By Colum McCann
April / May 2013
An excerpt adapted from Colum McCann’s novel, TransAtlantic.
Colum McCann won the National Book Award in 2012 for Let the Great World Spin, which through an extraordinary feat of storytelling connects a disparate group of ordinary New Yorkers to Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. His novel TransAtlantic is another tour de force: a series of narratives spanning 150 years and both sides of the Atlantic. Fact and fiction mingle as three generations of mothers and daughters bear witness to historic events including John Alcock and Arthur Brown’s attempt to fly the first nonstop flight from Newfoundland to the west of Ireland in 1919 and Senator George Mitchell’s 1998 trip to Belfast to begin the peace talks that would result in the Good Friday Agreement.
The following excerpt, adapted from the book’s third chapter, takes place during the first year of the Irish famine. Frederick Douglass, the American social reformer and writer, is on a four-month lecture tour of Ireland, accompanied by his publisher, Richard Webb. Douglass, who after escaping slavery became leader of the abolitionist movement, finds the Irish people sympathetic to his cause while famine and poverty ravage the countryside all around.
It was early October: time for Douglass to bring his lecture tour south. His clothes were brushed. His writing papers were wrapped in oilskin. Webb had the servants feed and water the horses. The carriage was ready.
He and Webb took turns sitting up on the boards, up front with the driver, John Creely. He was a small man, sparely built, with the emaciated face of a serious drinker.
The land was stunning. The hedges in bloom. The gallop of streams. The light slant on the valley floors. When it rained they sat in the carriage, opposite each other, reading. Occasionally they leaned across to tap one another on the knee, read a passage aloud. Douglass was studying the speeches of Daniel O’Connell. He was amazed by the agility of O’Connell’s mind. The nod towards the universal. He wondered if he would get another chance to meet the man, to spend proper time with him, to apprentice his own ideas with the Great Liberator.
There were rumors of a potato blight, but the land outside the city seemed healthy, green, robust. Near Greystones they stopped on a hill to watch the magnificent play of light on the last of Dublin Bay. There were rainbows in the distance, iridescent over the dulse-strewn sand.
The carriage bounced along the rutted roads. It was only slightly faster than a stagecoach or jaunting car. Douglass was surprised to learn that there were, as yet, no railroads south of Wicklow.
The afternoons spread in a great rush of yellow across the hills. Shutters in the sky, opening and closing suddenly. A swinging brightness and then a darkness again. Some raw innocence about the land, he thought.
When he sat up front on the boards crowds came out of their houses just to look at him. They clapped his shoulder, shook his hand, blessed him with the sign of the cross. They tried to tell him stories of landlords, of absentees, of English atrocities, of loved ones far away, but Webb was impatient to get along, they had a schedule to keep, lectures to give.
Bony children ran after the carriage, often for a mile down the road, until they seemed to sigh down, brittle, into the landscape. The poor were so white they were almost lunar.
Wicklow, Arklow, Enniscorthy: he charted the names in his diary. It struck him already that there truly was a suggestion of hunger over the land. In the boarding houses at night the owners apologized for the lack of potato.
In Wexford he stood on the top stairway of the Assembly Hall. He was hidden from view, but he could see down the staircase to the next floor where a table was set up, his poster on the wall rippling in a small breeze.
It was the local gentry who came to see him. They were finely dressed, curious, patient. They sat quietly in their chairs, removed their scarves, and waited for him. His words stirred them – Hear hear! they shouted, Bravo! – and after his speech they made out promissory notes, said they would organize bazaars, fetes, cake sales, send the money across the Atlantic.
But when Douglass stepped out into the street he felt a small pang of regret. The streets were thronged with the poor Irish, the Catholics, an energy of doom to them. There was talk of repeal rooms, clandestine debates, houses being burned. A street performer danced in the bell-tipped lappets of a clown’s outfit. Children went along the street hawking ballad sheets. Women sparked clay pipes. Whenever he moved amongst them he was disturbed and thrilled both. The Irish were given to laughter, revelry, high sadness, their own clichés.
He wanted to stop in the streets and deliver an impromptu word, but his hosts moved him along.
He was driven down a long laneway of majestic oak trees towards a high mansion. Candles in the windows. Servants in white gloves. He had begun to notice that he was surrounded mostly by English accents. Magistrates. Landlords. They were melodic and well informed, but when he asked of the hunger that he had seen in the streets they said there was always a hunger in Ireland. She was a country that liked to be hurt. The Irish heaped coals upon their own heads. They had no notions of self-reliance. It had always been so.
The conversation swerved. They engaged him on matters of democracy, of ownership, of natural order, Christian imperative. Wine was served on a large silver tray. He politely declined. He wanted to know more about the rumors of underground forces, he said. Some of the faces around him smarted. Perhaps he could be told more of Catholic emancipation? Had they read O’Connell’s fervent denunciations? Was it true that Irish harpists once had their fingernails plucked so they could not play the catgut? Why had the Irish been deprived of their language? Where were the votaries of the poor?
Webb took him out onto the verandah by the elbow and said: But Frederick, you cannot bite the hand that feeds.
There were stars out collandering the Wexford night. He knew Webb was right. There would always be an alignment. There were so many sides to every horizon. He could only choose one. No single mind could hold it all at once. Truth, justice, reality. Misunderstandings could arise. He had one cause only. He must cleave to it.
He paced the verandah. A cold wind whipped off the water. The moon looked marooned.
— They’re waiting for you, said Webb.
He reached out for Webb’s hand and shook it, then went back inside. A chill went around the room from the open door. They took their coffee in small china cups. The women were gathered around the piano. He had learned how to play Schubert on the violin. He could lose himself in the adagio: even in the slowness, they were thrilled by the deftness of his hands.
They continued south. Just over the Barrow River they took a wrong turn. They entered wild country. Broken fences. Ruined castles. Stretches of bogland. Wooded headlands. Turfsmoke rose from cabins, thin and mean. On the muddy paths, they glimpsed moving rags. The rags seemed more animate than the bodies within. As they passed, families regarded them. The children were huge-eyed with hunger.
A hut burned at the side of the road. The smoke looked like it was issuing from the ground. In the fields, near stunted trees, men stared balefully into the distance. One man’s mouth was smeared with a green mould: perhaps he had been eating grass. The man watched impassively as the carriage went by, then raised his stick as if bidding goodbye to himself. He staggered across the field, a dog padding at his heels. They saw him fall to his knees and then rise again, continuing on into the distance. A dark young woman picked berries from the bushes: there was red juice all down the front of her dress as if she were vomiting them up one after the other. She smiled jaggedly. Her teeth were all gone. She repeated a phrase in Irish: it sounded like a form of prayer.
Douglass gripped Webb’s arm. Webb looked ill. A paleness at his throat. He did not want to talk. There was a smell out over the land. The soil had been turned. The blight had flung its rotten odor into the air. The potato crop was ruined.
— It is all they eat, said Webb.
— But why?
— It’s all they have, he said.
British soldiers galloped past, hoofing mud up on the hedgerows. Green hats with red badges. Like small splashes of blood against the land. The soldiers were young and frightened. There was an air of insurrection about the countryside: even the birds seemed to howl up out of the trees. They thought they heard the cry of a wolf, but Webb said that the last wolf had been shot in the country a hundred years before. Creely, the driver, began to whimper that it was a banshee.
— Oh quit your foolishness, said Webb. Drive on!
— But, sir.
— Drive on, Creely.
At an estate house they stopped to see if they could feed the horses. Three guards stood on the gate. Stone-carved falcons at their shoulders. The guards had shovels in their hands, but the handles of the shovels had been sharpened to a point. The landlords were absent. There had been a fire. The house smoldered. Nobody was allowed past. They were under strict instructions. The guards looked at Douglass, tried to contain their surprise at the sight of a Negro.
— Get out of here, the guards said. Now.
Creely pushed the carriage on. The roads corkscrewed. The hedges rose high around them. Night threatened. The horses slowed. They looked ruined. A gout of spittle and foam hung from their long jaws.
— Oh, move it please, called Webb from the inner cab where he sat knee to knee with Douglass.
Under a canopy of trees the carriage came to a creaking stop. A silence pulled in around them. They heard a woman’s voice under the muted hoofshuffle. It sounded as if she was invoking a blessing.
— What is it? called Webb.
Creely did not answer.
— Move it, man, it’s getting dark.
Still the carriage did not budge. Webb snapped the bottom of the door open with his foot, stepped down from the inner cab. Douglass followed. They stood in the black bath of trees. In the road they saw the cold and grainy shape of a woman: she wore a grey woolen shawl and the remnants of green dress. She had been dragging behind her a very small bundle of twigs attached to a strap around her shoulders, pulling the contraption in her wake.
On the twigs lay a small parcel of white. The woman gazed up at them. Her eyes shone in the gloaming. She spoke in Irish and a few scattered words of English, but they understood from the high ache that tightened her voice.
— You’ll help my child, sir? she said to Webb.
— Pardon me?
— God bless you, sir.
She lifted the baby from the raft of twigs.
— Good God, said Webb.
An arm flopped out from the bundle. The woman tucked the arm back into the rags.
— For the love of God, the child’s hungry, she said.
A wind had risen up. They could hear the branches of the trees slapping each other around.
— Here, said Webb, offering the woman a coin.
She did not take it. She bent her head. She seemed to recognize her own shame on the ground.
— She’s not had a thing to eat, Douglass
Webb fumbled in his small leather purse again and held out a sixpenny piece. Still, the woman did not take it. The baby was clutched to her chest. The men stood rooted to the spot. A paralysis had swept over them. Creely looked away.
The woman thrust the baby forward. The smell of death was overpowering.
— Take her, she said.
— We cannot take her, Ma’am.
— Please, yr’honors. Take her.
— But we cannot.
— I beg you, a thousand times, God
The woman’s own arms looked like nothing more than two thin pieces of rope gathering upwards towards her neck. She flopped the child’s arm out again and massaged the dead baby’s fingers: the insides of its wrists were already darkening.
— Take her, please, sir, she’s hungry.
She thrust the dead baby forward.
— May God bless you, Madam.
Webb let the silver coin drop at her feet. He climbed up onto the wooden board beside Creely.
Douglass reached for the muddy coin and placed it in the woman’s hand. She did not look at it. It slipped through her fingers. Her lips moved but she did not say a thing.
— Come on, Frederick, Webb called.
Get in, get in. Hurry.
Douglass followed. Webb hit the reins hard on the shiny backs of the horses.
It began raining. The sky itself did not seem surprised. Douglass felt himself become the dark of the road.