MAY, 1817 – Atlantic Ocean
The ship tossed in the wind and the waves. All around the hold in the bowels of the hull were babies, howling babies, and women weak with coughing. There were men with bursts of anger, and hollow-eyed children. Máire Katlin Ní Chonaill held a dirty, damp cloth against a fevered brow, whispering comforting words to soothe the woman whose three children clung sadly to the foot of the plank makeshift bed. The smell of the dank, dark hold overpowered the disinfectant that was routinely splashed on the most stained areas. The darkness was heavy, and there was no telling when the daylight began and ended; there was no window or open door to see the sky. Máire Katlin could not bear the close quarters for long periods of time, but she hadn't been above since yesterday morning, when the weather had been fairer. The woman was sleeping now, and her fever seemed less. It was recommended for all to take fresh air at least twice a day. Máire Katlin gave the rag to the little girl nearest her, and made her way to the ladder. She gathered her skirts in her fist and climbed up into slightly better air. She hurried to the door leading up out of the hold onto the deck, past a man who moaned and spoke to no-one in Irish Gaelic:
"Tá siad ag teacht!"
Beside him, a woman sat, singing a Goltraí, a crying song. Máire Katlin continued to the stair, leaving the sickness and sadness for others to bear for a time. Her head broke the night air of the open seas. She felt the spray on the deck, but she noted that the storm had died down.
They'd been at sea for four weeks. At first, she'd been wretchedly ill. Fortunately, she was able to get her sea-sickness under control, and she took on the growing task of treating the ill. Disease spread like pollen on a breeze down in the depths of the ship, and some suffered invariably from sea sickness. Death was not unknown, and the bodies were wrapped in sailcloth or burlap and taken above. There had been one death so far on this journey, a small child who had brought the illness on board. No-one was completely sure of what the illness was, exactly, but it was called Fiabhras Dubh, "the Black Fever". It meant Typhus, but here, anything could kill a weak body.
Máire Katlin gripped the railing and took big gulps of air as she searched the dark horizon for signs of land. It was too dark to see far, but if it were daylight, she knew she still would see nothing beyond the edge of sea and sky.
"A Thiarna Dé, Rí na crinne, Le briathar Dé taispéain domh an tslí. Críodta ó coinnigh mé," she prayed.
Days went the same. She tried to keep track of the time she'd spent at sea by making marks on her ragged copy of poetry and prose since leaving port at Liverpool, but she'd lost track of what day of the week it was. The rolling was sometimes gentle, and at times it was frightening, and things fell from their places and hooks and shelves, making huge noises and confusion. Máire Katlin hated the precaution of batting down the hatches. She felt like she was entombed in her own doom, a prison of darkness and terror. It had been calm these past few days, and there had been a beautiful sunset one evening.
She kept her meagre belongings in a cloth bound with a cord, and kept it tied to her skirt under her cloak. In the satchel was the worn book, a small comb with three missing teeth, her Rosary, three precious coins, and a small carved horse made by her Da. She wore over her two petticoats two dresses, one copper, short in hem and worn threadbare, the other was in much better condition, slightly longer, less faded, and warmer, of a heavier woven blue wool. She kept a locket around her neck but hidden under her chemise. In it was a lock of her Mam's hair, and one of her dear sweet sister, Niamh, both who'd died of the same illness. She had one more possession, an old straw hat with a battered spray of everlastings and an oddly placed ostrich feather. Having the hat at least made Máire Katlin feel like a lady. It gave her something, at least. She knew she couldn't be seen as much, but the hat gave her some honour.
Again, Máire Katlin's mind turned to her future. She couldn't fathom what that might be. She'd heard the tales of people who'd gone to North America to fight the land and make a new life. Many had gone before her. But it didn't matter if her future was unknown. Her past was definitely something she desired to flee. There was nothing to keep her tied to that She knew it was, her choice of a possible future with hardship, but it really wasn't a choice, because the other alternative was no future at all Her Mam and Da were dead and buried with six of her siblings. Her home had been torched by the landowners, to put her out. The land had no more to give. She could have worked it until it put her in her grave, but it was of no use. The potatoes were rotting in the earth, the livestock were skin and bones, barely fit to kill for meat. The crops were failing. No, it was this, or death. A slow, painful death that would bring humiliation only.
She was of a fair age, sixteen, and though she was small, she was strong of body and spirit. When she'd heard about the need the homesteaders had for a woman's hand on their claims and farms, her heart wanted to make the leap across the vast ocean all by itself. This was her chance and she must not let it pass. She'd secured a trip to Liverpool by selling a watch belonging to her father, and waited outside the post office daily for the opportunity to have her name administered to the books designed for those who would be made useful in the new land over sea. She fought through families and hopefuls who checked every day to see if their relatives had sent the fare for their transportation. Máire Katlin had no easy in. She had to look healthy and strong and worthy of being chosen randomly for work in the New World
Then it happened. The clerk who sat patiently hunched over the lists finally eyed Máire Katlin with approval.
"I suppose you might do," he said, tapping his finger along an inked-in page. "'Two young homesteaders are in need of a woman to help them."
"Beirtacu?" Máire Katlin said, taking the chair in front of the desk that she'd been pointed to.
"Two? Do they be unmarried?"
"And do they not want a wife?" Máire Katlin demanded. She knew that many a man wanted a bride to come help them set up home. To have two young gentlemen bachelors employing a young woman in the home was unseemly. She may have married a bachelor to close the deal, but to be working in the home of two single men... It wasn't what she'd had in mind
"Well, maybe they want a good look at ye first, girl;" said the clerk. "Are ye interested or not? I'm sure as there won't be a better chance for you, if'n you truly want to go. They've paid for ship's passage and they'll be waiting for someone when the ship docks. If it's not you, it'll be someone else."
Free passage! Máire Katlin clutched her coins tightly in her fist No need of grovelling or selling her locket for the extra fare! No need to sell her body or her soul. Not yet, anyway. Did it matter that she'd be required to take care of two single men if it meant that she'd be assured a job and a roof over her head when she arrived? It was more that she could have hoped for. What chance did an unschooled female have on her own, other than outright prostitution, or finding a factory that might take her on, or possibly a job washing laundry. But this was a place to stay, doing what she knew, making a homestead flourish. Though it was true she hadn't had anything flourish for a while.
First, her Da had died when his fishing boat was taken under the rolling waters, which also claimed her two older brothers, Séamus and Ciarán, Their bodies were found and returned to the rocky hills near Donegal Bay. Soon after, the wee bairn Mairead was laid to rest beside them. Maire Katlin's brother, Conchúir, and she tried to keep the potatoes and grain and tough root crops bringing in money and survival, but then came the sickness. It took them while they were weakened. The infant Niamh died first, soon followed by Máire Katlin's younger sister, Síle, and the broken-hearted matriarch, Eithne. This left Máire Katlin, Conchúir, and the twins, Seosamh and Antaine, to watch as their whole life rotted away. They tried to work the ungiving earth, but the potatoes were either mush or too small to feed themselves, let alone make a price at market. Soon, the Fiabhras Dubh, the Black Fever, took Conchúir. Máire Katlin administered medicines from many root and leaf but all her nursing did naught, and Conchúir was buried with the rest.
When the landlord came to take the rent, she wouldn't let him pass the door. She held on and kicked at him when he tried to force her eviction. He laughed, commenting that it was not worth it to save the house. No-one would dare live in such a hovel and he and his two men promptly set it ablaze. Máire Katlin raced inside to get her prized possessions with the scant few minutes before it was gone. Her one relief came when the landlord's younger brother, of whom the rumour ran that he was a kind gentleman who treated his workers well, came out alone and took Saosamh and Antaine, who were ten, to be apprentices in his smithy. He promised Máire Katlin he would look after them as he would his own brothers, and that they would not be without a roof over their heads and a wholesome meal in their bellies.
"A Sheosamh! An Antaine! A Cúplain! Dia's Muire dhuit! Slán agus Beannacht, a stóiriní. Tá brón orm Scríobhfaidh mé litir." The boys tried to hold on to her but she let the landlord's brother take them in his wagon. She sobbed once they were out of her view, feeling so alone she thought her heart might break.
After three days of hovering near the charred and smoking ruin, Máire Katlin began walking. She passed huddled families and men trying to mend their shoes along the roadsides. She was hungry and exhausted. The land gave up nothing, save nettles and other herbs that could be boiled up into something to fill the stomach. A few families with luck still holding out took pity on her and she was fed a little here and there. She was unsure where she was heading, but a ride on a wagon heading to the glue factory took her a good distance, which was promising, provided she didn't turn her head to see the dead horse upon the wagon bed.
She reached Dublin and turned in her father's pocket watch for fare to Liverpool. She wanted out. Surely Dublin would fall as its lands failed about her. Ireland had nothing to give her now, she'd seen that all the way across it. Perhaps England's riches could be attained by becoming a servant or cook for a well-to-do family. Or maybe she could take on a job in the factories cropping up here and there. She could read, having been lessoned by her mother, and that might be an asset in her employment.
England didn't want her, either. She was too Irish, too Catholic, and too poor and dirty. She stayed near the docks, listening to people speak of travel abroad. Many clamoured for ship's fare for passage to North America, where everything was fresh and there was a chance to begin from scratch. But the fare wasn't cheap and the chance of dying before one reached sight of North American land was great.
Still, Máire Katlin grew more and more determined to board one of those ships. She worked at that goal for a month until the moment when all seemed to be in her hand. She had taken it. She did not dwell on possible mistreatment by the two men who would be her benefactors. She did not think about the hardships of running a home alone. She only saw a chance to get out of the hell she was in now.
And so, with the sea air filling her lungs and the fog settling in, Máire Katlin Ní Chonaill set out alone to keep surviving. Nothing could be worse in her future than what she'd left, that she knew for certain.
Down in the hold, the air was thick with disease and breath. It was surprisingly quiet, save for a few mothers' murmurs. A man eyed her wearily before he climbed the ladder. She found a patch of empty space and a spare rug to cover her shoulders and caught a restless sleep in a berth with another girl and her three siblings.
Besides the odd climb to the deck, Máire Katlin spent the hours helping women with sick children, children with sick mothers, and weakened men who could not look after anyone including themselves. Between this and fitful sleep, she read the words in her book The lengthy journey put those words to heart and if the book were tossed to the sea, Máire Katlin would still see them She grew so used to the voices, coughs, cries, singing, and creaks and cracks of the ship that they no longer distracted her. She counted the marks in her book. Six weeks. It felt like six months.
The days were the same. The same, until word buzzed through all levels of the ship. Land had been sighted. Máire Katlin raised eyebrows at her bed neighbour, Máire Ní Braonáin, who grinned back. They hurried up the ladder with others eager to see green land on the blue horizon.
There it was. Excitement bubbled up in Máire Katlin, She'd made it. She had done it. It was real and true and she was away from Ireland and England and even Europe, and was far across the sea. Whatever was ahead could not be as bad as she'd witnessed. She was granted another life. The view looked fresh and hopeful, as did the voices of the others on the deck. Land!