In which death comes to the Hagen
County Cork, Ireland
As travellers descend from the blue-grey mountains
that are Torc and Coomacarrea or others that form the Ring of Kerry, they would
find the countryside opens out into rolling green meadows dotted with sleepy
villages and lonely farms.
In the woodlands, white wood anemones give the
impression of a carpet of snow beneath the gnarled old moss-covered trees.
As travellers pass along the stony winding roads
through villages of whitewashed mud-brick cottages belonging to tenant farmers,
women can be seen hanging out their washing while happy children play at their
Now it is springtime, the cold rigours of winter have
passed and blue skies have taken over from the dark rain-filled clouds and
biting winds. Soon the crops will show in patches of yellow and green across the
hillsides and the animals will start to bear their young.
The pale mauve of the foxgloves and crimson of the
fuchsias fight their way through the hawthorn hedgerows searching for the warm
In this utopian scenery there are many stories to be
heard, but despite the idyllic landscape few people are really happy and most
tales are of hardship and woe.
Last year’s wheat harvest had not been good; there
had been a drought and half of his Lordship’s wheat had withered before it had
ripened. To make matters worse for the farmers, a disease had appeared that had
killed off some of the potato crop that the workmen depended on to feed their
In the cottage gardens across Ireland a new crop of
potatoes had been planted and some were already showing small green shoots that
pushed their way through the inhospitable soil. Maybe this year, they thought,
maybe this year there would be a better crop.
Most of the workers’ houses had a small garden where
they grew their potatoes. Some had a bed of onions and others cabbages if they
could get enough of the seed and were able to coax it to grow in the stony soil.
The men from the villages worked in his Lordship’s
corn fields, cereal crops having been in high demand in England where the food
had been needed to feed the millions of people who had flooded into English
towns and cities in search of work after the French war had been won.
Unfortunately, precious little of the crop went to feed the Irish families who
were growing and tending them.
Nevertheless they appeared to have a happy and simple
life despite the hardships they were made to suffer.
On a small patch of land on the outskirts of the
village of Castletown, seventeen-year-old Patrick Hagen looked out through the
window of the barn. It wasn’t really a window for there was no glass, just a
rough opening in the woven wattle wall, but it gave him some light to do his
chores. He was big and strong for his years with thick, tousled brown hair and
he wanted desperately to be working with the men of the village. Even at harvest
time, when you would think all the able-bodied men would be needed to bring in
the crops, he was relegated to sharpening scythes and mending tools.
Patrick looked out of the doorway towards the grey
mountains of Kerry in the distance and wondered what adventures could be had
amongst those lofty crags. As a boy he’d heard a story about a place called
Priest’s Leap, a story that went back to the days when the English soldiers
hunted down Catholic priests. It was said that a priest was trapped by the
soldiers on a rocky ledge and the worthy man took the Host from his pocket and
held it aloft calling for help from the Lord. Then, out of nowhere, a man
appeared and offered him a horse saying ‘Get up, Father, get up now.’ The priest
mounted the horse; it was a fiery steed and leapt out from the ledge flying high
and far until it landed in Bantry ten miles away.
Patrick, like all teenage boys, was fond of tall
stories but he didn’t believe most of them. He thought this one was impossible,
but men had said that in Bantry the horse had left hoof marks beside the road
where it landed that are still there to this day. When he was older, he thought,
he would go and look at this Priest’s Leap for himself. It would be easy to find
because a cross had been engraved on a stone and open-air masses were said to be
‘One day,’ Patrick sighed to himself as he went back
to his work. He wondered if he would ever be able to travel, as he shaved
another sliver off a green sapling to make a handle for an iron shovel. A shadow
fell across him and he looked up to see his mother standing in the doorway.
‘When you have finished with the tools,’ she said, ‘I
have jobs for you in the house.’
‘Yes, Mama,’ he said and secretly vowed to make his
mending last as long as he could.
The Hagens’ house was built of white-painted mud
bricks and had a slate roof; inside it was one large room with a stone
fireplace, the walls were stained a soft brown by the turf smoke and a curtain
of coarse linen cloth made a private area at one end where Patrick’s parents had
their mattress. In earlier days the animals would have been kept in the house as
well but this was 1822 and they had a barn for the beasts. All the houses in
Castletown were like this, some were not even as comfortable. Bridie Hagen was a
good housewife, the hard mud floor was kept swept clean and there was always
peat for the fire.
The land was not good here on this side of the
village; it was stony and needed water when there was no rain. The Hagens grew
Lumper potatoes for their own use; they lacked the taste of the premier
varieties but they grew better in this soil and his lordship the Earl of
Kingleigh had no use for them.
Ireland was an uncertain place in 1822; the
landowner’s main crops were the wheat and oats that he shipped across the Irish
Sea to England. In these hard times even the Earl had his concerns as the market
for grain was falling. Farmers in England who had returned from the war, now
tended their own farms and competed with Ireland for customers. There was unrest
in the towns and men in Dublin were standing up and asking for wages on the
land. No longer could the landowners expect families to work on their land for
the use of a cottage and a small patch of garden.
The Earl of Kingleigh had a lot of expenses and
family problems; it was said that his daughter Margaret had run off to live in
Italy with a poet and the earl was keeping both of them. The earl’s Irish
properties were his main source of income so he was planning to do away with the
crops and open up the fields to sheep and cattle, a far more profitable
Patrick laid his half-made wooden handle on the dirt
floor and sat down on a sack of manure. He was sick of tool making. His father
had told him that he should stick close to the farm and concentrate on book
learning with the village priest, Father Connelly. Seamus Hagen wanted more for
his son than he had had and when the priest offered to teach Patrick to read and
write he jumped at the opportunity.
Patrick, however, saw it differently. The reading was
only from the bible, with difficult words that he found hard to understand let
alone follow. Alright if you wanted to enter the priesthood, he thought.
As for writing, after weeks of practice he could
write the letters of his name and a few short words. He picked up his slate and
looked at the line the priest had written. He was to copy the same line over and
over and he mouthed the words as he read them. Try as he might he couldn’t see
what use ‘The cat sat on the mat’ would be to him in life.
The men of the village had gone to cut down the old
elm tree in McGarrity’s seventeen-acre field. Patrick had wanted to go with them
for it was a huge old tree and would be a talking point in the village for a
long time, but once again he was languishing in the barn making tools. There was
little else for the restless boy to do around the farm as his mother looked
after the goats and his sister tended the potatoes. His father had borrowed
money from the agent to buy four goats but only one gave milk. Most people had a
few pigs but Seamus had sworn he would never be known as a pig farmer.
Patrick disagreed with his father and thought a
family of pigs would have made them more money and the manure would make better
fertiliser than goat droppings. They could always eat a pig when they were
hungry, he thought, and smoke the bacon to be put away for the winter, but goat
meat was tough and only good for the stew pot.
So, his sister weeded the potatoes and his mother fed
the goats, leaving Patrick to repair tools and study his reading. He fingered
the worn blade of the old knife and then threw it in frustration; it spun over
and over through the air and buried itself in the rustic door jamb. Patrick was
getting good at this; he had worked out just how to balance the knife before he
threw it so that no matter how far away he was, it always stuck into his target.
Patrick liked Road Bowling, where boys would throw a
leather ball down a country lane and the one who could throw it the furthest was
the winner. This wasn’t as easy as it sounded as there were trees, rocks or
gateways to impede the ball’s progress. Patrick thought the trick was to keep
the ball in the centre of the lane, a thing that was nigh impossible to do when
the lane twisted and turned so much.
Like any boy of his age he longed for adventure;
after all, hadn’t it been him that had saved Ireland from the Redcoats? When he
was younger the boys from the village had played games against the boys from the
nearby village of Kinneigh. They had taken turns to build a fort and defend it
as if it was Blarney Castle. Of course, the side playing the Irish patriots
always won and the hated English Redcoats were driven from the land. Like every
other village in Ireland the people of Castleford still hated the English and
would never forgive them for occupying their country.
Most of Patrick’s friends had lost older brothers and
fathers in the wars against the French armies of Napoleon. They had fought in
the British army for a shilling a day and any loot they could get away with. It
had sounded like an easy way to make some money at the time but many didn’t
return and the ones that did had nothing to show for the long years fighting in
a foreign land.
‘Hello the house!’ A man’s voice broke into his
thoughts followed by a scream from his twelve-year-old sister, Clodagh.
Patrick leapt to his feet, pulled the knife from the
wood and charged through the doorway. He skidded to a halt halfway across the
yard when he saw four men dressed in homespun working clothes carrying a fence
hurdle towards the house. Draped across it was the body of his father.
‘Bridie Hagen!’ one of the men called. ‘It’s Joe
Donovan, come out and get your man.’
The housewife came from the darkness of the house;
she had her thick dark hair tied back off her tired-looking face and was drying
her hands on her apron.
‘What is it now?’ she began, but as soon as she saw
the men and their gruesome load she knew immediately that something was wrong.
‘Bridie…’ began one of the men but she cut him short.
‘We’d be cutting down the old elm tree by the
Clodagh started crying and clutched at her mother’s
‘Get in the house, girl,’ was all her mother said,
but in such a way that the girl obeyed immediately.
‘There was a gust of wind,’ said another of the men.
As Bridie approached them she asked, ‘Is he…’
They lowered the hurdle to the ground and all crossed
themselves as Bridie stood wringing her hands.
‘Where would you be wanting him?’ asked Donovan.
‘It… had better be the barn,’ said Bridie pointing at
the ramshackle building.
The men picked up the hurdle and carried it into the
barn where they laid it gently on the dirt floor.
Throughout this Patrick had stood dumbstruck in the
middle of the yard unable or unwilling to comprehend what was happening. Even
when they carried the body of his father past him he could not believe what he
The men took off their hats as they crossed to the
gate. ‘Will we be telling Father Connelly?’ asked one of them.
‘Thank you,’ said Bridie in a whisper as she crossed
towards the barn.
‘Dia dhuit,’ said Donovan as they walked away.
The English in their ignorance had forbidden the Gaelic but it was still used by
some when there were no strangers around to hear.
‘Mama,’ the young Clodagh cried from the house.
‘What’s wrong with Dada?’
‘Look to your sister,’ Bridie said to Patrick as she
walked past him but he took no notice and just stared at the barn. ‘Patrick!’
she said, making him jump.
‘Look after your sister, always.’
She looked into his eyes and demanded, ‘Promise me
‘I promise, Mama.’
As Patrick walked towards the house his mother knelt
down in the barn beside the body of her husband. She reached out and stroked his
dirty stubbled face. ‘Oh Seamus’ was all she said before prostrating herself
across him and giving way to uncontrollable sobs.
Patrick never heard his mother speak another word
from that day. She did her chores and cooked their food but even when neighbours
came to give their sympathy she would only nod her head as she sat in the chair
by the hearth.
‘What’s wrong with Mama?’ asked Clodagh while they
were getting water from the pump.
‘I think her heart is broken,’ said Patrick.
‘Will she get better?’
‘What will we do?’ asked Clodagh.
‘We shall have to do what needs to be done and not
worry Mama about it.’
O’Leary’s shop, in the centre of the village in
Castletown, was the meeting place for the men and they had plenty to talk about.
It was a small smoky room with a low ceiling, some country-made chairs by the
window and a bar to the rear. Along one side there was a polished wooden
counter, on it a small barrel on a stand and a few glasses waiting to be filled.
On the shelf behind there were a few bottles of wine and one of whiskey.
At right angles to the bar there was another counter;
this one had a set of brass scales and a pile of weights on one side. On the
shelves behind were a few packets and jars and on the floor were several hessian
sacks full of different grains, each one with a copper scoop sticking out ready
to ladle the flour or oats into a bowl that sat on the scales.
‘Would it have been quick?’ asked O’Leary of the six
men standing at his polished wooden counter.
‘Quick enough,’ said Donovan. ‘We had only cut
halfway through it and there was a sudden gust of wind.’
‘We all heard it crack,’ said Tim McCarthy. ‘Twas
like a gunshot.’
‘Why didn’t you run?’ asked O’Leary as he filled a
glass with dark porter from the barrel on the bar.
‘We did. But the tree fell and Seamus wasn’t quick
‘What’ll happen to Bridie and the children?’
‘They’ll have to leave the house,’ said Donovan.
‘Young Patrick’s old enough to work.’
‘He’ll not be allowed to stay at the house,’ said
‘Surely he’s almost a man?’ questioned O’Leary.
‘I heard that houses are being pulled down.’
‘Why, man? And who will work on the harvest?’
‘His Lordship’s going to run sheep, according to
‘Well,’ said the bartender, ‘he should know, but it
would mean bad times for most around here.’
McCarthy held his glass out for a refill. ‘I wouldn’t
mind looking after a few sheep.’
‘What makes you think you’ll get the job?’ asked
‘Somebody will have to do it.’
‘Corrie said men will come with the sheep.’
‘Oh, your man doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’
‘If his Lordship’s agent doesn’t know then I’d like
to know who does.’
‘Whatever happens, it won’t help Bridie Hagen.’
The door opened and the village priest, dressed in a
long black gown, made his way to the bar. ‘God bless all in this house,’ he
muttered as O’Leary put a small glass of black beer on the bar.
Father Connelly was a tall wiry man in his forties;
he had grey hair and a high forehead that gave the impression of knowledge.
‘We were just saying, Father, what’s to become of the
‘Tis a sad case,’ said Father Connelly. ‘I’ll do what
‘Will they lose their cottage?’ asked McCarthy.
‘Then where will they go?’
‘I believe she has a sister in Cork,’ said the
priest. ‘Although tis not a good house.’
‘Maybe the boy can get work in the city.’
‘I tried to teach him the reading and writing but
he’s a slow reader and can only write his initials and some short words.’
‘She should have the right to stay,’ said McCarthy as
he drained his glass.
‘Rights, is it?’ asked the priest.
‘To be sure we have no rights,’ said O’Leary as he
refilled the glass.
‘If Daniel O’Connell and the Catholic Association
have their way…’ began Father Connelly.
‘He’s all the way to Dublin,’ said McCarthy.
‘Will you keep your voice down, Father,’ said
O’Leary. ‘Someone’ll be hearing you.’
‘It’s best we keep our own counsel and get on with
our work,’ said Donovan.
‘That’s if you’ve got work.’
‘It’ll be fierce hard for the Hagens now,’ said
‘No harder than it is for a lot of folk.’
‘Joseph Corrie said we could all be put out soon,’
‘Now there’s no truth in that and you know it,’ said
the priest as he pushed his glass across the bar for another refill.
‘Will there be a wake, Father?’ asked Tim McCarthy.
‘Paul Mooney said he can be laid out in his barn and
then after the service we can go back there to see him off.’
‘That’s good of him, tis a fine big barn.’