Keeper of the Light

 

 Queenstown Harbor, Ireland, “Black ‘47”

 

“Cathal, lad, look at me. Look at me now, and tell me why ye’re here.”

 

Cathal Donnelly’s soul shrank as the priest grasped his chin between long, bony fingers and forced his reluctant gaze up to his face. Father O’Reilly’s black robe flapped and snapped in the chill spring wind that slashed Cathal’s own skin. The gulls screaming over the sea like banshees sent shivers down his spine. He caught his lower lip between his teeth, struggling to control his shameful tears. “We’re going to America, Father.”

 

“And do ye know why ye must go to America?”

 

“Because we’ve no food, Father.”

 

“Ah, now that’s where ye’re wrong, lad.” Father O’Reilly glanced over to where Cathal’s family huddled together on the shore with hundreds of other emaciated refugees waiting to board the Sally Malone. Then he knelt before the ten-year-old boy, his dark-blue eyes blazing, his hands biting into his flesh. “Ye must go to America because the English decided ye’ve no food, Cathal. England starved ye, abused ye, and when ye dared to cry out for help, she turned blind eyes and deaf ears. Where has all the grain gone? And the cattle and the pigs and the sheep? All gone to England.” The priest waved a bony hand toward the quay, where huge, many-masted ships filled with food and livestock waited to sail. “All of it sent over the water so England may grow fat while Ireland starves. Do ye realize that, Cathal Donnelly? Do ye, lad?”

 

“Aye, Father.” Cathal widened his eyes in awe, pride swelling his heart and puffing out his thin chest. No one had ever talked to him this way, as if he were grown up. As if he understood. He’d heard the whispers in the back room at Phelan’s pub, or when the men were digging the praties before they’d turned to black slime in the pit. But never had anyone told him why they must send their own food away. “I understand.”

 

“Remember it then, lad. Remember it all—the hunger, the evictions, the cruelty. Remember it, and tell yer children, and in time their children. Will ye do that for me, Cathal Donnelly?”

 

“Aye, Father, I will.”

 

“The English drove ye from yer land.” Father O’Reilly’s voice shook with emotion. Tears sprang to his eyes and rolled down his cheeks, and Cathal’s heart twisted for the priest’s grief. “Don’t ever forget that, lad. Keep the memories alive, so that one day, please God, the wrongs done to our people will be righted.”

 

Blinded by tears that had nothing to do with the sharp salt wind blowing off the sea, Cathal clenched his fists, his soul crying out for justice. For vengeance.

 

“I promise, Father.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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