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Valerie Jean Richards

Three women sat in a room whose hand-made decorations wore the look of years spent and years to come. In a comfy red chair, reclined an older woman. Two adolescent girls sat side-byside on a sofa across from her. Underneath the girls, lay a white knit blanket draped over the sofa, which matched the little red chair. Pictures with ornate and, mostly, wooden frames hung along the walls. One could see the life of each family member sprawled out on the wall through the pictures, carefully chosen and placed. Jessica Smith: The girl on the right with fair hair and eyes spoke. Our focus is on women suffragists and that’s pretty much all the guidelines. We need to come up with a thesis and support it somehow, but we can basically do whatever kind of project we want. Grandma O’Ceallaigh: Yet you don’t know where to start? Jessica shrugged. Well, I can’t help you decide how to organize your project; however, I can give you some support. The girl on the left focused back on the old woman. Her soft green eyes glanced with interest at the kind matching eyes in the old woman’s face. In my life, history has always interested me, especially woman’s suffrage. Jessica: Why’s that? Hannah O’Ceallaigh: The girl on the left brushed a strand of light brown hair behind her ear. She spoke for the old woman. My family has a history with suffrage. My great-great aunt began “the fervor” you could say: she was the first out of us all. The old woman nodded. Grandma: Over the years, I researched the genealogy and dived into the roots of our family’s involvement in woman’s suffrage—and everything I discovered is up in the attic. I labeled the boxes. Perhaps for starters you two should look in the one labeled, “Gillian Gallagher”? The girls looked at each other, recognizing the hint. Glancing back at the old woman (who sat smiling), Hannah spoke. Thanks, Gram! Hannah stood up, followed quickly by her friend, and headed towards the attic. The girls dashed up a polished staircase to a less polished hall. Hannah pointed to a door at the end of the hall. Hannah: That’s the closet. On the left is my uncle’s old bedroom and on the right is the attic— or what used to be my mom’s room. Hannah entered the room and Jessica followed behind. The walls of the room were painted blue, like the rest of the house used to be. A large bed with a simple wooden headboard sat in the right-hand corner of the room. A red, furry blanket on the bed portrayed some seen of parrots hidden deep inside a jungle. The late-morning sun shined through the window and cast a beam of golden light on several boxes, stacked upon each other and stuffed in the left-hand corner of the room. The girls glanced at each other and headed over to the boxes. Hannah peered at the label on one of the boxes, which sat at the top of a pile, and set it aside. She continued searching each box in the row, but set the boxes aside as well. Jessica joined her and at last they came to the final box. It was covered in dust and appeared to have been opened and closed multiple times.

Hannah: “Gillian Gallagher.� Hannah read the box and looked at Jessica. Hannah opened the box and inside it she found a tattered leather-bound journal lying on top. Its pages were yellowed with age. When Hannah opened the journal, a couple of the pages slipped out. Jessica gently picked them up as if any movement could tear them to pieces. Her eyes ran over the pages slowly. Jessica: Listen to this, Hannah. Gillian must have written these pages herself.

Gillian Gallagher June 9, 1899

I arrived at Uncle’s home today. He said I’d be living with him and aunt Aidie from now on. Papa used to talk about my aunt and uncle all the time: he told me how they met in Ireland. He told me about how they had to come to America when the farmland failed them, and he told me about how their first baby died on the voyage. I remember he said, “I wonder if that’s how it began.” I never really understood what he meant, but I think I get it now. When I first saw this house, I hated it. The streets aren’t much different than ours, but the smoke seems thicker here. Or maybe it’s just the sadness? It hangs in the air here thicker than any smoke from the docks and, no matter how much I dusted this afternoon, I couldn’t dispel it. I can see it ‘round everyone here. Uncle wears it like a coat and aunt Aidie sews it into her clothes. Only little Galvin seems to be untouched. He’s their last baby, he is: their last hope. Papa told me once that all their other children died from the factories; either in them or out. Papa always said we were lucky—he never guessed he would join them. And now here I am, the unwanted niece adopted by her generous in-laws. Anyways, I guess it’s my duty to take care of the family. I don’t know how I am though; aunt Aidie is the perfect housewife and probably can do the chores much better than me. I’m not completely hopeless at least. When mama died, I became the mother. I used to wake up and make breakfast for Papa and clean while he worked at the mine. Then I’d make dinner before he came home. I always knew I’d take care of Papa until he died. I just never knew it’d happen so soon. I’m not sure about what I’ll do now. All I really can do is help clean so aunt Aidie can focus on Galvin. My uncle’s a good man; he carried his family through famine and feast. My aunt has been loyal to him all these years. I just hope I can do both of them justice. Well, I guess I better go to sleep now…it’s been a long day.

Jessica: Jessica paused. The next entry is pretty short. She just talks about all the chores she did, and then she ends it by saying, “Well, I best get to the store. Aunt Aidie’s run out of bread.” Hannah: Hannah pulls out a thick, laminated poster that had been folded up. Look what this says here. It’s a family tree. Jessica: Jessica looked at the paper. An old family tree. See these pictures? They look like they were cut out from a newspaper and pasted on the poster. Maybe your grandma did it a while ago? Hannah: Possibly. Look! Here’s her name: “Gillian Gallagher.” And this must be her Uncle. Jessica: Fergus O’Ceallaigh? Let me guess, Aideen O’Ceallaigh is Aunt Aidie? Hannah: Probably. Hannah’s eyes pass over the trio. Gillian didn’t appear to be the sad and lost child that her journal depicted. A cross woman glared at through the picture. Clad in men’s clothes, her dark hair was cropped at her chin. Fergus O’Ceallaigh didn’t look much happier. His forehead was wrinkled with what must have been stress and, despite the black and white coloring of the pictures, it was obvious to Hannah that his fair hair must have been a fiery red. He had little facial hair except for a handle-bar mustache. Next to him, Aideen O’Ceallaigh held her infant Galvin in her arms. As described in the journal, Aideen wore a dark dress that cut off mid-neck and an equally dark bonnet hid her hair. Her sorrowful eyes seemed to look straight through the camera at Hannah. Galvin slept in her arms, only a wisp of light hair visible. Hannah: Gillian looks around twenty in this picture, wouldn’t you say? The way her journal is written, she has to be younger than eighteen. Let’s look at the rest of her stuff. Jessica: I’ll skim the rest of the journal for anything important. Hannah: I’ll look at some of these newspapers, I guess. Maybe I can find more info on her in here. Hannah pulled out a brown newspaper that crinkled at the slightest touch. Yep, definitely ancient. There’s gotta be something in it. Jessica continued skimming the journal. Every now and then she shared a passage with Hannah. She paused at one moment to relay an interesting find from the journal entries

Gillian Gallagher February 17, 1900

I’ve been doing better with the chores lately. Aunt Aidie is right taken with me. She says I’ll make a good wife yet! It is times like then that her eyes get lit up with pride. Then that blackness presses down on her again and fills her eyes. She looks away from me, but I still see it there. I used to wonder why she gets so sad, but I think I know now. I think she’s just lonely. All she has is Uncle, Galvin, and I. Uncle rarely listens to her; he’s either too tired or busy talking about work, bills or the like. I try to listen, but I think it’s hard for her to share what’s on her mind—she talks so little. Sometimes when she doesn’t know I’m there, I catch her swaddling little Galvin and whispering to him. I can’t tell what she says, but I know it’s not nursery rhymes. I can always catch the rhythmic tone of her voice when she tells those stories. At these moments, she sounds…not sad…more like whimsical, like she’s musing about something. I just don’t know what. I don’t know why, but whenever she talks to Galvin like that, I get these chills. They go all through me and down my spine, like something’s wrong with what she’s saying. I got the chills the other day. I was supposed to be asleep, but I couldn’t so I just laid there waiting for sleep to take me. I could hear aunt Aidie talking to Uncle and it sounded like argument. Hushed angry whispers dancing up to my room that I could almost shut out. Then they got louder. Aunt Aidie was complaining about me not going to school. ‘She needs an education and she ain’t getting’ one ‘ere working all the time,’ said aunt Aidie and that really seemed to anger Uncle. He got really gruff and shouted at her. ‘She don’t need an education!’ he said and then aunt Aidie yelled at him too. ‘Yes, she does! What do you expect her to do with her life without one?’ ‘What do you expect?’ Uncle replied. Aunt Aidie didn’t answer. He went on. ‘What’s she gonna do? Be a politician? Yeah, that’s it. I bet McKinley will appoint her right away to his cabinet.’ My body was so icy, I half expected my breath to come out in little misty wisps. I could almost imagine a sneer on my uncle’s face, but I knew he wasn’t capable of making those expressions. Instead, his face would be flushed and he’d be gesturing wildly. My aunt would shiver and quake in his wrath, then she’d give in and apologize to him. Only, this time she didn’t. She spoke so calmly and her voice was like cool rain after a drought. ‘She don’t have to go to school. She could stay home and at least learn her letters, so she could write family. I could teach her.’ Aunt Aidie already knew I wrote in my journal every night, but Uncle didn’t. He hesitated and I swore I could see him trying to find a loophole in her logic, but then he replied ‘I don’t see why she should need to…but I guess it’s alright. As long as she gets her chores done, o’ course!’ Aunt Aidie was thrilled and they made up quickly, but for some reason the chills didn’t go away.

Jessica: The next several entries describe her lessons. She often just memorized poems, but some of these poems….This stuff sounds sort of rebellious. A lot of the work is about pride. Often, many of the poems have common ideas present in the woman’s argument for suffrage…listen to this poem that Gillian wrote.

Freedom is a woman: She holds the beacon of truth, Its everlasting light has no bane. She has no husband, Her individualism cannot be chained. The fortresses of man try to shut her out, But she works all the same. She is silent, Her prowess has no need for words nor name. Politics, economics, society, Without her they operate in vain.

I am a woman— Am I not the same?

G. Gallagher

Jessica: That’s the best example I can find so far. I’ll keep looking. Have you found anything? Hannah: Just a clipping about her father. Check it out. Hannah held out a clipping from an old newspaper. The newspaper held a picture of a man whose face resembled Gillian’s; he had the same cropped dark hair and dark eyes. Yet, his eyes were different. Where in Gillian’s eyes had been a cold resentment, in his were pure benevolence. Underneath the picture was a caption that said, ‘Dillon Gallagher: Born 1867 and died in the Grindstone mining accident of 1899.’ It says one of the machines blew up, because it was overheated. A slab of slate fell on him and crushed him. The whole article lists a few others who also died.

Jessica: Wow. That’s sad. Hannah: At least we know how it happened. Hannah continued rifling through the box and Jessica turned back to the journal. She began reading a specific entry about a family visit.

Gillian Gallagher May 22, 1900

Uncle Brett and aunt Nora are visiting with their daughter, Brigid, for a couple days. They arrived this afternoon and already I am fed up with Brigid. She’s such a pest! Uncle fears he’ll offend Nora if he scolds the girl, so her behavior goes unchecked. She ate all the potatoes at dinner. Uncle cringed with each helping she added to her plate. I wonder if she knows how expensive the things are? Of course she does, she just doesn’t care because it’s our store she’s depleting and not hers. I think Brett feels sort of guilty for his wife and daughter’s behavior. He is a kind person, but very shallow and easily manipulated. That is probably how he and Nora ended up together anyway. I might not be so offended at the rudeness of our guests, except their impoliteness hits the bone. The first thing Nora said to aunt Aideen was an insult. She told aunt Aideen how the house seemed in disrepair and that she must be failing in her womanly duties. Like that hag knows anything about womanly duties! My aunt is ten times the woman she’ll ever be! Things only got worse when Brigid started irritating me after dinner. Aunt Aideen cleaned up, so I couldn’t use that as an excuse to avoid socializing. Thus, I was forced to entertain the pest with stories. I thought up a clever ditty about a woman who married into a wealthy family only to have her husband fall ill and her then work three jobs to support the family ‘til the end of her days. A ballad of Brigid’s future, you could say. She protested of course and said that a woman didn’t work. I told her times were changing.

May 25, 1900

Well, the pests are gone. I can walk through the house without being nitpicked at. They were going to stay a little longer, but decided to leave the third day in after aunt Aideen and Uncle got in an argument. Brat (Brigid) found one of my poems and showed to Uncle. It was one of my more risqué works and it infuriated him. He said, ‘No young lady oughta write filthy things like this!’ Aunt Aideen snatched the paper away from him and said I had every right to write what I wanted. He yelled at her to give the paper back. She wouldn’t. He pried it out of her hands and burned it in the fireplace. Aunt Aideen nearly cried, but she sucked in her breath and said the one thing no proper woman should ever say to her husband. ‘You might burn the writing, but you can never burn her spirit, no matter how hard you try.’ And she stormed off to her room. Uncle and she haven’t spoken for a day now. He slept in the guest room last night. When he went off to work, I brought aunt Aideen breakfast. I keep thinking about what she said. I always felt that I ought to be who I wanted to be, yet that life would never allow me. My aunt Aideen gives full to that fire that burns within my heart.

Hannah: That’s great! Does she go on? Jessica: Not really. She talks about how her Uncle’s work hours are increased without pay increase, but he has to keep working or else he’ll lose his job. While he’s at work, she starts hanging out with this “gang”, you could call it. It’s a bunch of writer buffs who all have some theme to their work, usually social reform. She’s the only feminist in the group (that’s what she calls herself), but just when she starts to get some admiration for her writings, Aideen gets really sick. I mean, like really sick. Gillian’s stuck taking care of her all the time. She can’t go to the meetings anymore and she stops writing a lot. Even the journal entries are sparse. Hannah: I found this. Hannah pulls out a paper from a newspaper. Its title reads, “Obituaries.” The fourth column down is titled, “Aideen O’Ceallaigh: Born 1869 and died 1903 of unknown causes.” That’s weird. I wonder what happened?

Jessica: Jessica skims a few pages of the journal. Gillian doesn’t say either. She just says that she looked like she was caving in on herself. That after years of waiting on everyone else, she now needed someone to wait on her. Here: Jessica handed the paper to Hannah.

Gallagher March 5, 1903

Aideen is gone now. Uncle will follow her soon, I can tell. He has the same vacant expression she had before the illness came. The doctors call her sickly, but I know that’s not the case. I know what it is. It’s the sadness, the blackness in the air. I felt it when I first came. I saw it everywhere in the house. Everything Aideen touched turned black with the sadness, because she herself had blackened from it long ago. Uncle couldn’t understand her pain, so he too was shrouded in its mist. Only freedom, like a beacon of light, can burn away the darkness. Society chained Aideen and Uncle, too. Uncle was stuck working for a man he hated, only because the man gave us a home. Aideen was stuck by sexist stereotypes that she could not overcome, because even her own husband fell victim to their power. I will not fall victim to the sadness. I will not be chained. I will not let myself, or Galvin, be devoured by that evil blackness. I must leave this place and Galvin has to come with me. I’ll teach him to be different than everyone else; I’ll teach him to understand freedom and all her beauty. We will be the key to everlasting life, the lantern of individualism, and we will shine on everyone who sees or even hears about us. We can choose our path in life. They can never burn our spirit.

Jessica: That’s the last entry. Both of the girls are silent, as if the last words already filled the room and nothing should be said lest the new addition dishonor its predecessors. They look at each other. To Hannah, something catches her eye. She could have sworn something wiggled in her peripheral vision, but she didn’t want to announce it and sound stupid. Yet, when she looked for the culprit of her fear, she found a small picture. A group of woman stood together. All of the woman had short, cropped hair and wore men’s clothes. There was only one man in the midst of them and he was dressed the same as all of them. He appeared to be in his late teens with fair dark hair and eyes. He held the hand of a woman. On the back of the picture was a handwritten caption. It said, “Brigid Hughes, Angela Murphy, Kathryn McTavish, Galvin O’Ceallaigh, and Gillian Gallagher: the founders of the Irish Feminists Association circa 1917. The organization scattered after the passing of the 19th amendment when their cause was fulfilled.” A couple days later, the two girls are sitting on the bus. Hannah reads the ending of their paper on woman’s suffrage. Hannah: “—there is no right beginning or end to woman’s suffrage. Only once all prejudice and hate is eradicated will the plight of women truly be over. In the words of a powerful suffragist, “They may burn our writing, but they will never burn our spirit.” (Aideen O’Ceallaigh)

Freedom's Beacon: Finale  

Final, edited, and updated version of Freedom's Beacon.

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