Sept. 17, Allagash, Maine – As darkness fell across the Allagash on Wednesday, I was perched at the threshold of Maine’s North Woods. I had reached the end of the road, the public road, and had backtracked to the Little Black Checkpoint.
Inside the gatehouse, I chatted with gatekeeper Mary McBreiarty, of Clan McBreiarty. I had been there a while, and suppose I had become a nuisance, because she got a thoughtful look in her Irishblue eyes. There’s someone else, another McBreiarty, I might want to talk to, she said.
I nodded my head, but my heart wasn’t feeling it. I’d driven to this remote village, the Behemoth wheezing and squeaking and moaning the whole way, then chickened out and backed away from entrance to the Irving Group’s Deep, Dark Forest. I was ready to call it a day.
I had done a brief interview with the gatekeeper to the fabled Allagash, and I was ready to go. Nonetheless, she rang Darrell McBreiarty, and he told her to tell me to come right over.
Mary carefully explained the directions, as if she knew I was going to screw them up no matter what. And before I found Mr. McBreiarty at home staining a shelf, I knocked on someone else’s door. People, I’ll tell you. They waved me in. Something sizzled on the stovetop. The air was redolent of shrimp scampi.
They were very nice strangers. They did everything but insist I stay for supper. I backtracked one driveway, and parked at Darrell McBreiarty’s door.
Darrell McBreiarty welcomed me in, sat me down and proceeded to unload the capsule history of Allagash from its file cabinet in his hippocampus. Not wanting to miss any of it, I turned on my recorder.
“You recording me?” he asked, pleasantly enough. I had, you see, neglected to ask permission.
He granted me retroactive permission, and we proceeded. He is 65 years old, and has lived alone in this cottage since his mother died four years ago. All the folks in the Allagash, he explained, are related.
He is one of them, yet he is apart from them. At once insider and outsider.
He attended photography school in New York City, graduating with certificates in commercial and portrait photography. He is a cosmopolitan artist living in a backwoods society. And he is the keeper of the society’s record.
When you enter Allagash, you are greeted by a sign announcing it as a Scotch-Irish community. Then come the roadside ranks of U.S. flags, which I interpreted as a defiant response to the legion of Acadian flags flying with impunity down in the valley.
What’s up with the flags?
He rolled his eyes.
“I’m an American, but I don’t need my damn flag flying in the dooryard every day,” he said. “The people here are hunters; they all have cabinets full of guns. They’re rednecks. They’re very clannish.”
As for the war of flags, I asked if indeed a lingering animosity still divided English speakers and French speakers.
“They seem to continue on this damn French-English feud, which is ludicrous in my opinion,” he said. “But there are still older people, mostly in Fort Kent, that have an aversion to hiring anyone who’s English Protestant. And there is an underlying, I don’t know if you’d call it prejudice, but there is an underlying disrespect in this community for the French.
“They have the term, ‘Oh, dumb Frenchman.’ Well, they’re dumb like fox. They’ve survived all the damn stuff that’s gone on, and they own all the business down through the valley. Who in the hell’s dumb?”
And don’t get him started on the Acadians. He insists the notion they came to the St. John valley as a result of British oppression is nothing more than myth. They came, he said, for economic reasons.
Here, 30 miles up the river from Fort Kent, it’s a whole different universe. The politicians and money men from Downeast have a derisive term for Allagash folk. They call them “Moosetowners.”
“They would say in Augusta, ‘it’s Moosetown law up there,'” McBreiarty said. “Game wardens and police officers were frightened to come here, because these people were quite brutal. They killed a game warden back in the 1800s. Another time they lined up along the bank and waited for a game warden who was coming down one evening in his canoe. They opened fire above his head. The message was, ‘this is our territory, not yours.'”
McBreiarty is a writer as well, published as historian, novelist and poet. How many times? Too many to count.
My heart sank. My head hung in shame. I couldn’t write about him or photograph him with any sort of authority. Christ, he once photographed James Baldwin.
Yet just as he was impressed by Baldwin’s humility, I was impressed by his.
I noted his trademark Irish features. The ruddy complexion, the impish blue eyes, the wavy mop of auburn hair.
“I have the map of Ireland on my face,” he said. “Yeah, I understand that.”
He said this with a reassuring friendliness. But the Irish thing, that’s the key.
The first thing you need to understand about the Allagash, he said, is its thoroughgoing Irishness. And it is just as Irish today as if ever was.
“Because of the isolation of the community, they retained Irish cultural things,” he said. “They knew they were Irish, but they didn’t realize the things they had retained and carried over because of their isolation.”
He can recite the genealogical history of this place chapter and verse. Everyone here descends from the Diamond family. They came from Killybegs in County Donegal. One of the Diamond girls married a man named William Mullens, and they had eight daughters, and those girls married into every family in town.
He tells it as if he has told it a thousand times before. Yet it is the history underlying those stories that animates him. And critical to understanding the pugnacious character of the Allagash, he said, are the Penal Laws enacted by England in the 17th century. They were intended to cripple Irish political and cultural expression.
“The Irish couldn’t vote, they couldn’t own land, they couldn’t speak their own language, they couldn’t go to a Gaelic school,” he said. “Anyone who broke the law in that period was a hero. Anywhere the Irish have settled across the world, in the Irish community, anyone who can break the law and get away with it is still considered a hero. It’s a cultural identity. That is very, very, very much part of this community.”
It is purely a lineage of instinct.
“Now these people are not even aware of the fact why they’re so rebellious,” he said. They know they’re Irish, but culturally they don’t know their history in Ireland, but they carry on their traditions. You can have your traditions and not know why they’re there. It’s osmosis.”
Once upon a time, in the days before the Irving Group of Companies seized hold of these woods, this place was a raucous, ribald den of hard-living lumberjacks. The population peaked sometime in the 1920s.
“In the fall, there would be hundred and hundreds of men moving up this river, going to the head of the river,”he said. “In the spring there would be hundreds of them coming down on the log drive. Even though the population the year-round population probably stayed around 800, during those periods of time it was probably double or more.”
Nowadays the population continues to decrease. How many jobs, I asked, are up in those woods?
“That’s the tragedy that’s going on right now in this community,” he said. “People don’t want to accept that age is over. They’ve listened to the legends and the myths and the stories and the anecdotes for so long. They grew up with them, and they don’t want to accept that that phase is over. And they’re hanging on with every fiber.”
Their undying passion is easy fodder corporate and political chicanery.
“They still get angry and they fight about it,” he said. “There are politicians that run on that myth. They say ‘Oh my God, we have to keep the Canadians out of the woods’ and stop this taking American jobs.’ Well, there’s no Americans lined up trying to get jobs. It’s a myth, and it gets people elected.”
Before white men came across the St. John River from New Brunswick and carved out a hardscrabble life in these woods, the natives, likely Micmacs and Maliseet, passed through here on a seasonal basis. They went up the river in the summer, and came back down in the fall. One unfortunate wayfarer ran afoul of one of McBreiarty’s forebears.
“In the fall, when the natives were going down the river, one of the natives crawled on top of the barn, thinking there was no one at the homestead,” he said. “He was going to steal a chicken or some type of livestock to feed on. My great-great-grandfather killed him. You have to realize the people that came here, or anywhere in Colonial America, were quite brutal.”
Strange things have happened in these woods. People have disappeared, as if they walked off stage in the middle of a play and never reappeared.
“There was a young man they call a Cookie, a cook’s assistant,” he said. “The cook didn’t particularly like him. and the men all went into the woods one morning and when they come back, Cookie was gone. And the cook said he got mad and packed his gear and was gone. Well many, many years later, when the cook was dying, the priest came to take his confession. He admitted he’d killed the young man, and they found his body in the floorboards of a stable. My grandmother told me that story.”
For the past three years, McBreiarty’s been laboring on a book about the Kelly family that fought in the American Revolution. Right now he has a 400-page manuscript.
He’s not done with the research yet, and has an expedition planned to meet cousins in Fredericton, N.B. And he plans to reissue five or six books of fiction and poetry in the near future.
I asked if, before he pursued a life of the mind, if he ever flirted with a life in the woods.
“The closest I came to working in the woods was when I was a teenager,” he said. “My father and his brother owned a sawmill, and I would work in the sawmill during in the summers during high school. I knew at an early age that was not for me.
“They age quite rapidly. When men reached 45 years old, they looked like old, old men. It’s a very dangerous occupation. A lot of people have been killed in the woods here or drowned on the rivers over the years.”
He escaped the stifling clannishness as a young man and made his mark in the big city. He returned almost 17 years ago to be with his family. He plans to move out of Allagash in springtime, though he’s not sure where he’s headed.
“You know they talk about well, if they could create jobs here, the people that moved away and their children are going to want to move back here,” he said. “For what? Culturally there’s nothing here, really. There’s not enough here to stimulate you if you’re at all curious about the world. This is way too isolated. And if you’re trained in technology and you have a college education and you’re in a wider world, what is going to bring you back here?”
And, he said, there is a fierce and self-immolating clannishness that still defines life up here.
“This independence, this we against the world, and the clannishness is unbelievable even here now,” he said. “I’ve seen young people that are physically beautiful and bright from this community that absolutely can’t acclimate to the outside world. And you feel bad for them, you think ‘God, you can do anything.’ The clans that are here, they will fight against you if you’re different, because they don’t want you to go outside that clan, and when you express that you’re different and you can acclimate to the outside world, they are offended by that. Who in the hell you think you are? It’s as if you you need your comeuppance.”
I assumed he was thinking about himself in that last paragraph.
“It took me along while to be able to look at it objectively and figure it out,” he said. “A switch turned on and I was no longer angry at them. I started to feel sympathetic to their plight. You can’t get angry at them. It’s all they know. And you can’t take them out of it, because they can’t function outside it.”
If he was different, if he was a freak in the eyes of the clan, his family never gave him anything but love. And he underscored one point: if the people here are clannish and provincial, he does not mean to say they’re not intelligent. To the contrary, he said.
“My father had a fourth-grade education and he ran a sawmill,” he said. “He could look at a log that came up to the rotary to be sawed, and he could tell you how many board feet, how many running feet, within inches, that would come out of that log. He was always accurate. That’s an unusual mind.”
Biologically, Theron McBreiarty was his stepfather. In every other sense, he was his father.
“He was a wonderful man,” he said. “He was 43 years old when my mother married him, and she was 20. He never was mean to me. He never was abusive, verbally or any way. He loved me. The old cliche about the bad stepfather, didn’t fit him, not at all. He was a nice man. He was a very nice man.”
Speaking of nice men, it was damn good to meet you, Darrell McBreiarty. When it was all over and we’d said goodbye, I sure was glad Mary McBreiarty insisted on getting me together with Darrell McBreiarty.
Thanks, Mary. And thank you, Darrell.
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