Four hundred! Yes, after downloading this book to my e-library, there are now over 400 e-books in there. All from Gutenberg, and all written over a hundred years ago, full of history and terms and customs of the times.
Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill has to be one of the saddest books in the Gutenberg library. There are currently 50,408 free ebooks in their library, so that could be a stretch, but it’s surely the saddest I’ve read so far.
The story begins in Ireland around the end of the 19th Century. Since one line of my family is Irish, that’s why I chose it. I know a lot about lore and how to celebrate St. Patrick’s day, but I don’t know much about the every day lives of Irish families.
Subtitled The Autobiography of an Irish Navvy1, the forward begins with the following paragraph:
‘I wish the Kinlochleven navvies had been thrown into the loch. They would fain turn the Highlands into a cinderheap,’ said the late Andrew Lang, writing to me a few months before his death.
The first few chapters are about his home life as a child. I particularly enjoyed one of his descriptions about old customs:
Once a year, on Saint Bride’s Eve, my father came home from his day’s work, carrying a load of green rushes on his shoulders. At the door he would stand for a moment with his feet on the threshold and say these words:
“Saint Bride sends her blessings to all within. Give her welcome.”
Inside my mother would answer, “Welcome she is,” and at these words my father would loosen the shoulder-knot and throw his burden on the floor. Then he made crosses from the rushes, wonderful crosses2 they were. It was said that my father was the best at that kind of work in all the countryside.
When made, they were placed in various parts of the house and farm. They were hung up in our home, over the lintel of the door, the picture of the Holy Family, the beds, the potato pile and the fireplace. One was placed over the spring well, one in the pig-sty, and one over the roof-tree of the byre. By doing this the blessing of Saint Bride remained in the house for the whole of the following year.
St. Bride’s Eve falls on February 1st. So it would be chilly and probably damp when his father was out gathering his green rushes. Just looking up the date of the holiday causes his narration to become more real to me. I can hear his father stomping his feet as he opens the door. And then the smell of outdoors and the green rushes filling the room as he says, “Saint Bride sends her blessings to all within. Give her welcome.”
And as he sat there bending and weaving his crosses, I can envison the children gathering round to peer over his shoulder, wondering if they’ll ever be able to create anything as beautiful. The author says he never could make one.
Reading a Gutenberg book brings my ancestors’ every day lives alive in a way census records and certificates cannot. Reading about his childhood was enlightening. As he grew to adulthood and tried to earn money for his family though, it became more and more apparent just how hard life could be for the Irish.
Even though parts of it are quite sad, and some would say depressing, I choose to call it insightful. They didn’t know any different, and yes, they suffered, but so did most of their neighbors and townspeople. I can certainly understand why it caused them to scrimp and save and sacrifice to get on a boat for America.
1 Some in the U.S. might not be familiar with Navvy or Navvies. It’s a British informal term meaning navigator or navigation engineer now. But back then it was an unskilled manual laborer, or a worker who does very hard physical labor, the latter being a closer match to what the author described.
2 Also known as Brigid’s cross, Brigit’s cross, or Brighid’s cross, usually four arms tied at the ends with a woven square in the middle. According to Wikipedia they’re usually woven of rushes, wheat stalks or similar.