I’m re-reading Trinity by Leon Uris, which is one of a short list of books I re-read every few years. Every time I pick it up again, I am surprised at the rush of homesickness I feel – a longing to be in Ireland, the home of my ancestors, and yet, a place I’ve never been. In Uris’ writing, the tension between the Protestant factory owners and landowners and the Irish tenant farmers is seething, waiting to erupt. Conor Larkin, the main character, was one of the first fictional characters I remember being infatuated with. I read Trinity for the first time in high school, and I kept wondering why no one every turned it into a movie. Now I’m glad they didn’t, because I’m sure I would have been disappointed with the result.
Here’s an example of the lyrical writing that makes me love this book. Seamus, the narrator of much of the story, is describing the winters in Ireland in the late 1800s.
“Mr. Ingram asked everyone who had a relative who had emigrated from Ireland to raise his hand. Everyone in the class did. Mainly, the relatives were in America. Us six Catholic kids had kin living in large cities like Boston and Baltimore. The Protestants mostly emigrated years before and had spread all over American and many into Canada. For our most important term assignment, Mr. Ingram had us write a long and detailed letter or story to a relative and tell them about ourselves.
I can’t recall my brother Eamon, who had left before I was old enough to get to know him. The one photograph we had was of him together with a bunch of firemen on a picnic in the park and we could hardly make him out. We didn’t hear from him often, maybe once a year. I especially remember the one letter we got telling of him changing his name from Eamon to the American version of Ed. Of course there was always a big package at Christmas and, when my grandfar died, Ed sent money for a fine tombstone as was the custom. You could tell from the graveyard at St. Columba’s who had relatives in America.
I remember sitting near the fire trying to think of how to start my letter and looking at my ma. I realized for the first time how old she was getting. I watched her working kind of bent over a little, for she didn’t walk real straight any longer. She smoored the fire constantly to keep it alive and appease the fairies, for it is said that when the fire dies the house will soon be falling down. During the famine, neighbors would smoor the fires in the homes of those who had emigrated so it would be warm when they ended their exile and returned to Ireland. Of course they never did come back and the fires died out and the cottages came tumbling down. That is how I started my letter.
All of the women of Ballyotogue aged before their time. Endless chores in the house and out in the fields and byre kept them laboring like slaves from morning till night. They were the keepers of the customs, bringing their own new lives into the world and, in the case of my ma, hundreds of other wanes. When I asked her how many babies she had midwifed, she gave me her half-toothless smile and said, “Sure I can’t count that high. I should have had a son in school like yourself when I started and then I’d know.”
There were four-legged babies, too, the new animals in the byre and the driving of the cows past the fire for luck and the hanging of St. Brigid’s crosses and rowan sprigs to ward off evil spirits and making certain a cricket was put in the handle of a scythe and mixing ashes with the new seed for luck. Maybe they couldn’t read and write and count so high but they surely had to know a lot, women like my ma, just to keep up with all the old beilefs and make new lives and keep the old ones going.
When evening came and the men would be having at their jug at the shebeen or playing glink, the women would gather in a cottage and sit around the fire with a single candle or lantern and do the fancy lacework on the linen for his lordship’s factory. Their eyes were always red-rimmed from the strain but the few pence they earned were sorely needed.
With the hours they worked and having the yearly baby, it was small wonder the grayness came and the teeth were lost and the stoop of weariness invaded long before its rightful time. There was little joy for these women. Even the joy that one felt as a haughty young girl being courted, and the joy of the moment of marriage, fled too soon.
The only path open was to plunge deeper into the fairy tales of their faith to keep them going, for it held out a promise of the hereafter and the long rest and the end of suffering. So many of those who could not submerge themselves into the fantasy of Jesus and Mary often went the way of madness.
When the last crop was in and the rents paid, there was an idle time, for our land was far too poor to work in the winter months. It was needed to grass over to feed the cattle and sheep. Winters were the time when the babies were made and the wee wanes were harvested the next year with the potatoes.
There were small respites during those long stormy winter days and nights, the revelry of a new marriage that matched the revelry of the wake. The bride went through a mock kidnap by her husband, who rode in gallantly on horseback and swept her off, and the invasion of straw boys who broke into the merrymaking disguised as washed-up seamen from a shipwreck. But the marriage song soon dimmed with the coming of the first baby and faded to nothingness and everlasting monotony with the second and the third and the fourth. But on they came, for to stop giving birth meant ostracism from the dream of life hereafter with Jesus and Mary.
Us younger ones had a fortnightly ceilidhe of village dancing and singing at the Norman keep. Half the lads of our village could sing in any angel’s choir and the other half was just as talented at the pipes. Father Lynch laid down stringent restrictions on all gatherings where both sexes would be present and hovered about to make certain that God’s will was imposed. But try as he might, he couldn’t entirely, one hundred percent keep the Devil away.
Other gatherings of a more vigorous nature took place at the shebeen and public house where the songs and stories reeked of insurrection and poets went into gentle combat.”