If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? --Albert Einstein

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Witnessing 900 Years of History

Site of Father Sheehy's trial
Main Guard, Clonmel
I did not want to waste one minute of my trip to Ireland. Through the internet, I found contact information for the building where Father Sheehy was tried and convicted, the Main Guard in Clonmel, County Tipperary. A lovely curator, Michelle Stafford, responded to my email with background information, suggestions, and further contacts. I made an appointment to meet with her the day after we arrived.

The Main Guard was built in the 1600s as a courthouse and a thosel, where tolls, duties, and customs were paid. As if 400 years old is not ancient enough, Michelle told me that some of the stones were taken from a dismantled abbey built by Cisterian monks in the 1100s. She pointed out the mason’s mark chiseled into one block 900 years earlier.

Michelle Stafford, a
wonderful help to me.
It is humbling to see and touch something another human worked on so very long ago.

Inside, she took me to the main room on the second floor where trials had been held. There was a display with Father Sheehy’s story and picture. We looked out the window to see, about a block away, a large yellow hotel where the gaol (as they spelled it then) had been located.

It was a relatively new place then, built in the 1700s, with six dungeons. It was there Father Sheehy had been held awaiting trial. I stared at the street Sheehy was forced to parade on his way to the courthouse.

The road Sheehy took to
his trial. Taken from
the Main Guard.
One account by a man named Curry states that “[o]n the day of the trial, a party of horse surrounded the court, admitting and excluding whom they thought proper…” As I looked where he had walked, I imagined the terror of being dragged through the jeers of enemies, no friends in sight.

After leaving Michelle, I walked that route in reverse to see the location of Sheehy’s hanging, where he was drawn and quartered, and where his head remained on a spike for two decades.

It was said, that out of respect, no birds ever pecked his remains in all those twenty years.

Okay. Enough drama. Sheehy's likeness is part of the Fennessy Hotel sign where the gaol once stood. But he looked different in the sketch at the Main Guard. Very curious.

 So you decide. Was he a balding red-haired man with glasses or a handsome dark-haired fellow with more regular features? Hmmm. 
Father Sheehy at the Main Guard
Father Sheehy on hotel sign

Friday, January 27, 2012

Road Trip!

I caught a leprechaun!
Do you believe in synchronicity? Like when you’re thinking of someone you haven’t seen in ages, and out of the blue, they call you.

Well, with all the online research I was doing on Nicholas Sheehy for my book, Aroon, it came to pass that my sister and her family were taking a two-week vacation in Ireland. When I asked my mom (who was also going) what the chances were they would stop by any of the places I was investigating, she said, “Why don’t you come?”

What’s the likelihood a timely opportunity like that would arise?

I won’t go into the many reasons I had no business taking such a trip at that time. Let’s just say that at my family’s urging, I went.

My sister planned an amazing trip. We did not take a pre-packaged tour since she and her husband had already done that. She rented two houses--a farmhouse for one week in Kilmacthomas of County Waterford and, for the second week, a cottage by the sea in Donegal.

Kilmacthomas is a pretty short drive from Clonmel, the largest town of County Tipperary. That’s where Father Sheehy was tried and hanged. While they toured the area, I went off on my own to interview the museum curator and a local historian. Very, very cool.

The most poignant moment of the fortnight for me was in a cemetery outside the small town of Clogheen. After discovering Father Nicholas Sheehy in a few lines of a book, and weeks of researching and studying him, I stood alone on a windy, overcast day with my hand resting on his tomb. Someone I had not even heard of months before.

The tomb of Father Nicholas Sheehy

Monday, January 23, 2012

Oh, To Be Poor in Ireland!

The eighteenth-century peasants of Ireland were battered and crushed by the infamous Penal Laws imposed by the British. While their farms were backward and inefficient by English standards, rather than train farmers in new techniques, the Parliament passed an oppressive series of laws that left the peasant class dying of starvation.

These policies and their effect provoked Jonathan Swift to write his famous 1729 satire, A Modest Proposal. In it, he suggested the solution to the decimating poverty he encountered was to offer up Irish babies as succulent meals for the rich.

“…I believe no gentleman would refuse to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good, fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent, nutritious meat.”

Apparently, his sarcasm went over the aristocrats’ heads, for his condemnation of the ruling class had little effect.

To make matters worse (if you can imagine), in 1741, a terrible famine known as "The Great Slaughter" rampaged across Ireland. This disaster rivaled its more famous cousin, "The Great Potato Famine". Numbers are sketchy, but one estimate has 38% of the population dying of hunger and disease.

According to the BBC’s A Short History of Ireland, “The Reverend Philip Skelton, curate of Monaghan parish, reported that there were 'whole parishes in some places…almost desolate; the dead have been eaten in the fields by dogs for want of people to bury them. Whole thousands in a barony have perished, some of hunger and others of disorders occasioned by unnatural, unwholesome, and putrid diet.'

“An anonymous author of an open letter to Archbishop Boulter described conditions about Cashel in Co Tipperary:

'Multitudes are daily perishing…I have seen the labourer endeavouring to work at his spade, but fainting for want of food and forced to quit it. I have seen the aged father eating grass like a beast…the helpless orphan exposed on the dunghill, and none to take him in for fear of infection…the hungry infant sucking at the breast of the already expired parent…'”

Remember, this was twelve years after Swift’s damnation of the poor’s deplorable plight.

In the years that followed, landowners found that sheep and cattle were more profitable than tillage. Hence, tenants were evicted as more grazing land was needed. Even the commons where all were free to feed their livestock were taken away.

James Connolly stated in Labour in Irish History, “Where a hundred families had reaped as sustenance from their small farms, or by hiring out their labour to the owners of large farms, a dozen shepherds now occupied their places.”
This and other restrictions were apparently the final straws. Having no political power or legal recourse whatsoever,

...the Whiteboys were born.

**See modern-day satirist Stephen Colbert's take on Swift's Modest Proposal:
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word - Swift Payment
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Tipperary Martyr

"Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy."
--William Butler Yeats

I find Irish history overwhelming. Our entire United States history is around five hundred years long (if you start with Columbus). That’s a drop in the Irish bucket. Using The Course of Irish History as my starting point, I scanned and examined the pages discussing the 1760s, when my characters would flee the country.

The more I read, the more I wandered back into such a complex cause-and-effect maze, I quickly got lost in the millennia of events. It seemed in the number of clear-thinking years I have left, I could never fully grasp the times or what they meant.

Then on page 186, as though fated, two sentences caught my eye and attention.

“Because he had expressed sympathy with the peasantry in their distress, Father Nicholas Sheehy was convicted on a trumped-up charge of murder, in the town of Clonmel in 1766, and was hanged, drawn and quartered. His grave in Shandraghan soon became a place of pilgrimage, and his death provided later generations of Whiteboys with a patron saint.”

I had never heard of Nicholas Sheehy, the Whiteboys, or even the town of Clonmel at that point, but their story would soon weave its way into my heart and mind and take me on a journey of over four thousand miles and nearly two hundred fifty years.

My Father Sheehy research binder
I started with numerous internet searches and the wealth of information--from the tragic to the mysterious to the ridiculous--could keep me writing forever. This was where I learned the love and excitement of research.

A few teasers for future posts on this topic:
  • Father Nicholas Sheehy was either the virtuous, innocent victim of class hatred and religious fanaticism OR in cahoots with “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” the Pretender to the English throne.
  • After being hung, drawn and quartered, and decapitated, Father Sheehy’s head was posted on a spike for twenty years.
  • The man Father Sheehy was convicted of murdering was reportedly seen in Newfoundland, Canada, two years later.
  • Legend says all the corrupt jurors and the hangman met unusual or humiliating deaths.
  • The main perpetrator of the injustice against the priest, Sir Thomas Maude, was said to have grown a tail.
Hey, you can’t fault the Irish for lack of imagination. The question is: Where does imagination stop and truth begin?

RESEARCH TIP: To find the distance from my home to Clonmel, Ireland, I used a very cool site called Google Maps Distance Calculator. ( You merely type in your starting point, then manipulate the map to find and click on your destination. The site calculates the distance in the measurement you want--miles, kilometers, even nautical miles. Great fun!

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Shameless Desire

A sampling of my books bought for research
When plotting the original version of Aroon, my main characters were coming to South Carolina as indentured servants. But why? What would provoke two teenagers to leave their homeland, family, and friends--basically all they had ever known--to make the perilous voyage to America?

For that, I needed to know what was going on in Ireland in the 1760s. I did what I normally do in such circumstances. I bought a book.

That’s right. I bought it: The Course of Irish History by Moody and Martin. Hey, it was the paperback version.

I might as well make a confession right here and now. I have an addiction. Um, that’s too harsh a word. Let’s call it a proclivity. Yeah, I like that better. (My husband says the word addiction is not harsh enough.)

I tend to be a practical sort. I wear my shoes until it is a humiliation to be seen with me in public. The same with my clothes. I have one pair of pants that actually got caught up in the axle of an airline’s luggage cart on a rainy tarmac in Providence, Rhode Island. I still wear them today. (Land’s End knows how to put together a pair of pants!) Virtually all my jewelry are gifts.

So perhaps I should be forgiven for my need and greed for books. The only stores I like are book stores. I relish the earthy smell of a paperback as much as the slick, almost chemical, scent of a textbook. When I treat myself to a trip to Barnes and Noble or Books-a-Million, I roam the store snatching interesting titles from the shelves. Then I find the comfiest chair available and eagerly pore over my choices. Rarely--maybe never--have I left without buying at least one book.

I love online bookstores, too. Ah, Amazon! One of my daughters asked why we kept getting so many Amazon boxes in the mail. “Shut up,” I told her, and ripped open my latest treasure.

I know there are free libraries; we have a lovely one in my town. But I like to own the book. You never know when you’ll want to re-check the information you find. I gave some away, but then decided I needed those books and bought new copies.

Academic books cost too much, so I have taken advantage of the university libraries in our state. But if the book comes in paperback and is under $25, I order it. Come on! It would cost that much to drive at least one hundred miles round trip to the University of South Carolina in Columbia. That’s how I see it, anyway.

There. I’ve confessed. I guess all I can say is thank God for used books!

Friday, January 13, 2012

I Want a Grogoch

Monday, I needed some Irish mythical creatures. In Aroon (see sidebar), a prominent character, Margaret, is telling fairy (or should I say faerie) stories to her little sisters. Having some Irish blood in my veins is not enough--it was off to Google to discover a beastie or two.

I searched “Irish story creatures” which led me to a lovely site, Irish Myths & Legends ( Under the heading, “Creatures,” I discovered the grogoch, a half-fairy, half-little troll of a man who runs around naked, covered only by thick, coarse, reddish hair. Who also never washes and reeks.

He (and it’s always a “he”) is harmless and helpful. According to the site, “he may even attach himself to certain individuals and help them with their planting and harvesting or with domestic chores - for no payment other than a jug of cream. He will scuttle about the kitchen looking for odd jobs to do and will invariably get under people's feet.”

I want one. I hear Glade Plug-Insรข are pretty good. And I’ll provide plenty of cream. Plenty.

They do not like the religious, though. If a member of the clergy is in the house, they will leave. So, if my sister, the nun, wants to visit, I’m sure she can get a room at the local Day’s Inn. It’s only a block away.

This worked out great for my story, providing some cute banter between the siblings. Since I needed to read this chapter at my critique group on Tuesday, however, I wanted to pronounce the creature’s name correctly. Hence, more googling.

And then I found it: The Demoniacal, a blog dedicated to “the demons, monsters, & mysterious creatures that reportedly haunt our world.” (www.the It even had a primitive video from YouTube of a grogogh story which showed me how to say it. View it below if you’re interested; it lasts about two and a half minutes.

Then I read the one comment on the blogpost: “in fact I think that vampires are hidden in somewhere of the earth, is only that they is not interest in attack us because they are already found a new feeding method or something like this.”

Oo-kaay. A little joke, perhaps? Um, I don’t think so.

The blogger asks on a sidebar for readers with any supernatural experiences or is one “who identifies as a Witch, Vampire, Werewolf, Fairy, Alien or other supernatural being” to contact him. Or her.

This person ain’t playin’. He’s posted about Hoodoo seventy-two times so far this year! Check the date above. It’s been only thirteen days.

Well, this shows two things. One is that you never know to what world your searches will lead you, and two--how I get stuck in the rabbit hole of the internet when I only needed ONE TINY PIECE of information. Help!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Land of the Shackled

It is estimated that seventy-five percent of all colonists came to America under bondage. We all know about the horrific slave trade, but white indentured servants and deported convicts made up the rest of new arrivals under the yoke.

These people were scorned by the free English. According to Anthony Vaver, author of Convict Transportation from Great Britain to the American Colonies, “colonists thought that anyone who abandoned family and friends to become a servant in a distant land must be lacking in character.”

These attitudes made it easy to treat these people like chattel; they deserved whatever they got, went the belief.

Because few owners wanted to make a purchase sight unseen, most indentured servants had no specific contract before they left home. It was the ship captain who owned the immigrants until he could sell them for a profit.

According to Gottlieb Mittelberger:

a. All who did not pay their own way were required to stay aboard ship until purchased. The sick were left the longest, sometimes dying in the interim.

b. Adults were indentured for four to seven years, while children aged ten to fifteen were owned until the age of twenty-one.

c. Parents could trade or sell their children to unburden themselves of their own debt, but often did not know where they were taken and might never see them again. Entire families were often separated by being sold to different purchasers.

d. If one’s spouse died at sea, the survivor was responsible for working off both passages. If both parents died, the children had to make good on all debt.

While in servitude, disease and overwork killed off many before their indenture was over. Since the arrangement was temporary, the owners worked these people sometimes to death to “get their money’s worth.” Professor Kent Lancaster was quoted in White Cargo (Jordan and Walsh) as saying, “indentured servants were exploitable for a limited time only and that time could not be wasted on the niceties of holidays.”

Make no mistake. While under indenture, these people were OWNED by their purchasers. They could be beaten, branded, raped, and sometimes killed. If times got hard for the owner, they could be sold to another for the remainder of their time. Many masters left their servants to relatives in their wills. While not the life sentence of black slavery, the treatment was often no better.

Why is none of this in our history books even today? Well, it did not take long for the propaganda to begin. In 1789, Thomas Jefferson minimized the influx of indentured servants and 50,000 convicts by claiming only 4000 criminals, including their descendants, then lived in the United States.

I guess he didn't want the new nation’s reputation resting on the knowledge that three out of every four Americans started out in chains.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Indentured Servants: The Voyage

Tall ship rigging
Gottlieb Mittleberger was a German schoolmaster who emigrated to Philadelphia in 1750. While he did not come as an indentured servant, he wrote of the experiences he witnessed and heard about from his countrymen who were. Totally disenchanted, Mittleberger returned to Germany in 1754.

Once back in Europe, he wrote "On the Misfortune of Indentured Servants” to warn his countrymen of the horrors that possibly awaited them. He began, “Both in Rotterdam and in Amsterdam the people are packed densely, like herrings so to say, in the large sea-vessels. One person receives a place of scarcely 2 feet width and 6 feet length in the bedstead, while many a ship carries four to six hundred souls; not to mention the innumerable implements, tools, provisions, water-barrels and other things which likewise occupy much space.”

A voyage in these cramped conditions lasted seven weeks during good weather, up to twelve in bad.

As if the inhuman crowding weren’t enough, Mittelberger wrote , “terrible misery, stench, fumes, horror, vomiting, many kinds of sea-sickness, fever, dysentery, headache, heat, constipation, boils, scurvy, cancer, mouth-rot, and the like, all of which come from old and sharply salted food and meat, also from very bad and foul water, so that many die miserably. Add to this want of provisions, hunger, thirst, frost, heat, dampness, anxiety, want, afflictions and lamentations, together with other trouble, as . . . the lice abound so frightfully, especially on sick people, that they can be scraped off the body.”

Ugh. Imagine trying to exist in such conditions. According toMittelberger, “Among the healthy, impatience sometimes grows so great and cruel that one curses the other, or himself and the day of his birth, and sometimes come near killing each other. Misery and malice join each other, so that they cheat and rob one another.” Could Job himself do any better?

Mittelberger felt tremendous pity for the pregnant women aboard. Many died in childbirth and both mother and child were thrown into the sea, one through a porthole.

Another crowded ship, the S.S. Patricia
pulls into NYC in 1906.
“Children from 1 to 7 years rarely survive the voyage,“ he noted. “I witnessed misery in no less than 32 children in our ship, all of whom were thrown into the sea. The parents grieve all the more since their children find no resting-place in the earth, but are devoured by the monsters of the sea.”

Even the most basic food was contaminated. “Such meals [three warm meals a week] can hardly be eaten, on account of being so unclean. The water which is served out on the ships is often very black, thick and full of worms, so that one cannot drink it without loathing, even with the greatest thirst.”

Imagine the relief the survivors felt at reaching the New World at last. But their problems were just beginning.

More on the life of the indentured servant in the next post.

To read more of Gottlieb Mittelberger’s first person account, go to,+On+the+Misfortune+of+Indentured+Servants.pdf. 

S. S. Patricia photo: Credit: ©1906 Edwin Levick. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number LC-USZ62-11202]

Friday, January 6, 2012

Indentured Servitude: The "Official" Version

"What we unfortunate English people suffer here is beyond the probability of you in England to conceive. Let it suffice that I, one of the unhappy number, am toiling almost day and night, and very often in the horses’ drudgery, with only this comfort that: 'You bitch, you do not half enough...'"    --undelivered letter from indentured servant, Elizabeth Spriggs, to her father, 1756

My main fictional character of The Least of These, Mary Edith Dillon, is the daughter of two Irish indentured servants, Joe and Nancy Dillon. My next book, Aroon, was originally a prequel to The Least of These.

It was intended to follow Joe and Nancy on their journey to America. What was it like for two young people to emigrate here as indentured servants? I quickly found out how little I know about the institution--and how little some want us to know.

History books have little more than a sentence or two, explaining that this was an honorable method for the poor, but hard-working to finance their passages across the Atlantic. The textbook, The American Journey, says “Other men, women, and children came to the colonies as indentured servants. In return for the payment of their passage to America, they agreed to work without pay for a certain period of time.”

Sounds fair.

Walter Edgar doesn't give it much more coverage in South Carolina: A History. He tells of the Bounty Act of 1761 where the colonial government promised four pounds Sterling ($360) for each white immigrant imported into South Carolina. These immigrants were to be given an additional twenty shillings ($90) as start-up money. Yet a prominent South Carolinian called it “more cruel than the slave trade.”

Edgar, however, like most all other references to indentured servitude, soft pedals it. “Selling their children as servants was simply a means for paying the family’s way to South Carolina,” he writes. Also, “Thrifty and industrious, the Germans of Orangeburg and Amelia turned their townships into the breadbasket of South Carolina.”

A little digging outside the traditional history books, however, tells quite a different story.  I've recently been listening to the audiobook version of Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen that exposes the patriotic spin given to most school history texts. You may be astounded, as I have been, by the omissions, slants, and outright myths perpetrated by texbook writers in an effort to present our past in the best possible light. The distortions we've been fed on the lot of indentured servants is another such effort.

In my next post, I will tell the true tale from the mouth of a German immigrant, Gottlieb Mittelberger, who wrote “On the Misfortune of Indentured Servants” in 1754.

A voyage to the dark side.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Tavern of John McHeath

The Stage Coach Inn was located about
twenty miles from McHeath's Tavern.

Local history books provided the setting and conflict for my story, The Least of These.

The Revolutionary War was a brutal time in South Carolina when neighbors chose sides, resulting on a whopping one-third of the population as active Loyalists. This created a more true civil war than any in U.S. history. Neighbors destroyed each other's homes, raped, scalped, and hacked each other to bits. Corpses were even dug up and abused.

A re-created tavern at the Living
History Park, North Augusta, S. C.
Real-life character Tarleton Brown and his young fictional savior, Mary Edith Dillon, sided with the Patriots. I needed a loyal subject of His Highness King George III to act as their foil.

From The Village of Barnwell by William Hansford Duncan, I learned the focal point of colonial life in my town was a tavern located on Red Hill, run by a man named John McHeath.

McHeath’s inn was famous for its whiskey. However, taverns were not only where folks went to throw back a few shots. They were often the only community buildings available. They could be used as courtrooms, schoolhouses, and even church services. To prevent drunkenness during these tamer activities, a set of wooden bars would be lowered to block access to alcohol. Even today, 
Note the bar that was lowered for
non-alcoholic activities.
we say, “The bar is closed.”

Taverns were prevalent along main thoroughfares and trading routes in the backwoods. McHeath’s Tavern served as an oasis on the Charles Town-Augusta stagecoach road where travelers stopped for food, drink, or a night’s rest, if needed. Locals showed up to hear gossip, make contacts, or enjoy a game of cards, or patrons might enjoy the occasional brawl or cockfight. I can imagine some gritty political discussions, too.

Inside the tavern at the Historic
Camden Revolutionary War Site
With that, the stage is set. Let the drama begin.

RESEARCH TIP: I learned much of this information from the tavern keeper at the “Living History Park” in North Augusta, South Carolina ( Re-enactors are a great source of knowledge since they tend to be very passionate about their topic and strive for accuracy to the smallest detail. And like any enthusiast, they love to talk about their interest. 

Also helpful, I found a facsimile of a colonial tavern at the Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site of Camden, South Carolina. Since McHeath’s inn is long gone, it helps to have one I can enter, walk around, and get a feel for.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

What's the Big Idea?

Don't just lay there--do something!
Years ago, I took one of those quizzes in I-can’t-remember-which writing magazine that rated my creativity on par with a zucchini.


Maybe that’s why I like to base my stories on actual historical occurrences. Little known stories from our hometown newspaper and county library have generated interesting ideas for me.

My first book, The Least of These, came from the memoir of nearly-forgotten Tarleton Brown, the local Revolutionary War hero here in Barnwell, South Carolina. Even our esteemed state historian, Walter Edgar, not only omitted him from his tome, South Carolina: A History, but also from his book that focused solely on the American Revolution, Partisans & Redcoats.

In 1843, a veteran of the South Carolina Rangers, Colonel Tarleton Brown, published his memoirs in a short-lived newspaper known as the Charleston Rambler. He described in fascinating detail his Revolutionary War exploits in Barnwell, at that time considered a backwoods, frontier region. No famous battles occurred, but the fighting was fierce and real people suffered.

Tarleton Brown tells the story of the aftermath of 1781’s Siege of Augusta, Georgia, when he decided to “peep” into the fort they overtook. “…[B]ut it was a sore peep to me, as I took small-pox from it.”

Since no one in his family had ever had the disease, he hired Peggy Ogleby to care for him under a large oak tree. “This slut was a Tory, and informed her clan where I was. They said they would come and kill the d—n rebel, but as I had an invisible and Almighty Protector, they had not the power to execute their malicious design.”

A more modern edition of
Tarleton Brown's memoirs
Apparently in 1843, he was still pretty pissed off about it. Somewhat vague about his method of escape, though.

My husband is an amateur historian and, through some research, discovered a treatise in our library recounting local history. The Village of Barnwell by William Hansford Duncan had originally been printed some time between 1912 and 1915.

This source tells a story of Tarleton Brown not found in his memoirs. He had been captured by Tories, it seems, and scheduled to hang. But the captors wanted to celebrate with a few whiskeys first, giving Brown the opportunity to gallop off on the horse to which he was tied.

To me, both these stories seem to leave something out—the likelihood of outside help in Tarleton’s escapes. Why not, then, have an ordinary young girl, very much “under the radar” in the society of the day, become integral in helping this Patriot fight the good fight? This girl would be very poor and considered beneath the consideration of those around her, yet she would be an invisible hero.

This was the seed I planted to “grow” The Least of These, a book I am re-writing for the third time. They say it’s the charm.