The darkness over Rathcairn

The darkness over Rathcairn Some of the first settlers in Rathcairn
The Cruelty Men

by Emer Martin (Lilliput Press, €16.00)

This book is about an extended family in the decades following the establishment of the Irish Free State. The family originated in the barony of Iveragh, Co. Kerry, one of the poorest areas in the country.

Under a scheme developed by the Land Commission, Irish-speaking families from Kerry and Connemara were re-located to establish a Gaeltacht at Rathcairn in Co Meath. Each family received a three-room cottage, a farm of 22 acres, a sow, piglets and basic farming implements.

This is the background to the new novel by the prize-winning author Emer Martin.

In her tale among the families re-located were the Ó Conaills of Iveragh. Apart from the parents there were three daughters: Mary, Bridget and Maeve, and three sons: Patrick, Seán and Séamus.


The mother did not travel to Meath as she was pregnant. The father returned to his Kerry home after less than two years. Within another few years both were dead.

Mary, the 16-year old eldest, was left with the responsibility of working the farm and caring for her siblings. Her task was not made easier by the fact that the local people refused to speak to the newcomers, whom they resented for getting land free and regarded as ‘colonizers and invaders’!

Hard-working and remarkably talented, Mary manages to hold the family together. Eventually when her brother Séamus succeeds to the farm and brings a wife into the household. Mary secures employment as a live-in housekeeper with a solicitor and his wife in the nearby town. Here she continues to care not only for her own family, but also for that of her employers.

Mary has a remarkable gift for story-telling. She also excels in recording the life-experiences of her siblings. Patrick is regarded as a ‘duine le Dia’ – never quite ‘normal’ and has to be committed into the asylum in Mullingar. There he has an accident in which his back is broken and he dies soon afterwards.

Seán, described as quiet and highly intelligent, aged 12 enters the novitiate of the Irish Christian Brothers in Co. Dublin.

Following his graduation, he is a highly esteemed teacher of mathematics at several of the congregation’s second-level schools. Séamus at 18 inherits the farm, but makes a disastrous marriage.

Mary recalls too the lives of her three sisters. On completing her primary education Bridget escapes to New York where she secures employment as a maid in an affluent family in Brooklyn.

Maeve, the youngest sister, highly intelligent and beautiful, acquires a job with a family of shopkeepers in the local town. She is described as “wild” and becomes the unwed mother of twins.

These are sent to an orphanage and because Maeve is charged with attempting to drown them she is consigned to the asylum. Later she enters a Magdalene Home.

The narrative of the woes of the family is continued by Ignatius, the youngest son of Séamus. He records how his father loses first an arm and later a leg in accidents on the farm. Ignatius is so unmanageable that his father commits him to an industrial school.

Here his uncle Seán is a member of the staff and, upset by the misconduct of some of his colleagues, hangs himself in his room. In due course Ignatius leaves the school with a trade, but simply drifts until he becomes one of the street-people of Dublin.

This is a dark novel, replete with stories of disillusionment, misery and tragedy. It casts a searing light into the social inadequacies, inequalities and injustices of the new Irish State.

However, the narrative all too frequently morphs into one-sided, angry rants.

These include unfair and unbalanced comments about the orphanages serviced by nuns, a topical target of hate for many young writers.

It is to be hoped that the travails of the Ó Conaills are not representative of the experiences of the other families who were chosen to create the new Gaeltacht at Rathcairn!

[Editorial note: The flawed nature of the project is explored by historian Suzanne M. Pegley, in The Land Commission and the Making of Ráth Cairn: The First Gaeltacht Colony (Four Courts Press, €9.95).]