An Irish Immigrant | Teen Ink

An Irish Immigrant MAG

By Anonymous

   AN IRISH IMMIGRANT by Dan H., Danvers, MA

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," uttered the priest in the brisk wind. Ryan and his family stood around the casket, surrounded by rows of fresh graves. Ryan threw a shovel of dirt into his father's grave as a final farewell. He did not cry for his mother's sake but, underneath, he burned with misery. The Potato Famine brought about the eternal rest of many people around Ryan. However, it was a heart attack while plowing the fields that caused his father's death.

The silence at his house lasted for three hours. Ryan found his mother in the kitchen preparing breakfast. On the small desk in the far corner of the room, he caught a glimpse of the family Bible where his mother recorded the important family events. He knew why it lay open.

"How are you holding up?" he asked to break the silence as he took a seat next to his mother.

"I'm not feelin' too great right now, but I promise I'll be all right tomorrow," his mother replied in a soft voice. "However, I'm more worried about you and your brothers and sisters. Four are asleep now and I think I'll sit here in case the little ones wake up tonight."

"I don't want you to worry about money," Ryan said, as he wondered how he would earn enough to support them. His father had grown potatoes, but they had failed the last two years. The farm could not support another crop of potatoes and the O'Connell family did not have the money for another attempt. Ryan knew that his only chance was to go to America where, people said, jobs were plentiful and well paying.

"I've decided," he continued, "to go to America. I can earn a sight more money over there than if I tried to find a job here. Don't worry about my passage. Mr. Hanlon's son said he could get me a job on the crew so I could travel to America for free and earn a little."

"Clearly you've thought your plan through," his mother replied. A brief silence followed. "I don't want to let you go to America because I'd worry about you all the time, but I know, for the sake of the whole family, that you must. Ryan, these are bad times, but we will see each other through. I've been fearing this moment all day and didn't know how to bring up the subject."

They stayed awake until early morning, discussing the plans. Ryan was to leave in two days and he spent as much time as he could with his brothers and sisters.

At the wharf, he hesitated to step on the boarding ramp. Suddenly his mind filled with confusion and he began to think about what America would be like. Would it look like the painting he saw every day in the hallway of his old school? Or would it look the way Columbus described it in his favorite book? Ryan, the first in his family to go there, now stood on the boat, waving to his family. His eagerness to see America helped keep his morale high through the voyage and to avoid losing his good health on the disease-filled boat.

The Boston employers stood on crates, barrels or even their carts to watch the Irish come off of the ships. They looked for the strongest men for jobs, just like Southerners picked out the largest blacks for slaves. One of these Bostonians spotted Ryan. Ryan's height made him stand out like the moon amongst the stars. His red hair did not exactly help him to blend in. Mr. Worthington said to his runner, "I want you to get that boy over there, the tall lad with the red hair. He looks like he's about 18 and anything but weak. I can't send him to work in my mines with his height, but I'm sure I can find a job where he can make me good money."

Mr. Worthington offered to let Ryan live in a room in downtown Boston as part of his pay. Mr. Worthington said he would find him a suitable job by morning. Ryan's new boss gave him directions to the room. Arriving at the building Ryan thought, Ay! No wonder why he offered a room in this place to me. It's not suitable for a Brit! This must be where they send the Irishmen. Ryan entered the crumbling brick building and looked for Room 215. As he squeezed through the crowds of talking people in the narrow hallways, he caught sight of the open door to his room. He slowly walked in and was immediately greeted by two men who were clearly from the same country. Ryan had learned that they, Declan and Liam, had also just arrived and were waiting for jobs in the morning. The three talked into the night about their childhoods.

Declan was not as healthy as Ryan and Liam were. The long voyage across the Atlantic weakened him. At 5' 10", he stood a little below Ryan's eyes. He was not without strength or mass, but his skin was pale and his voice sounded a little rough. Declan lived only one county away from Ryan and had even arrived on the same ship. These two developed an unbreakable friendship and decided to look after one another.

In the dark hours of the morning, the sound of a loud bell abruptly awakened them followed by a stentorian voice that announced, "Five in the morning! Ten minutes to get ready. All new workers gather in the downstairs lobby for today's assignments. The rest of you lazy scrubs know where you report to. Three dollars deducted from today's pay for every minute you're late."

After dressing, Ryan and his two new friends entered the crowded lobby. The temperature of the room quickly became unbearable as more people pushed their way into the already-filled room. Finally, their assignments were posted: Ryan was to report to the ninth dock at the harbor, Declan was to report to a factory nearby and Liam was assigned to work on the railroad. Ryan had good fortune because he was given an outdoor job, rather than in a factory or mine. It was well known that factory workers and miners could become ill because of the harmful dust. All the workers were quickly hauled off to their work-sites by horse-drawn carts.

Ryan arrived at the number nine dock, just a stone's throw from where his boat had docked. Various commands were shouted from one side of the dock to the other by the foremen. Ryan's height enabled him to catch sight of the three-masted schooner where he was to report. As he neared the boat, he saw a short man with brown hair and a beard who appeared to be looking for someone. Ryan walked up to him and asked,

"Excuse me, but do you work for Mr. Worthington?"

"No, boy. I don't work for him, but I do work with him. We're partners. Why do you ask and what is it that you want? Oh, are you Ryan?" Mr. McNeil asked.

"Yes, I'm Ryan."

"Well, let me figure out what you're going to do. How old are you, boy?"

"I'm 18, sir."

"It's your choice. You can either work on the Heather Ann, the 150-foot schooner behind me or you can work on the docks, unloading and filleting fish."

"I'll work on the schooner."

"All right. Do you see the man at the top of the mast in the rigging? That's Mark. He'll teach you the ropes and show you what you'll be doing on the fishing trips."

Ryan's feet felt like cement blocks as he slowly stepped onto the boat. He did not like the idea of climbing up the mast. Ryan looked up to see how high the climb would be, but the brilliance of the sun blinded him. As he stepped outside of the boat's rail and took hold of the ropes, the muscles in his legs tightened and he had to lift his left leg onto the first rug of the rigging. Slowly but steadily, he climbed up the mainmast of the schooner. He quickly overcame his fear by keeping his eyes on the crow's-nest. Finally, he reached the top where he met Mark, who told him what he would do on the two-week fishing voyages and began to teach Ryan the names of the ropes.

At the end of the day, he returned to his room in Mr. Worthington's building by way of the local pub where he saw Declan and Liam sitting at the bar. They told him how bad their new jobs were and that their bosses made them work hard without breaks.

Ryan withheld his story of how much he liked his job and looked forward to tomorrow for fear of lowering his friends' spirits even further. After a few drinks, Ryan left, but the others stayed behind to drink more. He went back to his building and immediately picked up his pay for the day, which he placed in the mail to send to his mother.

"Five in the morning!" began the "waker of the dead," as Ryan had nicknamed him. Ryan arose with enthusiasm. He walked down the stairs in the hallway and out the front door where he got into the cart that took him to the docks. Work this day consisted of preparing the boat for departure. All those who were going out on the boat were given their pay in advance. Mr. Worthington paid his workers in advance to gain respect as a boss and, more importantly, to increase his business. Ryan, being raised in a poor family, thought this was a lot of money. Ryan set aside $15 and sent the rest to his mother. He was told by the sailors that he would need to buy four things. Ryan immediately went into town and bought the "most important thing," according to the others. Then, with the remaining five dollars, he bought a sailor's knife, a marlin-spike to splice rope and a long jacket.

The next day, Ryan boarded the boat with his sack of clothing and the items he had bought. The crew consisted of the captain, Mr. Cook, the first-mate, Mark, and 13 crew members, including Ryan. They left port at 8: 30 a.m. The seas were calm, but luckily a steady 15-knot wind gave the sail the force needed to move the large schooner. After Ryan had worked his first six-hour shift, he went below to his bunk and soon fell asleep.

Ryan was awakened by Mark for his next shift. It was early morning, but the sky was still dark. As Ryan climbed out, he could see all of the stars perfectly against the black sky. This was his favorite time of day. In Ireland, Ryan would climb the old tree in his back yard to see the stars. As he peered over the horizon to look for land or boats, he saw light just cresting over the ocean. Soon the sun appeared, but Ryan immediately wished that it had not, because when the sky turned red as it shone on storm clouds, he remembered a short rhyme:

"Red sky at night, sailor's delight.

"Red sky in morning, sailors take warning."

Mark, who had been watching the sky from the helm, went below to wake the rest of the crew. Within five minutes, the whole crew stood on deck, including the captain. Captain Cook shouted, "Quickly, reef the sails! Take Aem down!"

Without hesitation, Mark assigned crew different sails and masts. He ordered Ryan and another sailor, John Hughes, to climb the foremast and take down those sails, while the rest of the crew rushed to the other masts. Ryan did not hesitate. In fact, he reached the top before John, an experienced sailor. As soon as Ryan and John grabbed the first ropes, a powerful gust of wind caught them by surprise. The terrible ripping sound that followed was the foresail ripping just below them. Another, even stronger, gust of wind blew at their boat. The boat responded to the wind by keeling to starboard at a severe angle.

"Everybody down! Get out of the rigging! Don't get caught in the ropes!" were the shouts Ryan barely heard in the tremendous wind. The most powerful gust of wind came right then. As the boat took an even more dangerous angle to the starboard side, the crew heard the sound of splitting wood and released an uproar of shouts. For a few moments, Ryan felt like he was floating in the air. Then his whole body ached in pain, then went numb. He could feel nothing, but he knew he was underwater and that the mast had broken beneath him. He flailed his arms to reach the surface. Now he heard the waves pounding in his ears and saw the boat in front of him. Everyone was on deck, yelling and pointing at him.

Ryan remembered that John was also on the mast. He turned in the cold water and saw John right behind him. Ryan swam over and realized John was tangled in the rigging. He quickly took his knife and swam around John, cutting all of the ropes loose and freeing him. With John free, the mast began to sink below the surface and Ryan dropped the knife into the water so he could swim more freely. A sharp pain struck at Ryan's knees. He felt the rope tangled around his legs. John dove below the surface in an attempt to free Ryan's legs, but the mast began to pull Ryan down. John saw Ryan's face as he stared right back into John's eyes and calmly waved his hand to say good-bye. He slowly sank into the depths of the Atlantic.

Seven days later, Ryan's mother received an official telegram from Mark, the first mate, that told of Ryan's death and his heroic efforts to save John's life. The family was in such grief that his mother could not bear to open the family Bible. The comfort from her other children was not enough to lessen the pain for her dead son. The next day, another telegram arrived, informing Mrs. O'Connell that Ryan had taken out a life insurance policy with all of the optional benefits. She was to be provided with weekly sums of money for the rest of her life. Life insurance was the "most important thing" that the sailors on Ryan's boat had told him to buy. Ryan left Ireland for America with the intention of providing money for his family and he made sure that is what he did: he took care of his family, no matter what.

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This article has 2 comments.

i love this !

IrishDancer said...
on Dec. 4 2008 at 1:08 am
Wow, this is an amazing piece. My family comes from Ireland and this piece really touched me, especially the herioc end. Good work!