Saturday, August 11, 2001

Only the River Runs Free: A Story from 1840s Ireland

Only the River Runs Free, the first book in Bodie and Brock Thoene's "The Galway Chronicles" Series, tells the plight of the peasant Irish Catholic tenant farmers of Ireland, struggling under the English protestant landlords that rule their country. It is a bleak time indeed, in which the English own the land, the schools and the government, making their living off the exorbitant tithes and taxes they eke out of the poor farmers. From the time of England's Great Empire, which included control over South Africa and Australia as well as Ireland, and a time contemporary with Charles Dickens' novels, comes a wonderful tale of ordinary people living in a land where, as the saying goes, "only the river runs free." Yet Ireland of the 1840s is not that far gone: the Galway Chronicles explain much of the underlying problems still rampant in Ireland today, and the reasons for the immigration of so many Irish to the United States during this time.

The story begins in 1827, when wicked Marlowe poisons his brother-in-law, "the Burke", and attempts to kill Burke's only heir, eight-year-old Connor Burke. Thus acquiring the Burke's estate, Uncle Marlowe and his son William begin their reign of oppression over the poor Irish farmers of Ballynockanor, Galway County. John Stone and Constable Carroll, the Marlowes' friends, are equally wicked, men who will readily give false testimony or rape any woman caught outside after curfew.

Thought to have died beneath the ice, Connor Burke has lived in exile for fifteen years when he quietly returns to his homeland on Christmas Eve, 1841, as the unassuming Joseph Connor. Studying in preparation for the Catholic priesthood, Joseph boards with Father O'Bannon and gets to know the people of Ballynockanor. Only Molly Fahey (formerly Burke's servant), now "Mad Molly," holds the key to the truth, including Connor's legal rights. But the tragedy also took her sanity. Yet she had prophesied that a miracle would come to Ballynockanor that day; could the arrival of Joseph Connor be that miracle?

The Donovan family of Ballynockanor has seen its share of tragedy by the time they meet Joseph. Mother has died, and eldest daughter Kate, at 23, is already dead in her spirit, waiting to join her husband and child taken in the fire that left much of her body permanently scarred. Da (Tom Donovan) also weeps for Kate, wallowing much of the time in the drink.

The rest of the family, including Kevin (age 18), Bridget (15), Martin (11), and Mary Elizabeth (age 6), do their part as well as they can, going about their daily school and/or work activities. Even the children face persecution, as they daily endure the English National School, the hated place that indoctrinates Irish children with shame for their heritage while extolling the great English. Thus an economics class, though teaching the concept of value and what makes something valuable, carefully avoids the topic of land and its worth. Students must say "I am a happy English child" and punishment involves reciting 100 times "a child of the dust must not be proud."

The family must stick together for their very survival, cooperating with the authorities and allowing all injustices, lest they lose their homes and livelihood. For English law also decrees that all family members must bear the punishment for the wrongdoings of one of their own. When an Irish Catholic son is party to violence against the English Protestants, he is sent to the prison in New South Wales; his family's home is promptly leveled to the ground, every brick of the foundation uprooted. Such families, allowed to sell the lumber that remains, typically use that money to buy passage to the United States.

Ribbonmen roam the countryside, causing general mischief such as branding cattle and robbing the landowners, trying to violently overthrow the oppressive landlords. Joseph Connor urges a peaceful resolution through Repeal (laws to protect tenants' rights and prevent unfair rents). Yet it seems to Joseph that in everything he fails. When he should warn, he fails to do so; and when he seeks peace, others call him a traitor. He loves Kate, yet Kate's heart is cold and dead to love; she will not let any man love her. Finally, when the wayward Bridget Donovan, with her lofty ambitions and self-interest, becomes the family prodigal child, Joseph vows to do all he can to bring her home, praying he will not fail in this as well.

A Gold Medallion Book Award winner (1998), Only the River Runs Free is a heartwarming story, the first in the Galway Chronicles series about the ordinary people of Ireland in the 1840s and their dream to be free from England's rule. The characters and the town itself come alive through the many splendid details of daily life with the Donovan family.

No comments: