My grandfather rocked in his chair and stared across the open field. “Lad, twas a long time ago; times have changed. But, always be proud of who you are, trust in the Lord, and no man can take that from you.”
I had spent an hour or so sitting on the old splintered porch listening to his story. He always got a little misty eyed toward the end.
I’ll try to recount the story as best I can. The dialog, while perhaps misquoted, is based in the real story.
Around the end of the 19th century my grandfather and his family emigrated to the United States. His family was part of a mass migration of Irish fleeing the drought and oppressive political conditions of their native land.
My grandfather told the story like this:
We were gathered at Edinburgh on a cold April morning. There was my twin brother, my sister, my mother, and my father. We were only faces in an emigrant crowd – some starving, some dying, some lost, some anxious. I don’t remember any emotion except all the tears of relatives when we boarded a flat boat and floated in a rainstorm to Scotland.
“You boy, the Irish stay up on the dock.” A grizzled-faced man slapped a stick on the ground where I had stopped to pick up pieces of weed.
Something happened and group of well dressed people got out of carriages suddenly began walking toward the big ship which was docked at the end of the pier.
“They be the English,” said my brother.
“Hush, don’t look at em’; de’ll make ye blind.” Our big sister was always full of tales.
Before I could even hide my eyes our group also began moving, but as the English went up the stairs, our group went into the side of the ship. Mama had a bag of hard rolls, and each of the children had a blanket. I don’t know what papa had, because the steward on the boat took his bag from him and threw it into a pile with other bags.
I heard the steward yell, “Ye Irish stay in one company; you’re not to speak outside of your group, or you’ll be thrown overboard.”
I don’t remember much about the trip, other than we were hungry, we all slept on one bunk, and the smell. It was in everything. Like rotting turnips. If a man died, they just tossed him in the sea. Mothers had to throw their dead babies into the ocean.
Papa gathered us to pray every night, but it was hard with the fights and noise. Oh, did I mention? It was just one big long room.
I don’t remember the day it was, but one day people started yelling about our ship coming into Boston harbor.”
“Gather your things,” said my mother instinctively. Our blankets were but threads, as were our clothes.
We were herded out of the boat and onto a large wharf. We were told to wait for some papers, but Papa pulled us down the street and just when we were about give out we came to an area with a clock in the middle of a square, I remember. A large woman came running toward Papa and they hugged, then she hugged Mama, then she hugged each of us. According to Mama, she was a cousin.
We were taken to an apartment, where we ate a delicious meal of bread and soup. Apparently, she had been expecting us for some time. There was a room for us with cots and clothes. That night we met many more relatives and friends, and late that night I heard the adults speaking in the other rooms.
“Keep to the Irish; don’t go into the city alone.”
Papa came into the room very late and woke everyone up. “We are free, but we are not. In this land we are not liked, but if we walk tall and proud and carry the Word of God on our lips they will know who we are and will not fear or hate us. Know who you are and walk with like people, whether they are Irish, English, or French. Remember, first you are a Christian. If your group be known as Christians, God will walk with you.”
I suppose when my grandchildren gather at my feet to hear the story of our family, I will tell it about the same way.
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