MARTIN & CATHERINE IN IRELAND

- SETTING THE SCENE -

He tossed fitfully in the narrow bunk; carefully, because a straying leg or elbow could earn you a grunt and a curse from the ones either side, or above or below you. Inflamed eyes partly gummed shut , he was reminded where he was by the damp salty fug belowdecks, the creaking in the rigging, and the gentle rolling of the ship beneath him. The weeks and months of monotony onboard the “Stebonheath” were almost at an end as she ploughed her way up the New South Wales coast towards Port Jackson.

Voracious lice feasting on his head and pubic region, the cramped quarters and incessant coughing and groaning of his fellow passengers, were minor irritations and the insistent gnawing pain in his empty belly an old and familiar friend. Seventen years of age, he was entitled to the adult ration of one pound of poor quality yellow (corn) meal daily, which was barely enough to keep the skin hanging on his scrawny frame.

Soon it would be time to rise, check for anyone who had succumbed overnight, and congregate around the passengers’ fireplaces. These were lined up either side of the foredeck and contained in wooden cases lined with bricks. They furnished endless scenes, sometimes of noisy merrymaking and others of violent quarrels ending in blows. From morning till evening there would always be someone making ‘stirabout’ in all sorts of vessels; a kind of porridge with maybe the addition by the more affluent passenger of a piece of salt herring or chunk of fatty bacon. At other times, cakes (damper?) would be baked on roughly-made griddles; generally about two inches thick and encased in a burnt smoky crust while being actually raw in the centre. The poor quality corn meal was doled out five days a week and ships biscuit the other two. The brackish liquid which passed for drinking water was rationed in pitifully small daily allowances.

Her Majesty’s Ship ‘Stebonheath’ was only one of the poorly equipped vessels which carried Irish immigrants to Australia. Having set sail from Portsmouth on 30th September 1857 , she was now due to weigh anchor in Sydney, five and a half months later, on 17th February 1858.

For Martin Noon, 1858 had not been a good year. Nor had the previous ten for that matter. He had lost both his parents to the Great Famine, been confined to the workhouse, seen his only sister emigrate to Australia, and was now, himself, about to finish what had been a nightmare voyage firstly with a savage storm on the sixth day out, then by scandalous behaviour between the crew and the female passengers, then by the drunken comportment and cruel punishments doled out by the ship's surgeon, all towards an uncertain future in a far off land.

 

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