John awoke as his bunk suddenly lunged from side to side. The movement of the boat startled the lad into consciousness. Eileen’s head appeared over the edge of his bunk in the gloom. A quizzical look was painted across her face.
“What is happening,” she whispered, concern heavy in her voice.
Other people around them stirred as well, chatting quietly amongst themselves. The sound of feet running to and fro on the deck over their beds, rang loudly through the dim room. The boat creaked and shuddered once again. Loud voices called back and forth outside, muffled beyond comprehension by the thick wooden planks of the deck.
“I do not know,” John responded, carefully sitting up and dropping his legs over the edge of the bunk. “But, I intend to go see.”
Several youngsters slipped past the siblings and scurried between the narrow rows of bunks, toward the stairway. The small door opened as the leading lad reached the top of the stairs, revealing the dim early morning light. The youngster stuck his head out of the opening and looked around. “We are leaving!” he announced loudly into the dark cabin. “We are off the dock!” With that, the group disappeared out the door.
“Da?” Eileen questioned immediately, “Is our Da onboard yet?” The look painted across the lass’ face was that of a young woman nearing hysteria.
John quickly slipped off his bunk and helped his sister out of her own. The siblings sprinted down the aisle and up the stair. John popped through the opening with Eileen closely at his back. The boat was twenty yards off the wharf and turning her bow toward the open sea.
Sailors scurried everywhere. Men were climbing the rigging and running across the beams. John caught his first sight of the Captain of the ship, an older man, standing against the front railing of the quarterdeck. He quietly relayed his orders the much younger Boatswain at his side. The directions were then in turn barked out to the scampering sailors around the ship by the junior seaman. The two officers choreographed every move of the crew. The Captain’s dark blue coat was fringed with bright red cuffs and collar that stood out boldly from the foggy grey sky. His short silver hair shone under the large plumed, double ended hat he wore. The Boatswain contrasted greatly with his superior. The lesser officer wore a simple white shirt and dark blue britches. His shoulder length dark hair was unfettered in the stiff morning breeze.
One sail on the foremast of the ship suddenly unfurled with a flutter. The heavy cloth flapped loudly for a few seconds, then caught the prevalent offshore breeze. John could feel the slight surge as the sail was carefully trimmed and filled with the gusting wind. The large sailing vessel turned slowly through the wide bay and out toward the open sea.
John and Eileen scurried across the deck toward the port side railing. Both siblings searched the faces of everyone they saw, desperately looking for their father. He must be onboard somewhere. Large tears began to slip down Eileen’s reddening cheeks.
Orders continued to be barked by the officers, guiding the crew to pilot the vessel farther away from their moorings. The ship weaved carefully through a slight chop of waves, passing several smaller fishing boats anchored securely in the safe waters of the harbor. The heavy mist obscured most of the town as they completed their turnabout to starboard and put the wharves to stern. The shoreline on either side of the long bay began to slip slowly by.
“Da?” Eileen suddenly called out loudly across the bustling ship. She paused, looking desperately around the deck. “Joseph Walsh, are you onboard?” The lass cried again.
“I am going to see if I can find our Da,” John offered, himself becoming quite concerned at his father’s absence. “Maybe he came onboard late last night and is still below.”
Eileen seemed to pay little attention to her brother. Her only concern was in finding her missing father. She stepped away from the railing, searching back and forth across the wide deck. “What if himself is not here?” the panicked lass asked, her tears now flowing freely down her cheeks.
“We will find him,” John reassured his sister, unconvincingly. “He could not have just left us here to ourselves! I will search the front of the ship while you look around here.”
The siblings parted, each searching their assigned areas. John quickly headed to the bow of the ship, bounding up the steep steps onto the forecastle. He desperately searched every corner for his missing father. Without success, he returned down the stair to the midships deck.
“Did you find him?” Eileen questioned quickly upon seeing her brother’s return.
“No, not a sign of him,” John answered truthfully.
“Where is he?” Eileen screamed hopelessly. Her sobs became a wail. The other passengers on deck watched the siblings empathetically.
“I will go check below,” John returned nervously, taking his wailing sister into his arms.
“He is not there, I know it,” Eileen blubbered. “He has left us for certain. What will we do?”
“Our Da would not leave us. Himself must be below. I will go search right now.” John pulled away from his sister, his heart heavy as a stone. Quickly, he trotted to the stair shroud down to the hold below. The lad almost tumbled head over heels as he rushed down the steep, narrow stair.
Several dim lamps had been lit and most of the passengers had left the bunkroom to witness their departure. The worried lad sped up and down several aisles of bunks, searching for his parent. Winded, he stopped as he once again approached the stairway. “Joseph Walsh,” he called out loudly, his voice echoing through the gloomy, cavernous room. There was no reply. “Are you here, Joseph Walsh!”
John’s stomach turned tumultuously with the silence. He felt alone and frightened. The day had to come for him to gain his complete independence, yet, he did not expect the end to come in such dramatic fashion. The lad wiped his moistened eyes and turned toward the stairway. He felt a dark, missing hole deep within his chest. There was nothing else he could do but continue on with life. There were so many more like himself, with families torn apart by this plague, that he dared not even try to comprehend anything beyond himself and Eileen.
As he reached the top of the steps, he found his sister waiting down-heartedly for his return. Her cheeks were streaked with dried tears and her eyes red with weeping. “I knew himself would not be there,” Eileen mumbled. She stood to her feet, reached for her brother’s hand and directed him to an open spot along the starboard gunwale. Quietly, they watched the dock recede together.
Time seemed endless as the harbor faded slowly into the mist. The fresh breeze blowing from behind them, however, seemed to be a good omen, allowing an easy departure down the narrow bay. Crowds of grieving passengers lined both sides of the siblings, pushing silently against the railings on either side of the ship. Most of the onlookers stared in silence, though some began to weep quietly.
Obviously trying to keep her own raw emotions in check, Eileen pointed out the keep of an ancient castle, standing alone and abandoned at the edge of the foggy shoreline. John smiled silently at his sister, feeling his own heart growing even heavier as the countryside drifted past. He put his arm around her waist, pulling the lass tightly against his side. She laid her head heavily on her brother’s shoulder, staring across the dark water to the grey-green landscape.
“Good bye, Da,” she whispered, barely audible over the sound of the wind in the rigging.
After a half hour or so, the deck began a slow rise and fall, rolling smoothly on the incoming waves of the approaching ocean. The siblings turned to look across the opposite side of the vessel to watch a pair of small, triangular sailed fishing boats leave a tiny village on the north shore. The little vessels outdistanced their own as they set a full sail out to the open sea.
With the growing light, sea birds began to screech overhead, as well as on the distant shores. The prow of the Cushla Machree cut through the choppy dark water, leaving a wake of foamy turbulence rolling toward the quiet shore. The sound of frothing water soothed John a bit as he watched his homeland slip away. The lad looked over at his sister once again. She stood silently, her arms folded heavily on the railing and her foot propped on the gunwale. A look of apprehension had grown across her sad face. “You know, this will probably be the last time we will ever see our home,” she said quietly, gazing sorrowfully out onto the countryside.
John just nodded his acknowledgment, his heart sinking even more to hear that thought from someone else. Not only his father, but, his beloved homeland was slipping quietly by before his eyes like a vapor on a summer’s day. Would he ever see these shores again, he wondered?
The disheartened lad then turned his gaze toward his countrymen who remained solemnly lined along the railing of the ship. Most of their faces were gaunt with sadness. Several women now cried openly, seeing the shoreline slip quickly out of their futures. The men mostly stood in silence, watching their lives change in ways they never before imagined. Almost everyone onboard was leaving family and friends behind to an unknown fate.
Looking past the front of the ship, John could see the growing inlet of the bay, where the open ocean began. The favorable offshore breeze had begun to propel them rapidly toward their destination. The boat began to rock a little more pronouncedly as they approached the more open waters of the bay’s mouth. The fog was beginning to lift somewhat, allowing a much more detailed look of the rocky shoreline.
With the morning’s growing warmth, the breeze began to gust even more, increasing the speed of the vessel and tearing apart the fragile cloud layer that covered the landscape. Bright streaks of sunlight began to peek through the parting cloud cover, the rays disappearing as quickly as they appeared. Sailors once again stood anxiously atop the beams and in the rigging. Several more sharp orders from the Boatswain prompted the seamen to ready the sails for the open sea. John shaded his eyes against a sudden shaft of intense brightness, watching the men run the spars.
The ship approached a point where the bay began to narrow, a high promontory of rock marking the closest point of the body of water. Beyond lay three small islands, still shrouded in mist, a ghostly gateway to an unknown land. Except for the bantering of the sailors overhead, the ship was deathly quiet. Not an Irishman on board now spoke, already feeling the loss of a way of life that had been centuries in the making.
Rounding the promontory, the bow of the ship dropped sharply into the trough of a larger wave, sending sea spray across the surface of the suddenly rolling water. John grasped tightly onto the railing, not expecting the sudden change of motion. Exiting the protection of the quiet bay, the bow of the vessel began to rise and fall regularly with the rolling sea.
The Boatswain barked loudly, sending sailors scurrying through the spars to set the sails. With each additional sheet that was unfurled and trimmed, the ship gained speed. Soon they were under full sail, the bow crashing through the choppy surface of the opening ocean with dazzling sprays of white foam.
John held tightly onto the thick railing, his stomach beginning to feel queasy. He looked over at Eileen. His sister’s face was flush and grim. “You all right, sister?” the lad asked, concerned.
“This rocking does me stomach no good,” the lass replied haltingly.
Several more passengers up and down the deck began having dry heaves over the side of the railing. Most, however, had not enough food in their bellies to be sick. And good thing, with the condition of their bodies’, not one could afford to lose any nourishment whatsoever.
John tried to pay no attention, focusing instead on the high cliffs slipping rapidly behind them. A bright ray of sunshine burst onto the top of a towering sheer white cliff to the port stern of the ship. Even from the vantage of a half mile out to sea, the wall was spectacular.
An unexpected hand on John’s shoulder startled the lad. He turned quickly to look into the pale face of Paddy O’Sullivan. The fellow struggled to the railing between John and Eileen. Grasping tightly onto her father’s arm, Mary followed the man, landing awkwardly at the handrail on the opposite side of John. The young lass looked up at John smiling sadly. At least she did not seem to be bothered by the movement of the ship.
“Morning,” Mary greeted quietly, smiling softly once again. She looked back to the huge white cliffs with deep distress growing on her face.
Paddy stood silently looking toward the shore as well. As the vessel pulled parallel with the limestone wall, he sniffled quietly. “Have you ever seen such a grand sight?” he asked, pointing to the sheer feature. “Those, lad, are the Cliffs of Moher. Our farm was just a mile or so inland from that very spot.” Sadness permeated the man’s face and voice. He grew quiet once again, gazing longingly toward the shore. “Goodbye,” he said quietly after several more minutes of silent contemplation. Paddy dabbed quickly at a small tear running down his cheek.
Eileen looked lovingly at the man and put her arm tenderly around his waist. “‘Tis a shame,” she commented, “that we are forced from the homes we love so.” Tears trickled once again down the lasses face.
Mary erupted into heavy sobs at John’s side. He wanted to console the broken lass, but felt afraid. Finally he moved against her side, placing an arm over her shoulder. The young woman turned, wrapping her arms tightly around John, sobbing heavily at his shoulder.
Martin soon joined the group, informing Paddy that Honor had chosen to stay near her bunk for fear of nausea. He slipped quickly to Eileen’s side, looking warmly into her face with a tender smile. Together, the young couple bade a sad adieu to their homeland.
The ship made a slow turn, heading sharply away from the coastline. Within an hour, the receding cliffs echoed a last goodbye from Ireland. The sun shone brightly through the broken clouds, promising a fair start to their journey.
Many passengers still lay distressed on the deck of the ship as the shoreline disappeared beyond the watery horizon. John had never thought that the motion of the sea could cause such sickness. And while he was beginning to feel much better himself, his belly was still not ready for food.
Eileen quietly left the group, returning after a few minutes with her brother’s water jar. The cool water refreshed him and eased his spirits. Paddy suggested they all retrieve their rations for the day and at least attempt a light meal. John and Eileen readily agreed and together weaved their way across the moving deck toward the storeroom.
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