This is an invitation to all who would like to come on a journey, through the life of woman who must learn how to forgive what seems unforgivable. The story of Norah and Michael Kearns will be posted in serial form, a chapter at a time, twice a week (Mondays & Thursdays). Please feel free to comment on the issues faced in the story.
I hope this story, based on the life of my great, great, great grandmother, helps you wrestle with the issues of forgiveness as it did for me.
How to you forgive a man who shows no remorse, no shame about his actions? How do you forgive a man who hurts others over and over again, even his own family? How does one bear the burden of forgiving and what does it cost not to forgive? These are the issues faced by two women, Norah McCann and Kathryn McGuire, who arrive in Sydney Cove in 1839, on a convict ship. They both have hopes for a new life in this new land of Australia; hopes for marriage and families of their own. They could never have imagined the different paths their lives take as one marries a good man, who spends his life trying to do all he can to honour his commitment to compensate for his early mistakes. The other marries a man who is intent on taking for himself whatever he can, always at the expense of someone else. Norah and Kathryn's friendship deepens throughout their lives, as they struggle with the hardships of day to day survival, and face the far greater challenges of learning to forgive and bearing the cost of that forgiveness.
We are all on a life long journey
and the core of its meaning,
the terrible demand of its centrality,
is forgiving and being forgiven.
Sydney Cove, December, 1839.
Norah looked down at the anquished face of the girl on the bed. ‘They say tis nearly Christmas,’ she whispered. ‘Perhaps a sign of hope?’
‘Daft girl…sign o' hope! Always lookin' for the bright side, ain't yer?’ The raspy voice beside her pierced the fetid air. ‘Well, there's no bright side 'ere, lovie. We're stuck in the bowels of this 'ere ship with not enough room t' turn over in our sleep… an' 'eaded for who knows what hell. It's a great laugh that they give us needles an' thread an' hankies to sew to keep us occupied. We'd be more likely to put each other's eyes out. And now this one's about to give birth…with it almost too dark to see what we're even doin'. It'll be a miracle if either of 'em lives. There's more than a few 'ere would grab a newborn an' ring its neck just so's they didn't 'ave to share the space.’
Norah shuddered at the image. But she knew Kathryn's baby would come when it was ready, whether they could see what was happening or not. She had seen it often enough with her Mam back in
Limerick. The image of her Mam's face caused her to lose herself momentarily, to wondering what was happening back home…what had once been her home. What would her brothers be doing? What did they think had become of her? Did they think of her at all? It hurt so to think of her poor dear Mam…God rest her soul. She prayed that her brothers had given her a decent burial, even if it took their last farthing. But there was no point inletting her mind dwell there. Better she do what she could here so that poor Kathryn didn't end up with the same fate. She wiped the pale girl's forehead with a dampened rag and leant close to her ear.
‘You hold on, Kathryn, hear me. Tis almost Christmas and you'll have a sweet bairn to hold. T'will be worth it all, sure it will."
Kathryn could just hear the voices around her. The soft, sweet one with the Irish lilt, which she knew to be young Norah's, and then the raspy crackling of the older women, their tones heavy with weariness and frustration, dulled with resignation. They were all headed for a fate worse than death, she knew, so what did it matter if she died giving birth? Who would care? Her Ma was long dead. She’d had no home for the past five years but the damp, cold kitchens of those who had paid her a pittance to work her hands to the bone. Certainly John McGarry would not miss her, for he’d be too busy having his way with another kitchen maid by now.
She took a deep breath, as she felt the ripping pain return and involuntarily pushed. As another scream escaped from her mouth, she gritted her teeth wildly, clamping down and grabbing for the boards underneath her. They offered no cushioning, just dug into her thin buttocks, tearing at her skin.
‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph.’ She again heard the muffled voices above her.
‘Lord have mercy on the poor mite.’
‘Quick, now, let's be done with this. There's nothin' more we can do 'ere.’
‘I'll not be giving up so soon, sure I'll not.’
The voices faded away into blackness.
The gentle wiping of cloth against her brow aroused Kathryn from the murky depths. She could smell the sickly breath of a mouth close to her face.
‘There now,’ she heard faintly. ‘Don't try to move. Rest a bit longer. You'll be better in a wee while, so you will.’
She opened her eyes slowly. Norah's fine boned face hovered above hers, a tentative smile creasing the corners of her dainty mouth. ‘The baby?’ It was a struggle even to whisper.
‘I'm so sorry, Kathryn. T'was not to be. Dear wee pet is in God's hands now.’
‘God's hands, eh?’ Kathryn sighed deeply. 'And who is God, then? Another man, taking everything and giving nothing. Sure, isn't it always the way?’ She closed her eyes and sank into the hard boards beneath her. ‘Why me?’ she hissed.
‘Tis very sad, I know, but we must trust that God knew what's best for the dear wee –’
‘Not the baby.’ Kathryn's voice was husky with emotion. ‘Me…why did I live? Why do I have to go on? Sure, I've nothing to go on for…nothing.’
‘Hush now, no such talk. You'll feel better in a few days, sure you will, and you have time for more babies… more – ’
‘More men, you mean? Sure, and won't they all be the same? Bastards, the lot. Curse them, I say.’ Kathryn turned her head resolutely and closed her eyes.
She felt the gentle wiping across her forehead again; if not cooling, then at least drying the sweat, easing the itch from the humid dankness of their dungeon. As she drifted to sleep, she prayed to a God she could no longer believe in. Prayed that the boat would sink into the sea, swallowing up all the misery of her twenty years.
‘There now, I've managed to get a fresh cloth. I talked young Ruth into giving hers up for you. She's not inclined to wash, sure she's not. I was first to the water bowl so it's cool and clean.’
‘You don't give up, do you, Norah?’ A reluctant smile spread across Kathryn's face.
‘Tis nearly Christmas and we'll be docking in the next few days? Who knows what we'll find ashore.’
‘What could there possibly be on this side of the world that there wasn't on the other, answer me that? I've not found much yet that's good about the world, so I'm hard pressed to think of something I'd look forward to.’
‘Fresh air…maybe some sunshine…somewhere to sleep that's softer than these benches…maybe even a mattress. Surely they'll not keep us cooped up like this in the new colony. I've heard it's very big.’
‘And crawling with black men with spears, is what I've heard. What makes you think they'll let us out in the fresh air? We'll go from one prison to another, you mark my words.’
‘Oh, do try to be a little positive, Kathryn. Everyone is so gloomy. I know we're all tired and sore, but I've got to believe something better can lie ahead. Aunt Agnes was so sure it would be better than what we faced at home, what with the potatoes all going bad. My brothers wouldn't be giving up, God bless their poor souls…even after Mam passed on, I’m sure they'd…oh, I'm sorry. I shouldn't speak of that.’
‘She died giving birth, didn't she? And you determined you'd not let it happen to me. Sure, it wouldn't have been your fault, Norah, just as it wasn't with your Mam. And the little one?’
‘Gone with her.’ Tears welled in Norah's eyes as she remembered. ‘It happened so quick, before I could get help. Mam had so many little ones that died but there was always another on the way. She said it was a woman's duty…but this time Da died while she was in the early stages. She didn't have much heart for anything those last months. I'm sure she knew what was coming. She told me to go to my aunt. She said Aunt Agnes would tell me what to do.’ Norah wiped her eyes on her sleeve. ‘Aunt Agnes tried for months to get me on a ship with a family coming out free. The O'Bradys said I could come as their nurse maid. They said they'd watch out for me but it was so cramped in their quarters, so here I am with you lot. But I don't mind. When we dock I'll find somewhere to stay and get some work. I'm a hard worker, Kathryn. I know I can make good, sure I can.’
‘You've more guts than me, girl. I'd never have willingly got myself on this barge, and especially not heading for the colony. Tis just a dumping ground for the unwanted of
and Ireland . I can't imagine what your Aunt was thinking. I'm expecting nought but hard labour and misery, so I am.’ England
‘You should rest now, Kathryn. You need to recover your strength… and do your grieving.’
‘No, tis best to have lost the baby. The bastard son of a bastard father…what's to be grieved in the loss of that, eh?’
Even in the darkness, Norah could see tears running from the corners of Kathryn's eyes.
Kathryn's sleep was restless, haunted by images of the past. The distant thumping of her father's hammer as he drove nails into hard timber, desperate to sell enough to feed his six children. Angry at the world, John McGuire had often taken his despair out on them with beatings, especially the boys. He'd driven them all to find work, even when her brothers were six or seven.
‘Sweep chimneys,’ he'd yell. ‘Shovel snow. Fetch and carry for the rich, beg if you have to, steal if you must, but we'll not remain poor forever. Not unless tis over my dead body, and yours too if must be.’
His voice pounded in Kathryn's head. Her mother had died when she was seven, just curled up and gave up the ghost, her father said. It seemed he hated her for it and hated them all for being left for him to feed. So Kathryn found work as a kitchen maid. First with the O'Hallarans, who had her working sixteen hours a day; scrubbing floors, emptying slops and the contents of their bedpans, scouring pots till her hands were raw, and hardly a word of thanks from her father for the pitiful amount of money she brought home.
Then she had found work in McGarry's kitchen. Mrs O'Flaggarty, who ran the house, was a kindly woman, all she might have hoped for in a mother. So there had been a few months of peace. She had lived in through the week and only went home on weekends. She had found she could laugh with Betsy, the housemaid, and Mrs O'Flaggarty was pleased enough with her work to offer her some praise and encouragement. But then she had noticed young John McGarry giving her the eye, encouraging her in a different direction. He had cornered her a few times and said such pretty things, made promises she now knew were his way of beguiling a young girl to satisfy his own needs.
When he had eventually had his way with her, she had been too blinded by love to see what she was getting herself into. Mrs O'Flaggarty picked up enough of what was going on to warn her, but she had had no mind to listen, and when she found her courses had stopped, she feared the worst and panicked and went to John, begging for help. Of course, he dismissed her out of hand, accused her of being a slut, of having a hide to blame him for her shameful behaviour. He ordered Mrs O'Flaggarty to throw her out with nothing but what she'd brought into the house.
Well, she wasn't about to let him get away with that, so she had sneaked into the house and stolen some of John's sister's clothes and a canvas bag. If she was to be out on the streets, then at least she would have something warm and decent to wear. And she had taken some pork pies and cold mutton along with the newly baked bread from the storeroom, for hadn't she kneaded it with her own hands just that morning? And why should she be the one to take all the blame for what John had lured her into?
She hated him now, for she could see what a fool she’d been, how he had used her, what misery he had caused her to suffer. She could still feel the fear of those dark nights, hiding in alleys, grubby hands grabbing at her shawl, tearing at her hair. She was used to being hungry, for her family always had little to fill their stomachs. But those weeks after she had run off, she had felt such hunger pains as she had never known before.
Stealing food had been risky, not because it was hard to get, but because it was hard to keep, with thieves around every corner, ready to snatch what shehad risked her freedom to grab. So many fights, scratching and biting to keep a mouthful for herself, until she was too weary to run, too tired to hold onto her scraps. She had been caught, charged for stealing Fiona McGarry's clothes, sentenced to seven years in the New South Wales colony and dispatched like a piece of crumpled baggage onto this ship.
At least she had thought she might have a child to keep her company, to remind her of her few precious moments, but now even that was gone. She had nothing to look forward to, nothing but her determination to steel herself against the treachery of men.
‘So much for Christmas, eh, Norah?’ Kathryn squinted in the glaring sunlight as they emerged onto the deck and were pushed roughly towards the dock. She leaned into the younger girl, still unsteady on her feet from the constant swaying of the ship.
Norah struggled to support the light frame of her friend. She was less than five foot tall herself and it was clear from the way her shift hung on her that she had lost pounds on the trip out. One hundred and thirty days with hardly a decent meal, barely enough water to drink, let alone wash in. The smell of the sweaty, dirty bodies around her as she shuffled forward almost took Kathryn’s breath away, making it still harder to keep upright as they were carried along with the group, their limbs too stiff and sore to resist.
‘Sure, tis a shame they left us on board for Christmas day, Kathryn, but we're here now and isn't it a beautiful sunny day?’ Norah glanced briefly at the sky and squinted.
Kathryn couldn't help but smile. The girl was incorrigibly good-spirited. She took in her companion's appearance in the bright light, noticing for the first time that Norah's hair was an explosion of deep red curls. Her eyes were pale blue and her cheeks the colour of peaches. If she ever got the layers of grime off her body, she would be a real beauty.
‘How old are you, girl?’
‘Eighteen,’ Norah answered as she looked about, struggling to keep her footing. There were groans and grumbles all around them as the wasted bodies of one hundred and ten female prisoners poured onto the dock and were herded towards a group of waiting soldiers.
Norah clutched at her canvas bag with one hand, making sure she supported Kathryn with the other.
‘Lord save us,’ Kathryn sighed. ‘Where on earth will we end up?’
They listened as names were barked and orders shouted, almost fainting in the blazing heat, till finally they were grouped and led away to the Hyde Park Barracks.
‘Whatever that is,’ Kathryn mumbled as they dragged their feet along the dusty road. ‘A prison, by the sounds of it. But I'd not been hoping for anything more, seeing as I'm here to serve a sentence. You should be treated better, surely, for you've done nothing to deserve this hell. You should have gone with the O'Bradys when you had the chance.’
‘I'd rather stay with you, Kathryn, for we can take care of each other, can we not?’
Kathryn sensed a little fear in her young friend's voice for the first time and flashed a warm smile at her. ‘Sure we can. We'll stick together and show 'em what we're made of, eh? Fine Irish stock, so we are, and not to be trifled with.’
Kathryn wished that she felt half as brave as she sounded.
After three days cramped into small cells at the Barracks, most of the women were assigned to domestic service and dispersed around the colony. A few, considered more troublesome, were sent to the Female Factory at
, where they would work until considered fit for assignment. Fortunately for Kathryn and Norah, they were not to be too far apart, Norah being assigned to the Hennessys in Parramatta 's George Street and Kathryn to the Sydney Clarks, who lived on York Street. Both were Marine families and their households were expected to run with the discipline and precision of a well run ship. It was because of this that Norah and Kathryn were able to meet at the fish cart every few days as they picked up the families' orders.
‘Why, I'd hardly have recognised you, my girl, except for that flaming hair. Very dandy, I must say,’ Kathryn said at their first sighting of each other.
‘Sure, it was grand to have a proper wash. Mrs Clancy, she's the cook at Hennessys, made me burn every bit of my clothing, sure she did, and soaked me ’til I thought my skin would come off. But, oh, t'was lovely, and now I've these new clothes. There's another kitchen maid, Eliza, and one for the rest of the house. And such smells in the kitchen; wonderful bread and stew and I can eat as much as I like and I've a real bed to sleep on that's soft and has sheets and, oh, I told you it would be better, sure I did. But listen to me, carrying on so. How is it with you?’
‘I'm not so excited about domestic service as you but I've no real complaints,’ Kathryn said. ‘The cook at
Clarks is a bit starchy and stern but she's fair. Tis a big household. I've not met all the other maids yet. But it is good to be clean and have decent food, for sure, and there's no men hanging about looking for special favours, so that's something to be glad of.’
‘The future will be better, Kathryn. I feel it in my bones.’
‘Well, let's wait and see. I'm hearing that once a convict has their ticket of leave, there's work away from this filth. Tis the only thought that's keeping me going.’
Norah glanced around. The streets were littered with rubbish, narrow alleys between the buildings jammed with rotted vegetable waste, the gutters dribbling with foul smelling water. She hadn't really noticed it until Kathryn had spoken of her desire to get out of the city, but it was not her nature to dwell on the negative aspects of her situation and she quickly returned to her more pleasant thoughts. She smiled at Kathryn, glad to see her so neatly dressed in her clean skirt and shirt, her fair hair draped smoothly across her forehead and pinned in place with her starched cap.
‘Tis not so bad, Kathryn. We've to be glad we've got a place to live and work to do. Some of the poor wretches in the streets have neither. I feel sorry for them, really I do.’
‘I'm sure you would but you just be careful now. Stick to the main roads and watch out for the louts that hang about getting up to no good. Don't go trusting people, especially men, Norah, for they'll be after one thing with you and they'll not give a care what happens to you."
‘I promise I'll be careful, Kathryn. You've no need to be worrying about me. Try to be happy where you are, won't you?’
‘I'm not at all sure happiness can be trusted.’
‘Well, at least try to keep believing for that future you want, for it'll keep your spirits up, sure it will.’
‘We'll see, Norah. We'll just have to wait and see.’
To be continued.......
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