Mo Cuishle – Book and Film Project – JANET LEE CHAPMAN

CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER ONE The Dead House Saoirse O’Brien is ‘up with the robins’, as she calls it, at the crack of dawn. The room is full of large cardboard boxes with ‘LOUNGE’ written in black felt tip on the sides. Saoirse is unpacking one of them in her new home on this crisp spring morning in 2012. Sunlight paints the trees outside in oranges and golds, as the dawn chorus begins. Saoirse looks out through the long sash window, smiling when she spots a robin singing his little heart out on the branch of a silver birch tree. There are other birds joining in, chaffinches, starlings, wrens, wood pigeons, Saoirse does not know their names yet, she plans to learn them with Bridget, her eleven-year-old daughter for a summer project together. She returns to the open box, pulling out an antique silver-framed photograph of Liam, her husband and herself, sitting with their daughter, on a white bench in the back garden of their beautiful house in Boston, USA. It was taken last summer when they put on a Goodbye For Now party, most of their family and friends had attended, some of them expressing that they thought the couple were just totally nuts to buy such a dilapidated, once upon a time workhouse, out in the wilds of Ireland, far from all the so-called delights of city life. “I couldn’t help it, I just fell in love with that place the minute I saw it!” Saoirse grinned. Rory, her cousin, joked, “Well now, don’t we all know what happens with those kind of AI relationships? You think you’re talking to a woman when they accidentally put their cam on. Boom! Turns out you’re chatting to a big hairy man!” Everyone had laughed. Saoirse picked up her mug of freshly brewed black coffee, it was hot as hell, just as she liked it. Sighing happily, ah, she thought, much better than Starbucks, any day of the week. No, she wasn’t missing city life. The robin sang louder, as if he were in agreement with her thoughts. She goes over to place the picture on one of the white shelves that runs along the biggest wall in her new lounge. Saoirse had insisted that the living quarters for the family were to be refurbished before they moved in. They’d lived in a lovely little cottage down the road for several months until their new home was ready for them to move in. The removal company from America had handled everything, they’d just delivered all the boxes of their stuff. The house was full of brand new furniture, as they’d sold their old stuff included with the Boston house sale. There was a lounge, a study room for Saoirse, a big kitchen, two bathrooms, a couple of large bedrooms for the family, and three spares with ensuites for family and friends should they come for a visit. The family quarters were in one of the workhouse’s blocks that had been for the women to work in and included the Matron’s quarters. Converted into living space and used by previous occupants, the 1950s décor and utilities were outdated. It was now decorated to a modern design, reflecting both Saoirse’s taste and Liam’s style, they were definitely not into the Retro trend. Mainly, the workhouse had been empty and abandoned since it had been constructed in 1844, when it was built as a part of the nationwide project to help the destitute and the poor. Saoirse had researched the Great Hunger in depth, as she hadn’t been taught much about it at school. One article on the workhouses wrote that they were a ‘lifesaver’ during the Great Hunger times, Saoirse thought they were more like a place where people were lost. Maybe Rory was right, they must be stark raving bonkers, the sheer size of the project in front of them was daunting. However, Liam and Saoirse both believed that it was an important piece of Irish history, sure, it was sad to think of those times, though they felt it was necessary to recall and show respect for those who lost their lives in those days. Liam cashed in a financial plan to pay for the refurbishment of the whole place, yet now they’d had the chance to properly survey the place, Saoirse worried it might become a bottomless money pit. What were they thinking, taking on this colossal building with the draughty rooms and blood stained history? The Irish Poor Law Act came into being in 1838, dividing Ireland into over a hundred unions. It followed the English law that was created for the same purpose, as they already had workhouses and a system in place to help the impoverished poor. Each union was to have a workhouse, financed by a tax on land. An Englishman, 24 year old George Wilkinson, was appointed as an architect to work for the Irish Poor Law Commissioners. He designed and supervised the buildings. The first workhouses in Ireland opened in 1841, before the Great Hunger started and 163 were built altogether. Saoirse read that the workhouses were the last resort for many homeless people at the time. It was a harsh life as families would be split up to live in separate quarters and no one was exempt from working, young or old, no matter what, they had to work, in exchange for enough food to survive. Many hated the workhouses, a stigma grew up around them, no one liked to admit that any of their relatives had ever lived in one. The O’Brien’s workhouse had originally cost around £10,000 in 1844 to construct and kit it out with fixtures and fittings. It was built on nine acres of ground, housing around six hundred people. There were seven buildings or blocks, arranged around a large central yard, the O’Brien’s planned to make it into a pretty quadrangle with gardens full of roses, sunflowers, irises, daffodils, tulips and other seasonal flowers. Saoirse was keen to grow an herb garden, too, with lavenders, basil, rosemary, thyme and many more. Liam and Bridget wanted to have lilacs, magnolias and willows adorning the space. Saoirse planned to have a large vegetable garden out the back of the workhouse, she was going to grow lettuces, tomatoes, radishes, cabbages, parsnips, courgettes, marrows, anything that would grow in the Irish soil, she would plant. She wanted them to be sustainable, who knew when the world was going to end? Liam always laughed at her when she said that, it was something she’d inherited from her parents, both of whom had been frightened as students by the thought of an atom bomb being detonated. They grew their own vegetables, too, it was a family tradition. Block A was the girls’ Building, it had a reception room, a school room and a probationary ward. There was a waiting room, too, just off the main hallway at the entrance in there, it was for everyone who wanted to gain admission. Block B, the boys’ building, had a school room and a ward. Block C had been for the women, and was now the family’s living space. Block D was the men’s building. Block E housed the Chapel and the Kitchen/Dining areas. Block F was the infirmary. Block G was the laundry. There were architectural drawings with the deeds of the property and Liam had pointed out that there had been two other buildings, long since gone, the Dead House and the Bake House. The original gateway had been demolished, it was in the original drawings, too. He planned to resurrect them, though Saoirse thought the Dead House sounded morbid. Liam argued that this was the point, wasn’t the whole place permeated with death? She had responded, it was, though that didn’t mean she wanted to think about it all the time, it sounded like Auschwitz! Liam said, yes, indeed, it did. Saoirse shivered as the room felt suddenly chilled, she asked him if they might call it something else, perhaps the Passing On House? Liam shook his head, it has to be authentic, he responded. Later on, after she had read more books on the subject of the workhouses, she did relent, saying Liam was right, for if we forget the past, we may have to relive it, and that would not do. The Dead House kept its gruesome name. Liam was a talented architect, he wanted to restore the workhouse blocks over time to create a museum, dedicated to those who died in the workhouse during An Gorta Mór, or the Great Hunger, as it is more commonly referred to, in honour of those who lived and perished there. It was a ginormous place, there was room to do whatever they wanted. Liam’s old friend, Sean, had returned to his home place of Galway from Boston a couple of years ago, they had worked together in the US, now they were partners in their own firm of architects here in Ireland. Saoirse was to be assistant project manager and researcher, Liam would oversee the whole project and hire builders, design plans, make it all work smoothly. Saoirse planned to create a photographic journey of the renovations for display purposes, they both felt that was a grand idea altogether, even if no one came to see it, the dead would somehow know, they hoped it might bring a measure of peace to a place that had seen such tragedy. It would occupy her plenty while she set up her own photography studio in the old laundry block. Liam had wondered if it would be big enough to house her extensive collection of cameras, old and new. She joked back, why not, as he needed a whole bedroom just to store his fitness gear. At the bottom of the box that Saoirse is unpacking, her hand touches on an object that she pulls out into the light. It is a shadowed part of her life, something she has almost forgotten about these last twelve years, though she never could. Suddenly, the smell of the hospital fills her nostrils, the sound of her own heart crying out. Saoirse’s head is swirling with memories, she hears again the doctor’s voice, echo across the years, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” One of her twin daughters was stillborn. Saoirse’s bright blue eyes darken as she thinks of her darling baby, who looked an exact replica of Bridget, her living sister. Aisling had looked as if she may be only sleeping, as the doctor tried everything he knew to bring her to life. She was gone before she was born. The joyful occasion of her twins’ birth was deluged in grief. In the years that followed her loss, though Saoirse learned how to comfort herself in different ways, nothing really worked for long, her heart would always be broken. One night in a dream, she saw Aisling playing with a butterfly, as she among the daisies in a beautiful field. When she told the priest, a white-haired Irishman in his 60s, about it, he told her that Aisling was in her ‘Eternal Sleep with the Angels’, as he liked to call it, in his efforts to console her broken heart. Aisling means the Dreamer, according to The Book of Irish Names, that Saoirse cradles gently in her hands. ******* REVIEWS “ ‘Mo Cuishle’ opens one’s heart and heals your soul. Beautifully written, magical storytelling, weaving you in and out of time experiencing the pain, loss and beauty of each family’s love for one another.  The souls of the past come back to remind us how precious life is and to value, honour and love each other forever. As a reader, I didn’t want the journey to end. I can only imagine how Bridget will develop into a young adult and her adventures.” – Isabella Savic, Producer and Director, King Pepe Film. “Haunting and captivating, ‘Mo Cuishle’ instantly draws you in, right from the very first page. Beautifully written and a real tear-jerker – this is a must-read.” – Anna Rodgers, Author of Toxic World Toxic People “A refreshing and sensitive approach to a piece of Irish history that the outer world often ignores. Beautifully linking the past and present with tantalising glimpses into the spirit world, the reader is given a series of cleverly interlocking scenarios. This is a gem of a book.” – Pam Golden, Teacher, Writer. “A captivating and beautiful story and written so well. The words drew me in and filled me with evocative images of Ireland in distant times. I loved the way the story weaved its way through different timelines, each story equally moving and powerful, rich with feelings of love. A truly, beautiful story.” Catherine Horton, Hypnotherapist “ ‘Mo Cuishle’ blew me away. It was unexpected, poignant and amazing. When I read it, I’m there in the story, living in Ireland in those different timelines. I love it, it transports me to another world and I love being there. This is a beautiful story of spiritual and metaphysical truth woven through loss and reunion across time and space. It captures and enlightens as the story comes full circle.” -Karen Porritt, Intuitive Astrologer “This is such a beautiful, sincere and moving book. It is a true work of art and is filled with positivity, even though the issues are of hardship and heartbreak. It crosses dimensions and blends lives, past and present, perfectly.” – Elaine Forster, Creative Florist and Café Owner