A feast of stories about a woman who lived through the Famine

DISPLACED IN MULLINGAR: I WAS SITTING behind two old gentlemen in the AE last week

DISPLACED IN MULLINGAR:I WAS SITTING behind two old gentlemen in the AE last week. I guessed what everyone else was waiting for, but not these two pensioners.

People hugged children with swollen legs, or their own bandaged fingers, or cut heads; but the two gents, skeletal thin, in dark suits and caps, were so calm and content in the cluster of squealing babies, while nurses from every continent on earth rushed to and fro, that they might as well have been waiting for a bus on the first day of their holidays in Salthill.

They were arguing about a woman.

"I have it to say," declared one, "that I talked to a woman who lived through the Famine."


"That's impossible," said his comrade.

"I'm telling you, she was a hundred and four when she died."

"Sure she had a son far older than you."


"She had."

"All right. She had. But he was 74 at the time. He was drawing the pension at the time. I met him too, if you want to know."

"How could that be?"

"He lived with her."

"I know that."

"She was 104 when she died. I have a photograph of her. I have it to say I spoke to that woman. She was alive in the time of the Famine. She was 100 years of age then. She got the money from Dr Douglas Hyde, and it was presented to her by the parish priest, and I have the photograph."

More facts returned to his mind.

"I even remember the funeral," he said. "And right underneath where the house used to be, you know the turn that they called the Narrow Elbow?"

"I do."

"Well," he said, "on that hill there was 13 cocks of hay when she died. Now. And there's only trees growing in it now."

They were silent. As they brought some field in the faraway bogland of memory to their minds, they remained as still as monks enveloped in prayer.

"When did she die?" the doubting one inquired. "What year?"

"Nineteen and forty-two," said the other. "She was a hundred years of age, in 1938. Dr Douglas Hyde sent her the money, and the parish priest presented it."

The case appeared to be closed. Except that his comrade had a bombshell.

"I met her myself."

"Ye did not!"

"Oh, I did. We were looking for stray sheep, as boys, and when we saw her we had to go in for tae. The people were very generous in that time."

"Oh, that's true," the other one agreed, though he was deflated, and he swiped the air with his cap as if trying to hit a fly.

I am not uneasy in hospitals. I worked as a night porter when I was a teenager, fetching glasses of water in the middle of the night for old men with lung diseases; emptying aluminium nightjars from under the beds in the male ward each morning; and checking the amount of fluid and writing the ounces on the charts. Responsible work.

I wheeled bodies to the mortuary on a steel trolley, a grim voyage through the maternity unit and out into the back yard. All in the middle of the night, so that pregnant women would not be distressed as they queued for their morning showers.

I slept in daylight, with the window open and the curtains closed, and bluebottles buzzing like demented helicopters, and bouncing off the ceiling as if they were trying to kill themselves.

At seven each evening when girls on bicycles were coming from the lake, all sunburnt and thirsty, I was putting on my porter's white coat, with the green lining on the collar.

One of the old men in front of me began singing: "Now the ship she sails in half an hour/ Across the broad Atlantic/ My friends are standing by the Quay . . . "

A pregnant woman, in a blue dress, with black hair tied in pigtails, and carrying an infant, approached the boys.

"Are ye done?" says one of them.

"Yes," says she.

"Right then," says the other gent, "we'll get you home."

It was my turn to face the doctor, as the three of them, with their infant, went out the door, and back to the bogs beyond Killucan.

Michael Harding

Michael Harding

Michael Harding is a playwright, novelist and contributor to The Irish Times