Denise O’Hagan

Blessed to be here

‘Europeans who decided to make a new home in New Zealand embarked on the longest journey of migration in human history.’ (TeAra, Encyclopaedia of NZ)

Our journeys make us, they say, they define us
And to an extent, they are us.

It was a hard voyage
And at twenty-six, he was a hard man
Leaving the rugged squiggle of coastline
That was Ireland, and all he knew,
With a wife and young sons in tow
Bound for the other side of the world
And who knew how many long months at sea
Cramped into the tired, tiered bunks in steerage
Down below deck with the vermin and the seepage
And the cargo and other government immigrants
Pushing and shoving and jostling and squabbling,
The filth was palpable, the stench near tangible
And privacy was just a word
There, where tedium vied with fear
(shall we play quoits or pray for mercy?)
To the continuous churning of the sea
The incessant grinding of wood on wood
And squelching and squeaking of slippery planks
Waves slapping and slopping the deck
And froth dribbling like unmopped spittle.

He wondered sometimes whether they’d make it
While his wife complained about washing in a teacup,
The potatoes and too-salty meat that never ran out.
‘And not enough greens,’ she said, ‘Never enough greens.’
‘Hold your tongue, woman,’ he told her.
‘We’re blessed to be here, and don’t you forget it.’

She turned away from him then,
And didn’t turn back
Until the day their infant son
Coughed his life away in her arms
And he gently prised his small body away
From the ship doctor’s brandied breath,
His rough farmer’s hands shaking,
Saw to it that he was wrapped in sackcloth
Like the other little ones before him
Weighted and slipped overboard
With muttered prayers and gritted teeth
And barely a splash.

No desire for recrimination, nor inclination
Too stricken for tears or lamentation,
He and his wife stood hand in hand and side by side,
Watching the silk smooth water,
The water that now held their son.

The trajectory of his life
Was set in his jaw then:
He had his life to make.
He was going to survive
For his wife, his son
By God, he was going to survive.

Note: Inspired by my great great-grandfather’s voyage from Ireland to New Zealand in April 1865 in the wake of the Famine. His eight-month old brother was one of twelve youngsters buried at sea.