Rowena felt as though she were struggling up from the
suffocating depths of a bog. Yet she was reluctant to surface from the relative
peace of semiconsciousness. Her parched throat sharply reminded her of the many
bouts of vomiting and retching which had left her weak and trembling.
Far better to keep her eyes shut, and to block out all
remembrance and pain.
Strange that she couldn't feel the rolling and pitching of
the ship any longer, or hear the ominous creaking of its old, rotting timbers,
or the squeaking and scrambling of the rats in the bilge. Perhaps she was dead
and had gone to heaven. Perhaps, if she opened her eyes, she would see the Holy
Virgin waiting to welcome her as She had Eileen and Seamus....
A sudden chill shook her. Was this what her young brother
and sister had felt when their weighted, lifeless bodies had slid overboard,
slowly sinking into their unmarked ocean graves? Was this the coldness of
death, the icy Atlantic seeping in to paralyze one's very bones?
No! The dead didn't feel pain! Death was supposed to be a
blessed relief from life and one's miserable, earthly body. Unless this was
In a moment of panic she thought it must surely be Satan
trying to drag her back down into the darkness. But then she could hear her
shipmates groaning and retching - those telltale sounds to which she had become
so accustomed these last weeks.
As she had to the stench of vomit and excrement. And the
fear that had been as chokingly thick in the ship's hold as the foetid,
stifling air.... The horror as one watched the vile disease torturing its
victims with excruciating cramps, turning their bodies blue, eating away at
them so that they seemed to shrivel before one's very eyes.... And the eyes -
what terror they expressed as they were sucked into the skull, the soul seeming
to scream for release from the pain-wracked shell of flesh that imprisoned
it.... The victims struggling for breath... voices no longer capable of
moaning... only the rasping breathing of the dying, the weeping of the
living.... The final convulsions as though the stricken wrestled with the devil
himself.... And not even a priest on board to ease them out of life.... Only
the torments of the body and the unshriven soul.
How different this voyage had been at the outset. Her
father's excitement had infected them all. Even her mother, reluctant to leave
their home in Doneraile to "chase some foolish dream", had smiled when fellow
passengers had celebrated the leaving of their troubled land with song and
dance as they had sailed out of the Cove of Cork on May 1st, 1832.
Rowena recalled every word of the letter that had arrived
a few months earlier from her father's old friend, Liam O'Mara, who had gone to
the New World seven years before on a government-sponsored emigration. She
could picture the crude lettering, now smudged and stained with constant
handling, that traversed the width of the paper and then dizzyingly
criss-crossed along its length.
To me Dear Friend Patrick O'Shaughnessy and his Family,
Me good Neighbour is writing this for me as I be not a Man of Letters
meself. Surely, Patrick, this be God's Country. Tis rugged but grand and
Bounteous in its Fruits. Wild Berries grow so thick that a Man trods upon them
walking to his Byre. The Sky is black with Birds at times, and the Waters so
choked with Fish that a Man need only reach in and Pluck them out. And a Man
can eat his fill of them, and Venison and other Game, for there be no Lords nor
Gamekeepers to Prevent him. I am me own Master now and possess Freehold one
hundred Acres of Land, a pair of Oxen, three Cows, Sheep, Pigs, and Fowls. We
eat Meat thrice a day and be near Sick with the Abundance of it, when in the
Old Country we was Lucky to see it at Christmas. And when I feed Meat to me
Dog, I near Bleed for the poor Souls at Home who would envy the Beast his Good
Fortune. A Man can make something of hisself in this Country. I need bow to no
Man and have Hobnobbed with such as was Gentry at Home. There is more Work than
Workers here, Patrick, and a Man with a Trade, such as Yourself, can name his
own wage and be Wealthy afore long. And wouldn't it please me Heart to see
Yourself again and to share me Good Fortune with you. Yourself and your Kin
will always be welcome at Liam O'Mara's Home.
The letter had gone on to give them rough directions to
the O'Mara homestead in Upper Canada. Her father had thought it an answer to
his prayers. Hope had restored humour to his eyes that, too often of late, had
looked despondent. Her brother, Donal, had shared their father's new-found
enthusiasm, eager for an adventure. And a future.
But if times had not been so bad in the Blackwater
district of County Cork, her mother, Deirdre, would never have agreed to leave.
Once a thriving weaving centre, Doneraile had been having hard times for
decades now. Unemployment was high, work scarce, even for a skilled craftsman
like her father. Potato crop failures brought starvation to many. It hadn't
been unusual these last years to see hungry, half-naked paupers - sometimes
entire families - wandering the roads, seeking food, shelter, and work.
And although she had hated the ruthless English landlords,
Deirdre had hated even more the riots, and the night-time violence carried out
by the Whiteboy rebels. These had escalated this past year in protest against
the tithes that everyone, even the poorest Catholic, had to pay to the Anglican
church. Almost daily there were stories about cattle maimings, about the
ransacking or burning of the homes of tithe and rent collectors, landowners and
Anglican ministers, and even reports of murders. Rowena herself had seen the
glow of distant fires against the night sky, and witnessed neighbours accused
of Whiteboy terrorism carted off by the soldiers.
And then the deadly cholera plague had invaded Ireland.
Patrick was taking them away from all that fear and hatred
and desperate poverty. Yes, even Deirdre had smiled to feel the clean ocean
breeze upon her face as they headed westward to a promised land.
But they were crowded into the hold of the brig,
Devoron, with two hundred and forty-three other poor and wretched souls,
stacked into the rough berths, one atop the other, like so much timber, which
was the more profitable return cargo for the ship. Ballast they were.
They'd had to bring their own supply of food, but no one
had warned them that the praties would rot quickly in the dank bowels of the
ship, or that the rats would share their precious sack of oats. The drinking
water was brackish and foul. There was no water for washing; lice had infected
When the storms had hit, after the first calm and sunny
week, they had even been denied the deck. The hatches had been battened down,
and they'd been left in the stinking, airless darkness. Entombed.
Thundering Atlantic waves had crashed against the small
vessel as if determined to shatter it. The brig had pitched so wildly that
twelve-year-old Rowena had felt certain sure it would be capsized and swallowed
by the wild and merciless ocean. People had wept, wailed, prayed, and cursed
during that fearful tempest.
And when it was finally over and they thought that things
couldn't get any worse, they found that they hadn't escaped the cholera after
Surely Hell couldn't be worse than the next seven weeks
had been. Daily, people fell ill. Few recovered. There was no doctor on board -
"not required by the regulations", the captain had told them gruffly. Fearing
for the safety of his crew, he'd ordered all passengers to stay below decks,
allowing them up on deck only to attend the burials.
Baby Seamus and five-year-old Eileen had been buried on a
colourless June day when sky and water merged in a leaden hue so that the
vessel seemed to drift in a grey purgatory. Rowena would never forget her
mother's heart-rending cries.
More storms had battered them in mid-Atlantic, and the
sick, already writhing in pain, were tossed about and often pitched to the
floor, if no one lay with them to hold them firm. Rowena was certain that they
had somehow earned God's wrath.
Her mother, Deirdre, had done what she could for those who
had no families to tend them, but she had brought only a few herbs for aches
and fever, and none were effective. She did help a young woman give birth to a
healthy boy-child - an odd little miracle of life among all this death.
Rowena had noticed that Deirdre seemed strangely detached
from the horror about her, as if her mind was far away - in the green hills of
Ireland. Or in the deep, cold Atlantic, with the children she had lost.
Rowena, too, had helped to tend the sick, since no one
else in her family - thank the good Lord - had required her ministrations. She
would never forget that pervasive stench of sickness - as if the diseased
bodies were already putrefying before death finally claimed them.
By the time they sighted land - an eternity later, it
seemed - on June 26th, forty-six of the passengers had perished. Through the
billowing mist, Rowena had glimpsed the rugged, desolate shores of
Newfoundland. The fog had seemed to seep into her mind, for she remembered
little after that - lying in the filthy, narrow bunk in the darkness of the
hold... the intense, crippling cramps... ceaseless vomiting... numbing cold....
It was better to remain in this stuporous state than to
face all that again.