For St. Patrick’s Day: Molly’s Potato Famine Story in “Iron Pioneers”
For St. Patrick’s Day, I am posting the passage in my novel Iron Pioneers: The Marquette Trilogy, Book One, where Molly shares for the first time in her life what happened to her during the Irish potato famine. She tells this to her future son-in-law, Patrick, in 1883. He is newly arrived to Marquette from Ireland and he complains to her about how the Irish are oppressed by the English when she is asking him about his past to make sure he deserves to marry her daughter, Kathy. Kathy is waiting in the other room for Molly and Patrick’s private conversation to be finished.
Before I published this novel, I paid for an editorial evaluation to be done, and the editor suggested I cut this scene because it wasn’t about Marquette itself, but to me, this is perhaps the scene that truly embodies the entire theme of the novel and how my story of Marquette’s history is played out as a larger part of the American Dream, for which all our ancestors–Irish and otherwise–came to this country. May we never forget them, the tragedy they endured, and the courage they had to come to this country.
From Iron Pioneers:
“I can to some extent,” Molly replied. “I lived during some hard years in Ireland myself.”
“It’s never been as bad as now,” said Patrick. “And the people only make it worse by being afraid to act. They pray for miracles, even make up stories about them, but nothing changes. I don’t believe in miracles.”
“I do,” said Molly. She remembered how Bishop Baraga had prayed to God to save Kathy’s life, then laid his hands on her.
“Well, I don’t,” Patrick repeated. “The only good miracle would be to have the British drowned in the Irish Sea. Instead, we get a useless miracle like the one at Knock a few years ago.”
“At Knock?” asked Molly, remembering that village had not been far from where she grew up. “What happened at Knock?”
“People claim a miracle happened, but I don’t believe it. It makes no sense.”
“What kind of a miracle?” asked Molly. “I never heard of a miracle happening in Ireland.”
“Some of the villagers in Knock claim they saw an apparition.”
“Really?” Molly pondered what this could mean for Ireland, if it were true. Was it a sign of peace, or of trouble to come? All her life, she had longed to see a vision, but she had never believed herself good enough to be so blessed. Having God intercede through Bishop Baraga to cure her daughter was in itself more than she had deserved.
“It happened about five years ago,” said Patrick. “Near the church, some people saw three figures: the Blessed Virgin in the center, dressed in white and wearing a crown. On one side of her was St. Joseph and on her other side St. John the Baptist. The vision lasted for two hours; it was evening and dark because it was raining, yet the vision remained and supposedly no rain fell on it.”
“Was a message given?” Molly knew visions and apparitions often resulted in tidings or miracles, as at Lourdes when the Virgin Mary had caused a healing spring to appear.
“No,” said Patrick. “I don’t believe in miracles anyway, but this vision or miracle or whatever you want to call it made no sense. My sister claims it was intended to comfort the poor and suffering of Ireland, but I don’t see how they can be comforted when God and His Church improve nothing.”
“Perhaps the miracle reminded people that God loves them, that they will have a better life in the hereafter,” Molly replied; yet she wondered why a vision had not appeared in those hard years of the famine when her family had been forced to leave their home.
“My sister visited Knock not long after,” Patrick said. “She claims you can sense you are on holy ground there, that the Holy Spirit fills the place. Tons of people now go there on pilgrimage. Some say the miracle occurred at Knock because the local priest is a holy man, but others say that because the priest did not witness it, Ireland is lost. Some claim the sick have been cured there, but I doubt there’s any proof. Everyone is in disagreement about what happened and what it means, so it might as well have never happened for any difference it has made.”
“We can’t know that,” said Molly. “Plenty of things happen that we question at the time, but years later when we look back, we find a meaningful pattern in them.”
“The Irish want salvation from the English, but God sends them a vision that lasts for two hours and that only a handful witness. That makes no sense,” Patrick repeated. “If you ask me, God has abandoned Ireland.”
“Patrick,” said Molly, less angered by his words than grieved by his lack of faith, “remember that people thought the Messiah would be a king, but instead, He was the Son of God who came to free men from their sins. Your experiences were horrible, but you do not yet know the full extent of suffering. Like you, whenever I’ve suffered, I’ve asked why, only to find later that I was the stronger for it. God knows your suffering is to your advantage, and someday you will come to know that too.”
“With all due respect,” Patrick said, “you may have suffered, but you haven’t known the misery I have by being exiled from my family and having to live in daily fear.”
Molly tried to control her voice. What did this young man know about her life?
“I have never been completely alone,” she admitted, “but I have watched my loved ones suffer and stood by helpless. You are too young to know what my generation endured, but your parents or grandparents must have told you about the great famine.”
“Of course,” said Patrick, “but a famine is not the same as political oppression.”
“No, it’s much worse,” said Molly. “We had no one to blame for it, not even the English. We could find no meaning or explanation for our misery. You don’t know what it is to watch your loved ones starve to death, to know there is nothing you can do to help them, even to wonder if there were a morsel to eat, if you would have the decency to share it with your own mother or sister. Hunger can turn people into ravaging animals. It makes you completely helpless until even your mind is lost.”
“Yes, but I don’t think—”
“Don’t interrupt me,” said Molly. “I’ve not spoken of this for thirty-five years, but in all fairness, I think I owe you my story as well, and perhaps you’re the only one who can understand or bear its horror.”
Patrick shrunk back. The painful hunger in Molly’s eyes looked as if it would devour him when unleashed.
“First,” said Molly, “we heard rumors that the crops were blighted. Not long after, my father and brother dug up the potatoes. They stank; they were black, filled with disease. My father let up a wail unlike anything I had ever heard before in my life, not even from a woman. We ran to him in the fields, my mother, grandmother, sister, all of us, and we feverishly dug up every potato, hoping to spare a few. Not one potato was edible. Every single one was destroyed. We fell to the ground in tears. We held each other. We wept in the belief we would all die. Soon we had word that all our neighbors suffered the same catastrophe. There was no food to be found in the entire county. The few who were rich enough to own cattle, slaughtered and ate them, then starved to death when the meat was gone. Our neighbors resorted to eating grass. My grandmother—she became so weak we had no other option; we tried to get her to eat grass too, but she only vomited it all up. Can you imagine watching a good old woman suffering like that? And when she died—”
Molly broke into loud wailing sobs.
In the kitchen, Kathy heard her mother’s tears and trembled. Yet she dared not enter the room.
Patrick waited as Molly wiped her tears. Once she regained control, she continued, “We dug my grandmother a grave. My father could not do it, not for his own mother; he was so weak from hunger he could barely stand. My brother and I dug the grave, knowing we would soon also dig one for my father. I wanted then to toss myself in the hole with my grandmother. I do not know to this day how I managed to live through that week.
“But then my uncle came to visit us from twenty miles away. His wife and his two small children had starved to death. My aunt had wanted to leave Ireland for England, but he had refused; he madly thought the government would help us. I don’t know whether the English were at fault—I think they were at a complete loss what to do since the famine was so terrible. My uncle had some money; he wanted to save the rest of the family by sending us to England, but my father was stubborn. He refused to go to the enemy’s land. Then my uncle became ill; he died quickly while my father continued to linger. We took the money from the pockets of my uncle’s corpse, and my brother, sister, and I forced our parents to leave their home. We fled, leaving behind our land, our home, our friends and neighbors, leaving them all behind to die. Do you know the guilt I still feel over that? Do you know how many times I’ve wished I had been buried on the heath of my family’s farm? How often I have asked myself if I deserved to live when so many of them died?”
She was practically screaming at Patrick, as if demanding an answer, demanding relief from her guilt.
“That wasn’t even the end,” she said. “My sister died on the boat to Liverpool; she gave my father her portions of food, never hinting how sick she was. My father recovered from his illness, but both my parents were broken after that. We barely had money for the passage to America. My brother had to steal food on the ship so we could eat. And then we came to America, and things were hardly better than in Ireland; we had to live in two cramped, sordid rooms in what they would call a tenement house today, and we could not find work for weeks. Finally, I got hired in a factory, long hours for slave wages; after six weeks, I was laid off—then I hired myself out as a maid. When I met Fritz, I agreed to marry him partly so I would not be a burden on the rest of my family. What else could I do? True, I was not alone. I was with my husband, and I loved him, but it was not the same as being with my family.
“Tell me, Patrick, the reason for all that suffering. What justice existed in my innocent grandmother dying like that? Why should my poor uncle save us with his money, yet never see America himself? And my poor sister, who sacrificed herself to starvation so my father could live. None of it should make any sense, Patrick. It would have made more sense if I had died with them, but that’s precisely why it makes sense. I believe God preserved me for some reason. I don’t know what it is; He does not let me know because it is beyond my understanding, but I believe it, maybe only because having something to believe keeps me sane, but I choose to believe anyway.”
Patrick was silent after Molly’s revelation. He was relieved when she quit talking, yet he hated the silence that followed. He could not find words to cast out her demons.
“You have the death of one man on your hands, Patrick. I have the death of half the Irish race on my conscience because I outlived them. That’s suffering.”
“You couldn’t have done anything else,” he said. “You wanted to die, but you knew your family needed you.”
“But why did any of us have to suffer? What did we do to deserve it?”
“I don’t know,” said Patrick.
“I don’t know either.”
Patrick was sweating from the heat of her tale. He thought of his own grandparents; now he understood why they had never spoken of the famine. He had asked them about it a couple times, but they had always dismissed his questions. He imagined their pain must have been like that of his hostess.
“It’s all right now, Mother,” he said, placing his hand on her shoulder and giving her his handkerchief. “No one can blame you for any wrong. We’re in a better land now, where we’re safe, and where our children will have better lives. We should just be thankful.”
“It is a better land,” she said, wiping her eyes, then placing her hand in his. She was surprised that he addressed her as mother; had he done so from respect for her age, or from affection as her future son-in-law? It didn’t matter; he had said it sincerely, not to butter her up. He was the only one she had ever told these horrors to—not even Fritz had known; she had not wished to burden her family with that misery, any more than she wanted her children to have empty stomachs.
“I’m sorry,” she said, squeezing his hand. “I’ve tried to forget it all for so long that when I remembered it now, it seemed as awful as if I were living it all over again.”
“It’s all right,” he soothed.
“A million people died, Patrick. Do you know that? One million people died during the famine. I could cry for years and never shed enough tears for them all.”
Patrick said nothing, just allowed her to finish her thoughts.
“If I had stayed in Ireland, like your family did,” she said, “I don’t know whether I wouldn’t be just as angry about the oppression. I try to be a good Catholic, but if I were a man, I might have done the same to that English soldier.”
“Thank you,” said Patrick, “for understanding.”
“I’m glad we’ve had this talk,” she said. She swallowed, trying to clear the dry throat caused by her sobbing. “You understand I had to know for Kathy’s sake.”
“Yes. You’re a good mother to care so much about her.”
“Kathy will be worried,” she said, now feeling at peace with her decision. “You can go tell her I give you my consent. I need a moment alone now. I’ll come join you in the parlor in a few minutes.”
“Thank you,” Patrick smiled, almost reluctant to leave this courageous woman.
Left alone, Molly thought, “The priest was right. If I try to be generous, I receive more. I’m glad I told Patrick; we trust each other now. I think he’ll take good care of Kathy.”
Patrick went into the parlor but found it empty. He wondered what to do until he saw Kathy’s silhouette through the lace curtains. Then he went out onto the porch, welcoming the cool air, the smell of coming rain, the relief to the end of the heat and humidity.
Kathy was leaning against a pillar. She did not even tremble when the thunder clapped.
“Kathy,” Patrick nearly whispered.
A flash of lightning showed him she had been crying.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. For the first time he placed his arm around her waist. He marveled at how natural it felt to hold her. She did not shiver at his touch, but leaned back against his chest.
“Your mother gave us permission. Will you marry me, then?”
“Yes,” she sighed.
“Are you happy?” he asked. “Why are you crying?”
“Yes, I’m happy,” she said. “I love you.”
“I love you,” he replied, kissing her hair.
“I heard,” she said, “what my mother told you.”
“About what? The potato famine?”
He quivered, fearful she had heard his own tragic tale.
“I only heard when she raised her voice, talking about how her grandmother had died. I had no idea she went through that. Can you imagine, my great-grandmother having to eat grass, and then starving to death, and her poor uncle, and all his family, and her sister—her sister would have been my aunt if she had lived. I wish I could thank them all for what they suffered so my mother could come to America.”
“You thank them everyday by living and being happy,” said Patrick.
“I understand now why you left Ireland; if I had to live in such poverty, I would have left too. I’ll never pester you again about it. I understand how awful it must be to speak of it.”
He was glad she understood, without having heard the actual reason he had left.
His chin rested upon her head. The sudden cool air made the perfume of her hair all the sweeter. The rain broke. It came down in torrents. They stood watching it. Patrick remembered Molly saying she could never cry enough tears for the million who died in the famine. He felt as if Nature wept tonight for all those innocent lives.
“How can we live in America, knowing that others are suffering?” Kathy asked.
“By appreciating our good fortune and being happy.”
“Happy?” she asked, feeling it impossible after years of living under her stepfather’s oppression, after the suffering her mother had known. She feared to be happy from fear it would not last.
“Yes, happy,” said Patrick. “All those people who suffered would want us to be happy, to live and marry and have children who will not know such pain. We are the extensions of our parents and grandparents and all those brave people; we’re a continuation of their spirits, and our happiness helps to validate their struggles, to give meaning to their lives.”
He only understood this truth as he spoke it, as he suddenly believed the world could be a wonderful place; that everything could work out for the best. He felt like an old Celtic bard who foresaw a hopeful future capable of washing away past grief.
“We should go inside,” he said. “Your mother expects us to have dessert.”