The Tracarta signpost loomed out of the murk without warning and I had to brake hard to take the turning safely, thankful the tyres held their grip on the wet tarmac. The lane was narrow, edged with thick hedgerows and with infrequent passing bays. I hoped we wouldn’t encounter a truck, and was relieved when the rain eased, although, as we approached the coast, more low dark clouds were scudding in before the chilly wind.
The village was a single street of whitewashed cottages on the edge of the cliff, with tiny walled gardens barely sheltering the tossing buds of early summer roses, delphiniums and hydrangeas. There was space out front of the end cottage to park, and our feet crunched on the gravel as we hurried towards the front door. I reached for the reassurance of Margaret’s hand, and shivered.
‘Someone walk on your grave?’ she grinned.
‘Felt like a spirit walked right through me,’ I replied, reaching for the doorknocker.
The woman who opened the door looked older than she appeared in the photograph. ‘I see you’ve brought the rain,’ she said, glancing disapprovingly at the lowering grey sky. Then her eyes crinkled into a welcoming smile. ‘I’m Lucy O’Dowd, you’d best come in Cousin James, and tell me who ya think ye’are?’
She sat us down at the kitchen table, and over sturdy cups of strong Irish tea we discussed the distant connection. Our second great grandfathers had been brothers, both born in West Cork in the first half of the 19th century, although mine had subsequently migrated to England.
‘Were there any other siblings?’ I asked. ‘Was it a large family?’
‘Sure there were a dozen or more, boys and girls. They had big families in them days, ‘twas partly the curse of Ireland.’
I’d never heard children referred to as a curse, and my face betrayed me.
‘D’ya know much about Irish history, Cousin James?’
I had to confess that I didn’t. Apart from the Irish surname, I hadn’t thought I had much connection with Ireland, my father had migrated to Australia when I was a child, and his father and grandfather had both been Durham miners. It was the television genealogy adverts that prompted me to look further, and led me to James Reilly, my namesake, who’d arrived in Durham some time before the 1851 census.
‘Over population and the famine,’ said Lucy. ‘That was the curse on Ireland.’
‘Ah, the potato blight,’ I said, with a sudden flash of recollection from British history lessons at school.
‘The blight rotted the potatoes, right enough,’ said Lucy. ‘But it was the English made the famine.’
She saw my confused look and her face creased into a smile. ‘Well, that’s what some say. Truth is there was plenty of food in Ireland, but most of it was exported to England. The Irish couldn’t afford it.’ The smile faded to sadness. ‘There were over eight million Irish before the blight came, that was in 1847. Four years later a million had starved to death and another million had left the island, emigrated to America or Canada, or even England.’
With James Reilly, my second great grandfather, among them. But what about his siblings I wondered.
‘Did the famine hit hard around here?’ I asked. It was a long time ago, but Lucy’s feelings on the subject probably still ran deep.
‘West Cork was one of the worst affected areas. There’s a famine burial pit near Skibereen, just up the road, where over 10,000 bodies were buried. The families were dirt poor, they couldn’t afford funerals. There’s plenty of Reillys in that pit.’
‘That’s dreadful,’ said Margaret. ‘We should pay a visit before we go back to Cork. Lay a wreath.’
‘The dead pay no mind,’ said Lucy, ‘life is for the living.’
I glanced around the kitchen. The ceilings were low and there were slates on the floor. ‘Was this the original family home?’ I asked, thinking of the generations of Reillys who must have lived in this beautiful part of Ireland.
‘Heavens no,’ laughed Lucy. ‘Most of those were pulled down by the landlords when the people… left. No, my father bought this. He still lives here. I look after him.’
She hadn’t mentioned her father before. Not in the email exchange after I had contacted her to establish the family connection. And not when I wrote that Margaret and I had booked our trip to Cork, and she had invited us to visit her. She must have read the confusion in my face.
‘Ah, did I not mention the auld fella. He’s well into his nineties now, and his mind wanders a bit, if you know what I mean.’
‘It’d be a shame to come all this way and not at least say hello,’ I said, still wondering why she hadn’t mentioned him before. ‘If you think he won’t mind.’
‘Sure, a quick hello won’t hurt,’ Lucy replied, pushing herself out of the chair. ‘I’ll just check he’s awake.’ She paused in the doorway, twinkling eyes highlighting her grin, ‘But I should warn you, he doesn’t have much good to say for the English.’
The ‘auld fella’ was sitting in an armchair when Lucy led the way into the parlour and introduced us. His feet were resting on a padded footstool, and there was a shawl over his knees. His face was deeply creased with age, and there were a few wisps of grey hair left on his liver spotted scalp. A gas log fire hissed in the grate where once peat might have burned. Above the mantelpiece was a framed portrait of a Victorian era gentleman in a severe black coat, with tousled hair and the hint of an ironic smile around the lips and eyes.
‘One of our ancestors?’ I asked, indicating the portrait.
‘Daniel O’Connell.’ The auld fella seemed to rouse himself, his creaky voice rising in pitch. ‘The man who liberated the Catholics from the English Penal Laws.’
I was about to ask him to explain when Lucy laid a hand on my arm. ‘They didn’t come for a history lesson Dad, they’re our cousins, come from Tasmania in Australia.’
‘Is that so?’ his rheumy blue eyes scanned our faces. ‘Plenty of good Fenians was sent to Tasmania. Picked by the best judges in England.’ His chest heaved in a dry rasping chuckle.
‘Not us Mr Reilly,’ I said. ‘My family migrated to Australia when I was a boy; Dad went to work for the Hydro-Electric Commission in Tasmania. But I’m a Reilly too, I believe we share a common ancestor, Thomas Reilly, your great, great grandfather.’
‘Didn’t think you sounded Irish,’ said the auld fella. ‘Your father now, where was he from.’
I remembered Lucy’s warning and swallowed. ‘From Durham, his father and his grandfather were miners there, but Dad was an engineer.’
‘Sasanachs!’ It sounded like an insult.
‘But my great, great grandfather was Irish,’ I said, defensively. ‘James Reilly, from Skibereen.’
‘James Reilly,’ repeated the auld fella, dropping his head and gazing pensively at the glowing fake logs. ‘I don’t know any James Reilly from Skibereen.’
I glanced at Lucy. She had warned us about her father’s confused memories. Old as he was though, he couldn’t possibly have known my great, great grandfather.
‘I think we should let him rest now,’ she said, an anxious smile in her eyes.
‘Fetch me the box, Lucy.’ The auld fella’s head had snapped back up and the reedy voice had a surprising note of command.
Lucy hesitated, and then left the parlour, returning a few moments later with an old shoebox tied with a green ribbon. The auld fella reached for it with wrinkled, bony hands, tugged at the ribbon and lifted off the lid.
Inside was a battered leather bound book, and a large revolver.
Lucy saw the startled look on my face and shook her head to reassure me. It might not be loaded, but it still seemed a strange thing to keep in the house with a man suffering the early stages of dementia.
Which seemed even stranger when the auld fella picked up the gun and gazed almost lovingly at it, feeling the weight of it in his fist, and sighting along the barrel towards the window. Then he thumbed back the hammer, and pulled the trigger.
The metallic click was still enough to make me start, and Lucy jumped out of her chair.
‘Dad, don’t go playing with that, now. Give it here.’ She reached for the gun, but the auld fella cradled it in his gnarled hands.
‘Sure it feels good to have the auld Webley back in me fist again,’ he said, his eyes seeming to glow with remembered excitement. ‘Shot many an Englishman she has.’ The excitement faded. ‘But them days is gone,’ he said ruefully. ‘We’re at peace with the Sasanachs now.’
He surrendered the gun to Lucy and picked the old book out of the box. The faded gold embossed ‘Holy Bible’ was barely visible.
‘Now then,’ he said, opening the worn, tattered cover, ‘let’s see if we can find your James Reilly.’
A hand drawn family tree was scrawled over the Bible’s first few blank pages. Working back through the generations we located Thomas Reilly, among whose children was a James, but whose name had been heavily scored through in black ink.
1825 was written beside the name, which looked as if it was his birth year. I remembered what Lucy had said about the first year of the potato blight. ‘That can’t be him,’ I said, ‘it looks as if he died, during the famine.’
‘He didn’t die,’ rasped the auld man, ‘he survived, it was all the others who died, with the exception of the youngest brother Sean. They’re all buried up at Skibereen.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I said, failing to notice the warning in Lucy’s face. ‘If he survived, why is his name crossed out?’
His face flushed with anger, and the reedy voice took on a menacing tone. ‘He took the soup. He’s dead to Ireland, he’s dead to the church and he’s dead to our family. If he was here now I’d shoot the dog like the traitor he was.’
The sudden flaring anger seemed to tire him, and he slumped back into his armchair muttering curses against ‘the murtherin English,’ amongst which I caught savage imprecations against Cromwell, King Billy, Lord Castlereagh and the Black and Tans. Lucy patted his hand to calm him and whispered that we should withdraw to the kitchen, where she re-joined us several minutes later.
‘I’m sorry about that,’ she said with an apologetic smile. ‘The auld fella hasn’t forgotten or forgiven. His father was in the IRA, and his grandfather before him, sometimes I think he believes he was too.’
‘And the gun …’
‘’Twas his grandfather’s. He took it off a British officer killed in an ambush near Kilmichael. The auld fella never shot anything with it, despite what he says.’
‘And what did he mean about James Reilly, my great, great grandfather being a souper and dead to his family. Was he a terrible man?’
‘No, Cousin James, he was a good man, he saved his own family from starvation. But he took the soup, and for that his brother’s family never forgave him.’
‘Aye, there were kitchens set up by Protestant Bible Societies to provide free soup to those who were starving. But they would only serve it to Catholics if they agreed to convert. Sure, it was a cruel choice, abandon their faith, or starve. Your great, great grandfather chose not to starve. But he and his family had to leave Ireland.’
‘And you Lucy, you’re a Reilly too, can you forgive him?’
She considered the question.
‘Despite what the Nuns say, I don’t think the Good Lord expects any of us to commit suicide in his name, and people have done far worse things to survive.’ She paused, and then her eyes brightened into a twinkle. ‘Besides, the auld fella wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for your James Reilly, and neither would I.’
Lucy must have read the confused look on my face.
‘Have you studied the census record for 1851, when James and his family were living in Durham?’
I nodded; it was what started the quest that had led me to Ireland, but I was not sure what she was driving at.
‘Did you not think it a mite strange that the eldest son, Sean, appears to have been born when James was only 15, before he married your great, great grandmother?’
I had noticed that, but had put the anomaly down to the fact that census taking in that era was notoriously imprecise, that and the possibility of a child fathered out of wedlock. Then realisation began to dawn.
‘You mean that Sean wasn’t his son?’
‘No, he was his brother. When James left he persuaded Sean to go with them, passing him off as his son. It saved his life, the rest of the siblings starved; they’re all in the Skibereen famine pit.
‘So Sean was a souper too?’
The rueful smile was sufficient answer.
‘But Sean eventually came back?’ I continued.
‘He was one of the very few who ever did. He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He lived long enough to hear Patrick Pearse read the proclamation on the steps of Dublin Post Office. His son and grandson joined the IRA, and his great grandson sometimes thinks he’s one of them.’
‘But does he know?’
‘That he’s descended from a souper. Aye, but legend’s stronger than the truth. His family fought the English, perhaps they thought it made up for the original sin.’
The afternoon was well advanced by the time we left the cottage. The rain had stopped though, and the sun had brightened the emerald green hills and the flowers. Lucy had presented us with the bible, in that battered old shoe box, insisting I have it.
‘I’ve no siblings and no children,’ she said when I tried to refuse. ‘You’re the last living direct descendent of Thomas Reilly, and you’re interested in the family history.’ She pressed the box into my hand.
‘You never married, then,’ I said.
‘Sure I never said that,’ said Lucy, ‘my wife while be home shortly.’
She saw the surprised look on my face, and laughed. ‘Same sex marriage is legal in Ireland. It gave the bishops heartburn, sure it did. I hear Australia’s taking a vote. I’ll pray to the Good Lord to guide you.’
‘Do you want to call into Skibereen and see the famine pit?’ asked Margaret, as we retraced our way through the narrow lanes.
‘Life’s for the living,’ I said, recalling Lucy’s words and shaking my head, still wondering what the auld fella, with his IRA fantasies, thought about living with his daughter and her wife. ‘Do you think he knows?’ I said.
‘Knows what?’ said Margaret.
‘That he’s living with two lesbians.’
‘I doubt he has any idea, and I bet they spoil him rotten.’
Back in the hotel room, overlooking the River Lee, in Cork, I opened the box to have another look at the old family bible.
And recoiled to find the Webley nestling alongside it.
‘She left the gun in the box,’ I said, eyeing it gingerly, as if it was dangerous, even though I knew it was unloaded.
‘Goodness,’ said Margaret, ‘whatever are you going to do with it?’
I picked it out of the box, and wrapped my hand around the grip. It was surprisingly heavy. I tested the trigger. It was stiff, but there was a sharp click as the hammer snapped onto the empty chamber.
‘Don’t wave that thing around,’ exclaimed Margaret.
‘It’s not loaded,’ I said. ‘Here, I’ll show you.’
I had never handled a revolver before, but it took only a moment to find the thumb lever. The revolver swung open, to reveal the magazine – with one brass cased round still in it.
‘My God,’ said Margaret, a hand flying to her mouth. ‘It was loaded.’
I tipped the bullet out onto the bed, my hands shaking with relief that I hadn’t pulled the trigger again.
‘What are you going to do with it,’ said Margaret, wide eyed with shock. ‘It’s illegal surely.’
‘We’ll have to dispose of it,’ I said beginning to recover my wits. We can’t just hand it in at the local police station, it would get the auld fella into trouble.’
I thought for a moment. ‘Find me an old plastic bag,’ I said, picking up the gun and taking it into the bathroom.
I wiped it all over with a hand towel to remove any fingerprints, it’s amazing what you remember from TV crime shows, and dropped it into the plastic bag.
Late that night we walked along the riverbank, like two lovers enjoying a moon lit stroll. In the shadows of a gap half way between two lampposts, Margaret leaned against the embankment wall and opened her arms to embrace me. I glanced around to see that no one was paying any attention, fished into my coat pocket to extract the Webley, reached behind Margaret, and dropped it into the river. There was a slight splash, as if a fish had jumped, then just the rumble of late evening traffic.
I kissed Margaret, then checked my watch. The pubs close late in Cork.
‘Let’s go and see if the band is still playing those old rebel songs at The Oliver Plunkett.’