A Line of Dogs
1848. The start of Ireland’s Great Famine where the vast majority of the population are dispossessed, starving and dying in great numbers.
The young and beautiful Mary McGrath must leave her ailing grandfather to work for distant wealthy relatives in London, where she is cruelly enslaved, abused and raped.
But her tormentors have not counted on Mary’s iron will and her determination to find happiness and love.
1848. The start of Ireland’s Great Famine where the vast majority of the population are dispossessed, starving and dying in great numbers.
The young and beautiful Mary McGrath must leave her ailing grandfather to work for distant wealthy relatives in London, where she is cruelly enslaved, abused and raped. But her tormentors have not counted on Mary’s iron will and her determination to find happiness and love.
Queenie Fogarty works the pubs of London in the world’s oldest profession. Cynical and outwardly hardened by the streets, her heart is opened by the young woman who needs her help and the man who so desperately wants her.
Tim McGrath despises everything British. His seething hatred spurs him on to robbery and violence, actions justified in his eyes as his ‘fight against the oppressors’. The ‘Young Irelanders’ rebel group draws him into their cause and he becomes inexorably tangled up in the fate of their leaders.
John Hammersley cares little for causes, just stealing to survive, until he falls desperately in love with Mary McGrath. He will need every gram of his considerable strength to survive the hardships and trials that lie before him in the Australian prison system and his eventual escape into the wilderness.
These four weld the strongest of partnerships, forged in blood, despair and hardship, but their friendship and love is put to the test many times as they struggle to find their place in a world gone mad with power and greed.
HOW THE STORY BEGINS…..
Whilst most of us have been taught a rudimentary and perhaps somewhat coloured account of the major milestones in world history, it is usually only when we examine the details that many wonderful and interesting stories are unearthed.
Whilst perusing some old records from the assizes, my interest was piqued by the record of one Mary McGrath, who was charged with ‘being unlawfully in charge of a cow.’ My mind raced with the possibilities of such a strange sentence, so I decided to investigate as much as I could of the history of this woman; and in so doing I uncovered a treasure trove of facts, anecdotes, tales and myths that have fascinated me throughout the years of my research.
As a consequence, whilst this book is in no way a true account of the individuals portrayed, (indeed it is largely a fictional tale woven by myself), it encapsulates experiences and privations that were experienced by many people and ascribes them to my main characters. Nevertheless, historical events such as the Dog Line, Ballingarry Riots, Female Factory and many more have been meticulously researched and I have reported them as accurately as possible, whilst at the same time getting the reader‘inside the action’ to experience these amazing events for themselves.
It should also be noted that whilst some of the characters are based on real people, (see the notes at the end of the book), many others are entirely fictional and bear no resemblance to persons living or dead.
She had never stolen so much as a pin before. Would never have considered it. But necessity is sometimes more than just the mother of invention; she can also spawn the child of rebellion, driven by desperation, hunger and a need to survive. Now, the woman-child’s heart hammered loud in her ears and her palms swiped nervous and wet across her dress. Tonight would change her life forever.
Dense black clouds scudded across the Kildare sky, blocking out the pale autumn moon and making it impossible to see more than a few yards. The clouds were driven by the same northerly wind that buffeted the dark shape of a long poultry shed, where hens huddled together on their roosts, silent and asleep, oblivious to the first fat drops of rain starting to patter against the iron roof. Two shadowy figures sat huddled against the sheet iron wall of the shed. Behind them, across the yard, a large hole was cut in the chicken wire fence, just big enough for them to wriggle through. One of the pair, a girl of little more than thirteen years, put her mouth against the other’s ear and whispered.
‘I still don’t think it’s right Timmy… let’s go home.’ Her deep blue eyes wore frowns of concern and the whites contrasted against her pretty young face that was streaked with the black dirt that camouflaged them both.
‘It’ll be alright I tell you.’ The young man coaxed. ‘Would I put me cousin wrong?’ He was tall, rangy, around twenty years old, with a shock of unkempt black hair and eyes that perfectly matched the girl’s. He put his arm around her and placed his mouth against her ear. ‘Look Mary,’ he whispered, his accent broad and lilting, ‘the ‘tater crops have failed across Ireland … and the bloody English are takin’ all the food that’s left. This is our country, but the British control all of the decent land. The Earl that owns this place has likely never even seen it. The feller that lives here is a manager… probably steals from the Earl hisself.’
‘But these chickens belong to the manor Tim.’ She pleaded, indicating the huge house that loomed a hundred yards away in the darkness. ‘Gramps will not tolerate us stealing, even from the British. It’s wrong.’ She felt torn between the teachings of her stern Grandfather and the adulation she felt for her dashing older cousin.
Tim was an only child, an unexpected but cherished burden on a sickly mother and uneducated father. The trio had farmed a small leasehold, barely scratching out a living, but withered crops meant no money to pay the huge rents, so like so many others across the country, they had been forced from the farm by the British landlord. His mother had died of starvation and his grieving father followed soon after, hung by his own hand, leaving the orphaned Tim embittered and filled with a burning hatred of the British. For several months now he had lived with the only relative that he knew, a Great Uncle who lived in Kildare with his Grand-daughter Mary, Tim’s cousin, sharing the one room hovel that they called home.
Her swashbuckling cousin was larger than life for Mary and her Gramps worried when he saw the way that she followed him around like a puppy. The old man’s whole life revolved around the pretty young girl, the daughter of his daughter who had died in childbirth, the father long gone, so the little bundle had been left for the old Irishman to rear alone, the two of them comfortable in the small farm until the Potato Blight had hit two crops ago. He had made every sacrifice to have her educated, even taught to play the piano, read, write and speak English without what he referred to as a ‘Bog-Irish’ accent. At almost fourteen she was blossoming into a beautiful and refined young lady (with a stubborn streak and a mind of her own that he often grumbled about, but took secret pride in) and he was determined not to let poverty, famine or even the influence of the rebellious Tim spoil her chances in life.
Now, Mary’s hero crouched beside her in the darkness of the poultry shed, hand on her shoulder, his whispered breath playing across her cheek.
‘But it’s not strictly stealing Mary. We’re just takin’ our rightful share.’ He hugged her to him. ‘Do you remember the story I told you about Robin Hood? Well this is like that. We just take a little for the poor… that’d be ourselves… and leave the rest.’ He patted her back. ‘Now off you go.’ He paused, then, ‘I’d do it meself, but I can’t fit through the wee hole.’
They both looked at the row of hatches built into the iron wall, each with a lift-up trapdoor to allow the hens to come and go from the yard during the day. They were barely big enough for the birds, let alone a young girl. He lifted one of the trapdoors carefully, hearing the hens stir at the slight squeal of the hinges.
‘Try to get the rooster, so Gramps can use him wit’ his own hens.’ She nodded and swallowed hard, then pushed her head into the opening. The scarcity of food caused by the famine’s grip evident in her stick-thin legs and arms and the knobs of bone that protruded from her shoulders; but even so she had to wiggle and strain to get through the tight opening. Finally she stood inside the hen house, breathing hard in the smothering darkness and standing stock-still whilst a few disturbed birds settled again.
‘How can I pick the rooster out … when I can’t even see my own feet?’ She wondered. Her eyes strained to see through the gloom, but she could only make out a few lumpy shapes slightly blacker than the rest of the room.
‘Hurry up love,’ Tim hissed through the hatch, ‘I think someone’s coming.’
She inched forward across the sticky wooden floor, the smell of chicken-droppings almost overpowering her, the thump of her heart racing in her ears. Eyes straining to adjust to the darkness, she made out a black shape that seemed bigger than the rest of the birds that squatted on the roost. ‘That must be the rooster,’ she thought, ‘but if it is not … it’ll just have to do.’ The bird crooned warily as she reached forward, stroking it with one hand and grasping its legs with the other. She lifted it from the roost and tried to tuck it under her arm, but suddenly it let loose a series of loud squawks of fright and flapped desperately, its wings beating against her face as it tried to escape. She held on grimly, fighting her way through straw and droppings toward the opening. The rest of the chickens were now awake, screeching and flying in all directions, crashing into each other and Mary as they panicked and set up a din that would wake the dead.
‘Who the hell is in there?’ A male voice roared from a window, high up in the big house, followed by the faint sound of doors banging and footsteps running down stairs.
‘Shite!’ Mary cried, diving for the opening in the shed, pushing the rooster ahead of her with her hand locked around its kicking feet. Tim grabbed the bird from her hand and she struggled to emerge through the hole. Tim was half way to the opening in the wire when she called out. ‘Tim … help… I’m stuck!’ He spun around and saw her half out of the hatch, pushing with all her strength, like an overgrown baby emerging from a steely womb.
‘Jesus Mary, come on!’ Tim ran back to help, just as the door to the main house flew open and a figure in a nightshirt burst onto the porch. In the same instant the scudding clouds parted, as if on cue, revealing a full yellow moon that illuminated the scene like a floodlit stage. The property manager peered through the thin blanket of rain, his nightclothes billowed by gusts of wind and then he spotted them.
‘Stop right there, you thievin’ Blackguards!’ He yelled, levelling an ancient gun in the direction of the two figures in the fowl yard, but as he spoke the moon was obscured by cloud again and they were plunged into darkness.
Tim didn’t pause, grabbing Mary’s arm in his one free hand and pulling hard until she popped out, like a cork from a champagne bottle and tumbled free onto the ground of the chicken run. They sprinted to the hole in the wire and were just regaining their feet on the other side when the clouds parted yet again, leaving them totally exposed, a mere fifty feet from the manager who was walking toward them and lifting the gun again.
‘Go Mary… run for it!’ Tim yelled, just as the rooster exploded from the end of his hand in a burst of feathers and flesh, leaving only its feet still twitching in his fist. The boom of the gun followed an instant later, like the crack of a mighty whip, deafening at the distance.
‘Jesus Christ… he shot the rooster!’ Tim exclaimed. He looked back at the manager who had opened the breech and was struggling to reload. ‘Come on love, let’s go!’ He threw the rooster’s claws aside and grabbed Mary’s hand. They ran hard, bare feet flying across the grassy field toward a hedge that marked the property boundary. There was another crack from behind and the hiss of birdshot whooshed past their ears. At the hedge they didn’t break stride, scrambling through a break in the foliage, protected now by the darkness that had closed in again.
‘And don’t come back!’ The voice carried faintly through the night air. ‘Or next time ye’ll be dead… you feckin’ worthless bastards!’
They ran on through the fields outside the village, not stopping until they reached the small farmlet where they lived, arriving breathless on the stone porch of the mud and thatch hut that was their home. Tim dropped onto a wooden porch stool, laughing hard between each gasp.
‘What a bloody disaster.’ He giggled, ‘It’s lucky the old bugger didn’t see who we were. Did you see him shoot his own rooster?’ He broke into spasms again. ‘No bird for us … but great sport eh Mary?’
‘Sport is it?’ An older voice growled from the pulled back canvas sheet that served as a doorway to the house. ‘You better come inside and tell me all about this ‘sport’ that has you both up in the wee hours.’
Mary’s grandfather had heard them coming across the field and had pulled on overalls and boots, their laces still dangling. He held back the ‘door’ and beckoned them inside, pointing to the rickety chairs and table that were dimly lit by coals from a dying fire.
‘Yes sir.’ Tim said as he followed Mary in, his face now sober. ‘But it weren’t Mary’s fault sir. I was….’
‘I know what you were doin’ lad, stealin’ somethin’ from some landowner who you reckon stole it from us in the first place.’
‘But they did!’ Tim said passionately. ‘I hate them sir. How can you say that the British are less than thieves and murderers?’ He shook his hands in front of his face. ‘Thousands dead … me own Ma and Da in their graves. All the village starving while those swine are feasting.’ Tears sprung to his eyes. ‘I won’t apologise for taking from the likes of them. I’ll take from them whenever I get the chance. I swear I will!’
‘Be that as it may, you will not fill Mary’s head wit’ you hair-brained ideas and if you ever ask her to steal again …. I … I’ll put you in to the authorities meself!
’ Mary jumped to her feet. ‘But Gramps, please, it’s not Timmy’s fault sir. I begged him to take me.’ She tugged at the old man’s arm to get his attention away from Tim, who was stubbornly returning the old man’s steely gaze. ‘If you tell the police they’ll hang him.’
‘You are a fool boy!’ The old man said, ignoring Mary’s plea. ‘And a stupid one at that. I have no doubt that you’ll end up dancin’ at the end of a rope, with or without my help.’ He went to a clay jar on the mantelpiece and lifted its lid, rummaging around the trinkets and scraps of paper inside before finding a silver crown and holding it out to the young man.
‘I don’t want your money pop.’ Tim frowned. ‘It’s the English that’s our enemies.’
‘Take it!’ Gramps growled, prising Tim’s fingers apart with surprising strength and pressing the coin into his palm. ‘Now pack your things and get out. I don’t want to see you back here again.’
‘No Gramps, please you mustn’t ask …’ Mary began.
‘Quiet girl,’ the old man said, his tone resigned and heavy with sadness, ‘it’s the only way. I’ll hear no more of it.’
Tim looked from one to the other for a long moment, eyes blazing, then crossed to the bed that he had been sharing with the old man and snatched a meagre store of clothes from under the mattress before tying them into a bundle. ‘Goodbye Mary.’ He grabbed her and hugged her thin body to him hard. He looked at the old man and nodded curtly, tugging at his cap and then he was gone.
She stood there, stunned, not understanding what had happened, then turned on her grandfather. ‘Call him back!’ She wailed. ‘He’ll not do it again, I promise, call him back. Please!’
The old man sat heavily on the fireside chair and pulled her to him, her shoulders shaking and her sobs muffled by his chest. ‘It’s just us now Mary.’ Tears trickled down his own face and he swiped at them impatiently. ‘This is for the best for us all. Tim too … but he doesn’t know it yet.’ He pushed her back and looked at her tear stained face, still streaked with black camouflage. ‘We have a big fight before us and I fear that the famine has just begun. We must look out for each other and not bring the world to our door. Tim will find his own place, in his own way. You’ll see.’Outside, the rain began in earnest, a constant thunderous deluge that swept the countryside, saturating the earth and creating ideal conditions for the fungus that was spreading its deadly white spores across the land