Academic journal article Social Education

From County Cork to New York: The Emigration of Megan O'Rourke

Academic journal article Social Education

From County Cork to New York: The Emigration of Megan O'Rourke

Article excerpt

(A work of historical fiction) A Glossary of Terms appears at the bottom of this narrative

Dhia dhuit! My name is Megan O'Rourke. This is the story of how I came to America.

In the winter of 1846 I turned thirteen. My family was Da, Mammy, my younger brothers Danny and Michael, and my baby sister Peggy. Our home was near Ballincollig, a village in the Lee valley not far from Cork city. We lived in a one-room cabin with a thatched roof, with three neighboring cabins all huddled together at a crossroads. Fields of potatoes, praties we called them, and grain surrounded our village.

My friends and I went to a hedge school, meeting outdoors in fine weather by the hedge along the side of the road, where we learned to read and write. Our teacher Mr. Kelly also taught us some Latin and our numbers. The older children learned a little Greek.

As the eldest child, I had many responsibilities. I took care of the little ones in the family. I also went for water to cook our praties and for washing. I stoked the fire and boiled water in a big black pot. I did not mind the hard work. All children my age were working hard. But we had special days that brought us all together. My girlfriends and I danced at the crossroads on many a Friday evening. We put an old wooden door on the ground and made it clatter with our feet. The boys played a game called hurling, with sticks carved of ash wood, a ball, and a goal. On the feast of St. Brigit we would go to the abbey at Ovens to a pattern.

Da was paid eight pence a day when he worked in the big fields, but he wasn't needed every day. We had a small patch where we raised oats and potatoes. We sold the oats to pay for the rent and for a bit of cash for clothes and such. In the old days, we Irish owned our land, but by 1800 most of our land was owned by English landlords. Many did not even live in Ireland, but relied on an Irish estate manager to collect the rent.

Potatoes are good for you and my family ate a lot of them, about a stone of potatoes a day after a good harvest. We boiled the praties in the big black pot, and fed the skins to the pigs. When I was small, Betsy, our cow, gave us milk for making buttermilk to have with our praties. Sometimes Ma added a little fish to our colcannon for flavor. The landlords owned the rights to fish in the rivers, so we had to be sly about catching them.

We thought our treatment by the English was unfair. When the English Parliament made Ireland part of the United Kingdom in 1800, they said Ireland was an equal part of the kingdom. But we felt like a colony. The United States belonged to England, too, not so long ago. Many Irish people wanted an independent Ireland, just like the people in America had their own country. Irish men and women who had gone to America fought in the American Revolutionary War. Many who stayed fought in the Irish rising in 1798. The English won that awful fight, and Ireland became but a part and parcel of the United Kingdom.

Even before the great hunger, what we call the gorta mor, life was hard. People would go hungry while they waited for the praties to grow. Some years the crop wasn't very good and that meant people had to sell their possessions just to buy food.

Sometimes Da walked to the big farms in County Tipperary to work during the harvest to make a little extra money. Because of our hard work, my family always got by somehow. We also knew that even if one harvest was small, the praties would come back the next year and everything would be all right.

But starting in the fall of 1845 things were not all right. The praties rotted in the ground with a horrible smell. Fields of potatoes grew black overnight. Those we had stored under some peat rotted, too. It was the blight. That fall, we did our best to survive. We searched the fields for the few potatoes that had not been ruined by the blight. My Da sold Betsy, so at least we had money to pay rent. …

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