My heart was lifted by news that reached me one evening as I was about to leave the little room at the workhouse in which I had established a base from which to operate. Young Lillis accosted me, proffering an envelope the hand writing upon which I instantly recognised. What glorious tidings it brought! Georgina, Elizabeth and Niamh, the governess, had reached Limerick and would be arriving by steamer the next day.
I had already established myself in the house at Cappagh, having engaged two local women as cook and housekeeper, but it was a lonely existence. The two women I saw briefly, as I breakfasted each morning, but both had left for their own firesides by the time I returned in the cold and dark of the evening to consume the food cook had left warming upon the hob.
The thought had crossed my mind that I would have fared better had I remained at the hotel. At least there I could enjoy the conviviality of the bar. In truth I had no stomach for such things, thinking it unseemly to partake of such comforts whilst, outside the door, paupers shivered for want of decent clothing and wasted away for lack of food. Furthermore I had my daily reports to write.
The house at Cappagh, cold and lonely though it was, provided the space and time in which to carry out that task, recalling the many terrible sights, sounds and smells of the day and assembling them into some semblance of order. I was determined that Edward Twisleton, and those to whom he reported, understood the circumstances to which the district had been reduced. I feared that few of the officials and politicians, whose decisions had so much bearing on the fate of the people, fully understood the meaning of their word “distressed”: that, in truth, it was nothing more than a veil behind which so much suffering went unremarked.
Of course, I would still need that space and time once the house was warmed by the presence of my wife and daughter, but the interlude that partaking of a meal in their company provided, would, I was certain, produce a clarity of vision that must surely transmit itself to my reports. And, afterwards, the restorative power of her embrace might induce blessed sleep where hitherto had been only nightmares.
We – that is to say Crofton and I – dealt with over 200 applicants for relief that afternoon, working from 2 o'clock until long after the sun had set. There were among them some who quite evidently were malingerers – men who, upon examination, were discovered still to be in possession of a cow or more than a quarter acre of land. The rules were clear. Only those with nothing were permitted either to enter the workhouse or to receive outside relief. The Commission had sent an instruction that outside relief might be given in certain circumstances, but, the Board's means being so reduced, it was not possible to implement this decree. It pained me to see so many people in need for whom the only assistance we could offer was admission to the already over-crowded workhouse. I resolved to redouble our efforts at the business of collecting rates.
One aspect of this state of affairs I found particularly frustrating. The cost of maintaining a person in the workhouse – providing food and clothing, laundry and regular examinations by the medical officer – came to a considerable sum. Many of our applicants, if provided with a smaller sum in cash, could maintain themselves in food if not clothing. It was, however, cash that the Union lacked. Such small amount as the Clerk had to hand was needed to replenish the stores so as to continue serving the needs of those already admitted to the workhouse. The same consideration meant that we dared not admit any person who exhibited the means to survive without assistance.
It was, in truth, nothing more than a delaying tactic. Many such individuals would return in a few days, their condition worse than on the previous occasion. As the days passed and my familiarity with the district and the circumstances of the population increased, I came to recognise certain individuals who presented themselves many times, each time appearing more destitute than the last, until, upon the third or fourth appearance, the last cow having been sold for a pittance in the meanwhile, any land exceeding a quarter acre ceded to the landlord, they were at last admitted.
As a consequence of the hours spent at the workhouse that afternoon I was unable to meet Georgina and her entourage as they disembarked from the steamer at the quayside. I sent a man with a comfortable conveyance to meet them in my place and to transport them and their luggage to the house at Cappagh. My anxiety about their reaction to the condition of the town and its environs, especially that of young Elizabeth, her mother having been appraised of the dire situation by means of the many letters I had written to her, was thereby supplemented by a new concern: that upon arrival at the house she would be disappointed at its size and disposition.
It was, therefore with some trepidation that I covered the distance between Kilrush and Cappagh. Despite the darkness, the only illumination the occasional glimpse of a crescent moon riding the backs of scudding clouds, my stride was longer than usual, my progress faster. I was by now familiar with the hazards presented by exposed rocks and deep depressions that presented themselves at frequent intervals along the way.
At last I came in sight of the house, light glowing from each of the downstairs windows. My heart pounding in my chest, in part from the exertion of my brisk walk, but no less from anxiety, I inserted my key in the lock. The door opened before I could turn the key. Georgina had been looking out and had observed my approach. She stood before me, her features alight with pleasure at the sight of me. I was consumed by the urge to hold her in my embrace but, conscious of the environment I had so recently departed, and aware of the vermin that had invaded my clothing and my hair during those encounters, I held up my hand to restrain her own eagerness.
Only when I had bathed and donned clean garments was it possible to give in at last to our mutual desire for physical contact. Neither of us spoke, communicating instead by means of a long embrace.