The Emigrants

From the vile rookeries, the alleys,
And the evil smelling courts,
The emigrants, en route from Liverpool,
Lined up like cattle, shaking,
In draughty Transit sheds and halls,
Waiting to board their packet ships,
That, for three pounds ten, would take them,
All the way to New York……..But…….
With no way back again!

There was no band to see them off,
Only a piper’s sad lament,
To play a final anthem,
For the Irish emigrant.
They staggered up the gangplanks,
Carrying everything they owned,
Their food, their pots and pans,
And bedding straw in rolls.
Before taking up their gloomy,
“Ten square foot” of “steerage” space,
Down below in the hold,
Where last trip’s cargo of cotton and tobacco,
Had been more profitably stowed,
And the rank smell,
Was still hanging in the air.

Their tiny wooden craft,
Detached itself from the billowing canopy,
Of flowing sails and masts,
That packed the docks,
And slowly disappeared, without a ripple,
Through the locks,
Past the Wirral and Perch Rock,
And out into the Irish Sea,
Still with its full compliment,
Of Irish refugees,
Forced into reluctant exile,
They’d lost their uneven fight,
Against the absentee English landlords,
And the cruel potato blight.

From Waterford to Belfast
And Dublin to Cork,
They’d leapt like lemmings,
Towards the sea,
Desperate to reach New York.

Black Ball, Red Star,
Blue Swallowtail Line,
Were all cutting corners,
To make the fastest time,
Indifferent to the tears of mourning,
Spilling over the ship’s windward side,
Which spawned a tidal fury,
That drove the Atlantic wild,
Hitting them with waves of granite,
And leaving them nauseous inside,
Confined to their bunks,
Praying for stillness, and privacy,
And for deliverance from the storm.
But the taste of tainted water,
Flushed them through and through
With “dysentery”, and sorely tested,
Their will to survive.

With poor sanitation,
The smell stayed hanging in the air.
Along with the tobacco and the festering straw,
Still clinging like a limpet,
To their clothes and matted hair.

On slimy decks queues for food,
Stretched well into the night.
Most had to wait impatiently for favours,
Or risk a bloody fight!
The bullies and the rich,
Managed to get in first,
But the able bodied seaman,
Always gave preference,
To any pretty Irish girl,
Who’d wave an underskirt.

After thirty days,
Came the prettiest sight of all.
“America,” and a red sky,
As night began to fall.


By Terry Clarke