Irish Potato Famine: The Summer of Sorrow
Digital History ID 1073
This diary, whose authenticity has been questioned, recounts the voyage of Gerald Keegan in 1847 from County Sligo, Ireland to Grosse Ile, Quebec.
With doubt thrown on the landlord's good faith, the poor people went on arguing among themselves until a majority decided to stand out and demand better terms. On hearing this, the agent sent word they must decide within a week. If they rejected the offer, it would be withdrawn and no new one would be submitted. My uncle had coem to get my advice, 'For sure,' he said, 'you are the only scholard in the family.' I comprehended the infamous nature of the offer. The people did not own the land, but they owned the improvements they had made on it, and had a right to be compensated for them. I knew my uncle when a boy had rented a piece of worthless bog and by the labor of himself, and afterward of his wife and children, had converted it into a profitable field. Should I advise him to give it up for a receipt for back rent a free passage to Canada? I tried to find out what he thought himself. Are you for accepting the offer, Uncle?
'That depends,' he answered. 'Give me a crop of spuds as we had in the ould times, an niver a step.
One of our many tacks brought us close to me English coast. It was my first and likely to be my last view of that country. Aileen has made our cabin snug and convenient beyond belief. Her happy disposition causes her to make the best of everything.
19.-- The westerly breezes that kept us tacking in the channel gave place, during the night, to a strong east winds, before which the ship is bowling at a fine rate. Passing close to the shore we had a view of the coast from Ardmore to Cape Clear. Aileen sat with me all day, our eyes fixed on the land we loved. Knowing, as it swept past us, it was the last time we would ever gaze upon it, our hearts were too full for speech. Towards evening, the ship drew away from it, until the hills of Kerry became so faint that they could hardly be distinguished from the clouds that hovered over them. When I finally turned away from eyes from where I knew the dear old land was, my heart throbbed as it if would burst. Farewell, Erin.
22. -- Why do we exert ourselves so little to help one another, when it takes so little to please! Aileen coaxed the steward to let her have some discarded biscuit bags. These she is fashioning into a sort of gown to cover the nakedness of several girls who could not come on deck. The first she finished this afternoon, and no aristocratic miss could have been prouder of her first silk dress than was the poor child of the transformed canvas bag, which was her only garment.
23. -- This is Sunday. The only change in the routine of the ship that marks the day is that the sailors gave an extra wash down to the decks and after that they did not work except trim the sails. They spent the forenoon on the forecastle mending or washing their clothes. During the afternoon it grew cold with a strong wind from the north-east, accompanied by driving showers. Towards sunset the sea was a lather of foam, and the wind had increased to a gale. When the waves began to flood the deck, the order was given to put the hatches on. God help the poor souls shut in beneath my feet!
Another came, it caught in our cable, and before the swish of the current washed it clear, I caught a glimpse of a white face. I understood it all. The ship ahead of us had emigrants and they were throwing overboard their dead. Without telling Aileen, I grasped her arm, and drew her to our cabin.
Leaving the cemetery with the priest, I thanked him from my heart and ran to he quay. My heart was in my mouth when I saw on it Aileen, standing beside our boxes, and the ship, having tipped her anchor, bearing up the river. 'What makes you look so at me, Gerald? I have come as you asked.'
'I never sent for you.'
'The steward told me you had sent word by the sailors for me to come ashore, that you were going to stay here. They carried the luggage into a boat and I followed.'
I groaned in spirit. I saw it all. By a villainous trick, the captain had got rid of me. Instead of being in Quebec that day, here I was left at the quarantine station. 'My poor Aileen, I know not what to do; my trouble is for you.' I went to see the head of the establishment, Dr Douglas. He proved to be a fussy gentleman, worried over a number of details. Professing to be ready to oblige, he said there was no help for me until the next steamer came. 'When will that be?' Next Saturday. A week on an island full of people sick with fever! Aileen, brave heart, made the best of it. She was soaking wet, yet the only shelter, apart from the fever sheds, which were not to be thought of, was an outhouse with a leaky roof, with no possibility of a fire or change of clothing. How I cursed myself for making captain and mate my enemies, for the penalty had fallen not on me, but on Aileen. There was not an armful of straw to be had; not even boards to lie on.
Source: Gerald Keegan, Summer of Sorrow (Huntingdon, Quebec, 1895)
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