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  • Mj Pettengill

Beyond Hunger


Daidí managed to save the ship fare settlement that was given to him by the landlord upon our eviction in November. Because of this, in Liverpool, we could board a ship that was headed straight to Canada, and not have to stay. So many others had to find a way to earn their passage, never makin’ it to North America.

When we settled with the barrister, and he accepted the fare for the family, we were told that we would be greeted by an agent in Canada, who would have food, money, and resources for our resettlement. He promised to pay between two and five pounds, enough, as Daidí said, for a good start.

We held onto each other, followin’ Daidí in the long line until we were aboard the brig. There was much confusion, somethin’ between relief and fear, as we waited to hear what was to follow. Sailors rushed about with perspiration tricklin’ down their soot-covered faces. Some men were given bricks for the fireplaces on deck for cookin’ food. Because we had no food to bring, we were promised an allotment of a pound a day, which had to be enough to see us through.

When we went below, we passed by a lower deck, where surrounded by their rags and food rations, people huddled together on the floor. I tried to take deep breaths—a trick that Mam taught us when we were overwhelmed—but the smell of vomit hung in the air.

I shielded my face with my skirt as we made our way to an area that would be our home for as long as it took to get to Canada. Daidí said that it would take three weeks, no more and no less. Mam corrected him, tellin’ us that it was dependent on the weather.

Although we had but a few items, we carried them over to the bare wooden bunks that would serve as our beds. A very old woman lay nearby, moanin’ and callin’ for her mother. I tried to look away. At least when we were in the open air, there was some distance between us and the others.

“Mam, I can’t place my sack here. It’s covered in filth,” I said, forcin’ my eyes away from the woman.

“Annie, this is only for a short time,” she said. Her expression was stern, while her eyes were wet with tears.

I set down my sack and watched as the others, beyond hunger, almost naked, clad only in their protrudin’ bones, claimed their bunks with the same reluctance as me. Already weak and ill, some lacked the energy to protest and just fell onto the hard frames. Another sobbed woefully for a dead child left behind—cries familiar to our ears and forever pressed into our hearts.

“Come now. Let’s go back up,” Daidí said, tryin’ to keep us from givin’ up before we even left port.

With his fiddle under his arm, and a sack containin’ our daily rations to bring to the foredeck, we would cook and maybe sing a song or two. Because it had taken so long to get to the ship, it was possible for music to lift us up.

We went topside, where I gulped the fresh air as if I had been drownin’ and finally reached the surface. There were many folks gathered around their little fires, and whether in merriment or quarrel, makin’ too much noise. They cooked whatever they could in pots and pans of various sizes. Thick smoke billowed from the small fireplaces, mergin’ with the scent of fish and bacon from the folks that had the means, and the burnt cakes, biscuits, and stirabout from the others.

We found a fireplace that was not bein’ used and still had some hot coals. It was made from a large wooden case lined with bricks. Mam had brought one pot for us to use, and she made a large griddle cake that was blackened around the edges and uncooked in the middle.

“Eat this. We’ll do better tomorrow,” she said.

We sat together, tryin’ to ignore a fight that broke out close by.

“Let us eat in thankfulness,” Daidí said.

We ate and watched the sailors, some rushin’ about tendin’ to the heavy sacks while others sat tarrin’ rope and mendin’ sails.

We went to the afterdeck and looked out over the ocean. Daidí had never been out that far in his currach, so with whatever strength he had, delighted in the open sea. The two ships that sailed near us all day were far away, almost too far to see.

The favorable breeze carried us along, refreshed my spirits, and brought color to Mam’s cheeks. My brother, Seamus, smiled for the first time in many months. We were on our way to Canada. There was hope for us.

Some of the older boys played games, and a few of the younger children laughed in merriment. Showin’ his best face, a man played his concertina. Amidst their weakness, and in spite of the swells, his wife and children rose up to dance.

There were also those who could not hold back from vomitin’ over the side of the ship, for as Daidí said, they had yet to get their sea legs. The swells did not bother me, but the seas were smooth that first night.

It wasn’t clear to me whether we stayed up too late because we were optimistic to have set sail, or that we avoided goin’ below deck, where it smelled of death, and the people groaned and cried out in despair.

Mam, Seamus, and I sat together and watched the night sky while Daidí paced the deck. I had never seen as many stars as I did on that first clear night. Other than the candles in the window of the mistress’s cabin, it was quite dark on the ship.

We finally retreated down below, to the splintered bunks that Mam had covered with our clothes. It was warm, but because of the dampness, I shared a blanket with Seamus.

The first night was one without sleep, for all I could hear were mournful cries. A mother and daughter on the bunk across from us were up all night with the fever. It was as if we were still at home. Bein’ out to sea was no different.

The mother cried when she tried to get water from a cask that had leaked. Although Daidí scolded her, Mam offered them a drink from one of the cans of water that we brought with us from Liverpool, only to find it spoiled and murky. Against Mam’s warnin’, they drank it, makin’ them sicker. Mam was beside herself, askin’ the Lord for forgiveness for makin’ things considerably worse. I thought that mornin’ would never arrive.

Together we stood in the open air. Until the sun rose high in the sky, it was cold and cheerless, but it was better than the foulness of the stiflin’ decks below. We had our first breakfast—flour porridge—and we heated our other can of water on the stove. Daidí said that if we heated it, it would be safe to drink. He intended it to be for Mam, but she quickly took it down below to the mother and daughter.

The mistress herself looked quite pale, for each time she appeared on the deck, groups of sickly creatures crowded around her. The few water casks on board were leakin’, and we had just started our journey.

Very few passengers boarded the ship in good health. We all looked forward to arrivin’ in Canada, where we would collect our money and allotments from the agent and be on our way. Daidí knew all along that he didn’t entirely trust the Canadians and said that we must leave as soon as possible. Canada was simply a place to stop on our way to America—the land of the free and home of the brave—like the song that the sailors used to sing after dippin’ into the rum.

Annie Quinn

June 13, 1847

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