Understand the Potato Famine:
Mclean, S. (2004 ). The event and its terrors. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
The subject of my re-blog post, “Creating Ghost Stories From Vintage Photographs,” brought to mind the only one of my old family photos that’s not identified. The mystery of that photo was inspiration for this scene in Chapter 7 of Irish Firebrands, in which photographed events from the distant, forgotten past of journalist Dillon Carroll’s family combine with his recent, remembered past and his topsy-turvy present, to put him on an exciting new path into his future:
DILLON tossed his pen across the table and glared at the photos that lay before him. He’d laboured over them all weekend, but far too many remained unidentified. Occasionally a forename or a year had been scribbled on the back of a photo, but the notes were meaningless to him. Now the unknown eyes in the photos reproached him for his ignorance.
What had he been thinking, to procrastinate investigating his roots until the persons he could’ve interviewed were coffin dust? For an award winning journalist who’d built his reputation upon timely and thorough reportage, this was as humiliating as missing a scoop.
The strident summons of the door buzzer startled him out of his funk. He’d hardly time to arise from his chair when the buzz was followed by a bellow.
“I know you’re in there, Dillon, so let me in!”
He hastily opened the door. “Fáilte, Dermot! Come in and take the weight off.”
Rooms always seemed to shrink in Dermot Ó Ríordáin’s burly presence. He took the wing chair in the corner, and Dillon watched him cast his eyes round the flat – habitually sizing up the story potential of the situation.
Dillon straddled his chair. “So, what are you doing out here?”
“We’ve the grandkids this weekend, so we brought them out to see the castle.”
“You know how it is with kids – they never get enough of knights in shining armour.” Dermot chuckled. “I begged off going to the visitors’ centre, though – I swear to God, I could recite that presentation by heart – so Ruth said she’d text me when they’re done.” He leant forward. “But what I really came out here for, was to see you.”
Dillon laughed. “Me? I’m honoured!”
Dermot snorted. “You’d better be! Look–” He enumerated his points on the digits of a bear-sized paw. “First, you spend a week cavorting for the cameras – then you blow in and announce you’re going to work from home for a week. You gallop out of the Wednesday conference – and the next thing I hear is that you want a week’s holliers. What’s up?”
How much do I tell him? Dillon’s pulse quickened – it was the only time he’d ever considered holding something back from his closest colleague. “Well … I was knackered when I got back – and you know it’s been a while since I took time off.”
Dermot grunted. “Hm! It’s been more like never. You’re such a workaholic, you make us all look bad. So – what do you mean by ‘knackered? Jet-lagged?”
“Not exactly – but when I arrived in Dublin, I thought I heard – a voice.”
“A voice? Whose voice?” Dermot’s face tightened a bit. “You don’t mean….”
Dillon nodded. “At first, I thought maybe I’d misheard someone calling for ‘Dallán’ or ‘Declan’. But a couple of days later, I thought I saw her – in a pub.”
Dermot frowned. “Anything else happen?”
Dillon hesitated – lots of things had happened since he came home. “I went back to the farm. I went upstairs.”
“It was like – it had just happened – all over again.”
Dermot scrutinised Dillon’s face. “You haven’t got schizophrenia in the family, have you?”
“Not that I know of.”
The big man rubbed his grizzled beard. “Well, I suppose if you did, and you were going to get it, you’d’ve got it before now…. Have you told anybody else?”
Now Dillon’s pulse leapt, as another memory abruptly crowded out all the others. He almost smiled – but the brown eyes in the bearded face were watching him closely, so he resolutely pushed away thoughts of Lana, and shook his head.
Dermot went to the music stand beside the treadmill and leafed through the manuscript that lay there. “So – what have you been doing since Wednesday?”
Dillon sighed. “Well, I’ve not been doing much of that. I think I’m a bit blocked.” He gestured towards the table. “I’ve been looking at old family photos and papers and – and–”
Dermot looked at him with raised eyebrows.
What am I doing? Dillon looked down at those faces, known and unknown – and then he realised that those people – his people – had actually lived through events that until now had only been words on a page … just as he and Dermot had lived through history, too–
“I’m trying something different,” he said. “I’m consulting with a genealogist. If I can connect with the past – in a personal sort of way – I think I can tell the story the way it was meant to be heard.”
Dermot walked to the table and surveyed the photos. “I like that. But I think it’s going to take more than a week. How long do you need? Three months? Six?”
“Whoa! You mean I can take a sabbatical?”
“Why not? Your contract gives you leave you never use. Write it up and I’ll approve it.”
Thinking of so much unstructured time boggled the mind … then responsibilities clamoured for Dillon’s control– “But what about my column? My department?”
“File, or not. It’s up to you. Stay home – travel – do whatever it takes to get the book done and yourself back on an even keel. The lads’ll report to me. After all, it was my desk once.”
Then Dillon’s caroming thoughts encountered Lana’s countenance– “Okay – make it three months.”
“Put it in writing. I’ll tell the executive conference I’ll be covering for you.”
Something electronic chirped. “That’ll be Ruth,” Dermot said. He produced a phone, checked the display and then pocketed the device. “You take care of yourself, and I’ll take care of everything else.”
Dillon rose from his seat and offered his hand. “You’re a lifesaver, Dermot.”
Dermot’s grip was hard. “Not so, Dillon – you’re the lifesaver. I’ll never forget Derry.” He clapped him on the shoulder. “Saving your sanity is the least I can do in return.”
Out on the landing, Dermot spoke again. “Well, it’s a load off my mind to know it’s all in your head!” When Dillon smiled, he continued, “But seriously – I’ll tell you what was really worrying me – that the next submission that crossed my desk with your name on it, would be your resignation.”
Dillon shook his head. “Fat chance of that. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Rest assured, old Mate – I’ll die in harness.”
The stairs creaked under Dermot’s tread and the hall door banged behind him, but Dillon still stood on the landing, lost in thought…. Three months! Naming forgotten faces – hearing forgotten voices – living forgotten lives…. Three months – starting now!
He darted to the table, swept the photos into the shoebox, snatched up the box and his jacket – and almost forgot to lock the door before racing down the stairs.
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