Ellen’s shoes drummed on the damp cobblestones as she walked along the street, her black eyes sunk into her pale face. William’s small hand was in hers, the other clutched a piece of bread.
“Well, look here, ‘tis yerself, Ellen, out of gaol. And with young Willie, too.” The familiar lilt of her friend’s Corkonian accent hung in the mist of the early morning air.
Ellen’s dark hair flicked as she stopped and looked behind her. “And in no rush to go back again, Moses.”
Several days before, her one month’s sentence over, Ellen Purcell stepped through the doorway of Cork City Gaol into the open and freedom. The nail-studded oak door announced her release with a bang as she stepped beneath the site of past hangings, the fatal drop. She shuddered at the thought.
Now Moses Murphy stood at the entrance to a long, narrow alley, unseen on Ellen’s initial pass. Wisps of brown hair reached under his flat cap toward dark brows. Moses was almost 20 years older than Ellen; they were friends, especially since she became godmother to his daughter, Angelina. Seven years ago Ellen stood in Carey’s Lane Chapel, the church of the central parish of Saint Peter’s and Paul’s and proclaimed her Catholic faith on behalf of the baby.
With a furtive glance for any eavesdropping shadows, Moses motioned Ellen into the lane. They were alone, apart from two small children who sat in a doorway further in where no sunlight ever reached, even now, approaching the summer solstice. The youngsters gnawed on Iicked-clean bones, likely scavenged from the nearby rubbish pile Ellen saw. She wrinkled her nose as its foul fingers extended to the street.
It was 1848 and a common sight these days. Ireland was in the throes of the catastrophic Great Famine. The starving rural poor streamed into the city in search of work, food, or a ship to deliver them from their peril. Cork was Ireland’s main emigration port, and those unable to afford the fares crammed into the slums of the city’s lanes and alleys.
Once Ellen moved from the main thoroughfare, conspiratorial Moses said, “I know where we can get some lead.”
Ellen furrowed her brow and gave him a cautionary glare. “I don’t want to hear about that stuff. What do you think got me in trouble? Anyway,” she said, inclining her head toward William, who chewed on his bread and peeked from behind her skirt, “watch what you say. Little big ears here.”
Moses looked at William. “Hey there, Willie. Do you want to see my finger tricks?”
The four-year-old nodded with a shy smile.
With a deftness that amazed Ellen, though she had seen it before, Moses bent the flexible joints of his two forefinger tips backwards, pulling them with the adjacent fingers to form a circle. William laughed at this double-jointedness, trying to manipulate his fingers likewise.
“More,” he said.
“All right, last one.” Moses turned up the tips of his fingers on one hand, and with palm up, crawled his hand, spiderlike, along William’s arm. The boy shrieked in delight.
Repositioning his fingers, Moses said, “Now, you go play with those lads over there while I talk to your mammy.”
William walked over to the scrawny urchins. He tore his bread into pieces and offered each a chunk, that they grabbed and shoved into their mouths.
Moses resumed his conversation with Ellen. “It’s from a store in Rochford’s Lane. Your job is to wait on the other side of the wall while I go up on the roof. A lad will pass the stuff over to you. You need to be ready for it, so it doesn’t make a noise on the cobbles. Joe and Paddy will take it to the houses.“
“I told you, I won’t be going to that prison again. My boy needs me. Your children depend on you, Moses.”
“Well, I don’t care if I go back,” Moses said. “‘Cept it would be my two in the workhouse again. Them people are dying in the hallways. Pitiful, it is. ‘Tis a wonder my poor mites survived on that cabbage and turnip slop. And the pathetic Indian corn stirabout they serve is only fit for animals. Peel’s brimstone, all right.”
Robert Peel, the British Prime Minister, had Indian corn first imported in 1846 to ease the starvation caused by the potato crop failure. The local mills couldn’t grind the dried kernels enough as they were much harder than the Irish corn. Unpalatable and indigestible, the new diet triggered severe bowel complaints.
Moses went on, “And the bloody flux is a terrible sickening on them.” He was a widower, and the Cork Poor Law Union institution for paupers was the only place for his children when he was helpless to look after them.
Widowed herself, Ellen couldn’t bear to be apart from William. He could not survive without her, or she, him.
“True,” she said. “The food is better in gaol than the workhouse, but I’m afraid they’ll transport me the next time. You’ve been to gaol twice already and hardly been out three weeks, yerself.” She called to her son, “Come on Willie, we be going.”
Moses touched her arm and whispered, “The trick, Ellen, is not to get caught.” He persisted with his plea. “Kelly is back from the west. It’s worse than here. They’re eatin’ nettles and weeds from the side of the roads. The hovels are full of the sick and dying – no floors or furniture for comfort. A miserable sight, he says. And they’re saying the blight is back.”
“Mick will give us tuppence a pound,” Moses continued as he pulled a penny from his pocket.
Ellen stepped back, reaching out to William as the boy came up to her. “And where’d you get the likes of that?”
Moses ignored her question. “How’d you like a few of these, hey Willie?” The boy’s eyes widened. To Ellen, Moses said, “Think on it. I can always ask one of the other girls, but I care for yer, Ellen. You’re as good as family, and I be tellin’ yer, there’s got to be over fifty pounds of lead on that roof.”
At that moment, a clatter heralded the approach of two wagons escorted by a troop of Dragoons and a force of constables. The vehicles carried, on their way to Dublin, the latest prisoners sentenced to transportation. The rumble on the cobblestones reverberated beneath Ellen’s shoes.
“Annals of the Famine in Ireland, in 1847, 1848, and 1849.” https://www.libraryireland.com/annals-famine-ireland/index.php.
Windele, John. 1839. Historical and Descriptive Notices of the City of Cork and Its Vicinity: Gougaun-Barra …http://archive.org/details/historicalandde01windgoog.