Sarah’s Reminiscence, Liverpool, June 1855

Sarah’s Reminiscence, Liverpool, June 1855

Sarah Guinness was almost asleep on the park bench, but the sound of nearby children playing ensured she did not drift too far. It was June 1855.  Within the next week she and her family would board the Shalimar at Liverpool docks and sail off to the other side of the world to Melbourne, Australia. There would be seven people in their party – her sister Harriette, father Rev William Guinness, his wife Harriette, and their two infants Arthur and Henry, and mistress Harriette’s sister Fanny.

Yesterday had been the first visit to the shipping offices at the docks. There had been a brief family discussion as to whether it was ladylike enough for Sarah and her sister Harriette to go with their father to such a rough place, but he reasoned that they were going to be soon and abruptly immersed into the world of a seafaring family and a little exposure would do them no harm. He had warned them the visit would be an impact on their senses, and he was right about that.

Approaching the docks all Sarah could see was all types of vessels, with a veritable forest of masts, like bare trees in winter. Cargo and luggage was being hauled on board some of them, the pulleys clanking and noisy. Then there were the people. Crowds moving in all directions. Some happy to be sailing, others looking sad. There were more than a few sorry souls dragging sacks with all their belongings, and others looking dreadfully ill.  A cheery urchin with unkempt clothes tried to persuade her father that he could show them to a good hostel, to no avail.  Finally they reached the shipping office. Her father talked with an official, showed him tickets and papers, including certificates from the physician they had all seen in Ireland who declared they were free of disease. Sarah hoped all the passengers had been through the same checks – the thought of someone unknowingly taking infection on board made her shudder.  William Guinness finished his discussions, and took down a note of what was expected of him next, to bring all the luggage in two days’ time so it could be stowed.

Sarah had been reading a book but she felt tired and couldn’t concentrate. Her sister Harriette was sitting with her, not reading her book, but fidgeting, and excited at the adventure ahead. How unalike the two sisters were, Sarah thought. She, quiet and pensive. Harriette energetic and open. Sarah’s mind wandered. She was just 17 and about to go on a journey away from her life in Ireland, away from everything that she held dear. Three months in a sailing ship, through goodness knows what weather and seas, headed for Melbourne a new rough colonial city bustling with energy and busyness, where everybody it was said, was obsessed with gold. Talk about a change. This was an absolute upheaval.

She thought of the life she was leaving behind. She couldn’t blame her father for wanting to try a new life in Australia, but this was really quite wrench, a break with his famous family making such a mark in Dublin, family with whom she had become well acquainted on the many occasions she had stayed with them. His cousin Benjamin Lee Guinness was virtually in control of the brewery, and his Burke cousin Edward was building his new wine business. Here was Sarah, an educated young woman, almost ready to launch out on her own, with such an exciting family in Ireland, and her father was turning his back on it all and going to the end of the earth. Couldn’t she just have stayed behind with an aunt or some cousin? No, her father had said. She was too young and he was responsible for her. In a way she could see his point: and he had his own reasons for moving out too. The conflict of church life in Ireland and the aftermath of the Famine left him wondering about his lot. He had been 18 years in Collooney. It was time for a change, and time to put sad memories behind him.

Sarah’s mind wandered easily back over her 17 years, or at least as far back as she could remember. She had known only one home - The Glebe House, Ardcotton, near Collooney in County Sligo, north western Ireland.  Out her bedroom window she had a wonderful view each morning, taking in the acres of surrounding parkland and then back across the lawn and the orchard and down to the banks of the Owenmore River, a play area of choice when the weather was fine…

Despite the comfortable feeling Sarah had about her home, she was also aware of some nagging thoughts about her comfortable material status. She had been only 10 years old at the depth of the great famine and her father had tried to protect his children from the awful experiences of those times. But she had heard how Mrs. Perceval his former mother-in-law had died trying to help the sick people on her estate, and of all places it was at church on Sundays that she had talked with other children and heard stories of people being evicted from their cottages, dying on the roadside as they drifted somewhere, nowhere, and orphan girls being sent to Australia away at the bottom of the world. Then there was the awful day she and her sister Harriette were in the carriage turning into their driveway when those poor children walked right past the window. It wasn’t actually a walk but a shuffle. There were just the two of them, a girl several years older than her and a younger boy, perhaps her brother. She was walking ahead of him just a bit faster. He was stumbling. “Wait for me Bridget” he had pleaded with her. “Come on Patrick,” she replied, “perhaps we should ask the daoine maithe to help you.” Their clothes were ragged, they looked thin and pale. Bridget had looked straight at Sarah in the carriage: a haunted, forlorn look on her face. Sarah smiled, but there was no response, just the empty eyes. Sarah didn’t know what to do. Suddenly she asked for the carriage to be stopped, took off her shawl, jumped out and gave it to Bridget. She smiled weakly and took Patrick’s hand and wandered off down the road.

Later when she told her father he commended her, and when she asked him about the poverty and suffering he said he couldn’t explain how such tragedy could happen, and added that but for God’s mercy they too could be destitute.  Sarah pondered that and hoped she would never be that poor in her lifetime; but she did wonder how it was that God’s mercy didn’t include the people she had seen that day. If Bridget ended up going to Australia with others like her, would that be the mercy of God? A question she chose not to discuss with her father. However she did discuss with their family cook the words Bridget had used. Cook knew that many local people believed in the daoine maithe, fairies who could help people in distress.

Sarah came too with a start. A ball had come bouncing close to her and a young boy was calling for her to return it. Sister Harriette picked up the ball. She had seen a trio of young naval officers across the park, not far from her father. So she took the ball to the young boy and walked over to her father within admiration distance of the young men. She should marry a naval officer Sarah thought, if it’s adventure she wants, or better still a ship’s captain. Sarah saw her father in the distance, one arm holding young Henry, the other holding his wife. They looked happy, and Sarah has happy for him; but seeing her infant half-brothers, she was also conscious of other conflicting moods, of growing up as her aunts had said, no longer a child but now a young woman, whatever that might mean. Her young sister Harriette wasn’t grown up. She was far too exuberant. Her brother William two years her elder had grown up into a tall fine-looking fellow, and had left for New Zealand on the Merchantman just a month ago. Her father had received such glowing reports from his cousin Michael Burke about farming prospects in the new colony. There were few prospects in Ireland and he didn’t want to go into the army or the church, so off he went to be a sheep farmer.

Then Sarah came to that feeling she had had more and more as she grew up, aware of the person who was missing on this adventure  – what would it have been like to have a mother alive; and how happy had her father been with his first wife, perhaps his truest love. He had told her about her mother, Harriette, the beautiful daughter of Admiral Le Poer Trench. He showed her the only picture he had of her, painted when she was a pretty young woman. Her father said they had been happy, and she was enjoying him being in his first years as a clergyman, and looking forward to their life together. But it all ended when she became ill after sister Harriette was born, and she died not long after. Father always stopped at this point, went quiet, his eyes misting over and looking far away. Where did he go? It must have been a place of wonderful memories, but in the end that’s all they were, and he, and they, had to come back to the world where they were, without her. Sarah had spent many hours looking at the picture of her mother but felt no connection. She never knew her, and could only guess at what she had missed. Nobody had ever filled the gap... (read more in the book)


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