Monday, March 9, 2009

The St. Patrick's Day Shillelagh

I have Irish ancestry on my maternal grandmother's side. From the genealogy research I've been able to do, it seems possible those ancestors emigrated because of the Irish Potato Famine. So, when I found a children's book that tells a story of the mass Irish emigration to America in the mid-1800s, I decided to buy it.

The St. Patrick's Day Shillelagh, written by Janet Nolan and illustrated by Ben F. Stahl, tells a story that could be about countless American families with an Irish heritage. It is recommended for children between 7 and 10 years old.

Day after day, Fergus felt a rumble in his empty belly as he sat beside his favorite blackthorn tree, watching the clouds reach down from the sky and touch the earth. It was a terrible time in Ireland, when Fergus was a child. The potatoes had rotted in the fields and children lay in their beds at night hungry.

Late one night, when the peat fire had burned low, Fergus woke to the sounds of his parents' worried whispers. When the sun rose through the mist of dawn, they told him to say farewell to Ireland.

They were sailing to America.

Fergus wants to take a piece of Ireland with him, so he cuts a branch from his blackthorn tree. On the voyage, Fergus transforms the blackthorn branch into a shillelagh - an Irish walking stick.

Once in America, as a boy, Fergus shined shoes by day and sold newspapers by night. As a man, he lay railroad tracks. He never learned to read or write, "but he always had a tale to tell." Every St. Patrick's Day, he would tell "the story of the terrible hunger and his journey to America."

Then came the year he passed his shillelagh on to his son, Declan. Now it was Declan's turn to tell his father's story. Declan helped build the Brooklyn Bridge. He told his father's story every year on St. Patrick's Day until it was time to give the shillelagh to his son, Emmet.

Emmet would tell the shillelagh story every year on St. Patrick's Day, except for when he went to fight in World War I. "When Emmet returned with an injured leg, it was the shillelagh he leaned on to help him walk."

When Emmet no longer needed the shillelagh, he passed it on to his daughter, Mary Maeve.

Mary Maeve was a green-eyed lass who loved to dance a reel - toes pointed, hair flying as she leaped to an Irish tune. When young men left to fight World War II, Mary Maeve and other women took their places in the factories. For weeks - then months, then years, Mary Maeve drilled hole after hole into the silver metal of airplanes.

Mary Maeve passed the shillelagh on to her son, Garrett, saying "May the stories of our past guide you to your future." Garrett used the shillelagh to tap out the rhythms as he taught music to children.

Garrett passed the shillelagh on to his son, Ryan, upon his college graduation. When Ryan moved into a new house, the shillelagh was placed in a closet and forgotten. Then, Ryan's daughter, Kayleigh, finds it while playing hide-and-seek. When she asks her father about it, he tells her it was "a story I forgot to tell":

"This shillelagh is our past," he said. "Its story has been told on St. Patrick's Day for many years, through many generations."

"Why didn't you tell the story to me?" Kayleigh asked him. "I would have listened."

"I got so busy worrying about tomorrow I forgot to tell you our family's story of yesterday. On St. Patrick's Day, your Grandpa Garrett would love to tell you the shillelagh story."

After Grandpa Garrett tells Fergus' story, he gives the shillelagh to Kayleigh, along with this advice: "A good story never has to end as long as someone remembers to keep telling it."

The back page of the book tells about the Potato Famine:

In 1845, the potato was the main source of food in rural Ireland. When a fungus rotted the potatoes, many went hungry. Between 1845 and 1851, an estimated one million people died of starvation. During the same time, another million emigrated to America. Those who survived the difficult journey across the Atlantic Ocean began new lives in the United States, help to shape American society.
Miss Ladybug, a life-long book lover, earned her Masters in Elementary Education. She blogs regularly at Miss Ladybug.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am from Lima, Peru, i have to say i enjoyed this story!, thank you so much for post it, i was searching the web for the history of the shillelagh and i just stay reading this. Have a nice day!. Good bye.