The Donegal Woman

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(322)

John Throne, The Drumkeen Press, £10.99

Less than 100 years ago a form of slavery still existed in rural Ireland - the hiring fair system. Children as young as seven were sold for fixed periods by their impoverished parents to farmers who worked them to the bone, treating them as little more than cattle.

The Donegal Woman centres around the story of the author's own grandmother, Margaret, whose penniless Protestant parents hired her out at the age of 12 to a Protestant farming family. She slept among the pigs she tended, at the mercy of occasional visits from Allen, the master of the house, who raped her, making her pregnant. To rid themselves of the embarrassment and to keep her within her "own kind" she is sold as a wife to Campbell, a Protestant land agent miserably tied into the system, who also gets given a cow for his troubles. No words are spoken in their gloomy croft as Margaret rears the five children she brings into the world by the age of 19. She doesn't eat or talk with her husband. She is no more than a servant and "a place to put his thing".

John Throne's story is told in a mesmeric style which obsessively dwells on the thoughts of Margaret and Campbell, both filled with anguish for their lot and their helplessness. But Margaret begins to turn from a dumb animal into a questioning individual whose tiny stabs at freedom come with her need to make sure her children don't have the same future ahead of them.

But as she finds a voice Campbell becomes more afraid that he might lose what little control he has over her. He clings to the words of his father: "It's the Lord Taverstocks, the Bishop Wilsons, and the police and the army that run this country. Keep right with them and you'll never go too far wrong. Don't be thinking like them Fenians. They want to fight the powers that be. Look where it gets them. We may have little, but they have less."

In Donegal there is only distant news about the Dublin Lockout of 1913 and the Easter Rising in 1916. But word gets through and a strike by local labourers is organised. As with Margaret, something is awakening in Campbell and he begins to question his role as bully and informer, especially when he can no longer rely on the Protestant labourers to scab.

My own father was from Donegal and by the 1940s he and his eight brothers and sisters had taken the boat to England or the US to get away from their own bleak existence. This true story was for me a particularly compelling read with a heart wrenching ending.