Chapter 6 from Under the Emerald Sky by Juliane Weber

This Sunday Snippet is from the Historical Fiction, Historical Romance Under the Emerald Sky by Juliane Weber. It is suitable for readers aged 18+, especially as it does contain some explicit content.

Under the Emerald Sky by Juliane Weber was self published by the author. It is currently available as a Kindle e-book (ISBN B08LP3DDHP, published 23.10.2020) and a paperback (ISBN-13: 979-8552833740, published on 25.10.2020).

blog post Under the Emerald Sky by Juliane Weber

Synopsis of Under the Emerald Sky by Juliane Weber

He’s come to Ireland to escape his past. She’s trying to run from her future.

It’s 1843 and the English nobleman Quinton Williams has come to Ireland to oversee the running of his father’s ailing estate and escape his painful past. Here he meets the alluring Alannah O’Neill, whose Irish family is one of few to have retained ownership of their land, the rest having been supplanted by the English over the course of the country’s bloody history. Finding herself drawn to the handsome Englishman, Alannah offers to help Quin communicate with the estate’s Gaelic-speaking tenants, as much to assist him as to counter her own ennui. Aware of her controlling brother’s hostility towards the English, she keeps her growing relationship with Quin a secret – a secret that cannot, however, be kept for long from those who dream of ridding Ireland of her English oppressors.

Among the stark contrasts that separate the rich few from the plentiful poor, Under the Emerald Sky is a tale of love and betrayal in a land teetering on the brink of disaster – the Great Famine that would forever change the course of Ireland’s history.

Name of chapter: Chapter 6

After a short and silent ride, we arrived at the edge of a small field that
seemed to lie somewhat apart from the others. It was laid out in orderly rows
of potato vines, at the base of which stood a tiny ramshackle cottage that
appeared to have no adornments of any kind, including windows or a chimney.

The whitewash on the walls did nothing to improve its dilapidated appearance,
serving merely to prevent the washing away of a structure made entirely of
mud.

In silent agreement, Quin and I dismounted and approached the cabin on
foot, leading the horses. Our approach was met with the furious barking of a
mangy looking dog that came rushing towards us from the far side of the cabin,
followed by a number of wild-eyed children, who stopped in the dooryard and
looked at us suspiciously, the chickens they had evidently been feeding pecking
the ground at their feet in search of further nourishment.

At the racket, a woman dressed in drab homespun emerged from the cottage
and eyed us warily. As we got closer, I could see that she was younger than I
had thought, probably no more than a few years older than I. The trials of a
hard life had etched themselves in her face, magnified by a hollowness in her
cheeks that echoed the uncertainty of her family’s existence.

“Maidin mhaith, a bhean uasal,” I said to her in greeting, smiling warmly.

She narrowed her eyes at me at the formality, and I quickly introduced myself
and explained that Quin was the newly arrived owner of the estate who had
come to inspect his tenants. The look of suspicion abated somewhat at this,
although it didn’t entirely disappear. Her husband must have told her of his
meeting with Quin and his promises, I thought. Based on her expression, they
had reservations that these promises would be met. Looking around the small
plot of land on which they depended for their very existence, I couldn’t blame
them.

I continued to smile at her and spoke to her encouragingly, finally coaxing her
into introducing herself—“Mary Murphy,” she murmured shyly—and her
children, who she lined up in front of the cabin. There were four of them, three
girls and one boy, ranging in age from about two to six, all dressed in rags.

Next to me, Quin started rootling in one of the large saddlebags on his horse,
finally coming up with a small canvas sack. This contained numerous glossy
brown pebbles that I recognised as toffees, having tasted them once before
when Mr Henderson had brought me some upon his return from a trip to
England. Quin offered the beads to the eldest girl, who glanced at her mother
before taking one and, having observed Quin’s gesture that it was to be eaten,
cautiously placing it on her outstretched tongue. Her eyes popped open and
she smiled in obvious delight, which encouraged her siblings and their mother
to try one too.

I took a toffee myself, enjoying the sweet creamy taste, and relishing in the
joy the treat elicited in Mrs Murphy and her children. I eyed the family
inconspicuously while we ate. They were all very thin and Mrs Murphy looked
older than she probably was, but the children had ruddy cheeks and brightly
gleaming eyes, as well as a natural curiosity that emerged once their initial
wariness had worn off. They were clearly very poor, but not starving.

Much of this, I knew, came down to the family’s dependence on potatoes.
Originally cultivated as a garden crop, the potato had first made its way onto
Irish fields as a rotational crop—a purpose for which it was still being widely
used—only to become the staple food for the large population of labourers that
worked the grain fields of Ireland to meet the demands of the British market.

On average, an acre of land could yield about eight tons of potatoes, which
was enough to feed a family of six for a year. This was why thousands upon
thousands of people across Ireland, including tenants who rented tiny plots of
farmland and labourers who were dependent on garden plots or conacre for
their sustenance, had taken to farming potatoes almost exclusively, with the
nutritious—though monotonous—harvest able to sustain its dependents year
after year. But while few people were dying of hunger, most Irish were
wretchedly poor, and being solely reliant on one harvest for their survival
meant that worry over crop loss and spoilage accompanied each mouthful, with
the knowledge that there was little or nothing else to fall back on.

And crops had failed before. Most farmers had experienced occasional crop
damage or loss caused by agricultural hazards such as heavy rains, frost or
drought. Fortunately, the effects of these losses tended to be localised and
neutralised by local relief efforts, which meant that, on the whole, the Irish
people tended to have enough to eat—although not much else.

This became quite clear when I asked Mrs Murphy if we might have a look
around. She nodded and showed us what there was to be seen in the yard—
not much besides a small pile of turf—before leading us into the cabin. This was
stuffy and gloomy, lit only by the wavering light of a single oil lamp hanging
from the wall. Once my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, I could make out a
rickety three-legged stool and an oblong box that seemed to be used for
storage and seating, as well as a small ancient-looking loom. Besides these
three objects, the cottage contained no furniture. The family slept on the hay
that covered the floor, evidently sharing this space with their animals, as
emerged when a sudden heave in the corner revealed a medium-sized black
pig that I hadn’t noticed in the gloom.

“Cú Chulainn,” the little boy piped up excitedly from the dooryard, pointing
to the pig.

I laughed, and Quin gave me a questioning look.

“Cú Chulainn is the name of a famous Ulster hero. According to legend, he is
the incarnation of the god Lugh come to Earth, who single-handedly defended
his people against Queen Medb of Connacht, before going on to become a
fierce warrior who fights from his chariot drawn by horses.”

“Rather a difficult feat for a pig to replicate,” Quin said, smiling at the little
boy.

“He is also known for his monstrous battle frenzy, in which he knows neither
friend nor foe.”

“That sounds rather more like pig behaviour, at least when it comes
to dinnertime.”

We laughed together, and Mrs Murphy, who evidently hadn’t understood our
exchange, smiled shyly, looking proudly at the pig, which was sniffing at her
feet, curly tail wiggling back and forth. She explained that Cú Chulainn was
being raised for sale, not as food for the family, and that she had high hopes
that he would grow big and fat on the potatoes that he shared with the family
and bring a decent income.

“Well, that explains how they pay the rent,” Quin said after hearing my
translation. “I didn’t think it was possible to make enough money off the
potatoes they’re able to grow on this tiny plot of land. Not if they also want to
eat and have clothes on their backs.”

Catching the English word for potato, which she evidently knew, Mrs Murphy
led us back outside to show us the location of the storage pit, which was
situated a short distance from the cabin. It was now early June and Mrs Murphy
explained that only a small pile of the lumpy brown vegetables remained of last
year’s crop, all that would sustain the family until September or October when
the new harvest was in. I looked at her thin frame and the children’s knobbly
legs and wondered how they managed to survive on the short rations of the
summer months. Before I could ask, she explained that they supplemented—
as they did throughout the year—with whatever they could find; eggs from the
chickens, fish from the stream or any small amount of milk and grain they could
buy.

I blinked in the sunshine, marvelling at the nonchalance with which the
woman before me was describing her precarious existence. Almost entirely
dependent on a single crop, living in conditions that could at best be described
as barely tolerable, Mrs Murphy nevertheless found the heart to exclaim in
pride how young Robert had caught his first fish just a few months before and
how Bridget had managed to clean and cook it all by herself. I smiled at her,
enjoying her company, and the joy she managed to find amidst the struggles
she faced every day. We exchanged a few more pleasantries about her children
and her husband, who had found temporary work on a nearby farm and would
soon be leaving her to handle affairs here in his absence. She seemed capable
enough, but I promised to look in on her from time to time to see how she was
faring.

After heartfelt farewells, Quin and I mounted our horses and rode off to
continue our exploration of Glaslearg, the children running alongside, until
their mother called them back to continue with their chores. In the relative
silence that descended upon us with their departure I contemplated the
Murphys’ situation. Having seen the men gathered in Quin’s drawing room the
day before, I had known from the outset that Glaslearg’s tenants were poor—
it could hardly be otherwise with just two acres of land at their disposal. I knew
this wasn’t the case for all Irish tenant farmers, many of whom tended to live
fairly comfortably. The amount of land rented by tenants could vary
considerably, though, with some laying claim to plots twenty or thirty acres in
size, or more, making them quite wealthy in their own right. Such tenant
farmers frequently sublet parts of the land they rented to undertenants—who
inevitably paid a comparatively higher rent per acre than their overtenants and
didn’t usually have a lease, thus making them more vulnerable to evictions and
rent increases. The small plots of land rented by the undertenants—much like
the small plots rented by the tenants of Glaslearg—made it impossible to amass
much in the way of riches, even working their fingers to the bone.

An overwhelming sense of helplessness came over me as I thought of Mrs
Murphy and her children, living from day to day, never quite knowing what the
next day would bring.

And yet…they had seemed reasonably content. Yes, their situation was
uncertain, but for the moment they had a small patch of ground to live on, food
to eat and a cottage to sleep in. While this might not seem like a lot to some,
there were others who had even less—landless labourers who relied on a few
days’ worth of meagre wages to see them through the year or hired a rood of
conacre to see them fed; and those who had nothing, who were too old to
work, slept under bridges and relied on handouts, facing the very real danger
of starvation during the lean months, when the previous year’s potato crop was
eaten or spoiled and the new crop not yet ready for the harvest.

“At least they have a roof over their heads,” Quin said suddenly, echoing my
own thoughts, “even if it is only thatch.” He was silent again for a moment
before going on. “But damned if I’d want to live like that, in a tiny cabin without
any windows, sharing my patch of hay with a pig! And to be so utterly reliant
on one year’s small crop…what if it should fail?—No. I shall not allow the
Murphys to starve, nor shall I sit idly by whilst they live in conditions such as we
have seen!” After another pause, he added, “One can only hope that the other
tenants are better off.”

Unfortunately, this proved not to be the case, as every plot we visited showed
variations of the same theme—whole families, and their animals and measly
possessions, crammed into ramshackle cottages smaller than some rich
people’s boot rooms; cottages that were stashed away at the edges of the
estates they occupied, far away from the manor houses, so that the gleefulness
of the noble lords and ladies wasn’t besmirched by the unsightliness of the less
fortunate who resided on their land.

***

This Sunday Snippet from Under the Emerald Sky by Juliane Weber was provided by and published with permission of the author. If you have enjoyed reading this snippet, please order your own copy via your favourite book retailer or from Amazon

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