Journal Volume 5 2006

Surplus People from Newcastle and Ballyvolan  (continued/8)

Whyte’s reference to 'jesting, laughing and singing' was echoed by William Hunter. Hunter was a Scot who emigrated with his wife in 1849 to Upper Canada, that is present day Ontario, by first making his way to Liverpool and sailing from there to New York, from where he headed into Canada, a reversal of the trend at that time. The vast majority of the steerage passengers were Irish. He wrote:

‘This was the Sabbath and such a Sabbath as I never saw spent. May God forgive them!’20

And what was so awful about the way the Sabbath was kept? It was spent:

‘ … whistling and singing throughout the whole day, and even playing on the flute. Our crew are also very wild, and they are as ill as ever a navvy was on the Caledonian Railway. Oh, it is pitiable to look at these poor sailors, how they are exposed to all weathers, and to see how they take their Saviour's name in vain, for they are all awful swearers and they swear always by Jesus Christ.’21

Other accounts suggest that some forms of services did take place fairly regularly on deck when the weather allowed, but they seem for the most part to have been Protestants who formed small groups to read the bible and to sing hymns. Cards bearing religious tracts were sometimes circulated among the passengers particularly during stormy weather. 'At such times even the most hardened of sinners would pray fervently'.

Joseph Wilson also found it difficult to observe Sunday in his usual manner because of the antics of the bulk of the passengers. He wrote of his:

‘ … first Sabbath at sea. Prayer meeting in the morning and afternoon and Scriptures read by the captain. Such a mighty din that I could neither read nor think. Oh, for a home for myself again secluded from this multitude. Never until now did I experience such an annoyance of a day I always set apart for meditation. Lord, send us a speedy voyage.’22

Sometimes there were clergymen on board. It was neither company policy nor a legal requirement, simply serendipity. When so many were making that westward voyage, by the law of averages some of them had to have been clergymen and we can assume that they did their utmost to promote regular religious observance.

One case that springs to mind is that of Father Thomas Hore who, with three young men in their final years of studying for the priesthood, led over 1000 people from south Wicklow and north Wexford to the Mississippi valley in 1850.23 While there are no direct references, Father Hore was a man unlikely to let any of his flock slip into haphazard ways.

But there were times when all ocean-crossing passengers deeply felt the need for religious consolation. It was the time of illness and contagion. The time when seasickness turned to dysentery and dysentery brought on the fever. When swelling, beginning in the feet, moved agonisingly through the body and discolourations of the skin broke out in sores, it was then that the balm of religion was called for. In 1822, Reverend James Wilson sailed from Dublin to Quebec. One of the passengers on board was 23-year-old Phoebe Dagg from Aghowle in southwest Wicklow. Phoebe caught the fever. In the early, healthy stages of the voyage, Wilson had found her 'agreeable, friendly, and truly pleasing in manner' and stayed close to her during her illness. In his diary he made the following entry:

‘I visited Phoebe Dagg about twelve o'clock this morning, but found her speechless, prayed with her for the last time, and commended her soul to the Lord, she died about two hours after. She was allowed to remain in her bed until night, when about nine o’clock she was put in a sheet of canvas and brought upon deck. I was sent for by the captain to have prayer on the occasion. After prayer, she was let down into the sea, there to remain until the morning of resurrection, when the sea shall give up her dead.’24

Burial at sea usually took place a short time after death, sometimes within the hour. It seemed such a short time for the family to grieve over the body, particularly for people used to a three-day wake, but the health implications had to take paramount importance. In many cases, when there was no clergyman on board to utter the prayers for the dead, the captain or mate might be prevailed upon. But sometimes this was not possible and it was left to a family member to carry out this last farewell. Robert Whyte described such a scene in 1847:

‘And as the sun was setting, the bereaved husband muttered a prayer over her enshrouded corpse, which, as he said Amen, was lowered into the ocean.’

How many were wrapped in old sail canvas and buried at sea without the benefit of prayer will never be known.


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