Monday, June 19, 2023

The Perils of Prejudice


Chapter 3 – An Unexpected Visitor


When we arrived home after our twenty-eight days in Ireland and Great Britain, the vision of those statues in Dublin still haunted me. I began accumulating and reading any books about Irish history that popped up on my Internet searches. As I worked my way through this first seven I’d bought, I became more and more appalled at the stories they revealed.

          Over the course of almost a millennium, England had considered Ireland a country of barbarians, and many even called the Irish sub-human. The Irish Problem was a preoccupation of English Monarchs from the fourteenth century onward. Some of the atrocities committed on both sides seemed unbelievable.


          One night, as I lay in bed trying to sleep, images of some of the things I’d read bounced around in my mind. Lord, I wish I could have been there to help those poor people. Or at least to see for myself what they went through.

          ‘I think that’s what I’m here for,’ came a voice in my mind.

          What? Am I going crazy now—hearing voices?

          ‘No, I’m really here in your mind.’

          I glanced over to see my husband sleeping soundly, and sat up in bed shaking my head. This shouldn’t be happening. Lord, help me!

          Then a bluish light appeared at the foot of the bed. Within its glow I saw a face with piercing brown eyes, surrounded by a halo of brown curly hair. I covered my eyes to clear my vision, but when I looked again, the vision was still there. “Who are you?” I whispered.

          ‘My name is Cinda,’ said the voice I’d heard in my head before. ‘I’m one of your descendants, born in 2064.’

          “But that’s forty-two years in the future. How can you be here?”

          ‘It’s called crossing the GAP, a way of jumping across vast expanses of space and time.’

          “I must be asleep and dreaming all this,” I murmured.

          The light suddenly disappeared, and I sighed with relief. Until I heard the voice again. ‘You don’t have to speak aloud to me,’ said the voice that had called herself Cinda. ‘I guess you could call me a time-traveler. I think I’ve been sent here to take you back into your ancestors’ lives.’

          You think?

          ‘Things like this have happened to me before, Emilia. Another GAP-crosser took me back into lives of some of my ancestors. Now she’s told me to do the same for you.’

          I closed my eyes and lay down on my pillow. When I opened them, all I saw was the dim ceiling of our bedroom. All right, if this is a dream, I’ll go with it. And if it’s real—well, I’ll have to go with that, too. Did you hear that, Cinda?

          ‘Yes, I did.’

          My heart pounded and felt like it would jump out of my chest. So am I dreaming, or not?

          ‘Does it really matter?’

          I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe it didn’t make any difference. “I don’t know,” I whispered to the ceiling.

          ‘Just trust me,’ said Cinda in my mind. ‘To start with, I’m only going to take you back 50 years, into your own past. Maybe you will remember this—'

          Strange yellow and amber lights began flashing over my head. When I closed my eyes, the lights were still dancing before me. I felt like I was falling through the bed, then the floor, and at last floating in nothingness. My hands began to tremble. Soon the sensation filled my whole body. Just as I was about to cry out, my vision cleared.

           I was sitting on a soft blue sofa in a sunlit room. Across from me was my grandmother, Mary Emilia, sitting in her favorite rocking chair. Grey hair framed her wrinkled face, but her brown eyes still had the twinkle I knew so well.

          “So you saw Killarney,” Grandma smiled. “Did you also get to tour the Ring of Kerry?”

          “No, unfortunately. I ran out of time and had to get back to Edinburgh for school.”

          “Ah, too bad. It’s a beautiful place.” She had a faraway look in her eyes. “I heard so many memories from my grandfather of times he spent there in childhood. I even got to visit there once with my mother and father, when they went back for a tour.”

           She had a faraway look in her eyes and lapsed into silence.  At last, I spoke, just to break the uneasy feeling in the room. “The weather was dreary and rainy when I was there in 1973, Grandma.”

          “Yes, it often rained, my grandfather Thomas Cantlon told me. The worst was the bitterly cold winter of 1846, when it snowed for weeks on end.”

          “Were you there. Grandma?”

          “Heavens, no! I wasn’t born until 1889, long after my parents and grandparents had made their way to America.”

          “When did they come?”

          “I believe it was 1847. My father John Cantlon was a child of only three ,

          “What was that like?”

          “I’m sorry, dear. I should have asked my grandfather more about it, for my father was too young to remember much. The only thing he remembered was feeing sick and hungry as the boat tossed and rocked in storms on the sea.”

          “I wish I could know what it was really like.”

          “Oh, child, those memories are terrible, I think. Whenever I asked my grandfather, all he would say was: ‘Those times are best forgotten. My mind recoils from them when I try to remember.’ 

          Shining tears appeared in Grandma’s eyes.

          “I’m sorry,” I murmured. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

          “Oh, I cry at the drop of a hat these days. I guess it’s the price of having lived eighty-five years. Each morning I ask the Lord if I can go now—to see my dear departed husband Frederick.”

          I stood and moved toward her, taking her quivering hand. “I’m sure the Lord will take you home soon, Grandma.”

          She pulled one of my hands to her cheek. I felt the softness of her flacid skin. “I pray God hasn’t forgotten me,” she whispered.

          “The Bible says He will never leave us or forsake us,” I murmured.

          Her head nodded against my hand. “Yes, well I’m ready whenever He is.”

          I stood there a long time, just holding one of her hands with one of mine, while she pressed my other hand against her cheek.


          Then the room around me began to swim before my eyes. Those amber lights flashed in my eyes again.

          Are we going somewhere else, Cinda?

       ‘Yes, it’s time for you to see the Potato Famine for yourself.’

          After all I’ve read I’m not sure I want to.

      ‘Admit it, Emilia, you do want to deep in your heart.’

          Yes, I suppose so. What year are we in now? I’m all confused.

          ‘You were just back in time with your grandmother in 1974.’

          She died in 1976, I think. Are we going back to my own time now? To 2022?

     ‘No, we’re going backwards again.’

     My stomach churned, and I tried not to be sick. I failed, though. Soon I found myself vomiting into a stinking bucket.     


Tuesday, June 6, 2023

An Irish Odyssey, Chapter 2


The following is from the second chapter (first draft) of a new historical fiction book I'm starting, titled An Irish Odyssey.  You are the lucky few to see it first!

Photo of Famine Ship, Dublin, Ireland, 2022

With a maiden name of Emilia Rene Haas, most people would assume my ancestry is German, but that’s only partly true. My father’s mother was one hundred percent Irish, which makes me one quarter Irish on his side. On my mother’s side, there is mostly English and Scots-Irish. 

These Scots-Irish ancestors of mine were Protestant Scots and English from the Borderland--southern Scotland and northern England--to whom King James I of England in 1610 offered free land in the northern counties of Ireland. This was done to create a buffer between Catholic Ireland and Protestant Scotland and England, and it came to be called The Plantation of Ulster--the 9 counties of northern Ireland. His plantation of Protestants on seized Catholic lands wasn’t the first, however. In the 1500s Queen Elizabeth I also planted Protestants in Munster, the six southwest counties of Ireland. My Irish ancestors came from this region. In fact, English political attitudes toward Ireland as The Irish Problem date all the way back to Henry VII, father of the better known Henry VIII.

          By the 1800s very few landowners were native Irish, and the majority of Catholics in Ireland were tenant farmers, who relied almost solely on the lowly potato as their source of food. As time passed, their potato crop became their only source of revenue to pay rent to their Protestant landlords. In addition, they were required to pay a tithe of their earnings (ten percent) to the Protestant Church of England, a church they didn’t belong to and gained no benefit from.

As time passed, these seeds planted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led to sectarian violence that has lasted into the twenty-first century. The roots of the problem still haven’t been fully resolved, but are simmering beneath the surface like a dormant volcano. The conflict has always been more about political power and less about religion, and those plantations by English monarchs have borne much bitter fruit.


          Four days after our tour of Derry/Londonderry, our tour group settled for two nights in Dublin, capital of the Republic of Ireland. In 2022, it’s a bustling city with a harbor on the River Liffey, which runs through the center of the city. The old dockyards have been given a make-over into a pleasant pedestrian way, paved with gravel and concrete stones and a lane of shade trees running parallel to the riverbank. We didn’t see any of the graffiti which we’d seen in Northern Ireland.

          As my husband and I walked along an esplanade, we saw a three-masted sailing ship moored by one of the quays.

          “That’s a beautiful sight, isn’t it?”

          “Yes,” said John. “It reminds me of the tall ships we sometimes saw sailing on Lake Huron, when we lived in Michigan.”

          “It would be interesting to sail on a ship like that,” I said.

“Of course, the sailing wouldn’t be nearly as smooth as on modern cruise ships.”

“I know. You’re right,” I nodded. “We’ve been spoiled by our two cruises on Radiance of the Seas. Cruising was a relaxing way to travel, wasn’t it?”

“Oh, sure. But I’m not ready to go cruising again until we see if Covid is really over and done with,” he said. “I don’t want to be stuck on a quarantined ship.”

By this time we were standing right above the gangplank leading to the tall ship. A chain stretched across the entrance with a sign showing prices and times of tours. Printed above an archway were the words: This is a replica of the Famine Ships which carried thousands of Irish overseas during the Potato Famine in the mid-1800s.

“I remember my dad talking about how his grandparents and their families came to America during that famine,” I said, looking down at the rough planking of the deck. “Those must have been very difficult voyages.”

John nodded, “Crossing the stormy North Atlantic is seldom smooth sailing.”

The ship didn’t show any signs of life, as we stood and gazed down on her. “They must not be doing tours today,” I shrugged.

“Maybe they will before our group heads back to England.”

“That’s tomorrow morning, though.”

John reached over and took my hand. “Let’s walk some more.”

We strolled away from the ship, and soon came to some statues arrayed along the walkway. They were unlike any statues I’d ever seen. The first two we came upon were a man and a woman. Each clutched a small bundle to their emaciated frame. Their clothes were rags, and their feet were bare, but the faces captured me most. They had the most haggard features and haunted-looking eyes. The man was gazing slightly upward, and in the midst of the fear and desperation on his face, I thought I sensed a tiny ray of hope. To his left, though, the woman’s face showed only bewilderment and despair.

“I’ve never seen statues like this in my life,” I murmured to John. “They look so forlorn and hopeless.”

“From what I’ve heard of the Potato Famine, over a million Irish starved to death,” he whispered. “Those who could manage, left this island forever. Here, look at this sign.”

A few paces beyond these first two statues, a placard read, “In 1844, the Earl of Tullamore evicted all his 120 tenant farmers, tore down their rough stone cottages, and left them to find their own way to Dublin.  Those who survived the 100-mile walk boarded ships like the one moored here, in hopes of finding a better life in America, Canada, or Australia.”

Just beyond the sign was a small statue which was merely a pair of worn-out shoes. Near these, another placard displayed a map, showing the road many had taken. It was labeled “The Famine Memorial Trail.”

I stood rooted to the spot in silence for what seemed a long time, until my husband spoke, “Are you all right?”

Turning to him in a daze, I murmured. “I’ve heard Dad talk about the famine and his family’s emigration from Ireland many times in my life. But it never hit me until today what a tragedy it was. To think that the landlords refused to help their own tenants, and just left them to starve or fend for themselves--if they could.”

“I remember a saying from one of my literature classes in high school. Our teacher often talked about stories that showed ‘Man’s inhumanity towards man.’ This is a classic case, I think,” said John.

“Come to think of it, our tour guide mentioned a field we passed on the coach tour in County Kerry last week. He said it was full of unmarked graves of victims of the famine. No one even knows how many graves there are scattered across the country,” I said. “People were so poor they couldn’t afford coffins, and many were buried in mass graves

“I’ve read that the blight which killed the potatoes was worst in the western counties, like Kerry,” added John.

“I’ve done a little genealogy research,” I said. “My Dad’s mother’s family name, Cantlon, comes from County Kerry.”

We stood gazing at those sculpture shoes, as a cool breeze began to whip the trees above our heads. Yellow leaves scattered in the autumn wind. I shivered, and pulled my sweater tighter around my chest. “Let’s head back to the hotel, okay.”

As John took my hand again, he squeezed it and said, “We’re lucky we have a warm shelter. The poor people that these statues commemorate had no place to go.”

“And no coats, either,” I sighed.

That night, after a rich and filling dinner, we settled into our luxury hotel room. As I stared into the darkness above me, I tried to imagine what my ancestors must have experienced during the famine and their journey to America. What challenges they must have faced when they arrived dirt poor in the place they hoped would be a land of opportunity. Lying there, gazing at a barely visible ceiling, I decided I needed to learn more about their story.

It needs to be told and not forgotten, I said to myself. In many ways, it reminds me of things I’ve heard said about the Jewish Holocaust. We must remember so these grim parts of history won’t be repeated.