by Robert Ervin Layden
The Riordan family
lived on an earth scrabble farm in Goshen, New Brunswick, too close to the
beginning of a new century to be aware of it, too distant to know. Twelve
children, six of each gender, as if God had been discriminating in his
largesse, father Brendan and mother Caitlin, my
Born of parents emigrant from County Sligo,
the two were members of a distinctly new generation, the beginning prototype of
Irish Catholic Canadians. Since the permanent mold was not yet firmly shaped,
their genetic passions at times were more unbridled than those of the citizens
of English or French descent. The Irish seemed excess-bound for glory or
disaster, as if in constant need of God's attentive restraint.
I never saw my grandparents together. My grandfather died
before my birth. I remember Caitlin as a Celtic grandmother with a fiery
Catholic morality at her core. The marriage was surely a union of considerable
emotion, at times turbulence. My mother's Scottish Protestant parents, who
lived ten dirt-road country miles away in Mechanic Settlement, might have
judged the Riordans' marital intensity unseemly were their homes closer.
The trek to Mechanic was a stroll of a Saturday night for
the wild Riordan boys when Mr. Robert Blake, wealthy mill owner, my maternal
grandfather, hosted monthly parlor dances. The rough and ready Goshen lads were
probably not high on his list of desirables. There were so many eligible and
upright young Protestant men for his six
Certainly the Blakes had a passion of their
own, bringing forth thirteen children. Perhaps God had left the
self-disciplined Protestants more to their own devices in the belief that they
needed less of his intervention than the overweening Irish Catholics. He had
created the Protestants to moderate themselves, largely in restrained spiritual
mediocrity and realistic expectations. So said the Celts
It might seem that one day God looked up from his
toils in Goshen and discovered the number of offspring at the Blake's. Either
because He regarded the number as excessive or simply as a muted echo of a bad
time had by a relative, He drowned Robert Junior in the river pond, so artfully
dammed for the mill wheel operation by Robert Senior.
"Have I not enough trouble with the incorrigible Irish?
Must you reasonable people be procreating like wayward rabbits? Whom can I rely
upon in this world? You'd think my son would know. Where's the Ghost when I
need his advice? I suppose he's vanished again, eh? Taken the form of the
Paraclete and just flown away. This whole creation thing was his idea in the
first place. John was right on that one."
struggled daily for survival might have imagined such heavenly discourse. Where
was the order and rationale in existence? Who was in charge of all this pain,
deprivation, and tragedy called life? God often seemed remote and uncaring.
In the cold, cavernous, and unsympathetic barn, during
moments of angry fear for his family's survival, Brendan can be envisioned,
violently thrusting his arms wide, earth-creased palms opened upward at the
sky, and snapping his head toward the tarred wood roof three stories above. The
cracks between the warped planks admitted shards of heaven's harsh light.
"For Christ's sake, explain to me this Divine Providence
the priests are forever blathering about. I don't see any of them behind the
plow or pulling a cow's tits on a winter morning.
Maureen scalded Edward's knee with boiling kettle water last year, no priest
was around listening to the child's screams or telling me how to bandage him.
Caitlin was there, but nary a priest."
was a distant promise which didn't pay the bank notes, or till the soil, or
restrain the rain when it capriciously washed out the slavishly nurtured shoots
of corn. Winter cold froze the spirit. Summer sun seared the soul. Each day was
a combat. A traitor within each warrior was the unmanning prospect of defeat.
Unemployment compensation? Not invented yet. Welfare was when the neighbor
three furlongs down the indifferent road could finish his own chores and come
During the period when Robert Junior drowned in
Mechanic, Brendan had set son Edward, barely seven years in age and only 5'8"
in manhood, to plow the unwooded field across the river facing the house. As
told to me, only four searing times, all Edward, my father, could see behind
the towering draft horses were sweat-lathered, laboring haunches,
black-threaded swishing tails, and occasionally exposed anuses.
He trudged lonely and small, clinging to the weathered
wood plow handles. The first few furrows were
How, one might indignantly ask today, could a
child be expected to perform this man's chore?
rarely explained, but if he felt the ignorant question even worthy of a
"There was no one else to do it. A son of mine
should be able to carry his share of the load."
struggled with it, but the recalcitrant soil yielded with intensifying
resistance. The stones clattered against the plow
"Who is this insignificant kid to be driving his
clumsy animals and casting us aside? How comes he to turn earth so long at
The plow began to tilt. The horses lugged harder
and toppled the it ass over kilter down the hill. Aroused as only stolid farm
studs can be, red eyed in furious fear, they bolted. Up the hill, right onto
the dusty, pebbled, quarter mile entry road, down the hill, over the rude wood
river bridge, right onto the narrower lane, and past the house. Besottedly
fleeing the overturned machine behind them, scraping the ground on its handles,
they thundered to the barn door, where Brendan contained them. His own fury at
the harrow's damage and the son's dereliction dwarfed the frenzy of the
Edward took the same route, more slowly and
reluctantly than the horses.
Into the barn went father
and son. Understanding was unspoken. Brendan scrupulously chose a medium sized
horse strap. Even in his rage he did not wish to damage the boy with the
heaviest leather. Even in his restraint he did not want to let Edward off
lightly with a thrashing of slight reins.
began. Edward was an obedient child. He stood as the black scourge lashed into
his flesh, again and again. At some point, he fell, palms bonded to the
heedless soil floor by a shim of their mingled perspiration and droplets of his
own blood. Brendan had exacted punishment for the infraction. His passion
Perhaps God was over in Mechanic Settlement that
afternoon, drowning Robert. Pop never knew. Each time he told me, his tears
burned into my spirit, a salty scar, a momento of God's caring for an Irish
child on a Canadian hillside.