Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Horizons: Canada Moves West - Deadly Journeys - The Irish Immigrants

Bridget's Black '47 by Dorothy Perkyns. The Dundern Group, Toronto, ON. 2009

It was Bridget who first struggled to her feet from the bench where she had been sitting with her skirt over her face.
     "I got some soup for us, from the soup kitchen over at Glenrigg," she said timidly shaking her mother's shoulder.  "You must eat, Ma.  Then we must pack.  You heard what Father O'Sullivan said."
     Mary looked up at her daughter, her eyes wild and unfocussed, like those of someone suddenly roused from deep, nightmarish slumber.  She let out a long, low wail followed by the single word Rory repeated several times.
     "She's so tired and weak from nursing the poor lad she can't think what to do.  You'll have to help her all you can.  She needs time to grieve, and there isn't time," Daniel said, choking back his own tears as he came in after his heartbreaking task.

     Bridget staggered to the table and grasped the pitcher.  She poured the unappetising, gray liquid with its meagre selection of vegetables and bits of meat into the pot.  While it heated, she spread out the ragged blanket and began to fold their few spare clothes, placing them on it in a neat pile.
     She divided the soup between the four of them, making sure that her own serving was smaller than the others as she had already had a little in the kitchen.  Daniel and Caitlin silently drank their portions, but Mary still sobbed, her head in her apron.  Finally Daniel signalled to take out her flute and whispered, "Play that little folk song Rory and your ma used to dance to together."
     At the sound of the first few notes, Mary raised her tear-streaked face, and her sorrowful expression gradually warmed into a sad smile.  She said, "Thank you for being such a comfort to me Bridget.  Rory always loved that tune.  We must now cling on to the happier times we had together and remember what a blessing it was to have such a good little son."
     With that she obediently drank the soup Daniel spooned into her mouth, but as soon as she had finished, she sank down again hiding her head.  Daniel put his arms around her and half carried her to where Bridget was still piling their few bits of clothing and bedding onto the blanket.
      "You'll not get everything into that," Mary said.  "We'd best use my old shawl for some of the small things.  Any bits of food can be carried in the cooking pot."
      Caitlin sobbed loudly during the packing, tears streaming down her small, pale face.  Daniel held her close, trying to whisper comforting words.  Suddenly she sprang away from him, her eyes wide with terror.  Bridget too turned away from helping her mother at the sound of loud, threatening voices some distance away.
       Daniel dashed outside to see a dozen soldiers pointing their guns at the family huddled round the door of a house near the end of the village.  When the soldiers swung their weapons menacingly, forcing everyone into  the road, the mother and grandmother fell forward on their knees, begging  to be allowed to stay, but the soldiers merely kicked them aside.

      Daniel raced back to his wife and daughters, who now stood at the door of their home, guarding their few possessions.  Mary's face was white and her lips were set in a cold straight line as, without a word she handed the larger bundle to Daniel.  Bridget seized the smaller bundle with one hand and grabbed Caitlin with her other.  Slowly they set off, their backs resolutely set against the growing sounds of pitiful wailing and shrieking from the village.
      The smell of burning wood finally made them turn to see several cottages in flames.  People frantically scrambling to collect any tools lying around were butted out of the way by soldiers' guns.
      Daniel led his family onto the open road.  Weary and overcome with grief, they trudged along, as athe sun, which had promised such a bright day, slipped behind the hedge enclosing the field beside their path.
      "'Tis no use, " sighed Mary at last, "I can't go a step further." She sank down on the grassy bank beneath the hedge.
      "You can't stay there all night," Daniel replied.
     "Just give me a minute then."
     Bridget and Caitlin sank down too and huddled close to their mother, who was weeping silently.  Within seconds the two girls were asleep, worn out with sorrow and hunger.  Daniel looked sadly on, longing to rest too, but he turned resolutely away and headed towards the nearest building, a rough stone structure with a slate roof.  He took it to be a byre belonging to the farmhouse which stood on the opposite side of a wide yard.  It might provide shelter for the night.

     As he approached, however, it was not the soft lowing of cattle he heard, but the agonizing moans of human beings.  Peeking through a crack in the door, he could see the floor covered with rows of rough straw mattresses.  On these lay the wasted figures of men, women and children, some gasping for every breath as if it were their last, while others  tossed restlessly and cried out piteously for water.  
     Daniel realised he had found one of a number of fever hospitals which had sprung up in the area, started by doctors or others anxious to ease suffering, with no thought for their own health and safety.  He caught sight of the shadowy figure of a nun gliding between the rows of the sick, stopping from time to time to offer a drink or merely to pray and make the sign of the cross.

      "I see you took my advice and left." The familiar voice behind Daniel made him jump, and he turned to face Father O'Sullivan, who continued, "I passed your dear wife and daughters just now.  You'll be needing somewhere to stop for the night before you move on towards Dublin."
     "I was hoping to stay here," Daniel replied. "I thought it was a cow byre."
     "But you can see it is the last place you would wish to be.  I've come to administer the last rites to those still able to receive them."
    "Where are we to go?" Daniel asked, despair in his voice.
    "Tis safest in thein open air.  A little say along this road a narrow track leads off to the right between some trees.  You can hide there out of the way of the soldiers and the fever.  If you light a fire, mind you keep in small.  God's blessings go with you."  With that he opened the door to the barn and slipped inside.
    Mary was awake when Daniel returned to explain what they must do.  They roused the girls, and the four of them set off again along the darkened rad until they reached the track, which they followed until they were well hidden by trees.  Daniel then veered away through thickly growing hawthorns until they reached a small clearing near a narrow stream.
    Here he managed to get a small fire of twigs and leaves burning.  Over this Mary boiled water from the stream  in which to cook a few of their dwindling stock of vegetables.  No one spoke much as they swallowed the watery broth and undercooked carrots and turnips.
     As soon as they had eaten, Daniel broke some small branches from one of the trees.  He spread these over the lower boughs of another tree to form a roof and propped some leafy branches against it to screen off some of the night breeze.  The girls washed the pot in the stream before spreading the old blanket on the ground under the makeshift shelter.  The four of them crawled in, huddling together under the blanket, where in spite of grief, hunger and fear of the future, they sank thankfully into the welcome oblivion of sleep.
     It was already day light when Bridget opened her eyes to lie quietly gazing at the delicate tracery of twigs and leaves against the blue sky.  Her feeling of well-being was all too brief, replaced almost at once by despair at having to face another dreaded day.  She rolled over and slid out of their makeshift shelter to hunt for nettles or dandelions.  if she boiled them in water she might produce something to trick their stomachs into feeling less empty.  
    She was rekindling the few embers of last night's fire with dry twigs, when she turned to see her father digging frantically among the clothes in the larger bundle.
     "What are you doing?" she asked.
     "I just remembered there were three or four good potatoes among all the rotten ones.  I shoved them in at the last minute."
     As soon as water in the pot began to heat, Daniel sliced potatoes into it, adding the leaves Bridget had gathered.  By the time Mary and Caitlin awoke, a strange, green liquid was simmering.  Caitlin threatened to throw up if she were forced to eat it, but Daniel insisted they should all finish their servings before they set out.
     Life became increasingly hard as time wore on.  By day they trudged ever more wearily along the roads, growing  weaker as they struggled with constant hunger and worry about finding food.  At night they were forced to shelter by the roadside, for they became far to worn out to do more than hunt for a few branches or logs to cover a space in a deep ditch, where they could huddle together and hope for a few hours of the blessed forgetfulness of sleep.

     Daniel and Bridget woke first to scavenge for whatever they could find, though this was usually precious little.  Once they were lucky enough to buy a few turnips from an old man driving a cart, and once they managed to beg three small fish from a boy who had been poaching perch from a nearby river.  Both charged about three times the usual price, but they were so desperate that they handed over their money without argument.
    "If we don't pay up, someone else will," Daniel remarked as they hurried back to cook the fish.
     The further they went, the more groups of ragged, destitute folk they encountered, all anxious to reach port, where they could board their promised vessels to a better life in lands of prosperity and opportunity.

     The suffering of others added to their own sense of hopelessness.  It was common to see families hastily digging holes in which to bury the bodies of loved ones.  Sometimes corpses were abandoned by the roadside, with no one to perform the last rites or give them a decent burial.
     Finally, when it seemed that they had spent their entire lives trudging along endless roads, when they felt unable to drag their feet another step, they reached the edge of the crowded, bustling city of Dublin.

pp 89-96

    It was the following afternoon before they were finally allowed onto the ships.  As soon as the gangplank was lowered, people surged forward, shoving to get aboard first.  Once on deck, the four of them followed the crowd to where a narrow staircase, like a ladder, led steeply down from an open trap door into what at first seemed pitch darkness after the sunshine outside.

    When their eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, they discovered that there were rows of rough, wooden bunks along the walls.  Already people had laid clame to those near the hatch, so that they were forced to grab whatever they could find near the stern of the ship.
    "At least we'll be able to take these tow, one above the other," Daniel said, hoisting his load onto the top bunk.
    "it smells terrible in here.  Worse than when we had old Matty with us," Caitlin complained.
    "And it won't get any better," her mother agreed. "There's no way fresh air can come in, except through that tiny trap door."
    "We'll go on deck and watch old Ireland as we sale away," Daniel said, trying to sound cheerful.
    "I'm staying right here," Mary declared.  "I'll keep an eye on our things.  They're letting more folk in already."
    To their dismay, group after group of eager passengers, anxiously looking for berths, swarmed into the hold, making it impossible for the four of them to move.  When it seemed that every available place had been taken,  the ship's mate, a large, red-faced, burly man with a loud, malicious voice came below to check on what was happening.  He swung his long stick as he pushed his way in, kicking aside any bags and bundles in his path.
    Seeing the four of them, he bellowed threateningly, "What in hell's name d'ye think yer doing  with two bunks for four of yous?  Yer can make do wi' one."
    The flung their bundles from the top bunk to the floor and beckoned a young couple with a small baby to climb up.  The wife flushed with embarrassment as they climbed past, and the baby began to yell loudly.  
    Soon it was impossible to find a single space in a bunk so that the last passengers were forced to huddle on the floor.  When it seemed as if every square inch was filled with bodies and their possessions, the swaying of the vessel  signalled that they were on their way.  There was a mad rush for the hatchway as people hurried to get a final look at Ireland.
    Reluctantly, Mary followed Daniel and the girls.  By standing on tiptoe among the crowd on deck, they were able to catch a final glimpse of the green fields and rolling hills of their beloved homeland.  Many passengers wept openly in this moment of overwhelming sadness at leaving the country they loved.

    Suddenly there were loud shouts and cries of Is this all we get? and It's not fit for human consumption! or The rules say we must be fed while we are on board.
   The four of them moved over to where the mate and another scowling sailor were handing out ship's biscuit.  Bridget and Caitlin watched Daniel and Mary receive their family's allotted ration and looked at it in disgust as they turned to go below.
    "It's dry, and it smells mouldy," Mary said.
    "It's a good thin we brought some food with us," Daniel said, "though how we'll survive all the way across the Atlantic I don't know."
    The first day was just about bearable, for the weather was fine and the sea calm, making it possible for the them to remain out on deck most of the time.
   "I'll throw up if I have to stay down there," Caitlin  said to Bridget. "It stinks like the old dung heap at home."
    Bridget silently agreed, hardly daring to admit to herself that things would surely get worse.  She did not have to wait long.  That night the wind began to roar like a wild beast causing the ship to pitch and toss violently in every direction.  Everyone was ordered below, and the hatch was battened down securely.  The lower deck was now so crowded  that it was difficult to move at all.
     Many began to feel queasy, and the smell of vomit mingled with that of slop pails permeated everything.  Mary and Daniel curled across one end of the bunk while Caitlin clung to Bridget at the other.  The couple above them tried in vain to silence the baby, who cried incessantly.  Passengers moaned as the succumbed not only to sea-sickness but also to fever.  After tossing uneasily for hours, Caitlin finally dozed off.  Bridget could not settle, even when the storm abated and the baby finally ceased yelling.

    A paper-thin line of light was visible along one edge of the hatch when she slid off the bunk.  She seized the stinking pail beside the bed, hoping to empty it before Mary and Daniel woke.  As her feet touched the floor, her father's hoarse whisper startled her.
    "Will ye see if ye can find any water for your ma," he said.  "She's been tossing most of the night.  Now she seems to be unconscious, and she's burning like the fire of hell."
    Bridget peered across to where Mary lay, breathing noisily through her mouth.  Her  eyes were wide open, but she did not seem to hear or see anything around her.  
    Paralysing fear gripped Bridget as she stepped over sleeping bodies on her way to the ladder. "Please God," she prayed, remembering Rory, "not mother too!"
     To her relief the hatch swung open easily.  Having flung the foul contents of the pail overboard, she set about looking for water.  Three women were huddled around a steaming kettle over a glowing brazier at the far end of the deck.  Bridget approached them timidly in time to see one empty a few tea leaves into the simmering water.
     One of the women looked up and smiled when they saw the girl staring.  "We thought 'twould be a grand idea to boil us a drop o' tea before the rest o' the world wakes up," she said.  
    "I only wish we had some too.  My mother's sick."
    "As soon as it's ready, you must carry your mother a cup.  There's nothing like it to make a body feel better.  And the awful water they's dishing up on this god-forsaken tub of a ship doesn't taste quite so bad when it's boiled with a few tea leaves."
     "I can't pay you, but I can play you a tune."
    "Now that would be a real pleasure!" another woman said, "Onything that cheers us up is welcome."
     Bridget took out her flute and began to play a lively jig which made the women tap their feet.  
      "You can stop that hullabaloo and get back where you belong!" The loud threatening  voice was that of the mate, who strode into the midst of the group with his heavy stick.  
     "We meant no harm.  Sure a bit o' music helps to lift the spirits," the first woman said.
     "There's a time and a place for everything," snarled the mate, "and if I say this is not the time for music, then there will be no music.  And get that pot o' tea cleared away.  There'll be no cooking either unless I giver permission."
     Hastily Bridget tucked her flute away and took the cup of hot tea the woman pushed into her hands whispering, "Swallow this as fast as you can, and I'll put a drop more in for your mother."
     She was carefully carrying the cup across the deck when the sound of weeping caused her to turn to see a group of four small children dragging a long bundle, roughly wrapped in a ragged sheet, across the deck.  A thin, pale young woman crept behind them, sobbing as though her heart would break.
     The mate strode over to them, yelling, "Stop that caterwauling and throw him overboard."
     Hastily the little group of children struggled to heave the bundle over the gunwales.  At this point, to Bridget's horror, the young mother strode to her husband's body and snatched from it, the tattered sheet before helping her family fling the remains of her husband into the ocean.  She then stood for a moment, tears raining unchecked down her cheeks, while she crossed herself, before bundling up the sheet and dashing below followed by her children.

     When Bridget finally reached the bottom of the ladder, she met the young couple from the top bunk, both sobbing and red-eyed, the husband clutching a small bundle, which she instinctively knew to be their baby, who must have died in the night.  Thoroughly alarmed, she hurried to her own bunk  and her worst fears were realised. 
     Mary now lay quietly in a deep coma, so Bridget offered the cup of cooling tea to her father saying, "I begged this for mother."
    "I'm afraid she's past needing tea.  You drink it." 
    The two girls sipped the tea, handing the cup from one to the other.  Neither of them spoke as they knelt beside the low bunk where their mother lay gently breathing her last.  Her thin, frail body and solemn, pale face were so unlike the rosy plump smiling mother they had always known that the entire situation took on a bizarre dreamlike quality.
     They clung to each other until finally Daniel whispered, "She's gone.  We must take her on deck."
     The nightmare continued as Bridget and Caitlin followed Daniel up the gangway, Mary's body, swathed in her black shawl, in his arms.  Gently he lowered her over the side of the ship while the two girls stood watching  her slip from their sight.
     In stunned silence the three of them clung to each other before going below.  Daniel carefully packed Mary's few clothes and then lay down exhausted on the bed.  It was not until the sound of his sobbing could be heard that first Caitlin then Bridget also began to weep uncontrollably, tears flowing unheeded down their cheeks.

Irish Potato Famine

No comments:

Post a Comment