Aggie here, again.

Flabbergasted is what I am. Last time I heard bagpipes I was haverin’ in my droon, stone cold deid. Wally did a braw job piping out Amazing Grace ‘n’ Auld Lang Syne at my funeral but My Bonnie Lassie was just new on th’ radio an’ he didnae ken th’ notes.

There I was minding my business, lamentin’ out loud th’ braw send-off I’d wanted an’ next I ken, th’ very tune I’d wished for was blarin’ in t’ the room. I near fainted. Adjusting t’ all this modern pish can take a toll, that’s for certain.

But I can get this computer runnin’ fine now I’ve told ye’ th’ story of boarding th’ S.S. Numidian:

We near missed our first breakfast on th’ ship. I heard th’ wake-up bell ring at 6:30 but cuidnae open my eyes. It took voices cawin an’ dishes clanging outside our room t’ wake me. Even the bairns didnae want t’ stir. Every table was filled before we started th’ long trek down th’ hall an’ up th’ stairs t’ th’ lavatory; by th’ time we got back, there was but bread an’ prune jam on th’ last two tables remainin’ set. My own tummy was nae settled from the stress of it all so I was content with my hot tea, weak as it was, but th’ weans filled their bellies with bread, washing it down with cups o’ milk the matron brought t’ them. I was grateful I’d thought t’ tuck a few tins filled with cured mutton, oat cakes, some cheese ‘n’ a few blocks o’ mum’s shortbread in t’ my bags. An’ o’ coorse, a crackin’ package o’ tablet fudge.

The ship had stopped in Moville while we were sleepin’ and th’ stewards told us t’ leave th’ community space so they cuid clean up an’ let th’ Irish passengers board. I didnae want t’ spend th’ entire day in our berth so bundled th’ bairns warm an’ followed th’ others t’ th’ deck outdoors.

’Twas a braw day for sunshine, th’ fresh air uplifting after th’ stuffy deck below, but a fierce wind cut through my wrap. In th’ space we were sent, machinery, metal pipes, an’ shafts, cluttered everywhere an’ left few places t’ sit but th’ floor.

Steerage Outside Deck 1911

Photo courtesy of

Most folk crowded near th’ entry, th’ only wind-sheltered spot, but th’ bairns seemed glad t’ be outside. ’Twas nae long before Jean an Lily joined a game o’ scouk ‘n’ seek with a few other weans. For some reason, Colin wuidnae step further than an arm’s length from me, as though he feared I’d disappear.

T’ this day I dinnae ken th’ reason, but every day women were allotted a cup o’ broth at 11:00 o’clock in th’ morning. A whole hour before th’ dinner bell but I didnae want t’ miss tryin’ something that might settle my roily tummy. When th’ bairns an’ I came inside, a steward stood at the end of one table doling out th’ hot liquid. Poor man was surrounded by throngs o’ folk worrying an’ buzzing over th’ business of settling in t’ their berths. He’d no sooner finished when other workers arrived t’ set th’ tables for dinner. ’Twas so crowded, I cuid nae see how anythin’ got done.

By the time th’ ship set off t’ open waters (an’ I thanked th’ lord they were calm) ’twas nearin’ suppertime. I knew the bairns were hungry. The weak, tepid barley soup with bits of salt pork ‘n’ chopped carrot tossed in had been barely edible at dinner. The bread was fresh ‘n’ guid, but nae plentiful enough t’ fill them up. My own stomach had finally settled an’ my mid-afternoon tea ‘n’ cake was barely enough t’ tide me over.

With so many friesh passengers taken on that morning, the supper bell created a chaos near impossible t’ navigate. No queuing up, just mad dashes t’ th’ tables. ’Twas a contest t’ find enough space for all four o’ us. Thank goodness for wee Colin, squeezin’ in t’ the front an’ claiming a stretch o’ chairs.


Photo courtesy of G. G. Archives

But th’ frenzy put Lily beside herself. I cannae say with what – anger, frustration, or simple hunger, but neither Jean nor I cuid calm her sobs. Most times, shushing warm air into her ear an’ smoothin’ her hair cuid settle her tantrums but I knew she was too crabbit for it t’ work. I closed my eyes an’ tried anyway while we waited for the stewards t’ set out th’ food. My body relaxed in t’ the motion of her cries when of a sudden, they stopped an’ I felt a wee chuckle come from her chest. I opened my eyes ‘n’ sprang bolt upright.

Across th’ table sat th’ most sprightly creature I ever laid eyes on. A mere lad for certain, with wide sapphire eyes, coal-black locks curlin’ an’ tumblin’ over his forehead. His milky face, his rosy cheeks ‘n’ mouth fare glowed, an’ a single freckle winked from aside his left eye.

“Mummy.” Colin pulled on my sleeve. “It was in his hand an’ it disappeared. A shilling.”

“Och – A whole shilling disappeared?” I cuidnae take my eyes from the wee stranger. “And what might your name be, laddie?”

“My name is Ion. Spelled th’ right way. I-O-N. Not I-A-N like the eejit Scots. Ion Murphy. That’s me.” He held out his open palm, twisted it about, closed it tight, an’ opened it t’ show a shiny shilling. A dimple formed in th’ left cheek of his smile as th’ entire table laughed an’ clapped. My bairns kept their eyes glued t’ th’ stranger through th’ whole meal an’ o’ course with my own curiosities, I had t’ ask …

“Are you travellin’ alone?” I noted his lean frame an’ th’ worn cuffs ‘n’ elbows of his thin jumper.

“My mam’s lying abed with a headache. She told me to eat without her. My da’s building ships in Nova Scotia, Canada. He’s finally arranged for us to come join him. Before he left he taught me all about building ships and how they work. Now I finally get to be on a real one. Mam isn’t happy about leaving Ireland, but I’ve been waiting two whole years to see Da again. Since I was nine.”

Ion Murphy spoke like he was composing a piece of music. I cuild hae listened t’ th’ wee leprechaun for hours.

Och – an’ th’ lad was wily, too. Meals were nae permitted t’ be taken into the berths an’ as th’ supper clearing began, Colin, Jean ‘n’ Lily left th’ table while I finished th’ last o’ my tea. Ion still had two braw pieces of breid on his plate, a slice o’ beef stashed between them, an’ I saw him eyin’ th’ stewards’ moves. When their backs turned, quick as a whip, he stuffed th’ food under his jumper. He knew I’d spied him an’ read th’ question in my eyes.

“It’s for Mam.” The rosy colour of his cheeks spread t’ his entire face.

“Never mind. I’ll keep wheesht. You’re a guid laddie.” I patted his hand. “Mind ye nae leave any crumbs or droppins’ in yer berth. Yer mam’ll nae thank ye for inviting th’ vermin t’ dinner. An’ make no mistake. They’ll be about.”

Th’ second afternoon, while Jean ‘n’ Lily napped, I sat in th’ community area outside our berth with my cuppa ‘n’ knittin’ a bonny muffler I knew we’d need in Edmonton. Colin wuid nae stop yammerin’ for me ’t take him up on deck. I was guid ‘n’ warm where I was an’ my conscience wuid nae let me leave my post. Th’ bism had me as cross as I’ve ever been, but if Ion didnae show up, his smiling face its own kind o’ freshness.

“Mam is resting and I’m on my way up to check out the ship. As far as they’ll allow me that is. Why don’t you come with me, Colin?” Well, that was it. Colin switched from bism t’ wee puppy an’ followed Ion t’ th’ deck every afternoon after, each time coming back by suppertime with endless stories o’ masts, funnels, beams ‘n’ such.


Image Courtesy of G. G. Archives

A few evenings th’ leprechaun was even guid enough t’ distract all three weans with his magic tricks while I took some skivvies ‘n’ things t’ th’ washing room t’ gave them ‘n’ myself, a guid scrub.

Young Ion Murphy bein’ on th’ ship was a godsend, indeed. He’d won Lily over th’ very first day ‘n’ made a point o’ lifting her for a wee spin ’til she laughed every time he saw her. I seldom saw his mam come out o’ their berth except having him guide her on th’ lang walk t’ th’ lavatory. She was a wisp of a thing who ne’er joined him at th’ dining table, though he insisted she was nae seasick. An’ he did often smuggle bites of food t’ her. Th’ laddie was friendly with most everyone on board an had a way of steppin’ up, makin’ himself useful. I cannae say when ’twas decided but sometime mid-sailing, I knew the bonnie green muffler I was knitting wuid be his.

The young Ion was by far the most interesting part of crossing th’ Atlantic so I’ll leave ye there for the time being. Th’ lass is wanting a strong picture of what the trip was like so I’ll be takin’ my time t’ see what I can come up with.

Cheerio th’ noo …

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