by Sean Barry
In our garden stands a stone with a date inscribed upon it: “Oct 6 1891.” A squared pillar of micaceous schist about four feet high, the stone bears some resemblance to the hitching posts homeowners frequently prop at the edge of their lawns, though it lacks either the iron ring or the notches that lend those stones their appeal.
For many years, the stone lay buried at the bottom of what is now our property at 9 South Worthington Road. The house had been abandoned for several years before we purchased it in late 2003, and it had suffered as neglected homes will – blooming with mold, leaking where unskilled hands had slapped on careless additions. To be made liveable, the entire place had to be gutted. Moreover, the septic system had failed, necessitating a complete replacement. During the course of these renovations, a backhoe dislodged the stone and placed it in the retaining wall that served to buttress the new leach field.
That would have been the end of the story, but for the children.
We were hosting dinner guests one evening in the spring of 2004 and stood about drinking wine and conversing when my daughter and her friend burst in, announcing that they had found something special among the mayapples. For young children (five and six at the time), anything that spring had to offer qualified as a momentous discovery. Just moments before, they’d flown in gushing about the “fairy-palm village” they stumbled upon (the mayapples with their tiny fruit) so naturally we thought they had come across some similar delight. Wine in hand, we humored them, and followed them into the thicket of sumac and ash saplings to see what they had found.
Purely by chance, that backhoe had positioned the stone in the retaining wall so that its lone graven side faced outwards. And carved in that face, inverted in the loamy bank though clearly legible, was a date: “Oct 6 1891.”
Our house was built in 1891, and at our closing we were given a copy of the original deed, a handwritten document describing how the land (“0.91 acres, more or less”) had been purchased by John E. Witherell from Samuel Anabel and his wife Wealthy of Northampton for $50 and stipulating, among other items, that the stone wall marking the property line was “to be maintained forever.” The deed made no mention of any other buildings, perhaps because it had been drafted before the house was completed, but we would later learn that another building – a general store – then stood at the bottom of the property, and that the square arrangement of stones we had originally believed to be the remains of a well was in fact the foundation of a spring house, a structure commonly used to keep perishables cool in the years before refrigeration. Beyond this, however, no other sign of the former life of the property remained. Or so we believed, until the children found the inscribed stone.
My neighbor, the potter Mark Shapiro, wondered aloud whether the stone might mark a grave of some sort, perhaps for an infant. I doubted this, as those nameless memorials tend to be tiny. What’s more, it seemed unlikely that someone would have erected a memorial of that sort on the property (or even more unimaginable, buried the child there). Another neighbor, Dr. George Bresnick, speculated that perhaps it was a border marker.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was customary for town officials to walk the borders of adjoining towns on a given date in order to fix the precise length and location of these borders. These officials would meet at a predetermined spot and carve the date into a marker to indicate that they had performed their duty. (Minutes from the Worthington Town Hall meetings of the period attest to setting dates for these symbolic meetings of representatives from adjacent towns.) Dr. Bresnick had seen markers of this sort before, mostly on private lawns, where the stones had been moved by someone indifferent to the historical significance of their markings. Some time after our discovery, another neighbor, Brian Rowe, told us that he knew where such a stone could be found, at the convergence of the Worthington, Huntington, and Chesterfield lines.
Brian, Brian’s son Caleb, Dr. Bresnick, and I hiked the mile or so from South Worthington along the Little River, crossing over to the eastern bank beneath the ridge that runs alongside Route 112. There, deep in the woods, Brian showed us the stone. It stood about the same height as ours and bore dates ranging from the late 1780s to the mid-1800s along with what I assumed were the initials of the carvers. Though similar in size, this stone was obviously a very different affair. These dates had been rudely hacked away, whereas the “Oct 6 1891” in our stone had been lovingly carved, with artful letter spacing and carefully wrought serifs.
I did a casual search to see if I could turn up any notable events that took place on October 6, 1891, but all I could find for that day was the death of Charles Parnell, the Irish nationalist political figure and leader of the Irish Home Rule movement. Jokingly, I began to refer to the stone as “The Kitty O’Shea Stone,” an allusion to Parnell’s long-standing affair with Katherine O’Shea, the wife of Captain William O’Shea, an Irish Member of Parliament. Katherine O’Shea eventually divorced her husband and married Parnell, but the Catholic church, intolerant of divorce, deemed that “by his public misconduct, [Parnell had] utterly disqualified himself to be…leader.”1 Much of Ireland rallied around Parnell, believing that he represented the nation’s best hope of unification and eventual independence from Great Britain. Yet the loss of the church’s support proved insuperable. Parnell strove to retain his position as leader of the Home Rule efforts, but the challenge proved too great, and his already poor health gave out under the strain. On October 6, 1891, he died of a heart attack in the arms of the woman for whom, in a very real sense, he had given his life. He was 45 years old.
James Joyce immortalized the nation’s agony over the loss of Parnell in an early scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In this scene, the tensions between Parnell’s supporters – embodied by Mr. Daedalus, the father of Joyce’s alter ego, Stephen Daedalus – and his detractors – embodied by Stephen’s aunt – explode, and the family’s holiday meal devolves into impassioned argument. Joyce was one of many who felt that Ireland had been betrayed when Parnell was given up, and that the death of Parnell meant the end of hope for the Irish cause. Joyce concluded his essay “The Shade of Parnell” (1912) with the following paragraph:
In his final desperate appeal to his countrymen, he begged them not to throw him as a sop to the English wolves howling around them. It redounds to their honour that they did not fail this appeal. They did not throw him to the English wolves; they tore him to pieces themselves.
When I mentioned this possible connection to Dr. Bresnick, he declared that it wasn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. The previous owner of his house on Conwell Road had found a clay pipe bowl marked “Home Rule” on the property. What’s more, Ireland Street ran right through South Worthington.2 Might there be some Irish link after all?
Dr. Bresnick decided to do some genealogical research, and discovered that the original holder of our deed and the man who built our house, John Emerson Witherell (1840–1912), had a wife, Isabella (née Martin or Martyn, 1840–1925), known locally as “Lizzie.”3 According to the 1910 census, Isabella was born in Ireland, emigrated in 1848, and married Witherell in 1863. After some further research, we determined that the spring house – along with a structure that once stood where our leach field now lies – had been part of the Witherells’ general store in South Worthington, where they sold groceries and sundries to the families that farmed the local fields or worked at Theron Higgins’ basket mill, which then stood upon the banks of the Little River.
Of all that bustling village life, little evidence remains.
There is the small Methodist church on Ireland Street, which now lacks a congregation; Russell Conwell’s former meeting house, now home to the Sevenars concert series; a handful of private houses; and the red office building at the corner of Ireland Street and Route 112, where the basket mill formerly stood (and which is still commonly referred to as “The Drummer’s Club” after its notorious incarnation in the 1960s and 1970s). The thriving, independent village the Witherells supplied has vanished, as has the one-room schoolhouse that once stood on South Worthington Road. Yet for me the most compelling bit of evidence of their bygone world remains this simple stone, with its undertones of collective grief.
I picture a middle-aged Isabella Martyn Witherell, now settled in her hamlet in the western hills of Massachusetts, learning of the death of the great leader of her home country. I imagine her commissioning from a stone mason a memorial, something straightforward, something plain – yet something that would declare to anyone with a stake in the matter her allegiance with the Fenians and her faith in the cause of an independent Ireland. I picture that stone displayed prominently on the property or alongside South Worthington Road, as meaningful as the ogham stones and dolmens of her homeland.
This is who we are, it declared. This is what we believe.
It’s impossible to know with any certainty what she felt or intended, of course. To the best of my knowledge, Mrs. Witherell left no record of what might have driven her to commission the carving, if indeed she was the one who had it carved. Yet the pieces fit. And those pieces form a compelling and lucid picture of the need to fix that date in stone.
That stone now stands in our garden, dug out from its spot in the retaining wall and placed where it can be appreciated. I can see it clearly from our dining room table, and often gaze at it and at the valley beyond, past the elegant white shape of the Sevenars concert hall in the foreground and down the wooded notch where the Little River courses on its way to join the Westfield. It is, in many ways, an unremarkable stone. A simple and blunt bit of testimony. It says nothing about what it must have been like 120 years ago to live in this place while mourning for that other place, to grieve for a dream that died along with the leader who embodied it. Yet its very persistence possesses a sort of eloquence, calling forth as it does the loss Isabella felt, as her nation had felt it, and the urge to commemorate its meaning.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Sean Barry is an award-winning playwright and lyricist. Nearly three years ago, he and his wife, the composer Jenny Giering, left behind their Brooklyn life to move full-time into their South Worthington home along with their son Liam and daughter Devon. Sean and Jenny have collaborated on Saint-Ex, a musical about the life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and together with playwright Laura Eason are currently writing a new musical, Summertime, about the sisters Fox, America’s first spirit mediums. Sean is also at work on a novel.
1. “Charles Stewart Parnell,” University College, Cork. Source: http://multitext.ucc.ie/d/Charles_Stewart_Parnell.
2. South Worthington is right on the Chesterfield border, and most of Ireland Street is in Chesterfield. Chesterfield’s town website reads: “In its early days, the town supported a largely agricultural economy, with wool from Merino sheep as a major product. However, there were sawmills and tanneries in operation as well as cloth dressing mills, and in the early 19th century these superseded farming and brought in a small immigrant population that was mostly Irish.” Source: http://www.townofchesterfieldma.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=48&Itemid=54.
3. History and Genealogy of the Families of Chesterfield, Entry 51. Source: http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~torrey/Page%20323%20to%20427.htm. Her name is marked “Isabella” on the 1910 census, and her gravestone reads “Isabella M. Martyn,” though other printed records read “Isabel.”
Posted December 19, 2012.