John wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his sleeve and sat upon a small coil of rope between Mary and his sister Eileen. Martin sat across from the lad, sweat beaded across his forehead as well. Mary smiled warmly at John and took his hand into her own. A glint of sadness remained in her eyes, even though it had been three days since Brigid had come up missing.
John’s somber face reflected the care he had been giving his countrymen for the past few days. He tried to smile back at Mary, but his heavy heart would not allow the pleasure for very long. Shading the bright, midday sun from his eyes, the lad relaxed as best he could in the sudden heat wave.
“Holy Saint Michael, ‘tis hot today!” John sighed, wiping his brow once more. “And now the stench has gotten unbearable below once again with the heat.”
“How goes it down there?” Eileen enquired, leaning forward slightly with interest.
John looked down at his feet, hesitant to answer. He would prefer not to even think about the poor unfortunates below. He finally lifted his eyes and looked around the group. All seemed to be awaiting an answer.
“Not so well, I am afraid,” the lad replied quietly. “There are two more dead today. And the extra rations that Martin and I put together to take below can only feed a few of the sick each day. Many are now so sick that they can eat but a few bites at a time anyway. In their poor condition, they cannot take enough food to strengthen themselves. Most grow weaker by the hour.”
The small group silently pined with John. Mary squeezed the lad’s hand and laid her head lovingly upon his shoulder. “Did you not hear the Captain say we would be arriving in America soon?” the lass asked quietly.
“Aye, I did,” John responded to the entire group. “Yet, I cannot depend on that information. Especially since I have heard no more indication of our arrival.”
“I have seen several birds fly overhead,” Martin commented, attempting to offer a little hope. “We have seen no other birds for weeks. That has got to be a good sign.”
Eileen and Mary shook their heads in agreement with Martin. John quickly scanned the deep blue sky above him and agreed as well, “‘Tis a good sign indeed. Yet, we may be an hour away, a day away or a month away. We have no way to know.”
“Cheer up, brother,” Eileen prodded light-heartedly. “We will soon be in America. I cannot wait to walk on solid earth once again!”
“Me as well!” Mary agreed emphatically. “I want some fresh, cool water, a bath and some real food. Three or four nice potatoes would do for a start!”
John, Eileen, and Martin chuckled, but had to agree with the lass’ assessment. “I hear you can do anything you want in America,” Martin added. “I want my own wee bit of land to plant a crop for myself and, of course, Eileen.” He looked coyly at the lass with a shy smile. “That is if she will take me as her husband.”
Eileen’s eyes grew wide as an expression of astonishment dawned on her tanned face. “My. . .uh, I. . .I would like that very much!” she stammered. “You should ask permission of my brother, since our Da is no longer here with us.” The lass smiled brightly at John.
“So, John, what do you think?” Martin squeaked. “Might I have your sister’s hand?”
John’s mood suddenly changed from glum to astonishment to sheer glee. He smiled broadly at his sister. “I do not know,” he teased. “I have been trying to give her away for years. But, now that I have the chance, I think she has to do that by her own task.”
Eileen beamed. She looked lovingly at Martin and grabbed his neck tightly. “I will be proud to be your wife!” A tear of elation trickled down the lass’ cheek. “Very proud.”
Mary jumped from her seat. “We are going to have a wedding!” she giggled, hopping up and down and clapping her hands. “We are going to have a wedding!” She reached out for both of John’s hands, pulled him off his perch and danced him around in a circle.
“You would think she is the one marrying!” John laughed breathlessly to his sister.
Eileen laughed, “Well, when is she?”
John’s face turned blood red. He glared playfully at his sister as Mary continued to dance around him. Several passenger began to stare toward the noisy group.
Paddy stood up a short distance across the deck and sauntered toward them, Honor followed close behind. “Ho, lads and lasses. What is all the merriment?”
Martin stood up, blushing brightly. “Da,” he started tentatively, kicking bashfully at the planking of the deck. “I have just asked Eileen to be my wife. Herself has agreed.”
Honor almost exploded. The woman leapt toward her son, grasping him tightly in a bear hug. “My, lad,” she cried, holding him at arm’s length. Tears of joy streamed down her face. “‘Tis such grand news!” The woman released her son and pulled Eileen up from the deck.
Hugging her soon to be daughter in law tightly, Honor whispered in her ear, “May the Blessed Virgin bless and keep you! I am very honored to have you as a part of our family!”
“Thank you very much,” Eileen responded with a huge smile. “I am proud to be a part of your family as well.”
Paddy broke his wife’s hold on Eileen and took her place, offering his own blessings. Releasing the lass, the fellow turned toward his daughter. “Would not the marrying of a brother and sister together be a brilliant wedding!” He looked coyly at John.
John blushed brightly once again. “I think it would, at that,” he replied, looking bashfully at his feet. He peeked over at Mary, who stood at his side, smiling broadly. “Mary,” he started, just above a whisper, “would you honor me by being my wife?” His heart was almost exploding out of his mouth. Tiny sparkles of light danced in front of the lad’s eyes.
Mary shrieked, jumping up and down once again. She dove at John, almost knocking him over as she jumped into his arms. “I would like nothing more in all of Heaven and Earth!” the gleeful lass responded. “Absolutely nothing!”
“All right then, it is settled,”John stated matter of factly. “We shall all wed together. As soon as we can find a Priest.”
Honor and Eileen each came to hug the couple with congratulations. Paddy and Martin shook John’s hand briskly, offering their blessings.
“What a sudden change of events,” John commented as the excitement wound down. “A sudden grand change of events!”
Several gulls flew overhead, squawking loudly and several loud splashes signaled the arrival of a school of dolphins to the side of the ship. John felt rather giddy. This truly would be a start to a brand new life. He looked around the small family group with a bright smile painted across his face. Mary move beside John, taking his hand tightly. The lad looked down at her with a smile, reached over and kissed her warmly on the forehead.
Mary took her beau’s face between her hands and kissed him tenderly on the lips. John blushed once again as the rest of each family giggled and clapped. “There,” the lass stated for emphasis, “‘Tis sealed.”
As happy and exciting as the moment was, the memory of Brigid floated across John’s mind, tugging at his heart. He shook his head, forced a smile and held tightly onto Mary. Several more images of the dead and dying ripped through the struggling lad’s head, sucking the joy from his very soul.
“Where are we going?” John asked, desperately trying to refocus his thoughts.
“What, has an announcement of marriage made you daft?” Martin teased, “We are headed to America!”
John scowled back at the mocking lad. “No,” he corrected gruffly, “Where in America?”
“I was told it was New York,” Paddy chimed in graciously. “‘Tis a mighty big city.”
“Aye,” John agreed, “I have read that New York is larger than Dublin!”
“Larger than Dublin?” Mary repeated, wide-eyed.
“Aye, and we will soon be there,” Martin added with a smile.
Paddy’s forehead wrinkled with a look of disdain. “What will an old farmer like me do in a big city like New York?”
“I have heard America is a big country, with so much land they just give it away,” Martin volunteered. “I want to find some of that land and build a small house and grow acres upon acres of crops.” He turned to Eileen shyly. “That is if you are willing, Eileen.”
Eileen smiled shyly. “You are my man and I would be proud to help you farm acres of land. Our Da always said, ‘land is the only real wealth.’ He hated that our family lands were taken away by the English. Now, in America, maybe we can get back what we deserve.”
Paddy smiled broadly. “My, what a smart, brave lass! You will do our family proud and give us many strong and wise grandchildren!”
Eileen blushed hotly. “My place is at Martin’s side,” she replied shyly.
“Maybe we should all look for some of that land they are giving away,” John chimed in. “We are to receive one pound per person on arrival to America. Surely that will buy our passage to somewhere that they have land.”
“Aye, lads and lasses, we shall stay together and make ourselves landholders once again. No more tyranny from the English! We will once again be a free people!” Paddy preached, staring out across the bow of the ship. “America,” he sighed.
“America!” the rest of the group chimed.
John, Mary, Martin and Eileen stood together at the ship’s port railing watching the antics of a friendly pod of dolphins as they darted in and out of the ship’s wake. The creatures seemed to have such a grand time, jumping through the frothy water. Sea birds had become plentiful in the skies during the last few hours. The creatures darted to and fro, sailing on the growing breeze.
The sun was beginning to cast long shadows across the deck, signaling the end of another day at sea. John’s heart felt gladness for the first time since he left his homeland. Maybe America would be a good thing after all. At least there would be no more English to keep him and his countrymen enslaved. Maybe he could actually own acres of land somewhere in this big, new country.
Mary and Eileen shrieked and laughed aloud as three dolphins leapt high out of the water just in front of them. “‘Tis such a brilliant show!” Mary cried, laughing playfully. “Do you think they have Silkies in America?” The lass giggled at her own joke, prodding John with her elbow.
“I would not know,” John replied snidely, “I have not seen a Silkie. I would not recognize one if she fell on me!”
“You would be the one to love having a Silkie fall on you, now, would you not!” Mary teased mercilessly.
“Look,” John shouted, pointing as another dolphin jumped high out of the air. He hoped to distract the woman before she got started.
The ploy seemed to work, as the lass clapped and laughed at the playful creature. Many people had begun to line the railing to watch the grand show. There were ooohhs and aaahhs and laughter all along the deck. There had not been as much merriment on board since the music and the dance that seemed so long ago.
It felt very good to John to see all his fellow passengers regain a bit of their hope and happiness. Everyone seemed to have a sense of their voyage ending soon. The bright smiles upon their faces, the sparkles of life in their eyes were the most wonderful things the lad could see right then.
Suddenly, from the crow’s nest high above the deck, a sailor’s voice cried out strong and clear, “Land ho! Land ho!”
“Where away?” the Captain called back from the rail of the quarterdeck.
“Off the starboard bow!” the sailor answered loudly. “Just on the horizon.”
A shot of adrenaline raced through John’s body. “Land!” he repeated to Mary, his eyes wide with excitement. “We have come to America!” He took his future wife in his arms, twirling her dizzily around himself.
A huge cheer arose from the deck. These were not a seafaring people, and the prospect of having their feet planted once again upon dry land sent waves of relief and ecstacy through the passengers. The sweet sounds of musical instruments soon filled the air, followed quickly by dancing feet.
“Come,” Martin prodded, “Starboard is the other side of the ship. We shall go see if we can see America!” He took Eileen’s hand and weaved through the crowd to the railing on the opposite side of the craft.
John took Mary’s hand and followed closely behind. The railing was already heavily occupied with Irish people longing for a sight of their new home. John found a small opening and directed Mary before him to the rail. He pushed tightly up behind her, trying to see the shores of the new land. “Can you see anything?” he asked the lass excitedly.
“No, not yet,” Mary replied over her shoulder. “I can only see the ocean at the moment.”
“Just keep watching, we are bound to see land soon!” John said, shading his eyes from the reflection of the sinking sun.
Even the perpetually playful dolphins could no longer distract the attention of the passengers as they gazed patiently toward the sunset. The slow, steady rise and fall of the ship seemed to clock the time. The music had since died and now all of the eager passengers were pressed tightly into a quietly expectant mass at the forward handrails.
“Look! There! You can see it! You can see land!” someone shouted at the very bow of the ship.
A murmur arose through the crowd as the passengers craned their necks to see their new country. “Aye, now I see it too!” another voice shouted.
John held tightly onto Mary, straining his eyes against the setting sun to see the shoreline. Then the grey shape of land appeared at the base of the sky as the ship topped the crest of a wave. “There, I saw it!” John shouted. “Land, there!” He pointed out across the waves for Mary to see. “When we reach the top of a wave look right there.”
The ship bottomed in a trough, sending spray flying through the air. Slowly, it seemed, the ship rose upon another crest, lending an unmistakable view of the shoreline. Many passengers shouted, cheered and sighed as they caught their first glimpse of the New World.
“I saw it!” Mary screamed, giggling hysterically. “I saw America!” The lass shuddered with joy in John’s arms.
With the rise of each wave, the coast grew closer. The brilliant evening sky painted a perfect backdrop as distinct shapes of the distant shoreline began to appear. John looked across the dimming horizon as tiny points of light began to emerge far in front of the ship. Yet the nearest section of coast still seemed sparsely settled.
Slowly they crept toward the twinkling lights of the distant city. John watched the darkening shoreline as the ship altered course slightly and began to parallel the mostly unoccupied beaches. Looking over the bow of the ship and to either side, the dim lights of the city seemed to spread out across the shoreline ahead of them for miles.
The sight almost took John’s breath. He stood in awe as the immenseness of the great mass of civilization began to dominate his imagination. His heart raced, pounding in his temples.
“Holy Mother of God!” John swore. “New York is huge! Look, it goes on for almost as far as you can see!”
Awe stricken, Mary just nodded her agreement. She pulled John’s arms tightly around her shoulders. “Where will we go now?” she finally asked quietly.
“I do not know. Only tomorrow can bring that answer,” John responded.
Mary quickly crossed herself and shivered. “I am afraid,” she admitted.
“I think we all are,” John tried to comfort her. “We have just got to be strong.” He looked out over the approaching cluster of lights once again and sighed deeply. “I wish my brother and father could be here with us to see this.”
“I would like to meet your brother some day,” Mary responded quietly.
“And I would like you to meet him as well,” John agreed lovingly, “How far is Australia from here?”
Mary shrugged, “I do not know,” she replied, “Probably far away.”
Sighing once again, John shifted his weight and took a place beside Mary at the crowded railing. “I will have to find out,” the lad determined.
Slowly, the ship sailed toward the mouth of the harbor. The warm evening breeze and gentle rocking of the vessel acted as a sedative to most of the passengers. Few words were spoken as the outline of a small island drifted slowly past. Soon a small pilot boat sailed up to their side. After a brief exchange between the two Captains, the small boat passed the ship, leading the larger vessel into their own familiar waters.
Sailors began to scurry up the rigging, readying the sails for reefing. Their cheerful voices were evidence that another successful voyage was nearing completion. Captain MacMillan stood at the quarterdeck railing, bathed in the light of several lamps. Attending the Captain was his Quartermaster and Boatswain. Both junior officers reflected the poise and professionalism of their senior.
A large orange, full moon peeked over the eastern horizon, casting a golden glow on the buildings at the edge of the shoreline. John was beginning to pick out individual points of light emanating from the windows of the nearest buildings. Even the brightly painted facades of the distant structures began to come into view, washed in the bright moonlight.
The Boatswain began barking his orders, directing the sailors overhead to reef the sails and slow the ship. The loosened canvas began to flap loudly in the rising breeze. Quickly the sailors gathered the raised sails and bound the bottoms tightly to the booms. The jibs and spinnakers were lowered entirely, reducing the forward momentum of the large ship dramatically.
They were headed directly toward a gap in the huge mass of lights. For the most part, the ship was still paralleling the shore, gaining only a small angle toward the lights of the city. Time seemed to stand still and John was beginning to get impatient. The slower pace made the final leg of their voyage seem an eternity.
Mary trembled once again, grasping his hand tightly. “How will we ever find our way around such a huge place like this?” she asked, concern quivering in her voice. “I think this city is bigger than all of Ireland!”
John chuckled slightly. “Aye, lass,” he comforted her. “‘Tis a large city. But we shall manage. We always have and we always will.”
“You are a fine man, John Walsh, and I love you very much!” Mary snuggled deeper into the young man’s arms.
John smiled warmly into the night, watching the shoreline drift slowly by. “And you are a fine lass,” he finally returned. “I will be proud to have you as my wife.”
The moon rose quickly, gaining a high position in the star filled sky as the ship rounded a sharp point of land to the starboard. The lights were so thick and bright now along the shoreline that they dimmed the stars overhead. John did not know such a thing was possible.
The small pilot boat slowed ahead of them, directing the officers of the Cushla Machree to do the same. The Boatswain barked a new set of orders, instructing his sailors to lower all but the main sails completely. Their forward progress quickly dropped once again.
A long row of tall masted ships suddenly came into view. John’s breath was taken away again. He had never imagined such a large congregation of ships in one place. It looked almost as if he were looking through a forest of winter trees. This is indeed a New World, he thought.
The waterfront was lined with wharves and buildings. Long piers protruded far out into the waters of the calm bay. Oil lamps lined the sides of the piers, illuminating the figures of the seamen scurrying up and down their lengths.
The whole waterfront was bustling with people. John had never witnessed the amount of activity that was happening on the docks, and it was night! What would it be like in the daylight hours? Some ships were readying to disembark while others were being loaded or unloaded. Tons of cargo lined the wharf. He could only imagine what far ends of the world those goods originated from.
John swallowed hard, grasping Mary’s waist tightly. “Would you look at all this?” he marveled. “Look up, you can hardly see the stars for the lights of the city!”
Following the lad’s lead, Mary gazed up into the dark sky. A look of overwhelm soured the lasses face. She closed her eyes and buried her face into John’s shoulder. “I am mighty afraid,” she squeaked, trembling.
“Me as well,” John confirmed. “Me as well.” His stomach turned over and his pulse was racing beyond control.
The Quartermaster yelled across the deck, his booming voice demanding the attention of the passengers. “All of you passengers may spend this night on board.,” he began, his Orkney accent grating across the night. “However, at first light you shall collect your belongings and disembark. By midday, all passengers should have left the ship.” The officer stopped, looked around the deck and exchanged a few quiet words with the Captain. “There will be a hospital wagon at the dock tomorrow morning,” he continued. “They will take all the infirmed into quarantine. If you have family members that are ill, it will be your own responsibility to care for their needs.
“You will also be responsible for your own food tomorrow, as the ships stores will not be open to the passengers.” The Quartermaster stopped once again and cleared his throat. After a moment of thought, he continued, his voice erratic as if he had to force out the remaining words. “Many of you have money due you upon arrival. There will be a warrant officer stationed at the head of the gangway tomorrow morning. Give him your name and he will give you the money due you.”
The passengers began to murmur. Tension and excitement washed quickly across the deck. This was their last night together. Most of these people would never see each other again. John felt rather grievous that he had not socialized more and gotten to know his fellow passengers better. Yet, unlike most of his culture, that was not his way.
The Master of the pilot boat signaled the Cushla Machree into an open slot along the crowded wharf. Several men stood on the pier awaiting their arrival. The Quartermaster brought the ship around, lining up with the dock. The Boatswain barked more orders to trim the remaining sail. Their forward progress had slowed to a crawl. Yet, after masterful direction, the tall ship slipped easily up to the dock.
Sailors scurried, tossing lines to the waiting portsmen and raising the remaining canvas. Quickly, the ship was secured in her berth and the seamen battened the sails and rigging. Two official looking fellows stood on the quay, requesting the gangway be extended for their boarding. Several sailors sped to their assistance. The two gentlemen strode up the gangway, and paying no attention to the passengers on board, marched rigidly across the crowded deck. Quickly they bounded up the steep step to the raised quarterdeck. The party then disappeared with the Captain into the private quarters below. The two English passengers sat quietly next to the wheelhouse with their bags at their side.
The two Port Agents quickly reappeared, carrying a large money bag. The portly English passenger stopped the Agents, chatted quietly with both of them and turned to pick up his bags. The two Englishmen then followed the Agents down the steep ladder and back across the deck toward the gangway.
The Irishmen crowding the lower deck parted sluggishly for the group. The businesslike Agents led the way as the Englishmen followed close behind. The Irish passengers scowled hotly at the overweight Englishman. Several of them spit at the porky fellow as he whisked past.
“Stay back you imbeciles,” the Brit hissed vehemently. “Get away you waifs!”
The second Englishman chuckled at his cohort, shaking his head piously. The small group scampered straightaway down the gangway, putting as much distance as possible between themselves and the mob on board. The Irish passengers taunted the Englishman until he faded out of sight down the long wharf.
“We need some music!” someone on board shouted. “We are in America, it is time to celebrate!”
Calls of agreement sounded from all around the deck. Soon, the pipers began to blow a faced paced jig, followed quickly by the fiddler. Passengers gathered around the musicians, leaving plenty of room for others to dance. The sound of loudly clapping hands joined the musicians, thumping wildly to set the beat of the tune.
“Come on!” Mary directed, excitement burning in her eyes. “It is time to dance!” She grabbed John by the hand and led him quickly through the crowd stopping just before the musicians. The lass hiked her skirt slightly and stepped off a faced paced jig. John tried to follow, but, even his nimble feet could not keep up with the shrieking lass.
John howled with laughter as several more passengers joined in the fray. Eileen and Martin quickly joined in, dancing wildly beside their siblings. The music suddenly changed pace to a dizzying hornpipe, followed by numerous other jigs and reels. The mood on deck was frantic with excitement. Even the dock had begun to fill with people listening and dancing to the music that played onboard the ship.
It was a grand time for all, this arrival in America. A time for wide-eyed celebration and revelry. The voyage had been costly, but the past was behind this group. All eyes and hearts were looking to the bright future ahead. The land of opportunity awaited. Anything was theirs for the taking, or so they had been told. Their days of sedition and slavery were gone forever.
John laughed and gasped for a breath. The frantic pace of the dancing had quickly worn him down. He waved Mary off as she tried to keep him dancing with her. The lad plodded tiredly to the edge of the crowd. The full moon shone brightly high overhead, casting a silvery sheen across the calm waters of the harbor.
Moving to the quieter confines of the starboard handrail, the lad took several deep breaths and leaned heavily against the railing. As his pulse began to subside, he looked across the dark waters of the port toward the ocean they had just left. A calm sense of peace had begun to warm his heart. He thought of his brothers, wishing they had come with him to these grand shores. He hoped Australia was as hopeful a place as America and that Peter would find a place there.
His thoughts then shifted to his father. I hope things are doing fine for you, Da, he thought, a small twinge of loneliness reaching for his heart. May you find peace and happiness wherever you are. Even Brigid’s lovely face played across his memory. She was Ireland to him, the Ireland of the Irish. John fought back a silent tear as their short, wondrous time together played through his recollections. “Mother Brid,” he prayed quietly to the ancient Mother Goddess of the Irish,
“Please take care of your namesake. Give her peace, happiness and rest forever in Tír na nÓg.”
Mary walked quickly up behind John, her breathing rapid and erratic. A huge smile was plastered across her face. “Why are you here all by yourself, my love?” she asked, panting heavily. “It is time to celebrate!”
John smiled. “I shall be there directly,” he replied warmly. “Just come to catch my breath.”
“Come on, I want to dance with you some more before the music stops!” the lass pleaded.
Turning from the railing, the lad took one last look down the channel. A beautiful vision of green hills and soft rain shot across his memory. He paused, his heart tugging toward the sight. Quickly, John closed his eyes and fought the urge to reminisce. “Good bye, Ireland, my home,” he said quietly, “I hope I shall see you again some day.” With that, the spell was broken. The lad took Mary’s hand, leading her back toward the grand celebration.
Éireann go bráth!
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