From Ulster With a Cloth Bundle
The Ulster American folk park in Northern Ireland tells the story of emigration from Ulster to North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
Between the Great Famine and the New World
There we were in the hold, bunks all around
In rows to port and starboard
While from tarred timbers came heaves and groans
Mingled confusion and sound of a child sobbing
Louder and again.
Pale skinned grandmother she was
Hair tied in a bob, explaining
This bucket for water, that one for excrement
Make sure you’re upwind when you throw it overboard
This black cloth, tied with a carrying knot
Is all you may take, some oatmeal cake
A bible, a comb perhaps, and the Lord’s prayer.
Three weeks we sailed, or six or seven
Depending on the weather, hungry, soiled, scabbed
Sobbing and heaving. In heavy seas they battened us down
We lay in the dark, candles snuffed out
Some girls fell pregnant
Some didn’t make it, others infirm or ill
were turned back at Ellis – returned to sender
Wretched anachronisms, sent back
To starvation, death in transit
Dumped overboard? She didn’t know.
Down a passageway, rungs gripped then climbed
We emerge to the light of a New World
Post offices, print shops, general stores
Chemists, all smiles and explanations.
It takes some time to shake off the journey
She said, but trade and commerce and hard work
Will pull you through, and like new immigrants
Everywhere, we survived, holding each other up
In times of stress.
But where were the children that didn’t make it
Ill and sobbing in the hold, retching their lives
Out in the stench, where were the frail, the aged,
The crippled, denied entry, on their way back,
Dumped overboard? She didn’t say.
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© Johnmichael Simon