In 1820, Peter Geraghty, one of hundreds of Westmeath linen weavers, shared a humble, stone cottage on Mullingar Road with his wife, their two sons and a well-worn, hand-operated loom. Never more than a meal from hunger, though better off than many of their neighbours, Peter’s family endured, as had countless generations of Geraghtys before them. Just four years earlier, shortly after the birth of their first son, the flax crop essential to Peter’s trade had failed. He, his family and his neighbours barely survived a food shortage of unprecedented brutality. On the other side of the world, the eruption of one of the most powerful volcanoes ever known to man had begun in April of 1815. It vigorously and continuously expelled lava and hot embers into the sky for three months. As a consequence, Java’s Mount Tambora saturated the upper atmosphere with ash, thereby reflecting a fifth of the sun’s radiation back into space. Weather throughout the world was so severely affected that 1816 became known among Europeans as the year without a summer.
Katharine Geraghty contributed countless hours to the support of her husband’s enterprise by spinning flax fibres into yarn, under less than ideal conditions. Even in mid-day, the interior of the thatched, stone cottage was poorly lit by a single tiny window. On warm days, The weaver’s wife opened the rough-hewn wooden door to admit a little more light. During the evenings, while the flame of a tallow candle flickered erratically against the soot encrusted thatch over her head, she squinted and instinctively leaned closer to her work. The rhythmic rocking of her foot on the treadle and the repetitive squeak of the wheel that it turned went unnoticed, as did the insidious onset of arthritis in the joints of her fingers.