A Place to Call Home: Chapter 1

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 Hell.

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 them all.

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 all.

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.

A Place To Call Home continues for 522 pages...