Famine Orphan

Illiterate yes, but what of that, for exuberant lass in pinafore,

Protégé of the O’Kelly Estate, rescued, cared for, well fed, free,

Rag doll in her room the one cherished possession, loved to its tattered core,

Six open fires in the old house, fuelled by the turf from bog and beech tree.

 

Clouds of famine and want were gathering fast, thickening more and more,

Potatoes in stench from the drills where they grew, rotted by sure degree.

Cruel criers of the tenants distended with gruel, rose to tumultuous roar,

Appealing for soup to ease their distress, supplication on bended knee.

 

Puss mixed with blood in a festering motion, oozed then from every pore,

Dark thatched hovels fetid with mould, bowed to rapacious reign of the flea,

Skeletons on straw in cold corners expired, bodies all wracked and sore,

The gentry with souls of marble and gilt practiced adamant refusal to see.

 

Through all this little Mary served the O’Kelly in dusty dull daily chore,

Adopted orphan unlettered unfettered, kept busy as one worker bee,

But deep distant dreams of another world, caused her heavy heart to soar,

Her masters in pity and sympathy then, to Australia well covered her fee.

 

As she drove down the track in a pony and trap, few chattels in canvas sack,

Wrapped at the bottom her constant companion, rag doll done with kind care,

She paused and with shy hand wiped tears from her eyes, unable to hold back,

Ne’er more would she see green fields in Clondoyle, ne’er more there to hare.

 

In eighteen hundred and forty-five, she left the quay with starving throng,

Gladness in her heart just to be alive, wave tossed to Australia, a route so long,

Just fifteen years when she did arrive, to hear the echoing billabong,

One year later was she wife, had eleven children, none went wrong.

Fertile but short did she survive, at thirty-seven rang out her gong,

Her memory may these lines revive, of Cloondúil youth she spent in song.

 

Full five generations thence, at millennium’s door,

Clondoyle remains the same twixt turlough and raised bog,

Green cul-de-sac revealing tranquil nature’s core,

On Summer nights the sedge emits a low embracing fog,

Which wafts in moonlight shimmer, as those many years before,

When Mary in her tresses leaped and bounded all agog,

Through the briars and the brambles, her servant smock all tore.

 

Greenland geese now flock there still, as in days of yore,

Jumping on the moorland heath, the same species of frog,

Grouse and curlew circle round but corncrake is no more,

A watchful fox can still be spied on his nocturnal jog.

The legacy of want and pain, no-one can now ignore,

And hoe the English landlords the Irish heart did flog,

And flayed it still it beat its last, in mess of bloody gore.

 

Author : John Malachy Raftery

Source :  ‘Absorbing Ireland’. 1998.