|Bold Sons of Erin
By Owen Parry
Published by William Morrow
August 2003; 0-060-51390-X; 335 pages
The moon wore a bandit's mask of cloud to rob the sky of stars. Cold it was in the boneyard, for October had shown her teeth. When the wind scraped down the hillside, dead leaves rose, riding a sudden gust to climb my back. They crackled and scratched and crumpled. My lantern glowed, faint as the hopes of Judas. Even that much light was a mortal risk.
That night was murder black and stank of death. I wished me far away, that I will tell you. But I needed the body.
If body there was in the coffin.
The boys dug glumly, dutiful but slow. For no one likes to retrieve a new-laid corpse. The soldiers I had brought along were Dutchmen, thick and quiet, as solemn as death themselves. Still, I hushed them every time they coughed. Vital it was that the Irish should not learn of us. For the sons and daughters of Erin adore their dead, and graves enchant them. They will kill for a corpse as soon as for the living.
Now, a Dutchman has his own odd superstitions, carried from the darkness of the Germanies. But the soldiers at their labor had other fears, far more real than demons or even the Irish. They believed what they had heard, that contagion lay in that grave. As for my Christian self, I kept me quiet.
I did not believe it was cholera, see.
The wind slashed through our uniforms, like bayonets through Pandy. When I held the lantern high, it swayed and sputtered. If I lowered it down, the leaves attacked the glass, swarming like wild Afghanees at the kill. We were at work in the hills of home, in Pennsylvania, where miners dismayed by the war had turned to violence. But India was with me, too, its ghosts the sort that linger in the mind to whisper of life's swiftness and fragility. I believed the Irish had lied about the cholera and thought the coffin likely to be empty. Yet, death 's transforming power touches all. Rare is the fool who smiles in a graveyard.
And I knew death.
I do not speak of Our Savior's death, not when I speak of that night, but of lesser fates that I myself had witnessed. First as a child in Wales, then as a soldier, when the heat of love come to scald me in Lahore. But let that bide. For now I was a married man and a major got up proper, and I had begun a new life in America.
I did not believe it was cholera. I declined to think it.
The soldiers grumbled over their shovels, glancing at me like children put to punishment. I did not mean to be hard with them, for they were of the invalid corps, and each had suffered in body, if not in soul. But healthy enough they were to serve the provost, to shepherd draft lists or guard a shipment of coal. And the four could dig the earth of the grave between them.
I did not believe it was cholera. My fears were of the Irish down below, in the patch houses, where the mine families spilled from crowded beds, all coughing and complaint. I feared their pastor, as well, at rest in the shanty above us, by his church. For well I knew the duplicity of priests, and the fierceness of their loyalties, which were not always simply to their faith. I had been told that this one lived with books, that he was clean and well spoken, with high manners. It did not tally up. Why would a gentleman deign to labor among those souls cast out of Donegal, from Mayo and Roscommon, or from Clare? I meant to make his acquaintance in good time, to see how much of the darkness of Rome was upon him and to test his tales of cholera out of season. For he had put his name to the cause of death, with the honor of his of fice as his bond. If we found no body in the grave, the priest would have to answer.
All that was to come. First, we had to dig.
I had been warned of violence, of the laborers 'rage at Mr. Lincoln' draft and their taste for murder. But I had served beside such men in India. The Irish, I mean. Those famine lads cut loose to find their keep, in a world that did not want them or their kind. Lately I had seen them at their finest, climbing the slopes above a Maryland creek, marching into a torrent of death, falling only to close ranks again, and fighting as grandly as any men could do. I knew the Irish could fight, see. But I did not want their fight to be with me. I had come to admire certain of their qualities, their boldness in battle, and their reverence for song -- although I could not praise them as a race. Nor do they count as true and proper Christians. Still, I thought I knew them well enough to keep me safe and sound while at my work.
How little I knew, in my vanity and pride.
I had forbidden my Dutchmen to speak a word, warning them not to clang their shovel heads. Such noises carry like whistles on the wind. And gales play tricks. Had the night been still we would have heard the steam engines down by the colliery, ceaselessly pumping water from the mines. Men slept, but the pumps could not. I knew their throb, that giant iron heartbeat, from Mr. Evans's pits just north of Pottsville, where I had kept the books before the war, and from the countless shafts that pocked our county. It is a constant stuggle, see. The earth tries to drown the men who steal her coal ...
A Union general's senseless murder is swiftly cloaked in lies and the evidence points to Irish laborers struggling to find a place in their new homeland. But the turmoil of war hides layers of dangerous secrets, and a Welsh immigrant nursing wounds old and new must overcome ancient hatreds to honor justice.
Thousands of Irishmen serve valiantly on the fields of battle, yet others deny that the South's rebellion is any concern of theirs. Amid maddening rumors and lingering superstitions, an effort to draft more Irishmen into the army leads to a violent confrontation. A local death threatens to become an international crisis.
At the request of President Lincoln, Union Major Abel Jones follows the trail of guilt from a windswept graveyard to the killing fields of Fredericksburg -- and soon learns that no one really wants to know the truth behind the general's murder. While heartbreaking revelations tear at his own family, Jones must work his way through encounters with Irish secret societies and past the distrust of men and women for whom starvation and oppression are recent memories. Political agendas disregard mere facts, and even the dead general might not be the man he first seemed.
In this gripping novel, Washington intrigue and industrial corruption collide with hints of rural witchcraft and the sorrows of political exile. A wandering beauty who may be mad, a priest with an unbearable secret, revolutionary assassins, and a genuine Irish hero, Meagher of the Sword, are but a few of the vivid characters who rise full-blooded from these pages. At once swift of pace and poetic, ablaze with suspense and rich with insights into the human heart, Bold Sons of Erin continues Owen Parry's tradition of bringing America's past to life with unrivaled storytelling ability, extraordinary historical accuracy, and a disarming sense of our common humanity.(back to top)
Owen Parry is a pen name for Ralph Peters who is a former career soldier. He retired from the U.S. Army shortly after his promotion to lieutenant colonel so that he could write and speak freely. He is a novelist, commentator, essayist and an adventurer in the 19th-century sense. His military career and personal interests have taken him to almost sixty countries, from the Andean Ridge to Southeast Asia, and from Kremlin negotiations to refugee camps in the Caucasus and the frontline in Kashmir. Most recently, he has studied India, Indonesia and southern Africa. Born in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania Parry/Peters now lives and writes in northern Virginia.