In support of all immigrants, their dreams and hopes, whether they be African, Mexican, Syrian or Irish, I am posting the first couple chapters of Light of the Diddicoy (2014), for free. It details the journey in October, 1915 of Liam Garrity from County Clare, Ireland to Brooklyn, New York.
The Irish started coming to the United States in great numbers after a horrific famine and terrible oppression. In America, their religion was despised, their culture was hated and they came from a tradition of revolt. Although they were white, they were feared and made out to be monkey-like rapists, terrorizers and drunks by Anglo-America. Their mortal struggle surviving in Ireland was as dangerous as the treacherous journey to the United States, where they arrived shoeless, uneducated and faced debilitating discrimination. Here, they were forced to take the worst jobs. But they built America, became soldiers, policemen, firemen, nurses, factory workers, lawyers and eventually politicians.
Today, immigrants face the same difficulties. Oftentimes, the color of their skin compounding the issue. Still, the vast and overwhelming majority of the victims of Donald Trump’s disastrous immigration policies are normal people seeking stability and regular families hoping for a better life for their children that are denied the opportunity afforded to the rest of us.
Light of the Diddicoy
Part One of The Auld Irishtown Trilogy
~ Glasnevin Rebelpoets ~
Down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass there once roamed a gang I fell in with. A long time ago it was, when I was young and running. It’s all I had, this life. Just as yours is yours. Don’t let yourself think mine is anything different, anything better. I won’t have it that way. It was just a life, and there you have it. But like so many born on the isle of Ireland, I am to die far from home. Though such a grief has since let me alone, as bitterness only cuts into the bone, I’m at ease with it in my age. But to go ’way with all these memories, well, I rush them out here for you to breathe them in. To read with your senses as I lay here in the brood of the night, broad awake to recite my beads, not so dutifully. Because when dying it’s no longer duty, it’s prayer. So here I am to send a story you true and fair. About blood. And honor. About the code of men, and about empathy too.
This story will both begin and end on a ship as any good run or reel should, but we’ll start you here for good measuring.
Cobh wasn’t called Cobh when I left it. Queenstown, and a great Atlantic crosser allowed myself and far too many others aboard in the swirling mist. Among the high masts two giant round silos breathed into the air above, black exhaust due from the belly of the iron woman’s coal-fired furnaces within. Her long reach a mile wide in black and red faded paint as she sat three-quarters full already from her port in Liverpool on stop to pick up itinerant thirds in the country that made her back in ‘89. Six-inch black iron gun heads reached from what was once a leisurely deck for more distinguished passengers of another era, ghosts now. The Great War changing and altering all of life as we know it. And just above the rusted anchorhold in sea-weathered letters, a degraded font from that bygone time, RMS Teutonic.
Not a day for celebrants, it is the offing of the peasant ceremonial here. Lacking pomp and cheer, instead the heavy request of need and necessity fills their eyes. The hunger of orphans and their low caste beheld in their beams, bony travelers huddling for lands of hope and honey. Desperate for their utopia somewhere far off, they are. A utopia dreamed up by the imaginations of the falling and those without promise. As was true to the time it was the motley beaten Celts, pushed to the western edge of Europe and beyond. Into the sea. Their hopes are as humble as their tattered belongings, with only a meal as their immediate mark. I remember how clear they were to me, standing like statues in my mind, the thin faces with paper passes in palm stand blank and disenchanted with patchy beards and shrunken features and tubular breasts and tumorous growths and black fingernails and crippled feet deformedly ornamented by undermined sandals like a parade of pilgrims crossing the desert if only to summon God himself in the absence of His resources and with a will to survive at least long enough to enter the shrine, America.
The farthest I’d ever traveled previous was to sell peat over in Ennis or through the earth’s skullpate known as The Burren for the horse fair up in Ballinasloe. A long ways as far as I knew. My father had just arrived back from the greatest of graveside orations and the displays of rebelpoets at Glasnevin. And when the dawn is come for change and you know it, you must prepare or be swept in by it. Great change is on the wing. Rebellions among wars.
Da nods his head at my departure up the plank, a simple handshake and I am gone to life by him as he turns back into the land. His eyes narrow under the cap and brow like a man hiding feelings. And I suddenly find that no longer will I follow his long shadow round the farm, the turf-creel on his shoulder, the scent of gorse in the air. Older by a year, brother Timothy tips at me nervously. Mother and two sisters stayed back in Clare having said good-byes there to leave the men for the day’s ride through the country, out in the long hills and stretches of rock-strewn fences where old and forgotten territories are marked like dead dog’s piss in aged farm hay.
“Not to werry. Hardest t’ing he ever had to do, send ye away such. We’ll give to what comes of it,” Mam is tear-smirched in the doorway, sorrowed by the life of things that are far from her control. “May trouble be always a stranger to ye. . . . Whence I gave birth wid’ ye some fourteen year ago, I t’ought den and still do now dat ye’d be one day a man to open the door fer many. Take dis, den. Put it in yer pocket and touch it when ye please. Ye’ll be grand wid it. Safe keepin’, not to werry.”
The Saint Christopher is not much more than a tin imprint and once upon it had a hole where to thread a string to tie round the neck, but since then it’d broken entirely. I place it in my pocket. Feel the imprint of his face on my thumb and forefinger. And that was that, Mam gives my wake with hopes to follow, her teary face blushed with a constant cry from the deaths of her two infant sons, Sean and Colm, born and died before Timothy even. And why does Timothy get the farm and I the Saint Christopher? And I think now that surely it’s because his birth and survival was the answer to Mam’s praying so hard. Mine was much less, but who has the understanding in their early years to ponder on such things except artists or rich people who are so often one in the same. And maybe the old, such as myself typing away here before I go. But little does she even know that emigrating during the Great War is likely another dead son in the wait. Only luck can make it across the sea lanes with the sea wolves dug in for war, where the Lusitania was sent to the dregs just north of Queenstown in Kinsale, just south of five months early upon. Saint Christopher or not, the German has his way on the seas and the war never means to kill a single Irish but then again a dead Irish, incidental or not, won’t change the course of things. The Irish and the sea songs though, they are fraught with the romance of death. Not a song I plan to sing, but what word have I in it? Old songs sung by the stink of peat back famine way. Back when times was worse, true. But why I am to suddenly go, no one is to rightly know. Not I. Not Mam either, but Timothy says for soldiering I’m too young yet and I hate him when all I see are the backs of he and Da walking over the hills for drilling with the Volunteers. My Mam says for traveling it’s Abby and Brigid that are too young yet. So it’s me who goes then.
“When ye can rub yer own two coins togedder, then ye can elect yer destinations,” says my Da, who with one arm pulls down the blackthorn from its chimney home; then he and I and Timothy too go off through the fields for the country train to the port city solemnly. Out from the farm. Out to the world with me.
~ Ship to New York ~
They make all males between the ages of eighteen and forty-one step out of the line to be saved for the conscription. I lean up the plank and onto the Teutonic. Men with the choppy language resembling the landlord’s pay taker corral us like cattle. They are stewards, and they are English, and they shove us down the dark stairwells of the ship with swinging oil lamps by their ears.
“Get along niy, ’urry up niy!” They say with tall ruddy smiles over the rat-haired heads.
“Slime,” one of them counts the passengers by grabbing them by an arm and pushing them toward the stairwell. “Glad to see y’off. Slime. Glad to see y’off. Slime. Glad to see y’off. Slime . . .”
Another young official up ahead of him laughs at his wit and throws an echo down the long hall, “At’s a way Currington. Oi Whatley! See ’ow Currington’s countin’ the ’eads ’ere, would yu! Funny innit?”
“Slime. Glad to see y’off. Slime . . .”
I too am swung by the elbow toward the stairwell and counted, “Slime!” Behind me I hear a man threaten the officials not to touch him and an affray breaks out with a piercing whistle that summons the meanest in the Anglo stewards. They rap the rebel on the head as he stands his ground with a few wild swings he’d been saving for them. A group of women go to yelping as he is dragged back where from he come and out of sight.
There is only one entrance and we are funneled like heads of beef from the planks and thin hallways and through tumbling metal stairwells in the dark to the stern dorm. To the back of the big girl. And as we are last to board, we are not split by gender nor age. It’s the size of a ballroom, lacking the ornaments and chairs and tables and musicians and dancers. Steel walls, iron floors and not a single facility in sight save piss pots. Not even a sheet for a woman’s privacy. By the time we fill the hall with some ninety souls there’s nary enough cots for the amount of us and so I go without and sit instead against the great unpronounced tin wall. By placing my ear on it, I can hear the gentle laps of salt water touching off on the opposite side and wonder how loud the sounds will become when far out and into the deep.
After some great wait, a backfire explodes somewhere below us and toward the bow. I hold the Saint Christopher in my fingers and feel as though my life is in God’s hands as I am such a stranger to this great floating vessel. Little do I know that for the rest of my long life I’d be a stranger in strange places, filled with my green, West Ireland memories of childhood.
Hidden men yell at one another like apes as they stoke a fire in the belly of her. From somewhere, propellers turn over, kicking off the rust and spinning begrudgingly in the salt. A great horn blows above our blindfolded ears outside with a trembling in my chest. Voices above seem to be sarcastically saluting the people of the land as we lurch backward to our staggering. Mothers filled with the ignorance of the Old World and the superstitions against anything mechanical yelp again at the sudden movement and hold on to each other in their fear. Old men too who’ve never seen yet even an automobile in their long lives, now in the hold of a great and mysterious metal monster about whose whim they haven’t a clue. After some thirty minutes of passengers bogging their strange good-byes outside, we must finally give leave of the shore and head south. The waves at the iron wall behind me now spanking and echoing through the chamber dorm.
The sea is hidden. And to us, doesn’t exist. The great expanse of it is nothing more than rivets and squares of iron sheets and slats along the whole of the room like the blank canvas of the art of the forgotten. An old highwayman is gumming a potato he’s hidden in his humble packs. Chewing as lines and muscles in his temple and pate flex like iron cords to crush the tuber in his gnawing gate, leaning off his cot with legs wide out and swaying with the expanse of the ship as if he’d made countless journeys like it in his days.
Eight hours go by, my stomach turns with hunger until a child hardly out of infancy hands me a share of bannock bread, “Me mam says ’tis fer ye,” and runs off among the other steerage crew before even I can thank her. But I say it anyhow for it is only right to give thanks, particularly to those who give when take is in the need.
By now, the fireman’s castle is ablaze at sea and the iron sheets become too hot to lean on. Devils of men bellow out from somewhere we cannot see. “Feed that bitch!” I hear a man proclaim in the tin distance. “Feed ’er! Feed ’er! She’s a hungry one! Shovel ye’re mightiest boys! Feed that bitch and give’r what she wants for the love of ye!”
I peel off my coat and wool sweater and yank down my tie in order to free the sweat that accumulates on my back and chest. Not wholly understanding why there is such a great blaze on board, I tremble with the thought of a ship fire at sea and just when I feel we are all to die by the flame, she moans a great sigh through the pulse of the deep in an abyssal ecstasy. So deep and so long you’d think it’s a mother dragon receiving the bulbous, tyrannical cock of a sex-crazed wandering wyvern bullmale from some arcane and wretched lore. I stare ahead with a crazed look upon me, ears dedicated to defining all the cryptic sounds around us.
Now growing angry, the Teutonic pushes forth through the froth. I can hear the men again feeding and stoking in some mysterious contest, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” We pierce the water at a pace of twenty knots. The width of the sea gulps at us in hopes of devouring our negligible souls for its evil quota. The Atlantic foam sucking at us in its great vaginal drink far worse than could ever be imagined in the old seafaring songs of my peat-fire childhood. Never at rest am I, as the hull of the cruiser staves on, flexing and bobbing and oscillating afloat, incising the folds and rocking through the brine as the ancient deep barely acknowledges our shafting it.
“T’ink dis here’s bad, do ye?” the man with the potato calls. “Ye’d a try it back den when a clipper’s all ye had. The creakin’ o’ swolled wood and the swayin’ fore an’ aft. T’ink dis here’s bad, do ye? Nar! Hell I’d take dis over a coffinship any day.”
Listening intently to the water, I try to distinguish the sounds of a U-boat. I hadn’t a single idea what a U-boat would sound like underwater of course, but any sound that comes to mind brings a flash of anxiety to me anyhow. My palms are so wet I wipe them on my thighs and knees so that my pants have the look of being soiled. My jaw sore from grinding, nails raw from biting. An hour later and I see the potato man with his nose to the air, shaking his head.
“Smell a storm,” says he in my direction.
Sure as anything, we next hear the crack of the cloaked sky above as the Atlantic crosser makes her way into the teeth of it, or so we are led to believe. All of us sit in wait, warbling our eyes up like owl heads to feed our ears. Billowing rippled waves of some imagined proportion lap and lick like holy fires on the stretch of mankind, forcing the vessel’s long genuflecting and seesawing.
Children and drab-dressed women are sent flaying off their backsides with legs and feet asplayed in the air and are sucked into a corner where loose remains gather like storm water sent fleeing for the sewer collect. The floor quickly changes to the color of the inside of our stomachs. Now the pinkish viscid innards spread along the steel bottom and soon enough we all are sliding in it, skittering off the slippery sheet and slamming against the wall, potato man among us. The cots too, as they are not secured to the floor, go flying toward the collects with the open-legged peasant women and clumsy children holding tight on their kin.
Screams of panic echo off the steel faceless walls. When the ship pitches high into the air, the inevitable down-splash of its great tonnage sends the population across the room but with nothing to grab on to. As the diving and swaying becoming longer, the force of ninety humans and their scattered belongings and fifty cots all slam against the uncaring steel with accumulating power. I see a woman completely unconscious with blood lines trailing from her ear and three of her brood holding on tight to her as if they don’t realize she is dreaming a dream from her concussion.
Along with everyone else, I lose track of my bag that holds my life’s worth inside it. As I look around for it and between being sent to opposing sides, I see boys around my same age stick their hands into others’ belongings and pull out coins, stuffing them into their own pockets. Two men begin berating each other and stand in the center of the moving floor gummed with mucus and previous meals. One punches the other and they pull on each other’s clothes for balance and dominance. Fighting and fighting in their beleaguered state like two cats that have been tied by their tales upside down and next to each other, brawling and hissing as if the other is to blame for their condition.
When the lightning finally passes, the swells calm too and soon all are slogging through the half-inch puddle to collect our soiled rags. A week goes by like this and only three times do the doors open with the mean stewards yelping for us to queue up as we grab for our cups. The soup is no more than water and stock, leftovers no doubt. I wait in line looking ahead impatiently and with only three in front of me the ship tilts deep into the sea as I drop my cup. I scramble for it before another can snatch it, but when I return to queue I see that the barrel holding the soup has tipped over and without cleaning the spillage, the stewards double back and lock the doors behind them. Some children around me scoop up the stock mixed with the dried vomit as their mothers cry out at the state of their lot. I look for the sweet child with the thoughtful mother and the bannock shares, but cannot find her. When I come to my place along the wall it is then I see my belongings have disappeared entirely, hungry eyes staring at my dismay like hidden hyenas protecting their earned pilferings.
Without normal sleep nor food and feeling the ship slowing, in a sudden four doors are opened above that I had yet to realize were even there. Appearing from them are the Englishman officials and their yelling.
“Out! Out! Out! Out yu goes!”
“Where are we?” One man calls up to them.
“Out! Get out!”
And so we again funnel obediently toward the single-door exit leaving behind us unclaimed trash, upturned cots never used for sleep, sopping blankets and overturned piss jars and rancid fecal buckets where somehow flies had made their way into the steerage hold or had created life itself from the stink of the third class.
A few hours later, I wait in line but for what I do not know. The ship backs away from us. There is land on either side in the distance of the island house packed with fellow ragged travelers pale with the sea’s nausea and a childhood of peasantry. I give my name. “Liam.”
“Whole name,” he demands.
“William James Garrihy, born 1901, Clare, Ireland.”
“Calling or occupation?”
“Name o’ relative or friend ya joinin’?”
“My uncle, Joseph Garrihy.”
He hands me back some papers and that’s when I find out someone misheard me and therefore changed my name. I am Garrity now. They then take my clothes so they can see the whole of me; sunken belly poked, tongue pulled and genitals picked up with a flat stick and my face flushed in embarrassment.
“Where ya off ta den,” Another man says as a matter of occupation.
“Brooklyn o’ Manhatt’n?”
I thought of the two words. Brooklyn sounds more familiar.
“On ’at ferry ova dere, g’ahead.”