The Exile Breed
The sea was still running wild, but the wind had dropped. More sails were going up as the ship sailed past the ice. Close enough, a hundred yards perhaps, but the danger was over.
The iceberg’s stillness seemed unreal in the early dawn. All around it, waves crashed into its white cliffs, gnawing in under it. Rivulets flowed down its flanks, running off the skirts of ice at its base, sheets of white water pouring into the ocean. Spume flew high into the sky, caught in the early sunlight and blown on the wind like smoke.
Like white smoke over a white mountain.
He leaned against the rail, watching. His heart had ceased its pounding, but still he felt a fear he could no longer explain. Remember Mayo?
Two thousand miles behind? Could be more. They were nearer to America now. He was losing track of time too. Hundreds of people crammed into the cargo hold, sickening, praying and dying. More deaths every day. He wondered how many would survive the voyage of the Centaurus. Would he?
What a fool he had been, travelling on a lumber ship.
Another few pounds, and he could have been on a real passenger ship. But he had thought the money would be better feeding his own family in Mayo. Was it? They were depending on him to reach America, and send his money back. Money for food, and money to bring Winnie and the baby out to join him. How many more weeks of fever ‘till there would be no one left on board? Then there would be no money from America. Remember Mayo.
Croghancoe. The snow covered mountain, still and silent. Mud cabins strung across it, white smoke rising. Unseen people, dying and dead from famine, fever and cold. The endless drifts. The frozen lakes. The killing snows.
The power and the terror. County Mayo.
Tyrawly Herald, Ireland. July 1847.
From the promise of an early, and, where the seed was sown, of a plentiful harvest, it was seen as if the Almighty was mercifully to shorten the days of our calamity. But in the sanguine anticipations, which are but natural, wherever the land is cropped, we are debarred from sharing to the same extent on witnessing entire tracts have been left unseeded and desolate in Galway and Mayo, and no doubt in other places.
It was dark as he left Carrigard for Liverpool and Quebec.
Luke knew he had left most of his family forever. His father, his mother, his brother and his little sister, these he would never see again. But Winnie would follow on. Their baby too. But the question was when?
It was not as if there was anything unusual about this. Many Mayo families had suffered the same, and now in the midst of famine and fever, many, many more were suffering. America was different to England. Men and women worked the summer season in England. Some returned after a few months, but many stayed for years, working as navvies on English railways. But post to England was rapid. You could expect a reply to a letter within eight or ten days.
America or the Canadian provinces – they were different. Five or six weeks sailing each way – it took three months to even get a reply to a letter, and no one ever returned.
But Winnie would follow him to America. That much was certain. So many men, at least in normal times, travelled to America to settle. They brought out their wives and families when they had the money and a fixed address. The address was crucial. He knew many stories of men who had crossed the Atlantic, and were never heard of again. Men who never made money, who never settled long enough in one place. Men who could not even write. It was a hard thing for any family to be waiting for the American letter for news, or for money to stop the hunger, or to bring wives and families across to America. Often, the letter never came.
When he reached Knockanure, the sun had risen. The first houses were only mud cabins with straw roofs. These were the sure signs of the desperate poverty of the West. He stopped in shock as he saw a dead body on the road, rats already sniffing at it. He was well used to such sights. He pulled it into the side of the road and walked on.
In the town, the Workhouse had the usual crowds outside, clamouring for entry. It was only a few days since he had last seen his brother, but even so, this was his last chance to see him or Sarah. Inside the high gate of the Workhouse, two inmates with sticks ensured that no one climbed the gate. Luke pushed through the crowd to one of the inmates and explained he was Pat Ryan’s brother. The man only nodded, and Luke clambered over the gate, dropping down the other side. He was directed to the back of the Workhouse, and went around, passing the fever sheds towards the mass grave. He saw Pat there, directing the inmates, back-filling soil into the grave. As he watched, two more inmates carried a body past him and threw it in. He shouted at his brother without going closer. Pat waved and came across.
‘I don’t want to go any nearer,’ Luke said, ‘but I couldn’t pass by without seeing you and Sarah.’
Pat nodded. ‘I can understand you not wanting to go closer. It’s awful, but you get used to it.’
‘How are you getting on here?’
‘Well enough, but little else has changed. The Workhouse is in a dreadful way, though better than it was some months back.’
‘The fever is less. They cleared out hundreds on the boats to British America, and hundreds more died, but they didn’t let so many back in. They knew the crowding only killed more from fever. So the Workhouse isn’t as packed, and the fever isn’t killing as many as it used to. They’re still dying, but nothing like it was. I’ll tell you this though, Luke, 1847 will never be forgotten in County Mayo. Black ’47, that’s what they’re calling it.’
They walked over towards the Administration block. Luke was thankful. He had no desire to see the death pit again, nor the inside of the Workhouse either.
Sarah was working, adding long columns.
‘Look who’s here,’ Pat said. Sarah glanced up.
‘Luke!’ She ran and embraced him. ‘How’s Winnie? How’s the baby?’
‘Both are well, though the baby is far enough away. Sometime early next year. March, they’re reckoning.’
‘She’ll join you in the summer, will she?
‘That’s what we’re hoping anyway, if they’re both well enough before the shipping season is ended, and if I’m well settled, she’ll join me. But for all we know, the American ports might still be closed to the ships from Ireland or Liverpool, and I sure as hell wouldn’t want her and the baby to come in by Quebec, and have them travelling down to New York or Pennsylvania by land. And I’d have to be settled enough wherever I’m going so as to make sure I’d still be there whenever she arrives. We’ll see.’
‘But if she doesn’t make next year…’
‘Yes,’ said Luke, ‘it would have to be the year after. God only knows.’
‘1849,’ Pat exclaimed. ‘But you’d be two years apart then.’
‘Don’t I know it, but…?’
‘Why don’t you just go over to Stockport?’ Sarah asked. ‘Work with Danny?’
‘Danny, is it? Our dear cousin, the roughest labour contractor in England. Helping drive Mayo men into the ground with starvation wages? No, I’d never do that. And anyhow, from all we hear, Mikey and the boys are earning good wages out in America.’
‘But Danny would have you as a ganger, surely?’
‘He might, Sarah. Still I reckon I could earn more in America as a labourer than I would with Danny as a ganger. And anyhow, I don’t want it. No, the only future for me – for any of us – is America. Why don’t you come too?’
‘To America? I couldn’t leave mother. And with Pat working here as a clerk, sure, we’re not starving.’
‘Fair enough, so. There’s only one thing I’d ask of the two of you. Keep an eye on Winnie and the baby too, when it arrives. And let’s all pray the famine and fever has run its course.’
Soon, he was on the road again, heading east out of Knockanure. He saw gangs of men, women and children in the uniform of the Workhouse, repairing roads. There were few of them, and nothing like the many thousands who worked on road building and repair before the Relief Works were stopped. And the weather was warm, with none of the freezing cold of the winter that had killed so many thousands of starving people. The potato crop looked good, but he could see that very little had been planted. He knew starving people had eaten their own seed potatoes. The hunger would go on.
Many times he passed impoverished groups of men, women and children walking towards Dublin. Some talked of the Dublin Workhouses, but most were travelling to Liverpool, and then on to America. Luke wondered how many would get to Dublin, let alone Liverpool or America.
He was walking the same road on which he had returned from England, just over a year ago. Seven years working on the English railways, but then he had to come back to farm his father’s farm. Even before he left England, Mayo had frightened him. When he arrived, he could see why. Even then, he could see the early signs of hunger following the lesser potato failure in 1845. But no-one had expected the terrible starvation and cold of the bitter winter of 1846, nor the savage fever epidemics of 1847. Connaught had been devastated.
Oh God, Winnie, when will I see you again?
Knockanure to Ballaghaderreen to Frenchpark. Everywhere, the abandoned mud cabins, their people dead or gone. Sodden thatch collapsing on sodden walls, returning to the earth. He remembered how many of those he had seen around Brockagh, Ardnagrena, Knocklenagh and, worst of all, the mud villages strung out across Croghancroe. The dying and the dead.
Belllinagare and Tulsk. Strokestown. He walked down the wide main street, the Big House at the end of it. There was a strange silence in the town. He stopped at a bar outside the town, and it was here he heard stories of a mass eviction. Fifteen hundred people sent to Dublin and Liverpool, and on to Quebec, only two months before. Nothing had been heard from them since, though, as Luke reflected, it would have been too early to cross the Atlantic and expect letters back in that time. There were also rumours of more evictions to come. He thought of the Lucan evictions at Gort-na-Móna, just above Kilduff. How many of those might have been sent to Quebec out of those who were admitted into Knockanure Workhouse, or any of the other Workhouses. They might have been lucky to be sent to Quebec instead of the mass fever graves in the Workhouses.
He reached Termonbarry and crossed the Shannon, leaving Connaught behind. There was less devastation in the Leinster counties, fewer mud cabins to abandon, but there were still crowds outside the Midlands Workhouses, and more crowds of people walking towards Dublin. Luke noted from their accents that most were from Connaught. County Mayo and County Roscommon sending their people to England and America.
Longford, Edgeworthstown and Mullingar.
Kinnegad, Enfield and Kilcock.
After five days of hard walking, he reached the edge of Dublin, herds of cattle streaming toward the Cattle Market at Smithfield. On the other side of the Liffey was the huge Guinness brewery with its greedy appetite for thousands of tonnes of barley to brew the black beer. How many thousands upon thousands of families could be fed from that barley?
He walked along the quays, all wet and stinking from the cattle manure. At the North Wall Docks, three cattle boats were tied up at the pier. He watched the flow of cattle into the boats, hundreds of ragged people squeezing in with them. At first he considered taking one of the cattle boats – thruppence only to Liverpool. He saw a passenger ship though and considered the matter. He knew he had to save as much cash as possible for when he arrived in Quebec, but even so, he did not want to arrive in Liverpool streaked with cattle manure. He went to the passenger ship.
A man with a table was collecting fares.
‘Six shillings,’ Luke exclaimed. ‘It was only…’
‘Forget what it was. It’s six shillings now.’
Luke hesitated, and the next man pushed him out of the way. It had only been a shilling and sixpence when he had crossed from Liverpool last year. A quarter the price. Reluctantly, he walked towards the cattle boat.
‘A shilling!’ The price here had quadrupled too, but there was little he could do. He paid.
As he joined the long line of families waiting to board, he took off his shoes and rolled his trousers up. He knew well the conditions he would find inside a cattle boat.
The crossing was pathetic and disgusting. Walking barefoot through manure was bad enough, but even so, he could not protect his clothes from the filth. The low keening of the women, mixed with the bellowing of the cattle, left him no opportunity to sleep, even if he could have found somewhere to do so. It was the keening that upset him more than the cattle. He had heard it many times before, as the women scrabbled through the potato fields, though they already knew from the colour of the leaves what they would find.
The crossing was calm enough, so he was not seasick, though many around him were.
It was strange, he reflected, that he had never travelled on the cattle ship before. Even when he first crossed to England in 1840, it had been on a passenger ship. When he had been working on the railways, nothing less was acceptable. But this Famine was even worse than 1840. The shipping companies were taking advantage of the enormous demand from the Famine refugees by packing them in and multiplying the prices four times over.
Three days later, they arrived in the Clarence Dock in Liverpool. The gangplank dropped. The police were waiting at the end. Beyond them, more police surrounded a crowd of hundreds of tattered people.
As the people disembarked from the ship, two men in civilian clothes stood forward and started watching the crowd. From time to time they pointed passengers out, and these were dragged away by the police, their families following. Whenever anyone protested, they were clubbed.
Neither of the selectors glanced at Luke, and he walked past the crowds. Across the road from the dock he spotted a bar and was surprised to see a statue of Saint Patrick outside. Curious, he crossed the road and saw the bar was crowded. Two men were standing outside, drinking ale. Luke recognised the Irish accents.
‘Do ye know what’s going on over there?’ he asked.
‘They’re the fellows going back to Ireland.’
‘Not of their own free will, by the looks of it.’
‘Damned right. There’s no question of free will about it. It’s the Workhouses, terrified of fever they are. The powers-that-be reckon the fever is coming from Ireland, so they’re sending the Irish back out of the Workhouses. Now they reckon the best thing is not to allow them in either, so they’re watching the ships, and any they think might have fever, or are too weak to live, them they’re sending back too.’
‘God,’ Luke said, ‘Liverpool has changed this past year.’
‘That it has.’
He left and found his way down some steps beside the Mersey. He went down, washed his feet and rubbed down his trousers. Then he took off his shirt and greatcoat, and washed them in the river too. He knew his shirt would dry on him fast enough in the summer heat, and the greatcoat could wait ‘till later.
When he had his shirt back on, he climbed back to the dock and went across Vauxhall Road up to Scotland Road. He saw white crosses on many doors. Everywhere, there were crowds of dirty, ragged people, some standing, many just sitting or lying beside the road. On Scotland Road he found Buckleys’, where the Mayo men had always stayed, coming and going from England. Three policemen were outside, turning people away. Luke noted too that some houses had white crosses on the doors. Fever?
He turned back. What now?
A cart rattled ahead of him, two corpses in the back. It stopped. The driver jumped off and knocked at one of the doors with white crosses. A woman looked out in fright. Her face was gaunt, her clothes thin and ragged. She nodded. A minute later, she and the driver carried out a naked corpse and threw it into the cart. Then the woman brought out the body of a baby, and carefully placed it by the other corpses. Luke could see inside the room. There was no furniture except a wooden chest. The beds consisted of straw thrown on the floor. There were half a dozen more children, and one man raving.
He returned to the Clarence Dock and made his way through the crowds, asking for the Centaurus, the ship that he had booked for Quebec. But no-one knew of the Centaurus here. Luke had been through Liverpool before, and knew the vast extent of the port. He started walking south along the Docks, questioning people about the Centaurus. The Canning Dock and the Liverpool Dock. No one had heard of the Centaurus. At the Albert Dock, he asked some sailors, but they did not speak English.
The Dukes Dock, the Kings, the Queens. No luck.
He found a bar by the Coburg Dock. It was crowded, but he sat at a small table in a corner and ordered a pint of ale and a pork pie. Two seamen on the next table were eyeing him. He could see by the insignia on their cuffs that they were officers.
‘Hey Paddy,’ one shouted. ‘What are you doing in this country?’
Luke did not answer.
‘Paddy, I’m talking to you. You’re Irish…’
‘What of it?’ Luke asked.
‘You shouldn’t be here. All you’re doing is costing the fair city of Liverpool to send you back home again. You don’t believe that, do you? Three hundred of them they’ve shipped back in the past days. Why should our Workhouses be paying for the likes of you?’
‘They only come to work.’
‘Yeah. The ones who get away, that is. If they don’t bring us fever, they’re off working as navvies on the railways. Lowering wages for everyone, all of God’s honest Englishmen. That’s what they do. Damned bastards.’
Luke’s ale had arrived. He sipped it, saying nothing. The barman had stopped and was listening.
‘Now lads, no need for this.’
‘And there’s another damned Paddy,’ the officer said, recognising the barman’s accent. ‘You’re all damned bastards, the whole lot of you.’
Luke stood up. ‘Outside.’
‘You heard me.’ He strode to the open door and stood outside, fists raised. The bar was silent. The seaman stood.
His comrade put his hand on his arm. ‘No, John. Not that one.’
The other glared at Luke, then sat down abruptly, muttering ‘Irish bastard.’
Luke came in again and sat at a small table beside the door. The barman brought out his pint of ale.
‘Good move, that, asking him outside.’
‘No point in staying and wrecking your bar, was there?’
The bar was loud again. Soon, the two seamen left.
His pie arrived. He paid for it, thinking of starving Irishmen being brought in to work for starvation wages on the railways, pushing English wages down. He knew it was true. Danny did that and lived off starving Irishmen.
‘I’m looking for a ship,’ he said to the barman. ‘The Centaurus. Bound for Quebec.’
‘It’s those two fellows you should have asked,’ the barman replied. ‘They’d have known.’
‘I don’t think they’d have answered me.’
‘No, but they’re on the Centaurus.’
‘She’ll be sailing out of Brunswick Dock, next one down. She’s a lumber trader.’
‘Carries lumber out of Quebec, she does. They change them into passenger ships for the homeward run. They’re not designed for passengers, but they pack them in anyhow. Most of them Irish too, just like yourself, though you look better than most of the poor devils we see coming through for the lumber ships. Half starved, the most of them.’
Luke thought of what he had been told. A lumber ship! He should have known it. He had heard stories of these, and the many who died of fever on them. Yes, he had booked ‘below decks’ for his crossing, but he had thought that would have been on a passenger ship. He swore softly, thinking of the agent in Kilduff who had sold him the ticket, knowing full well the conditions on the lumber ships.
He walked to the Brunswick Dock, noting the huge timber yards landward of the ships. There were no passenger boats there, only two enormous cargo vessels unloading heavy lumber. He watched in wonder as bundles and bales of planks, boards and railway sleepers were discharged. Further down, massive squared logs of incredible length and weight were being hauled onto a sloping quay, which led to more timber yards behind.
He went up to the first ship. He saw the name on the prow. The Mary Emma. The next was the Centaurus. He could see the age of the ship by the appearance of it. It was patched in places, planks replaced in parts of the hull.
When he reached the ship there was no one there. Unsure what to do, he looked around and spotted the dockmaster’s office. He knocked on the door but there was no response. He knocked again. The door opened. ‘What in hell do you want?’
‘Won’t be leaving for a few days yet.’
‘It’ll take days to rebuild the inside of it, and they haven’t even started.’
Luke shook his head, still puzzled. Hoisting his pack over his shoulder, he walked back towards the city. He had two immediate purposes. One was to find lodgings, the other was to buy food for the voyage.
On the docks, he spotted the Mersey Ferry to the Wirral Peninsula. If, at least, he could get away from the city, he might find better places to stay. He paid his farthing to Birkenhead.
He leaned on the rail as the ferry began to move. Then he noticed the two men beside him were speaking in Irish. He listened closely. County Mayo. He was sure of it.
‘Well, where are ye lads going?’ he asked, speaking in Irish.
The two men looked around in surprise.
‘Are you working out that way?’
‘We are. On the Birkenhead & Chester Railway. You know it?’
‘I do,’ Luke replied. ‘They’re still building it, are they? I’d heard it was finished.’
‘So it was, but now they’re adding a second track, all the way from Birkenhead to Wallasey. Is it work you’re looking for?’
‘No. It’s America I am headed to. I’m only going to Birkenhead to see if I can find a bed for the night.’
‘You’re Mayo, aren’t you?’ the second man asked.
‘Indeed,’ Luke said. ‘The best county. I’ve worked the railways too in my time.’
‘Well, if you’re a railway man from Mayo, you may come and stay with us, if you wish.’
When they arrived in Birkenhead, they walked along the tracks snaking towards Wallasey. Birkenhead was crowded, but closer to Wallasey, it became less so. They passed potato fields, and Luke noted that there was no blight on the leaves.
They came to a shack. Inside, there were two other men, a woman and a baby.
Poitín was passed around. Luke sipped at it.
‘Why don’t you stay working on the rails yourself?’ one of the men asked.
‘I’ve been thinking of it,’ Luke answered. ‘My cousin works the rails too. I don’t think I’d be too welcome.’
There was a silence. ‘Daniel Ryan is your cousin?’
‘He is, and I don’t want to meet him again. He’s destroyed the name of Ryan on the railways.’
‘He has too,’ the woman commented. ‘A savage man.’
‘Perhaps I shouldn’t have told you so, but I can’t help being his cousin, we were born as cousins. My own family are decent enough. Danny’s family too. But Danny’s a tough man, and I know if I stayed in this country, I’d end up working for him, and I don’t want that.’
‘None of the fellows around here want that,’ the woman replied. ‘The men who work for him are fast enough getting away.’
Luke groaned. ‘They are. And now you understand why I can’t work the rails here. They say there’s better chances on the rails in America though.’
‘So we’ve heard,’ one of the men said. ‘And sure, if you’re not having anything to do with Daniel Ryan, you’re welcome to stay here.’ He raised a glass. ‘Your health.’
That night, Luke tried to sleep, listening to the low snoring of the men. The baby started to cry, but the woman fed him, and he quietened.
Watching her in the light from the embers of the fire, Luke felt intensely lonely. Winnie, his family and friends were behind him. The business with the seaman had sickened him. It had come very close. He knew he had no friends in Liverpool and none on the crossing, nor in Quebec. Again he thought of travelling to Danny in Stockport and working with him. Yes, and make good money too. Danny would have him as a ganger, not as a low-paid navvy. It could be a better choice, in that he could send money back to Mayo sooner and leave travelling the Atlantic until it was easier to do so. But Danny was no longer the young man he had known when they first worked on the railways together. His savage reputation had shocked Luke, and the fact that even a woman in the Wirral despised Danny so much was no longer a surprise. America was his only choice.
Next morning, he joined his hosts for a breakfast of porridge and tea. He felt relaxed with these people. This was County Mayo as he knew it. Even the men were gentle in their ways, though Luke knew just how tough and strong they had to be to work on the railways.
They spoke of railways they had worked on up and down Britain, and sometimes they spoke of County Mayo. No one mentioned famine or fever. As Luke left, he paid them tuppence for his lodgings. At first, they refused, but in the end the woman took it.
‘You must understand one thing,’ she told him as he left. ‘You should be careful of mentioning the name of Daniel Ryan. There is great bitterness against him on the railways. You cannot help being born as his cousin. We understand that, but others might not.’
‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘I’ll not mention his name again. For me, he is dead.’
He walked to Birkenhead and took the ferry back to Liverpool. He wanted to check the ship again, but first he had to write home. He found a post office, bought paper, an envelope and a penny stamp. He paid an extra farthing for the use of the pen and ink on the counter, and began to write.
Dear Winnie, Dear Father and Mother,
I am now in Liverpool and thought to drop ye a note before leaving for America. I visited our ship yesterday, and it is indeed a well-built one and will make Quebec without difficulty, but it may be five or six weeks before it arrives. I will, of course, write to you at once, but you may not hear from me for three months. But please not to worry.
I must also tell you that the potato fields in this country look most healthy. I hope they will continue so, both here and with ye.
I remain your loving husband and son,
A well-built ship? Who knows? No point in mentioning it was a battered old lumber ship. Why worry them? He bought his food for the voyage – a stone of porridge oats, flour, butter, salted beef and a small pot, and returned to the Brunswick Dock.
The Mary Emma was loading, long lines of people waiting to board. More people were walking from the direction of the city to join them. He could see by their filthy clothes that they had come from the Dublin cattle ships, others coming direct from Westport, Ballina, Sligo and the other ports of the West of Ireland, the real centre of the famine and fever that killed, and went on killing.
He made his way to the Centaurus. No-one was boarding. He showed his ticket to a ganger.
‘Sailing in three days,’ the man told him.
‘This is for Quebec, isn’t it?’
‘But it isn’t a passenger ship.’
‘Not now, it isn’t,’ the man replied. ‘It will be, you just see. Lumber from the Canadas, passengers back. How do you think they make money? Ship them out by the ton, that’s how.’
‘That’s what I thought,’ Luke said. ‘See you Wednesday so.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘Birkenhead. I’ve some friends there on the railway.’
‘You’ve worked the railways, have you?’
‘Six years? You’ll be well used to heavy labour so. We might have some use for you. Two shillings a day if you’re interested.’
Luke hid his surprise.
‘Of course I’m interested.’
‘Go on up so, and ask for John Starkey. Tell him I sent you.’
Luke climbed the gangplank. He saw that carpenters and seamen were working inside the hold, where a second floor was being built. All around the sides, bunks were being built, three high. Down the centre of the ship were two double rows of bunks.
He spotted an officer.
‘I’m looking for John Starkey,’ he said. The man swung around.
‘Who asked for me?’
‘The officer below told me to…’
Their glances met.
‘By God, if it isn’t our fighting Irishman.’
‘I was told you were looking for workers.’
Starkey laughed. Then he shouted to another officer.
‘Louis, look who’s arrived.’
He turned back to Luke. ‘Well, you may work on this ship, but by God, I’ll break you. You don’t talk to me like you did in the bar. Not here. Not now. Do you understand?’
‘Yes, Mr. Starkey.’
‘Mr. Starkey, Sir. And don’t you forget it.’
‘No, Mr. Starkey, Sir.’
Starkey turned to the other officer. ‘Remember this fellow?’
‘Let’s see now just how tough he is. No need to waste him hammering nails. Get him over there, and start him carrying the timber.’
‘And make sure you work him hard.’
Luke followed the officer to a high stack of timber.
‘Don’t worry about Starkey,’ he told Luke, when they were out of hearing. ‘More bark than bite, though don’t say I said that. Still, he’ll work you hard so long as you’re in his clutches. Just stay with me and you should be fine.’
‘He was all game to fight me there, yesterday.’
‘I know, but he had drink taken. That’s why I stopped him. I reckoned you had the build of a man who might flatten him. And whatever you do, don’t try that here. You’d be flogged. He’s the First Mate. Sailed the seven seas he has, and sure as hell doesn’t like being on this boat. He’s a Liverpool man. Speaks naught but the Queen’s English. No French, nor would he want to, even if he got it for nothing. He hates French speakers, hates all the Irish.’
‘They all do.’
‘I know, I know. But what about you. Who are you? Where are you from?’
‘Luke Ryan, I’m called. From County Mayo, if you’ve heard of it.’
‘Heard of it? Haven’t we all heard of it? Seems half our passengers are from County Mayo. See that lot behind the stacks.’
Luke saw another group of workers. Men, women and children, gaunt and dirty, the men all bearded.
‘They’re from Mayo?’
‘They are. They’re working their passage, unpaid. Not enough strength for real work. Unlike you. Now, Starkey is watching. Let’s get you working too.’
Luke followed him again. Child workers! No different to Famine Relief Roadworks. And not even paid here, not even tuppence a day. How many would survive the passage? How many already had fever?
They crossed the hold to where a bundle of sawn timber had been un-roped. Two men loaded a beam on to his shoulders, and watched as he carried it across to the carpenters. He spent hours carrying timber, as instructed. He did not take off his pack, fearful it would be stolen.
A break was called. Luke sat down, sweating heavily. Starkey saw him.
‘I was thinking how long it would take to break you.’
‘I’m not broken,’ Luke said. ‘Mr. Starkey. Sir.’
‘Not broken? We’ll see about that. Fine, rest a few minutes, then back to it. What’s your name?’
‘Luke, Sir. Luke Ryan, Sir.’
‘Luke Ryan, aye. Well I’ll tell you this Luke Ryan. I’ll have uses for you. And, by God, I’ll make a sailor out of you, long before we get to Quebec.’
They worked on. As of habit, Luke counted the number of beds down the side and multiplied it across. Three hundred on this floor alone! Six hundred people on two floors, where there had only been lumber before.
When the final whistle was blown, Luke sat on a bundle of planks. The other officer sat beside him.
‘You’ve been counting have you?’
Luke looked up in surprise. ‘How did you know?’
‘The look in your eyes and the way you were pointing, when you thought there was no one was looking. So what’s the number?’
‘Near to six hundred, I’m reckoning.’
‘And you could do all that in your head? You’re good. I’d been thinking you were just a simple fellow from Mayo and you reckon like that. Have you schooling?’
‘My uncle used to teach us. Not a Government kind of school, you understand, but good enough to reckon numbers.’
‘It’s more schooling than I ever had, I can tell you that. Still, I had to learn to get my Mates Ticket. Hard enough it was, and it makes a man know the value of learning.’
‘I know what you mean,’ Luke said.
The officer took out a pipe, tamped the tobacco in, and slowly lit it.
‘We educated men must stick together, even if neither of us have been to proper schools. But one thing I must tell you, Luke. I’m the Second Mate, name of Tyler, and as long as you’re on board the ship, you have to call me’ Mr Tyler’. Or ‘Sir’ if you prefer. Otherwise call me nothing. It’s not that I want it, but that’s the way that it is. So don’t ever think of calling me ‘Louis’.’
‘I understand,’ Luke replied.
‘An odd mixture, you might say. ‘Louis’ because my mother was Quebec. French speaking. The Tyler bit is from my father.’
‘English, I’d guess.’
‘An English-born sailor from one of the Medway towns. Chatham, right beside the docks. He was a tough fellow by all accounts. Ended up in the Workhouse, and so to the Merchant Marine and Quebec. When I was still only nine, he vanished on a voyage. Whether he was drowned or just ran off from my mother, I really don’t know. One way or the other, it finished my schooling.’
‘So what did you do then?’
By the time I was eight, I was working the winter in the forests, and spending the summer on odd jobs. After my mother died, I ended up on the street. That’s where half the Quebec sailors come from, those that don’t come out of the jails.’
‘You’ve worked in the forest, Mr. Tyler?’
‘I have, though at the age of eight I wasn’t earning much. They wouldn’t let me out cutting the timber in the bush, they just kept me in the caboose shanty, peeling potatoes and the like. So with damned little earnings, when the spring came and the logging was over, I’d make my way back with the other fellows to Quebec. Then one day, I decided to try my hand as a sailor. There’s no future in that though, so I decided to go on for my Mate’s Ticket. Took me long enough too, but I got there in the end.’
‘You’ve had a hard life, Mr. Tyler.’
‘Not as bad as some, Luke. The poor devils we take to Quebec, they’re the ones that have it worst. They’re the reason that you’re working as you are. It’s almost impossible to get sailors for a wreck like this.’
‘A wreck is all it is, and none of the sailors in Liverpool, nor Quebec neither, have any wish to be working on her. They’re terrified of fever, and I can’t say I blame them. So, since Press Gangs are out of fashion now, that’s why we’re desperate for men like you. Sharkey would never have taken you, except he knows he has to.’
‘It makes sense,’ Luke said. ‘Still, we’re being paid.’
‘Aye, ye are. What are they giving you?’
‘Two shillings a day.’
‘Not so bad, you might think. They didn’t tell you they were Canadian shillings, did they?’
‘Not quite the same as shillings sterling. Your two shillings are more like a shilling and eightpence when you work out the difference.’
‘Not that I’ve much choice, do I, Mr. Tyler? It’s still far better than any wage in Mayo.’
‘None of us had much choice, Luke. I’ll tell you one choice we have though, and that’s not to ship out on this wreck again. The moment we hit Quebec, I’m off.’
After the carpenters had left, and the sailors had gone to their quarters, Luke was alone in the hold except for the huddled group of men, women and children in one corner. He already knew that he would not be allowed to sleep in the sailors’ quarters due to the terror they had of fever being carried by the Irish. He went to the other end of the hold from the Mayo families. There he wrapped himself in his greatcoat, lay down in a soft heap of sawdust, and slept.
Next day, he worked on, helping the carpenters to swing the heavy beams and floorboards into position to finish building the second floor. Then more carrying timber, upstairs and across to where the bunks were being made. On the third day it was finished. He went to the second floor and found himself a bunk alongside the ladder leading up to the hatch onto the outer deck. Arms aching, he climbed up to the top bunk and lay on it. He knew these were safer, since the mess from men or women in fever could drop down on those below. Using a piece of spare rope he had found, he tied his pack onto his bunk and knotted it well.
At daybreak loading began. Luke leaned on the rails, watching the crowd of humanity entering the dock and flowing up the gangway into the hold. Tyler came alongside.
‘Self-loading cargo,’ he said. ‘Costs a lot more to load the ship at the Quebec end, I can tell you.’
‘Sometimes I think you’re a little mocking, Mr. Tyler.’
‘Maybe I am, Luke. It’s just the way it is though, isn’t it?’
Luke went down into the hold. Already fighting had erupted as people fought for the best bunks. Alarmed, he went to his own bunk. His pack was still there. He climbed up, and lay down, his head on his pack.
There was a tap on his shoulder.
‘Luke. For God’s sake, get up.’
‘I didn’t know you needed me, Mr. Tyler.’
‘Need you! You’re working now, and don’t forget it. Come on.’
Luke was assigned to one of the bars on the anchor capstan, and heaved hard with the other sailors as the anchor rose.
The captain had come to supervise the weighing of the anchor. It was the first time Luke had seen him. He saw Luke, and came over to him. ‘New, aren’t you?’
He muttered a few words which Luke could not hear. Then he prodded a finger into Luke’s chest.
‘And this is my ship, and don’t you forget it.’
‘No sir,’ said Luke. He could smell the rum on the man’s breath.
After the anchor was secured, Luke was assigned to coiling the ropes on deck. He watched as the docks of Liverpool slipped by on the right, the Wirral peninsula on the left. As soon as they left the Brunswick dock, their place was being taken by another ship. He recognised it at once as another lumber trader. As they passed long lines of other ships, he picked out another seven lumber ships at anchor.
Most of the passengers stayed below, but there were a few dozen on top. Again, there was the eerie keening from the women. One of the sailors swore in French. The other sailors glared at the women. They too were unnerved by the keening.
Cork Examiner, August 1847.
Surely the Government will not allow the feeling from the disasters attending the poor Irish in a foreign land to pass away with the miserable deaths of the victims. Will there be no enquiry into the causes, immediate or remote, which produced all this loss of life? Into the modes of transport, the state of emigrant vessels, the abominations of emigrant agents, and all the etceteras which have become and are accessory to the deaths of the Irish poor. Out of the 2235 who embarked for Canada in those wretched hulks, called emigrant vessels, not more than 500 will live to settle in America.
The voyage of the Centaurus started well enough, with quiet seas, though it was very slow. As Liverpool disappeared astern, they sailed into the Irish Sea, the Fylde Coast on the starboard side. Over the next few days, Luke saw the mountains of Westmoreland. The Isle of Man visible to the west, outlined against the setting sun.
Past the Kintyre Peninsula to starboard, the Glens of Antrim and Rathlin Island to port, the last they were to see of Ireland.
The long procession of mountainous Scottish islands to starboard. Islay and Jura. Mull, with tiny Iona at its tip. Tiree and Coll.
Then the open Atlantic.
Luke soon discovered what his duties were, and just as important, what they were not. He had been taken on as a swabbie, not as a sailor. The sailors were all Quebecers, and only knew French, which they spoke in their own argot. Luke was glad he was not expected to climb the rigging and furl or unfurl the sails. That was strictly reserved for sailors, and in any case, it would be dangerous for him because he did not understand their speech.
One of his jobs was cleaning the outside deck timbers with the rough limestone bars of holystone. This meant long hours on his knees scrubbing. He spent time too stuffing oakum between the timbers to keep them watertight, often under the sharp eye of Mr. Starkey.
His main duty though was manning the bilge pumps, often working two separate stretches of four hours each in a day, between his other duties. He suspected strongly that this was the reason he had been taken on, and it was the hardest. Pumping meant long hours in semi-darkness, pushing and pulling the handles of the pump up and down until his back ached with the effort. The stink was appalling. There was always a sailor on the other handle, but it was a duty that the sailors despised, and the more that Mr. Starkey could keep Luke on the pump, the more gratified the sailors seemed to be.
Many of the planks in the hull were rotten, and the gaps between them had not been caulked before they left port, nor could they have been unless the ship had been hauled on its sides to expose the bottom of the hull. Always, the water was seeping into the bilge hold to mix with other foul fluids and slops from the ship, though most of the filth from the shit buckets went overboard before it hit the bilge hold. At times, Luke feared that he would contract fever from the bilge, though, as he reflected, the passenger decks were probably more dangerous.
Working the pump went on all day. During squalls and storms, the pump was manned all night as well. Often, Luke worked at the pump right through the night as the ship pitched and rolled.
His bunk was a good one, well above the bilge hold. He could never get away from the stink of the hold though, nor the sounds of the people relieving themselves into the buckets, night and day. Every morning they slopped out, and this was a job for the passengers who were working their passage. ‘Sloshers’, the people called then. Every morning they carried the buckets outside and threw the shit and piss overboard. When the sea was rough, they also had to scrub down the passenger decks and scoop the shit into the buckets, before carrying them up. During storms, when the hatches were down, none of this was done and the stench got worse.
The bunk beneath was occupied by a young man, who never spoke. Instead he turned his head to the hull, and seemed to sleep for most of the day. Luke had seen this kind of misery before, the misery of a man who had already been broken.
Luke himself spoke to no one, except when necessary, and he told no one of where he was from and where he was going, nor did he ask. There was no point either in talking of conditions on the ship. That would only depress him. In any case, he had little time. Most people were asleep when he left the passenger decks to start work in the mornings, and asleep again when he returned.
The women’s keening had stopped when Ireland had dropped below the horizon. The only disturbance now was the wailing of babies, and the crazed whine of an old man, all through the night. That apart, the ship was quiet, and he slept well enough.
Cooking was not easy. At first, he had enough to eat from what he had bought in Liverpool, and he added to it by buying cabbage from the ship’s stores. But the vegetables on board ran out very early, and after that, he never ate anything green.
The kitchen had a long narrow bin, filled with sand, with a log fire built on top. Often the smoke of the fires forced them out of the kitchen. Luke had been frustrated by this, and also by the time he spent standing in line for the kitchen, especially since he never had enough free time.
His rations were simple now – porridge with water in the morning, flat bread with butter and smoked meat at mid-day, and sometimes porridge in the evening. Then he began to buy ship biscuits, picking out the weevils, though in the end he ate them too. As time passed, he rationed himself to save money and food.
He never ate with the sailors, who kept well to themselves.
There was little enough water for cooking and drinking, but none for washing or shaving. At first, the prickling of his beard irritated him, but as it grew, he became used to it. When it grew too long, he borrowed a Sheffield scissors to cut it back.
He had one change of clothes, and this helped, but he quickly became rather repulsed with himself. He got used to it though, and slept in his clothes every night, his single blanket wrapped around him, inside his greatcoat so it could not be stolen.
He watched anxiously for any signs of disease. There was enough sea sickness in the early days, that was for sure, but no obvious evidence of fever then. But that was to change.
As he made his way to the pump one day, he passed a screaming woman. He saw her head was swollen, and her face was hideously deformed. Her cheeks were red, but the rest of her face had turned white. Her feet were swollen too, and covered with putrid, black spots. He could smell the reek of decaying flesh. Now he knew for the first time that there was fever aboard ship.
He thought back on the desperate winter days in the mountains, watching people slowly dying from fever. The screaming. The unmistakable stink of gangrene.
And Alicia’s death too, years before the hunger came.
A few days later, he saw the ill woman’s corpse being man-handled up onto the outer deck. A priest accompanied it, and it was laid on the deck. He made the form of a cross on the woman’s forehead.
‘Per istam sanctam Unctionem…’
Through this Holy Unction, May the Lord free you from sin, and raise you up on the Last Day.
Luke went down on one knee. The corpse was wrapped in a shroud, and weights attached. Then it was passed over the side of the ship.
When all was finished, Luke walked over to the priest.
‘It has,’ the priest replied. ‘And more to come before we make land. Her husband has it.’
Yes, Luke thought. How much further would it spread? How many would survive the voyage?
There had been many days and nights of wind and rain, but then the first storm came.
It began with a rising wind, and the sails were lowered. The sailors worked fast as the masts swung from side to side. The passengers were sent below, and the hatches were battened down.
The wind was still rising, and the rain became torrential. The outer deck flooded, and the rolling of the ship flushed it through the gaps between the hatches and the deck. Seawater poured down into the two passenger decks. Soon the water was ankle deep in the lowest deck, and it sloshed from side to side as the ship bucked and rolled. There was more sea sickness and the screaming of frightened children.
Luke spent much of that desperate night at the bilge pump. Now there were two men on each handle, working the pump far faster than before, as the water from the decks cascaded into the bilge hold. For some time, it seemed that the water kept rising as the ships timbers flexed before the waves, and water came in through the splits in the ship’s timbers.
After two desperate hours, Luke was relieved, and staggered back to his bunk. He nibbled on his smoked beef, but it was not enough, and for the first time since the winter in the mountains, he felt the bite of hunger.
He was only able to count the days by the chinks of light coming through a little crack between the cover and the hatch at the back of the ship, where the water sloshed in as the waves hit.
For four days they ran before it, the sails wrapped tight on the masts, the decks stripped bare, the hatches battened tight. Four days in the darkness, women and children screaming as the ship lurched up and down. Four days living with the foul smell of vomit and shit in the passenger decks, and even worse at the bilge pump.
Then it was over, and they were in the gentle swell of the North Atlantic. Starkey allowed them outside for the first time. As Luke made his way towards the ladder, he passed another woman screaming on her bunk. He noticed again the reek of decaying flesh. Now he knew for certain that fever was spreading through the ship.
Within a few days there were other cases, and the woman was showing clear signs of gangrene, and her face and legs were bloated. A week later, she and two more were dead, including the husband of the woman who had died before the storm.
Now Luke had a new duty. Starkey ordered him to supervise the disposal of the corpses. The sailors had refused to undertake this duty, and even the threat of a flogging had not moved them. They knew full well the dangers of contagion. So did Luke.
The irony of this struck him. He was now a ganger again, even if it took little of his time. He thought back to the building of famine roads across Croghancoe, supervising people who were desperate for money, but hardly able to work.
Every morning now, he walked between the bunks. Any corpse found had to be manhandled up the ladders to the outer deck. At first, Luke tried to have this done by the family, knowing that they had been closest to the infection, and not wishing to infect other passengers. This proved to be impossible though.
The bodies were wrapped in shrouds, and weights attached, before they were thrown into the devouring sea. As the fever killed more, the corpses were thrown into the ocean unweighted.
Again and again the priest repeated the blessing, as Luke and the families dropped to their knees.
‘Per istam sanctam Unctionem…’
‘How many dead now?’ the priest asked him.
Day after day.
Then there were no more shrouds. For some days, he was able to use old sails, which he had cut up to use as shrouds, but these too, ran out. Bodies were stripped of clothes by the families, or those nearby, and the victims were dispatched to the sea stark-naked.
The clothes were sold by auction. Clothes were valuable. Sometimes fights broke out at these ‘auctions’, and then it fell to Luke to supervise them, sometimes taking the bidding himself. He had no interest in buying clothes himself, knowing well the risk of fever.
And still the fever spread. He spent hours picking the lice out of his clothes and blanket, fearful that they were carrying fever. He knew the only way to kill them properly was to boil the clothes, but there was little chance of that. Sometimes, he wondered whether the lice were the real cause of the fever, or just a superstition he had picked up in the mountains in County Mayo. But who else would understand the reason for boiling clothes, far less dispose of them without selling them?
They hit a second storm, but after two days, it too had calmed.
Then the third storm came. This one lasted longer and was far more violent. For some time, Luke stood at the stern, watching the lightning flashing from horizon to horizon. It became continuous and the thunder roll went on without a break. Then the rain came, pouring down in a torrent of water. The wind rose and the waves became mountainous. Still Luke stayed above, drenched to the skin, but almost exultant. It brought to mind the Big Wind of 1839. He knew he was in danger, but the sheer power of the storm overawed him.
‘Luke, in the name of God what are you doing?’ Tyler grasped him by the shoulder and pulled him back sharply.
‘Go down to the hold, now. That’s an order. We’ve got to get the bilge pump working.’
‘It’s not working?’
‘The sailors have refused. They won’t go downside – they know there’s fever. They say the passengers should be doing it. Damned bastards, but I just can’t shift them. Get the passengers working. Do it now.’
Luke went to do as he was ordered, but when they came to the hatch he had to help Tyler to open it. He scrambled in as Tyler shut the hatch after him with a crash.
The women and children were screaming, convinced they were to die. Quickly, Luke selected some of the healthier men and ordered them down the ladder to the pump.
‘But we’re paying passengers,’ one man protested.
‘Aye, and you’ll be dying passengers if the ship sinks.’
They were not strong, but they set to, two to a handle, working until they were exhausted. Then Luke had them replaced, sometimes after only half an hour, and sent them back to the decks to find more men. When he was convinced the pump was working well, he climbed back up. For fear of fever, some of the sick had been deserted by their families. Abandoned or not, there was no way of cleaning them in the darkness, and the water between the bunks swilled their filth throughout the deck,
The air was already fetid, and became worse. The stench was unbearable, but it had to be endured. By the third day, Luke was finding it difficult to breath, gasping and inhaling deeply to gain sufficient air for his lungs. Now he had four men working each handle on the pump. He wondered how much longer he could keep the pump going.
The fever patients, already weakened, no longer had the strength to breath. More died during those days, but the hatches remained locked, and the stinking bodies lay where they were, putrid with gangrene.
On the fourth day the hatches were opened, and they were let out – men, women and children clambering onto the open deck, staggering and falling as the ship pitched violently. Some made their way to the rail, holding tightly as others grasped them from behind. Many lay where they were on deck, breathing the fresh sea air,
The storm died down, and as the waves died away, the ship steadied.
‘How many dead now, Luke?’
One morning, as he was stuffing oakum into cracks, Tyler called him to the rail.
‘Still alive, I see.’
‘Just about, Mr. Tyler.’
‘I’m sorry I can’t see you as often as I would like. I have to oversee all these fellows, you know. Takes all my time when they’re up the rigging. Mr. Starkey won’t do it. He reckons it’s not his business, that’s for the Second Mate. But the real reason is a different one. I’m the only one of the officers that speaks French. All the sailors are out of Quebec, and he can’t speak a word to them. They’re devils, they are. They pretend not to understand English, even when they do. Not that they need much overseeing when they’re on the bilge pump, and they know their lives depend on it.’
‘No,’ said Luke. ‘But now they know they can get the passengers on the pump. Isn’t that it?’
‘Yes, and we may have to keep it that way. The sailors are terrified of fever if they go down. One of them has fever already. And whether you like it or not, we’re short of sailors to work this damned ship, and we can’t afford to lose any. We’ve lost enough passengers already.’
‘I know. Fifty eight by my count.’
‘Yes, Mr. Tyler.’
Tyler shook his head. ‘You’re some fellow.’
‘I don’t know about that. But there wouldn’t be so many dead, nor much call for a pump if the ship weren’t leaky, would there?’
‘There’d still be need for one, but only an hour or two a day on the better vessels, very little on a passenger ship. But this is a lumber ship, and no one gives a damn if it sinks. It would be easier for the bastards if it did. The ship’s worth damned little, the passengers even less, and all they cause is trouble when they land at Quebec, carrying fever and whinging about the way they were treated and all that have died. I’ll tell you this Luke, it wouldn’t be like this going to an American port, that’s for sure and certain.’
‘Why not, Mr. Tyler?’
‘Because the Americans inspect them all the time, that’s why. The ship-owners, they know damned well they won’t let them in with fever, so they make bloody sure that there isn’t any. Even the Mayo ships carry fever, but there’s nothing like the numbers. Do you know, just before we left Quebec the last time, we saw the Dew Drop coming in – a Westport ship. And do you know how many had died on the crossing there? None. None at all. And she didn’t even have to stay over for quarantine at Grosse Île. But you see, she wasn’t a lumber carrier. The Dew Drop was built to take passengers. That’s not to say all passenger ships are fine, some can be just as bad as this wreck. But the ones going to Boston and New York, they have to be a better class of ship altogether.’
‘But how?’ Luke asked. ‘How in God’s name…?
‘They don’t cram them in, that’s how. But Quebec will let them in, all packed like sheep for the slaughter, just waiting to die in the quarantine sheds. I’ll tell you this, they wouldn’t dare to treat men like that unless they were going to Quebec. Like I say, the shippers don’t give a damn. All they’re doing is taking you as ballast – lumber out, passengers back. Human cargo – and no-one cares. Nothing matters to them now. Big ships they are, they have to be for the tonnage they carry. And for that reason they go into the big ports – Cork, Dublin, but most of all, Liverpool. And when they get there, when they’ve got rid of their cargo, what do they have to carry back? Quebec doesn’t need that tonnage of cargo. So you crush hundreds of them in the cargo hold, doesn’t matter how they fit them in. There’s hardly any English among them either. All Irish, that’s what they are, taking the cheapest passage to Quebec. Through Liverpool. The Liverpool ships, they’re filthy. And they’re murderous. They all are, not just this wreck. Listen, I saw it myself in Quebec. The end of May it was. The John Bolton, sailing out of Liverpool. I saw what she was like when she came into Grosse Île. Damned near the half of them died at sea, and I reckon half of the ones who survived the sea, died at Grosse Île, either on the ship, or in the fever sheds. That ship was a disgrace to humanity. And even last year, there was nothing like this in the Quebec ships.’
‘So you’re saying it’s only Quebec,’ Luke said. ‘And worst this year.’
‘Dead right, it is. God knows I’ve crossed the Atlantic many times, and I’ve never seen it like this. Back in the spring, it began. This is my third time in the Centaurus, and I wouldn’t be here if I could have gotten off it sooner. I’ll not sign with this one again, and that’s an end to it.’
‘Where will you go?’
‘Damned if I know. New York, if I can. Boston maybe. But it’s not easy. Who knows, I might have to go to New Bedford, and go on a whaler. It’s a damned rough life that though.’
‘I’d heard that. You’ve been whaling, have you?’
‘Indeed. I’ve whaled all over. The southern oceans, that’s where I spent my years on the whalers. Chasing the southern right whale along the Roaring Forties. All round Antarctica, and back through Cape Horn. Doubled the Horn three times, I did, Valparaiso to Rio. But it’s a young man’s game, so I shipped home to Quebec, trying to find easier work. The lumber ships, they were good work then. But then I ended up on this wreck, and it’s worse than any whaler I can tell you. Same with all the Quebec fleet. So it’s back to whaling for me, I’m thinking.’
He nudged Luke.
‘So what about you? What are you planning?’
‘I’m trying to get out to some lads I know working the rails out in Pennsylvania. I worked with them on a gang back in England. Six years building railways in every part of the country. From what we’ve heard back in Mayo, there’s good money on the American railways, and that’s where I’m aiming to get. It was one of my friends – Martin Farrelly – that advised me to come this way. Wrote a letter from Pennsylvania saying it was impossible to get into the American ports, and advised Quebec. Some of the Irish fellows I knew on the railways have worked the forests, just like you told me. Then they crossed the border into America to work the rails with Martin. I might try the same. First the forests. Then the railways.’
Just before dawn the following day, two corpses had been dragged up by Luke and the other men, and lay on the deck awaiting the priest. It was only when he saw the panic among the sailors, he realised they were in danger.
The ship was running at high speed in the early dawn, driven by a strong wind behind, when out of the sea ahead of them loomed a huge mountain of ice. An iceberg – and they were heading directly for it. There was chaos as sailors ran up the rigging. More tumbled out of the boat, half dressing themselves as they did so. But they were very slow. Luke knew more of the sailors were down with fever, and wondered how strong the others were. He felt a moment of pure panic. To come all this way and die in the freezing Atlantic! He watched the sailors in the rigging, awed at the complexity of what they were doing. Tyler was hanging on one of the spars, screaming directions to the sailors as Starkey screamed directions to him from the deck. The captain was nowhere to be seen.
Gradually, the ship reduced speed, and slowly – ever so slowly – began to change direction. Luke was sure now they would hit it broadside on, but as it grew in size he realised that the iceberg was further away than he had thought. For endless minutes he watched it approach.
Abruptly, the danger was over, and he saw they would miss the iceberg. As they passed it, he stared at it, half bewitched by it. The size of it, the sheer overwhelming power of it.
It was only then that he realised how he was shivering, whether from cold or fear, he could not tell. He wrapped his coat tighter around himself, thinking back on County Mayo. They were depending on his letter and the money it would bring, both to feed them through the rest of the famine and to bring Winnie to America.
There would be no letter to Mayo if the ship had sunk.
Mayo Constitution, Ireland, July 1847.
On the 7th instant, the Emily Marie of Skerries, a smack laden with Indian corn, was attacked near Inniskea, but the captain having applied to the commander of the Emerald Cutter, now stationed in Broadhaven, for the marines which were on board, the people made so desperate an attack that the marines resolutely defended the property under their care, and shot four of the plunderers dead, and wounded several others. It is to be hoped that this melancholy occurrence will put a stop to plunder on the Erris coast.
IRELAND. Luke had left Mayo because he had to leave. A vicious famine two years long – that was reason enough for hundreds of thousands to leave. But for Luke there were other reasons.
Winnie knew that. And Eleanor was finding out.
Eleanor had been surprised by Winnie. Luke had chosen his wife well, there was no doubt about that. She had perhaps been a little quieter before, though forceful enough when alone with Eleanor and the other women. She had taken intensely to Brigid, Eleanor’s grand-niece. That was no surprise. All the women were close to Brigid, projecting their hopes and aspirations on an orphaned child, not two years old.
Through the growing horror of fever and famine, Winnie’s character seemed to only grow stronger. She was determined that the Ryans at least would survive. She had been devastated by Luke’s emigration, but she, like Eleanor, knew that there was no other way. Winnie was determined not to show how distressed she was, though there were times she could not hide it.
She had become protective of her mother-in-law. Whenever corn had to be bought, Winnie would take it upon herself to go up to Kilduff and join the scramble outside Dillon’s shop. Eleanor knew that this carried a risk from fever, but Winnie would not allow Eleanor to leave the farm unless it was necessary. For fear of fever, they no longer even went to Mass.
Not that that was necessary to understand what was happening. Eleanor always insisted on Winnie telling her what she had seen and heard. Rat-eaten bodies in the streets, people lying in the open with horrific signs of fever, the people outside the shop showing the late signs of starvation. Mud cabins beside the road pulled down over dead families with no burial at all. There were stories of bodies buried in turf banks, rumours of new evictions to come, and much more. Always, Winnie would talk of these things in a flat voice. Trying to hide her own sense of shock, perhaps? Eleanor did not know. But still, behind it all, there was the brutal resolve that the Ryan family would not suffer such horror. But could they avoid it?
Always, Eleanor felt a dull, grey fear.
Yes, the potato crop was looking good, but it had been the same last year. Then the blight had struck again, and destroyed most of the crop – even those that had already been dug. Now desperate people were convincing themselves that the blight was gone, but Eleanor was not so sure. The next weeks would tell much. What if the blight returned a third time? What would that mean? That the potato was finished forever as food? What then?
Yes, they had survived the past two years. During the worst of it, Michael had been working the quarry, but more important their two sons were working, Luke as a ganger on the Famine Relief Works in the mountains, and Pat as a clerk at Knockanure Workhouse. So they had had enough cash for corn, right through the devastating potato failure. Now they would have no money from Luke until he reached America. But Pat had been kept on as a clerk in the Workhouse, and he had become the family’s sole source of money. They could still pay the rent and buy corn.
At times, Eleanor felt guilty about this, and she suspected Winnie did too. Many families had no income at all, and very few could pay the rent and have enough left for food. It was not that the Ryans were well-off. They had never been that, and over the past two years, Eleanor had slowly been cutting back on what the family was eating. Michael had become thin, Eleanor even thinner. Still, they were not suffering the vicious agony of outright starvation. Michael had come close to dying of fever, but after weeks of cruel pain and wild nightmares, he had survived, and she was not a widow.
The two women started to prepare the dinner. It was mostly cabbage with very little turnip, only one old potato each, and no meat. When had they last tasted meat, even chicken?
‘You’re looking worried,’ Eleanor said. ‘What’s on your mind?’
‘It’ll be a long time before we see that.’
‘Ach, I know, I know, but still.’
‘Three months married and he went…’
‘I know it’s hard on you. But…’
‘But yes, I couldn’t have asked for better. You treat me as your own daughter, you do, yourself and Michael.’
‘That’s easy enough. You’re great company for an old woman. We’ll miss you when you go.’
‘No more than I’ll miss you. And you’re not old, so don’t be saying it.’
‘Oh, I don’t know about that. And stop your fretting – you’ll have Luke waiting for you in America. You know that.’
Winnie put down the turnip she had been peeling.
‘If he gets there.’
‘Don’t be silly. He’ll be there.’
‘But what if gets fever?
‘He won’t. He’s been close to fever enough many times in the mountains. If he was going to get it, he’d have had it by now. But it’s your baby we’ll have to worry about. If your baby catches the fever, it will surely die.’
Winnie sat, patting her stomach.
‘Well, that’s far enough away yet.’
Eleanor sat at the table across from her. She reached across, placing her hand on Winnie’s arm.
‘Now you’re to stop worrying about it all, child. Luke will write again soon enough. You’ve got the baby to think about, and sure we’ve both got Brigid to look after too. Time will pass quick enough. Come this time next year, Luke and yourself and the new baby will be together in America.’
‘Oh look mother, I’m sorry, but I still can’t help thinking. There’s terrible stories about the ships to Quebec. There are some that say half the people on them died.’
‘And you believe stories like that, do you? Isn’t it the right amadán you are?’
Or is she? Eleanor thought. Who knows? Do I?
One morning, Michael was out digging potatoes for the first time. Winnie was inside with Eleanor, clearing up scraps after breakfast and mashing them for the hens.
Everyone is saying it’s a great crop,’ Winnie said.
‘It is,’ said Eleanor. ‘Would you ever have thought it after the past year?’
‘I’m still not sure though. I’d thought the potato was finished forever?’
‘It’s easy worried you are, child.’
‘Oh, I don’t know – we might see the rot yet. There were many last year looked well enough when they were dug.’
‘Will you stop that now? If they were going to rot, they’d have begun by now. Don’t you know that?’
Why did I say that? she thought. Do I really believe it? They’ve still not rotted these past weeks, but are we really clear of it now? Is it really too late for the blight to return? Should I believe it now?
Winnie had said nothing. Could she believe? Why worry her now?
‘The blight is gone, Winnie.’ Eleanor said. ‘We’ll have enough potatoes now. Michael always kept his faith, never let us eat the seed potatoes, always made sure there were enough planted.’
‘Yes, yes,’ Winnie replied. ‘I’m sure you’ve the right of it. But what of everyone else? Sure there’s hardly any potatoes planted at all. The people, they’re dying all around us and they’ll stay dying. The Food Kitchens are closed, the Relief Works are closed. Sure enough, the price of corn is dropping at last, but it won’t drop far, and there’s not much of that they’ll get if they have no money. And the poor creatures are getting desperate. Roaming the country at night, digging at potatoes wherever they can find them.’
‘I know, I know,’ Eleanor said. ‘Ours would all be gone by now, but for Michael sleeping out among the potatoes to guard them, though I doubt he gets much sleep out there. Thank God the nights are warm, God only knows what kind of shelter he’d get in that little hut if the rain comes.’
Winnie picked up the bucket of mashed scraps and went out to feed the hens. She returned with an empty bucket.
‘They keep pecking at me.’
‘Maybe they want to eat you!’
‘I wouldn’t blame them for that. God knows, they’re scrawny enough. Still, if we have enough potatoes being dug, they won’t be hungry much longer.’
She had started to make a brown bread loaf, putting the flour into a bowl and adding the baking soda. She poured in the buttermilk and mixed it all together, then turned it out onto the table to form into a cake.
Leave that a minute and sit down there,’ Eleanor said. ‘I want to talk to you.’
‘Tell me about Luke. What really happened the months he was in the mountains with ye?’
Winnie shook her head. ‘It’s hard enough to tell you. Working as a ganger was hard on him.’
‘Well, the first thing – the pain and suffering he saw. We think we’ve seen it with starving people passing the road and working the Relief Works and queuing at the Kitchens.’
‘Indeed’ said Eleanor, ‘but that was before they closed them all. It’s worse since.’
‘It is, but you must understand, Luke was seeing that every day – hunger, fever and cold. Starving people being forced to work in the snow, dying every day. It’s hard for any man to watch that, far worse to have to do the forcing. And they hated him on the Works. He was their ganger, and they hated him.’
‘Yes, I can understand that,’ Eleanor said. ‘They were cruel, the roadworks were. But the Government wouldn’t let them earn money any other way, and the Workhouses were full. And coming into the time of the snows – that was desperate…’
‘It was. But worse than that, there was the going to the houses. When the people didn’t come back, he’d go around the houses to pay them, or whoever was left after them. Him and the priest, God only knows how they did it. I think that was the worst of all. It’s bad enough watching people dying of hunger, what it does to their bodies, to the children’s faces. But worse again was the fever. It’s a terrible way to die. Their faces and legs swell up, the fever eats at them, and they die screaming. And the stink of it.’
‘I know,’ Eleanor said. ‘Didn’t my own daughter die of it?’
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…’
‘Of course you didn’t, alanna. But what of Luke?’
‘It was everything all coming together. The suffering, the cold, and the hatred they had for him. He thought he was going mad, and I don’t know, maybe he was. There was something strange in the mountains, something that terrified him. You know Croghancoe, the mountain?’
‘I’ve heard of it,’ Eleanor said,’ but I’ve never been over that way.’
‘He kept on telling me he saw something behind it, but there was nothing there. Something so powerful, it frightened the hell out of him.’
‘Something that wasn’t there?’
‘Well, that’s what he said. Like some class of a vision.’
Eleanor thought of that.
‘It wasn’t any kind of a vision’ she said, ‘more some kind of madness. Something that only lasts a minute or so, isn’t that it?’
‘I don’t know. But one way or another, whatever it was about Croghancoe, there was something that scared him witless. Who knows what it was?’
Michael came back, carrying a sack load of potatoes. Excited, Winnie took one out. She sliced it straight through. Good white flesh, and still no blight.
That evening, they ate a good dinner for the first time in a very long time. Eleanor almost felt bloated. Long months without potatoes had accustomed her to being satisfied with very little.
Next day, Luke’s letter arrived from Liverpool.
‘He’s saying the ship is a good one,’ Winnie said.
‘Well, that’s something to be thankful for,’ Eleanor said.
‘And he says there’s no blight on the English potatoes either. We’re going to be lucky this year.’
‘We are,’ Eleanor said.
‘And isn’t it the right pity, Luke couldn’t have stayed in England. I’d be there with him.’
‘And work with Danny, is it? No way would he do that. God knows, Danny would take Luke quick enough, and pay him well too, but he’s a rough man, and I reckon his ways of working men are rough too. Pays his gangers well, but the men are on starvation wages.’