Friday, 2 January 2015

Soft the wind blew down the glen

Soft the wind blew down the glen

The upper deck of the boat looked dangerously crowded as the last few people were roughly pushed on board by the two biggest members of the crew. The weekly boat from Sligo to Glasgow carried coal by the ton and a few horses and some fat looking cattle which were corralled near the back of the upper deck. Every other available foot of space seemed to be occupied by a throng of poor looking people making the long journey to Scotland. Old hands, who had made the trip before as migrant workers to the harvests of Ayrshire, knew just where to stand to avoid the inevitable spray and wind from the Atlantic. For young Andrew, it was his first trip but his father had wisely introduced him to a friend by the name of Padraig Coll who was tasked with looking after him on the trip. Padraig was a tall, strongly built man with piercing green eyes and pleasant enough demeanour. ‘I’ve been on the trip each year for this past 12 years,’ he said with a smile, ‘I’ll get you as far as Glasgow but I’ll be going on to some farm work after that.’ At fourteen, Andrew was considered a man and with no prospects in rural Sligo but poverty and hardship, he had been persuaded by his father to try his luck in the industrial powerhouse of Glasgow. There was work to be had for a strong, willing young lad and there were already thousands of Irish already in the city. As the boat cast off, Andrew heard the distant clank of the chain as it drove the big paddles on each side of the ship. The funnel billowed black smoke into the sky as the coal ship eased its way down the Garavogue river and out into Sligo Bay. They passed the metal man, a quaint 12 foot cast iron giant who stood on a stone plinth in the middle of the channel pointing out to sea. Andrew sighed as he saw Rosses Point slip past, it was a familiar part of the Sligo landscape and so many had viewed it for the last time as they sailed for Britain or America. He’d miss his home but the great hunger had been followed by great poverty and those who could, left to seek a better life elsewhere and perhaps send something home to those too old or too young to leave.

Padraig lit his pipe as the ship edged up the coast towards Donegal and mumbled, ‘If we make 12 knots the trip will take about a day, I’ve known it to be as long as 30 hours in bad weather. Best rest if you can.’ Andrew nodded, and sat on his little pack which contained some clothes, a couple of books and wrapped a small blanket his father had given him around his shoulders. He also carried a letter from his father to a friend, a certain Thomas Flaherty, who had gone to Glasgow some years before. He was to guide Andrew once he got to the city and help him settle in. To his left someone began playing a small accordion and a quiet lament for the land they were leaving behind spread among the huddled souls on the deck of the ship…

‘I sat within a valley green, I sat me with my true love,

My sad heart strove the two between, the old love and the new love, -

The old for her, the new that made me think of Ireland dearly,

While soft the wind blew down the glen and shook the golden barley.’


Andrew watched and listened as another batch of Ireland’s children lamented leaving their homes, perhaps forever. As he let the gentle words of the song wash over him, he recalled his father had told him of the Croppies of 1798 being thrown into mass graves after they had been executed. These ‘Croppy pits’ dotted the land and some swore that Barley grew above them and swayed in the wind to remind future generations of their sacrifice. The ship’s mast seemed to sway back and forth on the swell as if keeping the beat of the song. Andrew closed his eyes and wondered if he’d ever see Ireland or his family again.

The crossing was one of the calmer in recent years according to Padraig who shook Andrew awake to point out the coast of Scotland to him, ‘There it is, young Andrew. May that land hold good fortune for you.’ It was a further two hours sailing before they entered the Clyde estuary and passing the villages and towns dotted along its bank, finally entered the smoky City of Glasgow. Andrew stood like most of the others on the deck of the ship and gawped at a city bigger by far than any he had ever seen. Tall chimney stacks belched smoke into the air and buildings seemed to sprawl on for miles. ‘I’ve never seen such a place,’ said Andrew to Padraig who puffed on his pipe passively. ‘Aye, it seems to be bigger with every passing year.’ He turned to Andrew and with a serious face said to him, ‘Now young fella, I must leave you soon but trust no one in this town until you’re among your own people and even then be careful. Go to your father’s friend’s house immediately. I’ll point the road out to you before our paths diverge. This is a hard town Andrew with a hard heart and you must be careful.’


The steamship docked at the Broomielaw as Andrew gazed around him at the bustling docks and river crowded with ships. People onboard busied themselves with their meagre bundles and crying children were soothed with soft words spoken in the old tongue. Andrew joined the crowd heading for the gang plank and in a few moments placed his foot for the first time in Scotland. Padraig guided him through the crowd and along the quay to an exit gate which led them out onto a busy thoroughfare. ‘We go east young fella, till we reach Glasgow Cross and then we must part. You must go on to your Father’s friend’s house then. It’s in the High Street but from what I’ve heard it’s a dark place.’ They walked along a street of tall buildings, Andrew astonished at the noise and bustle of the city. Carts rolled past and there seemed no end of people milling about. As a country boy he would need to get used to the noise. He heard the occasional Irish accent but most voices were heard in a harsh Scottish accent. Tough looking young men glanced at them occasionally as they passed but Padraig’s physical presence and confident manner deterred any mischief. They reached a point where a tall clock tower marked the meeting place of four roads. ‘This is Glasgow Cross, Andrew. I go south to meet the gang who pick the potatoes with me in Ayrshire, You must go north up the High Street to number 75 and find this Flaherty chap. Good luck to now young fella.’ He shook Andrew’s hand and smiled encouragingly at him as if sensing his nervousness, ‘Go on now, you’ll be fine.’  Andrew watched Padraig march off and suddenly felt very alone in this strange, noisy city. He turned and headed north.


There seemed to be no numbers on any of the buildings so Andrew asked the smartest dressed man he saw if he knew where number 75 was. The man brushed past him as if he didn’t exist. Andrew gazed after him a little surprised. A woman young approached, shawl draped loosely over her shoulder and asked in an Irish accent, ‘You just off the boat, chara? Ye lost? I’ll put you on the right road for a couple of coins. Show you a good time for a few more?’  Andrew shook his head, ‘No thanks, I’m looking for a friend.’ She stood, hands on hips, her reddish hair blowing in the breeze, ‘and who might that be? Sure don’t I know every son of Erin this side of the water?’ Andrew regarded her with a serious face and thought it worth asking, ‘Do you know Joseph Flaherty?’ Her expression changed, ‘Ah now, old Whisky Joe won’t be meeting you this day or any other. The fever took him in the spring.’ Andrew was shaken to his core. ‘What? He’s dead?’ Her face looked more sympathetic, ‘He is that, young fella. Gone these past five months. Was he your contact here?’ Andrew’s mind raced. What should he do? What would his father have him do? He looked at the woman, ‘Yes he was. Can you help me?’ She sensed his fear, ‘Now don’t go worrying. I know just the people who can steer you on a safe course.’ She led Andrew back down the High Street and through the bustling streets of Glasgow. A stout man called out in their direction in a harsh Belfast accent, ‘He not a bit young for you Annie?’ She shook her head, ‘Away with ye Cahill, sure I’m only helping a lost lamb find a safe pasture.’ She wrapped her shawl a little tighter around her shoulders as a slow drizzle began, ‘Jesus, and I thought it rained a lot in Buncrana!’ Andrew looked at her as they turned along yet another strange street lined with houses, pubs and shops. ‘I’m Andrew,’ he said, ‘from County Sligo.’ She regarded him with an almost motherly smile, although she could not have been more than 22 or 23, ‘I’m Annie,’ she said, ‘Annie Mahon and pleased I am to meet you Andrew from Sligo.’  She stopped outside a modest little church which nestled neatly between the cottages either side of it. ‘Ask for the Priest, he’ll find you a safe berth for the night.’ Andrew looked at her, ‘Will you not come in with me Annie?’ She smiled sadly, ‘No, I…’ she hesitated, ‘I’d rather not.’  Andrew reached into his pocket. His father had given him all he could to start him off in Glasgow. It was only a few shillings but he wanted to give Annie a few coins for her trouble. ‘Don’t be giving me money now,’ she said with a look of mock offense on her face, ‘Say a wee prayer for me instead, God knows I need it.’  He looked at her, ‘Thank you Annie. I hope our paths cross again.’ She smiled at him, ‘I didn’t catch your family name Andrew. Are you a Flaherty like old Whiskey Joe?’ Andrew shook his head, ‘No, I’m Kerins. Andrew Kerins.’ She nodded, ‘Nice to have met you young Andrew Kerins. You’re a long way from home but I hope this town is good to you.’ With that she smiled, turned and walked back in the direction they had come in. He watched her hitch her shawl over her head to protect her from the rain. He then turned and pushed the heavy door of the church open and walked inside. For good or ill, Glasgow was his home now.

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