Sunday, 6 February 2011

Magpie Tales – Streets of gold

Photo from Tess over at Magpie Tales

"But … it’s not!”

“Not what?”

“Gold, you said the streets would be paved with gold and they aren’t!”

“Keep digging, you probably haven’t dug deep enough. Not enough blood, sweat and tears from you yet, young man.”

“But Da, my hands are blistered and my back is killing me. I didn’t imagine it would be as tough as this!”

“And how did you imagine it would be?”

“I thought the land of opportunity would be better, not so much of this physical work. I certainly didn’t expect us to be building the streets and working on the pavements. We could have stayed home if all we wanted to do was dig!”

“The trouble with you is you’ve never had to exert yourself too much. I blame myself for that, I’ve been too soft in my ways and your mother constantly making excuses for you has not done you any favours. But times are tough and now we need all the work we can get. We need to feed the family back home.”

Back home seemed a lifetime ago. Several months travelling in a coffin boat full of emigrants wasn’t the most thrilling journey to New York City. Malachy O Reardon and his son Jed had managed to secure the last two places when the ship sailed from Cork harbour in Ireland in the summer of 1847.

It had been a painful farewell at the harbour for them both. Saying good bye wasn’t easy. Neither of them knew if they would see the family again. But there was no choice now, no choice at all it seemed, staying in a country no longer able to feed its people didn’t count as a worthwhile choice. People were dying, the crop had failed. In order to survive and provide for his family of five, Malachy O Reardon had to go to America, had to be on that ship to New York City and had to earn a living to send money home. He took with him his eldest son Jed, only fifteen and much to learn about the harsh realities of life. Jed hadn’t been a strong travelling companion. Three weeks into the trip he suffered from ‘ship fever’. Malachy thought that he might not even make the journey to America and questioned his judgement about taking him; he was after all only a child. How would he explain to his wife that her son didn’t make it? But Jed survived despite the odds, the overcrowded cabins and the unsanitary conditions.

Malachy knew that the boy was missing his family and friends and the familiarity of ways back home. He was finding it hard to settle in the dark and overcrowded hostel which was usually full of older men who like themselves had travelled to find work. Many of them were homesick and resented being treated like second class citizens. They often resorted to heavy drinking and gambling to while away the time after work and lessen the pain of loneliness and despair in a foreign country. Many of the men had only managed to pay for a one way ticket, in the hope that life and work in the ‘land of opportunity’ would provide enough wealth and fortune to send for their families when they got established in the new country.

“Da, da, come over here. Look at this. Quickly, down here. Just below the spade. Can you see it?” shouted Jed.

“Shh ... lad, keep your voice down. You’ll have the whole gang here in a minute,” replied Malachy trying to contain the boy’s excitement.

Malachy walked across to where his son was working. He looked down at him in the big hole of dirt filling up with water. Piles of broken pavement heaped on either side of the growing cavity.

Jed O Reardon laughed and handed his father two small, dirty coins.

“You could be right Da; maybe the streets are paved with gold after all!”


  1. It's true about exertion...must do! My folks first came to Ellis Is. in 1923 from Russia..
    Love your, indeed!! Great tale.

  2. A lovely write. It brings to mind the film "Golden Door". Have you seen it?

  3. Great story telling Maire. I would love to read more of Jed and his Da's experiences and if they ever go home!

  4. Hi Lyn, I guess there were some fascinating stories about arriving at Ellis Island ..and lots of mixed emotions too.

    Thanks Tess. Not familiar with 'Golden Door'. Will check it out.

    Thanks Ann ... could be another story for another day :-)


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