When First We Came To America
Troy, NY 1848
There was one day I was looking for Morrissey. It was around the time of his first bare knuckle prize fight. He hadn’t told me he had a job with a mule skinner moving some lumber up to Lansingburgh. I went down to his parent’s tenement flat to see if I could find him to tell him about the fight trainer, Jonsey. I knew his father would be working at the iron foundry. I pushed the door open and called in and Mrs. Morrissey came and grabbed me and pulled me by the hand. “Danny!” she said and she gave me a wet kiss on the forehead. She wanted to talk, she said, “Come in, come in.” We sat by the stove there where the kettle boiled. What else could I do? She put out two cups and poured the tea and started in.
“Danny,” she said. “That was my brother back home, too. Danny. He had the devil in him so. Did you hear about him at all?”
“No, I haven’t,” I said. I sipped at my tea.
“He was one of those fighting boys in the Templemore faction, don’t you know? How they’d go down to the fairs in Tralee and fight. And wasn’t it a pity how he was hit in his head until he couldn’t talk? With sticks like they would fight. Did you know? And what could he do after but go to the poor house. See? So that’s why I want you to tell John that the fightings’s no good. I’m praying night and day and I’m worried, Dan.”
“OK,” I said.
“Because doesn’t God and fortune have a way that we can’t see at all?”
“I guess so.”
“And him saying he’s fighting for Ireland. Ha! Wasn’t my brother Danny fighting for County Tipperary? And what good was that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. Of course, John would be fighting for money, too, but I didn’t tell her that.
“Do you know when first we came to America so hopeful in our youth with little Johnny holding my hand and the three of us waving to my Da and me Ma and Tim’s brother and his wife at the dock. My Da was wiping away the tears, standing still in his old brogues and homespuns as the boat backed out into the harbor. And then I was crying too, not knowing at all what would befall us in America and only thinking of my own home and my friends left behind in Abbey Feale. Tim came and put his arm on my shoulder like, and didn’t I push him away? I don’t know why. I knelt down by Johnny instead and gave him a big hug, lifting him up to see his Papa and Nana one last time in this world.”
I just sat and nodded and drank the tea. She fell into a sort of reverie, talking as much to herself in a quiet hushed voice. You could hear the noise of the fire in the cast iron stove as she spoke. And you could hear, always, from down by the river, the low thunder sound of the iron foundry furnaces.
“Do you get a bed on a ship coming for a month on the ocean, Danny, to Canada? You don’t at all. They’d just cleaned out the lumber and the clean smelling boards out of the hold where they’d been stacked. So our spot on a shelf below the deck seemed ok but then day after day with it so crowded with all the Irish people leaving Ireland wasn’t it putrid and filthy? No, you couldn’t hardly breathe at all, Danny. And after weeks the people who’d been sharing a bit of bread with a blessing or sharing a song or a tune on the fiddle maybe ‘Out On The Ocean,’ or ‘Murphy’s Hornpipe,’ so the young people could dance a jig, they grew quiet or sick from the waves. Then the fever started.
There was a lovely little girl who was Maura Keating and she had the prettiest light hair in curls around her face. She’d play hide and seek or paddy cake with Johnny and give me a rest from holding the boy every hour. She’d always get a smile from John, why wouldn’t she? Wasn’t she travelling alone, so to meet her Aunt and Uncle in Canada who would take her to New York somewhere.
“I said to her, ‘Is it New York City, astor?’ I used some of the Irish to call her “love,” because she had the Irish and the English both.
‘I’m not sure, so,’ she said.
‘Or, some place in the state of New York?’ Tim asked her. ‘Because we’re bound for Troy, on the river.’
‘Sure I don’t know,’ she said and smiled.
Tim took a liking to her, too. She ate with us and slept with us in our little dark space beneath the deck where the sailor’s footsteps were right above all the time. We made up our minds to see her safe to her Aunt and Uncle and to write to her once we were settled to see how she was living in the wide open spaces or big cities of America.
So when some of the old ones started dying of the fever, you know, you can understand the ways of God and the passing days and years. All the Irish were let come up out of the darkness to stand at the rail and look out at the waves. There was a priest travelling who seemed to glide across the deck with his robes and big cross. He looked so well fed and fat you wanted to laugh, but you couldn’t get it out. Soon enough it was happening every day. Over they’d go, with a blessing and a prayer and you’re gone.
‘For the fishes,’ Tim murmured one time.
‘Don’t say that,’ I told him. I didn’t want Maura to hear, see?
Those times little Maura stood with us praying with her hands folded and her eyes closed. But you got some fine clean sea air in the rolling ocean or huddled in the rain when the waves would be white or breaking on the deck some times and you might be slipping and holding on.
But when Maura got the fever and lost color and there wasn’t anything we could do. I was pleading with the mate, calling up in a terrible panic and he was looking down with the blue sky behind him saying “Sorry, mam, there’s no doctor on board.”
Off she went like the others, but just a beautiful child on her way to live life in America. We buried her on a calm day when the sun was shining and the boat was still. I looked east and west and north and south to see the Atlantic Ocean as quiet as a small pond. Not a breeze or a cloud in the air. And didn’t a whale come up and then another, nearby, blowing steam like. I was crying as they swam along because I was thinking God sent them to guide little Maura so she wouldn’t be alone, so, in the wide ocean on her journey. When they dropped her down she stayed on the water for a time. The fiddler, your man from Dingle, was playing so sweetly the “South Wind.” Her hair flowed out around her face and we were all watching her. It seemed a long time like she wasn’t ready to go yet. But then you couldn’t see her clearly down in the greenish water and then you weren’t quite sure and then she was gone below.
I was thinking the angels had received her at that moment see because the wind picked up. The sailors were shouting and running this way and that. And we all were ferried back into the darkness below as if nothing had happened at all.
Didn’t it storm and blow the rest of the way to Canada? Heaven doesn’t like it when a young girl dies and is tossed into the sea alone.”
By this time Mrs. Morrissey seemed to have forgotten about the upcoming boxing match. She was off, lost in her story, thinking about being on the ocean. When I stood to go she put her hands on my head and asked God to bless me. With her finger she made a cross on my forehead. I wasn’t sure what the proper response to that might be. So, I said thank you. Then I thanked her for the tea went on my way. I stepped out into the summer afternoon and looked out through the foundry smoke at the river. Then I walked toward the docks looking for John and thinking about the coming fight.