By Claire O’Malley
The family rested beside a clump of celandines as they made their weary way to the Workhouse. Soft moss massaged their tired feet. Jack, their father, saw two ravenous dogs about to attack the body of a man lying dead in a gap. He chased the dogs away with his spade and then dug a hole, pausing every few seconds as his own strength was waning for want of food. He placed the body in the new grave facing east and covered it with clay. His two older children, Máirín and Seán, gathered pebbles from the dusty road and placed them on top of the grave in the shape of a cross.
Eibhlín, the three year old, had stopped crying and was pulling some celandines to tickle the nine month old baby’s face. The flowers reflected yellow on the baby’s skin as Eibhlín moved them lightly back and forth. Margaret, their mother looked on, happy to see Eibhlín distracted for a while and her little baby Joanna smiling. A clip clopping of horses in the distance interrupted this moment of peace. A convoy of carts full of food was approaching on its way to the quay in Westport. Margaret wrapped her shawl around the baby and they all huddled together keeping close to the wall as the convoy passed by. Red coated soldiers, to the front and sides of the heavily laden carts guarded the food in case of attack from emaciated paupers.
A pitiful sight! All that food being exported and people starving to death! Jack felt a raging heat enveloping his body. He gripped his spade to knock a soldier to the ground. Margaret, sensing disaster, squeezed his arm in a vicelike grip. If he attacked, they’d all die. They managed to stay by the wall until the soldiers and the sound of horses faded into the distance. Jack sank to the ground, his whole body shaking. Whining dogs, getting the scent of cured pork in the wind, howled mournfully across the valleys. The sight and smell of food out of reach was enough to drive man and beast crazy.
Moving out onto the road, the parents and two older children looked towards Ballinrobe. The tall grey Workhouse Building loomed over the brambles filling their hearts with dread. The sun was setting as they reached the Bulcán River. Jack dipped his hand in the water and prayed that his family would survive the unknown world they were about to enter. Then he knocked on the Workhouse door.