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from Called to Account (formerly The Poor Law Inspector) by Frank Parker

Chapter 12
An Exciting Encounter

For our journey south we chose to travel through Leinster. I had some thought that we might call on an uncle of mine who farmed a holding near the town of Athy. From there we could travel west through Tipperary to Limerick where we would take the steamer to Kilrush.

It was pleasing to see so much agriculture taking place as we travelled through Meath and on into County Kildare. Cattle feeding upon the rich sward of gentle hills, grain turning from green to gold as it rippled in gentle breezes. My heart was lifted by such sights but briefly, for I knew that this abundance was destined for export to England and not for the bellies of Irish children.

My father and brothers had talked at length about the morality of this trade. Sarah, my father's second wife, had been adamant that food grown in Ireland should remain in Ireland to feed the masses, an opinion in which Georgina concurred. I held my peace, leaving it to the other men to explain that the feminine instinct for compassion, whilst honourable, was missplaced.

“How,” my father asked, “Would the masses pay for the food produced at great expense of labour by the farmer?”

“With the money earned by supplying their labour to the farmer, surely.”

“But that is not sufficient to sustain them for a full year. And they have their potato patch.”

“What if the blight strikes again?”

“Then they will once more have to fall back upon the generosity of the government.”

At this I could no longer hold my peace. “Generosity is not a word I would use, Father. If you could see what I face every day in County Clare you would not use it either.”

“I don't know, boy. The government taxes us enough. And now they are saying that the more successful parts of Ireland should pay a bigger share of the cost of relief in the poorer parts. I know many men, good neighbours of mine, who are angry about that and threaten to refuse payment.”

“And, if farm produce is not sold to England, where will the farmers find the money to pay those increased taxes?” was Robert's unanswerable contribution to the debate.

The potato patches we observed now appeared healthy. There were even some where it was obvious that the owner had already begun harvesting.

“I hope they are careful to retain a good supply for the winter.”

I reacted to Georgina's comment by suggesting that, after the experience of the past three years, no-one would be so foolish as to use up his family's supply in a fit of indulgence, though, in truth, I suspected that many would indeed do just that. Or sell a part of the crop to raise the cash to redeem those of their meagre possessions still in the hands of some pawn broker.

As we passed somewhere near Kildare town we encountered what I at first took to be one of the roads constructed as part of the public works programme of the previous year. As we drew near I realised that this was no ordinary road. Upon a road bed of crushed rocks were laid crosswise baulks of timber. Affixed to these thick short planks were a pair of continuous steel rails. I pointed these out to Arty, explaining that it was the new railway that Mr Dargan had constructed with the intention to link Dublin with Cork and Limerick using carriages drawn by steam locomotives. Arty was excited at the prospect of witnessing such a machine and begged us wait for its appearance. We had no way of knowing when or even if the machine might manifest itself, but agreed to halt our progress and partake of refreshments.

We had completed our repast, the horses taken their fill from the greenery at the edge of the road. I took the reins in my hand, Arty protesting, begging us wait a little longer, when Georgina put her fingers to her lips. “Hush. Listen!”

Thus alerted we all became aware of a humming being emitted, or so it seemed, by the rails. The sound rapidly grew in volume, accompanied by repeated small explosions.

“Look!” Arty pointed down the line of rails to where a column of smoke appeared on the horizon. Soon we were able to see, beneath the smoke, the engine from which it belched. Our horses skittered and shook their heads, emitting snorts from their nostrils, a sure sign that they were disturbed by this strange apparition. I permitted them to turn away from the rails and they calmed down. From our new position we watched as the monster thundered past us drawing carts bearing timber which I supposed had been collected from the port at Limerick. This was a surprise to me since although I knew that the line was due to reach Limerick that summer I had not realised that it had already done so and been put to use so quickly.

With the locomotive and its train of timber retreating towards Dublin we each expressed our pleasure at the sight of such a marvelous invention. Arty insisted that, upon completion of his studies, he would take up the profession of Engineer. I once more turned the horses towards our destination.

Throughout our journeying I wished I had time to visit the Houses and Guardian committees in the towns through which we passed. I wanted to see to what extent other districts experienced the same problems I encountered daily in Kilrush. I was also eager to ascertain whether eviction was practiced to such a wide extent. I realised however that this would be unfair to my companions, for what would Georgina and our two children occupy themselves with whilst I indulged my curio...

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