battery when I get off of here. I didn’t know they had castles in America. Battery must be some sort of village, I suppose.”  A uniformed man came and tapped 57612 and he was gone. Seamus slumped in his seat for endless hours thinking about the past and wondering what America would be all about. Then he was tapped.
Seamus passed his physical exam and was processed for entry. He was tired, dirty and hungry.
She was easy to pick out of the crowd. Stunning and easily the tallest woman within sight, Kate’s brilliant red hair was bunched behind her head. Her curls tumbled over her shoulders. Seamus ran to her. They hugged.
“Ah, sweet Jesus. You look a mess,” she said and began to laugh.
“Aye. It’s been a rough ride,” Seamus said.
“Surely you’ve had better days. We need to get you cleaned up.”
“A bite would be most welcome.”
“Mr. Sullivan gave me money to see to you.”
“I tip my cap to Mr. Sullivan. Bless him.”  Seamus lifted his tweed cap with one hand and let it fall back on his head.
“There’s a hotel up the street. We’ll get you a bath and your clothes cleaned and pressed. I’ll see to it that you are brought something to eat.”
“Okay, after that. What’s the plan?”
Kate didn’t answer the question. “Let’s get you taken care of first,” she said.
They arrived at the small hotel and Kate paid for the room in cash. She turned to Seamus, handed him the key and said, “Go up and take care of yourself. I’ll meet you in the lobby in two hours. I have errands.” She gave the desk clerk a stern look and instructed him to pick up Seamus’ clothes and send them to the laundry. “Do whatever it is you have to do to have them back in ninety minutes. We have a schedule to keep.” She pressed a large tip into the man’s hand. “See to it that he is brought a decent meal. Am I clear?” The clerk nodded vigorously.
In well under two hours Seamus bounded down the steps into the lobby bathed, shaved, pressed and fed. Kate greeted him and handed him a brown paper package. “Feeling better, are you?” she said. “T’is for you. A compliment of Mr. Patrick Sullivan. He wants you to make a good impression this evening,” Kate said. Seamus opened the package. It contained a new silk tie.
“Right, then,” Seamus said and wrapped the tie around his neck. “Help me with the knot, will you, Kate?” 
“Aye, for sure. Still dressing the McDonough boys, I am.”
“Where are we off to? Seamus inquired.
“I don’t want to talk here. There’s a small pub a few blocks up. We know the owners.”
They walked the streets of lower Manhattan and Seamus was overwhelmed with its enormity. Much grander than Dublin, Seamus thought. He craned his neck and gawked at the buildings and the endless stream of Model T Fords rumbling by. Kate grabbed his hand and yanked him into a doorway. His eyes took a moment to adjust to the mid afternoon dimness of the empty pub. “Back here,” she said and pulled Seamus toward a corner booth. An aproned bartender rounded the bar and approached. Kate waved him off. “Give us a moment, will you?” Without a word the bartender nodded and shuffled back to his post.
“Seamus there are many of us who believe we will one day make a difference and win the respect of this country. In a short time we’ve already gained control of the police and fire departments. Some other areas, too. We’re not done yet. It’s a big block of votes as the bosses say.” She looked at Seamus to make sure he understood. “We believe that before long one of our people will be in Washington’s Whitehouse. In the meantime, there’s other work to be done.” Seamus leaned forward as Kate lowered her voice. “It’s all about independence and becoming an Irish Free State. As you know, Mr. Sullivan has sponsored you here as part of a much grander plan than the stable.” Seamus bobbed his head in agreement.
“He’d like to get you naturalized and run you for Congress some day,” she said. Seamus’ eyes widened. “You’re smart and hard working. He’ll pay to further your education.”
“For God’s sake, Kate. If I am going to represent the people it should be back home,” he countered.
“Yes, it’s true. But it’s not safe now. And maybe one day you will,” Kate said. “At the moment, we need you here.”
Seamus was growing frustrated. “Let’s get on with the plan at hand,” he said. “My original proposed role here.”
Kate continued, “Okay, then. You and your gifted tongue are to speak this evening at a social club. It’s out in Woodside Queens. We’ll take a train there. Sullivan will be on hand. He wants you to lecture us about the goings on at home. He wants you to tell it all. The brutal atrocities by Britain’s thugs, the Royal Constabulary, the Black and Tans and...”
“Aye….tonight…are they friends of the revolution?” 
“Now, Seamus...Mr. Sullivan and his family have long been supporters of the Fenian Brotherhood here.” Kate reached out and patted Seamus’ hand in reassurance.
“Sullivan knows you’re a firebrand, loyal to the sod and can deliver an inspiring speech. You move people’s hearts.”
“Right. But are they friends? How do you know there won’t be a detective in the house?”
“Oh surely there will be detectives. But they’re with us.” Kate paused. The quiet darkness of the room enveloped them. She continued, “Yes, Seamus, all friends. Brotherhood members, they are. Tonight it’s a fundraising benefit for the new Irish Revolutionary Army.”
“Right. That’s what I’m here for,” Seamus said. “Let’s be on our way.”

© Tom Gahan 2011 - 2013. All  Rights Reserved.

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