When I was writing The Abiding Heart, I spent a lot of time researching and thinking about the Irish roads at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the course of the book, Diarmaid MacGuinness, a red-headed and dedicated Irish rebel, and Muirne Coyle, the equally red-headed and rebellious girl who’s been forced into self-sufficiency for most of her life, walk from distant Donegal to Galway, about 300 miles.
Obviously, it’s more of a walk than most people would take, but the fascinating truth for me was that they would seldom have been alone as walkers along the roads. Back then, unless you had the means for keeping a horse or a carriage—or enough to be able to take a coach—if you needed to get somewhere, you walked. In our books placed in the Regency period, most often our characters have the means.
But in actual fact, particularly in rural Ireland, and even more particularly if you were Irish, Catholic, and landless, which most of the population was, you did not. The great majority of the people of northwestern Donegal were all three. The complicated history of Ulster, and of Ireland itself, virtually guaranteed that the people who scratched a living from the rocky hills and bogs of the coastal land of Donegal would remain, as they did, desperately poor.
And so it was that if my fictional Diarmaid and Muirne were to travel to the south, they would do so on foot. I found a wonderful source on life in Donegal in a slim book called The Last of the Name, the story of the life of Charles McGlinchey, a man of Donegal who gave the story of his life to a local schoolteacher in the 40s, when he was in his late 80s and 90s. In fact, he had lived through momentous times (the rise and fall of Parnell, two world wars, the Rising of 1916, the atomic bomb) but none of that is in his recollections. He remembers the life of the community in which he lived as well as what he was told about the lives of his father and grandfather—and very little changed over the generations.
A scrap from his story: “It was a common thing to walk to Derry in times ago and people thought nothing of it. I heard of a Clonmany woman heading for Derry up over Pinch one morning and she fell in with a group of men cutting turf about Langsalach. She told them her errand was to get a pair of wool shears. One of them said he’d lend her a pair, but she said when she was that far she’d go on. She was a mile from home that time and had the best part of thirty in front of her. She was back with the shears before the men stopped cutting that evening.”
I like to think of those Irish roads back then, with the occasional horseman or cart or even coach, but mainly the people walking, steadily and briskly walking, because that was how you got to places you needed to be. Often they walked barefoot, their shoes hung around their neck to be put on when they came close to their destination.
But always they walked.
About the Author
Beppie Harrison lives in southeastern Michigan with her husband and two slightly addled cats, their four children having grown up and flown the coop. They live a somewhat cross-Atlantic lifestyle. Her husband is an English architect and they began their marriage living in London, only moving to the States when they had young children. In many ways, England still feels like home. For Beppie, the pull from across the Atlantic comes not only from old friends and familiar places in England, but from Ireland. Did it start with its literature, its history, or its wonderfully garrulous people? However it happened, she is addicted now and her greatest satisfaction is weaving the Ireland she knows into her tales of the hearts and ambitions of her characters.
The Abiding Heart
The Abiding Heart will be released on 10th May 2015 and will be available from Amazon.
County Donegal, Ireland. 1812.
They were about as sorry a bunch as he’d seen.
Diarmaid MacGuinness ran a hardened hand through his hair, hair that was still as bright a red as it had been when he’d been a lad. He’d not spoken a word to them yet; perhaps he was being a mite unfair. He glanced back at them. There were—what? Eight of them? No, ten. A couple must have crept in when his mind was elsewhere. ‘Twasn’t one of them sitting straight up as if ready for business. They might have been so many heaps o’ dirty laundry, the lot of them, slumped on their stools, peering at him sort of sideways like, more like sulky schoolboys than the warriors he needed.
Donegal was as far north and west as you could go and still be in Ireland. Worse, it was too close to Ulster and all those damned Protestant Scots the even more damned English had planted among them. That’s even what they called it: plantation. Tossed out the Irish who’d owned the land for generations, and given it to stubborn Scots and more English, as if there were not too many in Ireland already. There were some of the plantations even in County Donegal itself, taking up the best of the land, of course, and the good Lord and ‘is saints knew Donegal had hardly any good land to begin with. Peat bogs, yes, they had those, crowded between mountains and rocky spurs leading down to the sea. Made it logical to suppose that the Donegal folk would be as eager as the rest of the Irish to overthrow the English and take back their own land.
Instead they sat there, great lumps that they were—though some of the bulk had to be their badly fitting clothes to keep the cold from their bodies, because when you looked in their faces too many of them were gaunt and thin.
And more than half of them had filthy bare feet.
Diarmaid lifted his eyes to study the inside of the roof. Pity had no place in his heart. Pity would keep these feeble excuses for Irishmen where they were. He needed men, and he would make these useless clods into men if he died in the process.
He allowed his eyes to sweep over them again until his gaze stopped abruptly on one of the smallish ones. Sweet Mother of God, that was no man at all. It was a woman—no, a girl. What the hell was a girl doing here in this falling-down shed, hidden, he hoped, from the eyes of the constabulary behind two or three sod houses on the point of falling down?
He reached out swiftly and, grabbing the cloth around her shoulders, lifted her to her feet.
This post copyright © Beppie Harrison, 2015.