Tuesday, 25 September 2012

148: Potato Famine

Mary shared a tiny shack with her brothers and sisters and her parents and they would soon be joined by another baby.  That would make nine mouths to feed.  They barely had a pot big enough to cook potatoes for them all as it was.  No doubt there would be more babies in time too, but it wasn’t unusual for a family to lose a child or more.  Mary’s mother had already lost two little ones during the very cold winter.

Like most Irish people, Mary and her family farmed the land.  The rent was high and the size of the land they worked on shrank each year.  Years before, when her grandfather farmed, the land was good and plots were big enough to support a family, pay the rent and make a small income.  Now it was all beef and cows got priority over ordinary people. 

Mary helped sow and plant the potato crop, working from first light until an hour before dusk.  Then she would return home to help her mother cook the family meal.  She was now ten years old and had rarely eaten anything but potatoes in her whole life.  In the fields opposite where the grass was strong and healthy, a herd of cattle grazed.  Mary had never even tried beef and wondered how those big lumbering things that ate greenery all day long could be such a delicacy that ordinary people were being thrown off their land so it could eat.  Once she had a few morsels of boiled rabbit that her father had caught because it had a bad leg. 

When the crop was ready to start harvesting, there was always a feeling of excitement went round all of the local farmers.  Once the crop started to come in, even though it was more and more often small in yield, farmers knew rents would be paid and families would eat for another season.  Mary and her father woke especially early, keen to get to work.  She woke the younger children and they got ready to leave whilst her mother stayed in with the very young ones.

In the field Mary watched as her father selected a plant to pull up.  Some looked a little weedy and short, but others were OK.  He grasped it and pulled.  Up came a few potatoes, mostly small and all blackened.  That sometimes happens, a bad plant is not unheard of.  Just a shame it was the first one.  He chose another nearby, and pulled.  Then another and another.  For an hour they pulled plant after plant.  Almost the entire crop was useless and famers across the village all had similar blackened potatoes.

And it’s not like anyone could eat those cows anyway, is it?

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