Granny Maura proved to be such a popular character in the Girl in the Shadows series that I devoted a book especially to her!
In the fourth book in the series, we return to the past – a prequel – back to when Granny Maura was a girl.
This book tells the back-story of Grace’s beloved Grandmother as a young girl. The similarities with Grace are marked and it’s easy to see where Grace got her sense of fun.
This chapter, entitled The Copper Pot, gives a brief glimpse of life as it was in rural Ireland at the beginning of the 1900s.
Sit back, relax and enjoy!
“Stir yourself Maura!”
The voice drifted up to the children’s loft.
“Come on, girl! Don’t be making us late now!”
Maura rubbed her sleepy eyes. Once again, her brothers and sisters were up before her and her mother was not best pleased.
“I’m coming Mammy!”
Maura slid off the straw pallet letting the coarse blanket fall to the floor. She pulled her much-mended dress over her worn chemise and reached for her thick wool socks. She looked at them distastefully for a moment.
It was late summer and the thick socks would irritate her young skin and make her feet sweat. She knew that her mother would insist on her wearing them so she pulled them on and made her way over to the ladder. Lowering herself carefully to the floor below, she turned and jumped off the final rung.
“Maura! I told you! You’ll fall and break your head one day!”
“Sorry, Mammy. Where is everyone?”
“Where you should be! They are all in the fields gathering the spuds already.”
“Early? Child, they have been out there for the past half hour. Stir yourself now. The oats are getting cold.”
Maura seated herself at the table and began to feast hungrily on the lukewarm porridge. Breakfast was her favourite meal of the day. For a few hours, the hunger pains would be held at bay.
“Drink your water, child!”
Maura drank the cool water. Even on the hottest day there was always plenty of cool water to drink thanks to the stream that ran behind the house. Maura’s mother kept a bucket of water just inside the door and a cup always on a hook just above it so that a thirsty throat would not have to wait long to be slaked.
“Come on, girl! ‘Tis time we were in the fields too!”
Maura wiped her mouth on her sleeve and went to sit on the settle beside the fireplace. Her mother bent to put on the young girl’s shoes, first putting fresh leaves inside to cover the holes in the soles.
“Now then! Your father will be waiting on us.”
Together they walked down the rough lane leading to the fields.
“I thought ye got lost!” Maura’s father greeted them. “G’wan over there with your sisters and let you pick up the smallest spuds. Throw them into the sacks. Let your sisters carry the sacks or we’ll be here all day.”
Maura skipped over to where her four sisters were busily picking up the fresh potatoes as fast as their brothers were digging them.
“Here Maura, pick up those small ones and throw them into that bag.”
Margaret, at fourteen, was the eldest sister and the others all looked to her for leadership. They had all experienced the sharpness of her tongue in the past and they all knew that she wasn’t above giving them a quick clip around the ear if they didn’t do her bidding. At five, Maura was the youngest of the family but even she, knew better than to cross Margaret.
The work was hard on the back and before long Maura began to grow bored.
“My back hurts!”
“Hush, Maura! We all have sore backs! Just keep working and we’ll be finished quicker.”
A small potato hit Maura on the back of the head. She whirled around rubbing at the spot.
“Who did that?”
Her four brothers laughed and pointed at each other.
“Get back to work!”
Maura jumped as her father shouted at them all.
“They’re throwing spuds at me, Daddy!”
“Well pick them up and put them in the sacks!” Her father was having none of it.
“But my back hurts!”
“Your backside will be hurting if you don’t stop your blather and get back to work!”
Maura sighed and began to pick up the potatoes once more. She knew that her father meant it. She had seen him beat Thomas and Steven more than once. The two younger boys had long decided not to get on the bad side of him but the two eldest always seemed to forget to mind their manners. She knew that Thomas would soon be leaving to work for a farmer a few miles away. At fifteen he was old enough to go into service and after that it would be Margaret’s turn. Maura felt sorry for the family that would take her as, of all of them, Margaret was the bossiest.
Just when Maura decided that she never wanted to see another potato, her mother called her.
“Maura! Come give me a hand with the food.”
Throwing the last few spuds back onto the ground, Maura ran after her mother as she returned to the house to gather up the bit of food.
The whole family was delighted to see Maura and their mother returning with their midday meal.
“Sit under the tree out of the sun.” Maura’s father pointed to a tree near the fence.
The children made their way over to it gratefully and sank to the ground. They waited for their mother to hand out hunks of sharp home-made cheese and slices of soda bread. Their eager hands, filthy from the work, took the food and began to tear it apart before popping it into their hungry mouths.
Maura was given the job of dipping the cup into the bucket of water and passing it to her family in turn. They all drank eagerly, trying to ease the burning that the dust and hot sun had inflicted on them all.
“Isn’t it a grand life!” Maura’s father leaned back against the tree and surveyed his small farm.
No-one answered as they rubbed their stiff backs and aching legs.
“Aren’t we the fortunate ones! Fresh air, sunshine and the smell of the good earth around us! Sure, what more could you want?”
Maura privately thought of lots of things she wanted. Her mind wandered as she imagined having her own puppy and a pony and a new dress to wear to Mass and a slice of that soft white bread that Margaret once told her she had tasted at a rich neighbour’s house. Her imaginings were rudely interrupted by her father.
“Right! Back to work! Come on now, I want this finished before this evening! I want to start cleaning the copper pot tomorrow.”
“So soon, Dad?”
“Well the weather looks set to break soon and I don’t want to miss any day.”
“What are you talking about Daddy?”
“Nothing child. Gather up the bucket and cup and take them back to the house for your mother.”
Maura sighed heavily.
“Stop making that noise or I’ll give you something to make a noise about! Go on now!”
By the time Maura returned to the field the boys were finished with the digging and had begun helping their sisters pick the last of the spuds. She stood back and watched as her father, Thomas and Steven hoisted the heavy sacks onto their backs and set off to place them in the potato loft ready for sorting. When the last potatoes had been picked, Michael and Liam dragged the rest of the sacks to the edge of the field while the girls returned home to help prepare the evening meal.
The next morning Maura was awoken by loud crashes and bangs. She leaped out of bed and with her sisters, stared out of the small window. Their father was cursing roundly at Thomas while Liam was setting the copper back to rights and replacing the heavy lid.
“Bad cess to you! Look at the dent you’ve put in it! Blast you to hell! If it affects the poitin we’ll all suffer!”
There were so many old dents in the pot that Maura wondered how her father could see the new ones.
“What’s Daddy doing with the big pot?”
“He’s going making drink to sell.” Mary was full of the news.
“Hush Mary! Sure, you know she can’t keep her mouth shut!”
“Why would I keep it shut, Margaret?”
“Never mind child! Come on, let us all go and get the porridge started.”
The girls began to dress and Maura tried to slip back into bed.
“You too, Maura! ‘Tis time you learned how to get the bit of breakfast!”
Maura sighed and began to get dressed, muttering darkly to herself. A sharp pain in the back of her head put a stop to her complaining.
“Mammy! Margaret hit me!”
“She’ll hit you again if you don’t stop your roaring!” Maura’s mother had no sympathy for her youngest child.
Annie put an arm around Maura’s shoulders. “Twill be alright. Come on. Let’s get the breakfast ready so we can fill our bellies.”
After breakfast the men returned to their job of cleaning the copper pot. First they polished it with rags until it shone, then they lit a fire in the middle of the yard and set the pot in the centre with a bucket of water in it.
“What are they doing now?”
“They are boiling the pot so that it is clean inside.” Mary’s knowledge knew no bounds. “The pot must be perfectly clean so that it doesn’t ruin the poitin.”
“Tis none of your business, that’s what!” Margaret overheard their chatter. “Go and get the twigs and sweep out the kitchen. Wash the ware as well and then me and Sheila will start making the bread.”
With a collective sigh, the younger girls began their daily chores.
While the girls worked, their mother took some of their clothes out to the stream and began to wash them. It was hard work and the clothes were so worn that the dirt seemed to be ingrained in them. The hard soap did little to remove the stains but at least they would be better than they had been at the start. Maura came to the door and watched as her mother wrung the clothes and threw them over the bushes around the house. Soon the whole yard was festooned with pants, shirts and underwear of various shades of grey.
By this time the pot was boiling merrily and the fire was being allowed to go out.
“Is she clean enough, do you think, Dad?”
“I’d say she is now. We’ll give her another wipe out tomorrow before we take her up the hill.”
“Are we taking her to the same place as last year?”
“We’ll take her close to it, Thomas. I’ve found a good spot against McCarthy’s fence. Tis well sheltered and we’ll be able to keep an eye on it easily enough.”
Maura wondered what all the fuss was about and decided to ask Mary for more information as soon as Margaret was out of earshot.
“Right lads! Fetch the sacks of turf from the shed and we’ll take them up there now so they’ll be ready when the weather changes.”
“What will we cover them with, Dad?”
“Erra, we’ll stick them under the furze bushes and they’ll be fine. Come on, Liam! The bag won’t ate you!”
Maura watched as they hoisted the bags of turf onto their backs and set off up the hill. She had only been up the hill once. There was a steep rocky pathway leading to a furze covered hill interspersed with patches of grass. Her mother had taken her with them when she and her father went to bring in the cows one evening. Maura’s legs had begun to ache before she had even reached the top. She felt sorry for Liam’s short legs as he struggled behind the others.
“Maura! Come in here now! Break up some of the sticks for the fire and I’ll mash a pot of tea.”
That night in bed Maura could wait no longer.
“Mary,” she whispered. “Mary!”
“What do you want, Maura?” Mary was almost asleep.
Maura nudged her. “What’s the story of the big pot?”
Mary sighed knowing from experience that Maura would keep on at her until she got what she wanted.
“Daddy makes this fine strong drink that the neighbours all like. They say ‘tis powerful stuff so they pay Daddy money for it. He makes it with potatoes in the big pot.”
“But we boil potatoes over the fire and they make potatoes not powerful strong drink.” Maura was confused.
“Well, I suppose he puts other things into the pot with the potatoes.”
“I don’t know. ‘Tis a secret!”
Maura eyes opened wide. A secret! She must find out all she could!
“Why do they have to boil the potatoes and things up the hill?”
“I don’t know. ‘Tis something to do with the wind and the smoke and the constable and the money.”
The more Mary spoke, the more confused Maura became. The only thing was to watch carefully and see for herself what was going on. She snuggled under the coarse blanket and fell asleep thinking of ways to get the details she needed.
The next few days passed as normal. The copper pot was taken up the hill and more sacks of turf went missing from the shed. Maura’s father called his two eldest sons and the three of them set off up the hill with sacks of barley and oats.
“Liam, are ye taking more turf up the hill today?”
“No I think Daddy took the most of it with Thomas and Steven last night.”
“What are ye doing with it?”
“Just putting it under a furze bush.”
“Yes, I know, to keep it from getting wet, but what happens to it then?”
“I suppose Daddy will use it to light a fire under the copper pot like he did in the yard.”
“Didn’t you see it before?”
“No last time Daddy said I was too small to help and I’d only get in the way.”
“What is he doing with the barley?”
“I don’t know.”
Maura sighed. She would have to question Michael then.
She got her chance later that evening. Michael was sent out to bring water from the stream.
“Maura, go out with Michael and bring in the clothes off the bushes. Michael help her with any that she can’t reach.”
Michael walked towards the door grumbling. “Come on Maura! I’m not waiting for you!”
To her family’s surprise, Maura did not complain about bringing in the washing. She quickly followed Michael out the door.
“Tell me about the copper pot.”
“Tis the big copper thing we took up the hill.”
This was going to be difficult but Maura wasn’t ready to give up.
“What does Daddy put in the pot?”
“Does he put anything else in?”
“Some water and a bit of east and of course the barley and oats.”
“Yes, he says it’s what makes it work.”
“Makes what work?”
“Is that the powerful drink.”
“Have you tasted it?”
Maura was scandalized. Michael was only ten.
“The priest wouldn’t be happy. He’s always giving out about the demon drink!”
“I don’t drink the priest’s bottle! Daddy just gives us all a taste. He says it will make men of us.”
“The priest’s bottle! Does the priest use poitin at Mass?”
“He might but I’d say he’s too fond of it to keep it for Sundays!”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he’s always the first to order a few bottles and ‘tisn’t long before he’s back looking for more.”
“Is that what the church collection is for, do you think?”
“I do, Sure, how else does he get money?”
Maura thought about this for a while as Michael piled the dry clothes into her arms.
“Mary said something about the constable. Does he buy some too?”
“No! Daddy gives him a bottle now and again if he catches him.”
“Yes. Daddy’s not supposed to make the poitin.”
“Tis the law.”
“The law? Like when we’re not supposed to steal apples from old Mrs O’Regan’s apple tree?”
“I think so.”
“Will the constable arrest Daddy?”
“Not if he gives him some poitin.”
“Ah that’s grand so.”
“Tis, but Daddy doesn’t like giving away good poitin that’s why we only light the fire when ‘tis windy.”
“What has the wind to do with it?”
“The wind blows the smoke away and makes it hard for the constable to know where it’s coming from.”
“Is that why the pot is hidden on the hill?”
“Tis. We put it next to the boundary fence too and then if different constables come upon it, ‘tis hard for them to prove who owns the pot.”
Maura laughed. “So, it is a secret then!”
“Tis I suppose.”
The next evening Maura’s father again called his eldest sons to follow him. After half an hour they came back struggling under the weight of the sacks of barley and oats.
“Why are they all wet?”
“We’ve soaked them ready for the malting.”
Maura stared at her father. “What’s malting?”
“Questions, question. Always questions with this one! Watch, child and you will learn.”
Maura watched as her father poured the grain on a corner of the well-swept floor of the potato loft. He spread it out by hand.
“Keep away from it now, Maura. Lads, it will have to be turned every day until it’s ready.”
“Ready for what, Daddy?”
“This is the malting stage. This is where the quality of the poitin will be decided.”
Maura’s eyes opened wide. This grain wouldn’t be used for bread-making it was going to make this demon drink they were all mad about.
“Out now! Thomas, you’ll turn it tomorrow evening.”
Every evening one or other of the boys turned the grain. Maura was not allowed into the loft now but she could smell the grain. The scent had become somehow richer and deeper.
Finally, her father announced that the grain was ready.
That evening the wind changed direction and became stronger. Her brothers were sent to the potato loft to put the grain back into the sacks and then carry it up the hill. As night fell, her father became restless and kept peering out of the door.
“What’s wrong with Daddy?”
“Nothing.” Sheila reassured her. “He’s just watching the weather. Come on ‘tis time for bed.”
Maura was awakened by the sound of the door slamming downstairs. It was dark but she could make out the shape of the window. She slid out of bed, careful not to wake her sisters, and looked out. She could see a lamp moving towards the hill. She knew that her father had gone to light his fire. She remained seated on the floor staring out at the light as it grew smaller, sometimes disappearing behind bushes and trees but always moving upwards. Finally, the cold night air began to seep into her toes so she slipped once more under the coarse blanket and settled down to sleep.
In the morning, Maura waited for her father to mention the copper pot but he was nowhere to be found. He did not come in for his breakfast and when the rest of the family had finished theirs, Maura’s mother sent Thomas up the hill with a bundle for their father.
“Don’t linger now! Go straight there while the tea in the bottle is still warm!”
Maura stood at the door watching her brother make for the hill.
“And what do you think you’re doing?”
Maura jumped as Margaret pounced. She twisted away from her sister’s grasp but it was too late.
“Sweep the floor and take out the ashes.”
Maura went over to the fire and picked up the poker.
“What are you doing? Put that down! You know you can’t mess around with the fire!”
“But you told me to take out the ashes!”
Margaret made a strangled sound. “Those! In the black bucket! Can you not see anything, child?”
“Girls! Stop fighting. I’ve a headache.” Maura’s mother sat down by the fire with her head in her hands.
“Go along now and do as your sister tells you. I’ll be grand. ‘Tis just from tiredness. I couldn’t sleep without your father in the bed beside me.”
“Did he stay on the hill all night. Mammy?”
“He had to. The fire has to be minded or it will go out.”
Maura picked up the bucket of ashes and carried them out to the side of the path. As she tipped them out, she thought about what her mother had said. Daddy, all alone on the hill. All night. This poitin seemed to be really hard work.
That night Thomas and Steven were sent to mind the fire with dire threats of thrashings should they fail in their task.
“The fire must be kept burning so take it in turns to sleep else ye’ll not wake up and it will be too late. No poitin means no money for clothes and food so mind ye do what ye’re told and keep that fire going! I’ll tan both the backsides off both of ye if ye fail.”
Both boys nodded solemnly. They knew what was at stake.
“When the first run is finished, ye know what to do.”
“Yes, Dad. We have to run it again.”
Their father nodded. “Off with ye, now then.”
Maura lay awake listening to the wind blowing through the trees. She thought of her brothers sheltering under a furze bush and decided that it probably wasn’t so bad. They had a bottle of tea and hunks of bread and cheese with them and their mother had handed them some sacking to keep out the cold. Maura wished she was old enough to stay out all night minding the fire. She wondered if Margaret and Sheila would be sent the next night. Perhaps she could go with them!
Sleep was a long time coming but finally, Maura lay dreaming of the glow from the fire falling on her sisters’ faces as they sat telling stories and sharing their food.
The early morning sun woke Maura and she jumped out of bed.
“What has you awake so early?” Margaret rubbed her eyes.
“Tis a beautiful morning, Margaret!”
“That may be, but you’re usually the last to notice it!”
“I’m so excited about tonight!”
“Yes, I want to go with you!”
“Go where? What are you talking about, child?”
“When you go to mind the fire with Sheila.”
“That’s men’s work! ‘Tisn’t suitable for women! Whatever will you think of next! Sheila! Did you hear her?”
“I did! Isn’t she a scream!”
Maura got dressed sourly. Why couldn’t she go and tend the fire? What difference did it make that she was a girl? Why did boys have all the fun?
She was still out of sorts when her brothers returned for their breakfast. Her father had left the house, carrying more turf, and when he reached the boys and found all well, he had sent them home.
“What? No questions this morning, Maura?” Thomas teased her.
Maura shrugged and continued spooning porridge into her mouth.
“Let her alone while she’s quiet, can’t ye!” Sheila laughed. “Wait ‘til I tell you what she said!”
The teasing continued until their mother had heard enough.
“Out! Outside all of ye! There’s work to be done! Thomas, let yourself and Steven milk the two cows and after ye’ve left them out, come in and go away to bed for an hour. Ye’ll need to catch up on some sleep after last night. Then ye’ll need to go and collect the bottles. Be quick now.”
“What bottles is Mammy talking about, Margaret?”
“Never you mind!”
Undaunted, Maura turned to Michael.
“The neighbours collect bottles for us so we can put the poitin in them ready for selling.”
“Oh! Will the poitin be ready soon?”
“Twill! But you must not talk about this to anyone.” Maura’s mother warned her.
“I know. Else the constable will have to get a free bottle.”
“Lord alive! What are you talking about! You’ll get the lot of us hanged!”
“Never mind. Just get on with your work and mind you hold your tongue if anyone speaks to you.”
“Sure, who would be speaking to me, only my own family?”
“Yes, but in the next few days we will have people calling from hereabouts looking to buy the poitin. Hold your tongue no matter who they are!”
“Sure, Mam, that’s like telling her not to breathe!” Thomas was laughing.
“Well, we’ll have to make sure she’s not on her own then. She’ll have the law down on us if we’re not careful! Now go out and milk the cows. They won’t milk themselves!”
Later that day, Thomas and Steven set off with two empty sacks and returned with two sacks full of old whisky bottles. Maura’s mother called the girls outside.
“Alright girls, I want all these bottles washed and put back into the sacks.”
The boys carried them to the stream and the girls spent the next few hours washing and drying all the bottles before replacing them carefully back into the sacks ready for filling with poitin. When they were finished, Thomas and Steven were called and they hoisted the sacks onto their backs and started for the hill.
“Is the poitin ready, Mammy?”
“Not yet, Maura but ‘tis no harm to be prepared. It should be ready by tomorrow and all will be in order.”
The next morning Thomas and Steven were sent up the hill after milking the cows. They drove the cows ahead of them as they walked and before long they could smell the sweet smell of the turf fire. The wind carried the scent but made it difficult to tell the exact place it was coming from. Their father had chosen well.
Maura’s mother came into the house after feeding the hens. She looked at her family sitting around the breakfast table.
“Go with them Michael and help them bring down some of the bottles. Mind them though! No broken bottles or ye’ll feel the strap tonight!”
“Can I go too Mam?” Liam was hopeful.
“Arra no, sure you’ll break them as soon as look at them!”
Maura smiled. It was nice to hear someone else being given out to for a change.
“Liam, you and Maura can clean a space in the parlour for the bottles. Move the furniture away from the walls so that we can hide the bottles behind the settles. You’d better help them Margaret. You’ll soon get them organised.”
Maura and Liam exchanged disgusted looks as they followed Margaret into the parlour. Within a few minutes the sound of Margaret’s voice carried clearly into the kitchen as she instructed the children.
“Sheila, Mary, Annie! Come with me! We’ll fetch some of the bottles while the young ones are busy.”
The girls followed their mother out of the house.
Margaret insisted that they sweep behind the settles and wash the floor before she was satisfied. Maura and Liam grumbled but they were quick to do her bidding nonetheless.
“Tis women’s work!”
“What did you say, Liam?” There was nothing wrong with Margaret’s hearing.
“I said that ‘tis women’s work!”
“Oh! And do you think that you are a man? When you are, you can do men’s work but until then, you’ll do as I say!”
By the time the room was ready, the first few bottles had arrived into the house.
“Will we stand them up, Mam?”
“Do. I don’t want to risk wasting all the hard work. Stand them back against the wall and they’ll be fine.”
It took a few trips up and down the hill, but soon all the bottles were hidden safely away.
“All we have to do now is wait for the neighbours!”
Maura’s father rubbed his hands together.
Want to read more? Through a Rose-Tinted Lens is available as an eBook or Paperback from Amazon