Authors: Jenny Telfer Chaplin
Having taken the big decision and on the point of going
round to the factor with their key-money, the blow fell: Kate was again
pregnant. True, with another baby, a larger home would have been ideal. But
there was just no way in which their already stretched financial means could be
further elongated to finance the move itself, more furniture, a higher rent,
and the additional expense of one more mouth to feed.
So the dream of a room-and-kitchen remained, for the moment
at least, just that, an unattainable pipe-dream. Equally impossible was poor
Kate’s homesick dream of ever again being back in her own beloved country. The
Ireland of bright peat fires, steaming hot potato-cakes, dew-drenched green
fields, the shamrock, the soft rain and the even softer brogue of her adored,
but now far-off Emerald Isle. All this and much more, had now gone from her,
leaving but a beautiful memory to be cherished in the long dark nights of her
troubled soul. No longer would she know the joy of waking to a fresh Irish
Spring morning, with the hills dew-tipped and God in his Heaven.
Six long years after their arrival in Glasgow, Kate was
again great with child. Not that there was ever much in the way of loving
kindness or comforting caresses from Pearce, but each time that he satisfied
his own physical needs, it seemed that inevitably, Kate became pregnant.
Perhaps even worse to bear was the knowledge that the only time her husband
claimed his marital rights was when he was reeking of whisky
Despite the fact of having given birth to Jenny, the year
after twins Angela and Daniel, and Andrew, two years ago – each child as
perfect physically and mentally, as any mother could wish for – Kate still
worried. Each time she looked at poor baby Hannah with her lolling head, vacant
expression, and weird animal noises, Kate fretted that she might again give
birth to another severely handicapped child. Strangely enough, her hours of
labour which had brought wee Hannah into the world had been the worst of all
her births, almost as if the baby had not wanted ever to enter a cruel world.
Perhaps Hannah was a throw-back in some way? Or is this how
God shows His displeasure for my immoral conduct?
It was just as she was deep in such gloomy thoughts that
Pearce came back into their home from his early morning visit to the cludgie –
the stair-head communal lavatory.
On his way over to the sink, before starting to wash his
hands, he cast her a baleful glance.
“Still seeing the bright side of everything, I see?” he
The thought went through Kate’s head that had his words
perhaps been accompanied by a cheeky grin, then it would have taken the sting
out of them. But she knew from bitter experience that was not her husband’s
way. If Pearce had something to say, then he always came right out and said it,
regardless of anyone else’s hurt feelings.
By the same token, it would never have occurred to Pearce to
put a comforting arm around her shoulders. At the thought of such neglect in
her emotional life, tears started to cascade down her cheeks. And once started,
she could not stem the flow. Seeing this, Pearce frowned and said: “For
heaven’s sake, Kate. What’s wrong with you now’?”
Wiping away her tears with the back of her hand, she gazed
back at her husband.
Half an hour later, by which time Pearce had breakfasted
well with his usual bowl of porridge, and soda bread and dripping, he was on
the point of leaving for work when suddenly he clapped a hand to his brow.
“What a memory. Nearly forgot. It’s today you’re going out
with Betty Donovon and her brood, isn’t it?”
Kate looked up from clearing the dishes away from the table.
She frowned and chewed at her lower lip.
“Well, the big event is today. Sure that’s right enough. But
I haven’t exactly said I’ll go.”
Her husband shook his head. “Nonsense, Kate. You can’t let
the children down. Anyway, it will do you all good to get out of this hell-hole
for a while. Get some fresh air into your lungs.”
About to voice her objections, Pearce spoke up first. “Look,
I’d really like you to go. And wee Andrew will love seeing the boats.”
Kate had her own thoughts on this matter. After all, Andrew
was still only two, wasn’t he? But, Daniel was five and much more interested in
ships, ferries, launches and the like.’ However, rather than start up a family
row in accusing her husband of favouring one son more than another, she decided
to ignore his words.
Taking her silence for wifely agreement, he put a hand in
his trouser pocket and withdrew two precious silver sixpences. Then holding
these out to her, he said: “Here you are, Kate. Andrew loves puff candy. Buy a
wee bag for him ... and ... er ... for the other children, of course. It will
add to the joy of the outing for them.”
With these words and a wave of his hand, he was gone.
Later that same day, Tuesday July 3rd, 1883, Kate, her
friend and neighbour, Big Betty Donovon, and between them, their squad of
children, made their way through the bustling city streets towards Linthouse,
near the Govan district of Glasgow.
They knew they faced something of a trek to get anywhere
near the launch, so they had packed as many of the children as they could into
their two rickety, squeaky prams. The older children trailed along as best they
could in their wake.
It was a reasonable morning, neither too hot nor as yet
bucketing down with rain, so with the occasional encouragement in the way of
chunks of puff-candy, the group made fairly good time on their self-imposed
route march. And as they walked, the two women blethered twenty to the dozen.
In answer to a question from Kate, Big Betty nodded and when she spoke, there
was a ring of pride in her voice.
“Yes. ’Tis my cousin, Declan. A fine carpenter he is. He
helped build this fine steamer.”
“Isn’t he that fine handsome young lad who mended your table
for you? I remember seeing him.”
“Aye, the very one. Came over from Armagh only last year.
Lucky enough to get work at Stephen’s Shipbuilding Yard. A good lad ... sends
most of his wages back home to his widowed mother in dear old Ireland. Just
hope we’re as lucky with our children when they get to be workers, eh, Kate?”
Kate grinned and nodded her agreement. As she started to
speak, her words were lost in a burst of sound and shouts of delight from the
children. They had by now approached the gates of the Yard, already black with
a seething mass of exuberant, excited humanity.
Flags and bunting waved in the light breeze. The local pipe
band, resplendent in full Highland regalia, was even then marching through the
gates of the Yard on their way to the launching platform.
Daniel let out a whoop of delight and, with face abeam,
turned to his mother.
“This is great, Mammy. It was worth the walk. Thanks for
bringin’ us.” Kate ruffled his dark hair.
Betty, in high glee, was shouting to make herself heard
above the excited, chattering din and the skirl of the pipes all around them.
“Yes, Danny boy, the boat is called the Daphne and if ye
watch carefully, any minute now, we’ll see her slide down into the waters of
the Clyde. And do ye know something else?”
Daniel shook his head, agog to get all the information he
possibly could about this wonderful event.
“What’s that, Aunty Betty?”
Betty paused for dramatic effect, by now thoroughly enjoying
the novel experience of having a captive audience.
“See that Daphne, son? Well, although ye cannae see them,
there’s to be more than a hundred men still working aboard her as she gets
launched. And my cousin is one o’ them. There now, Danny, whit dae ye think o’
Daniel gave a long, low whistle of appreciation, which
coming from such a small, earnest boy, caused smiles of amusement from those
other spectators around him. One elderly man turned to face Betty and in the
broadest of Glasgow accents, said:
“Aye, Missus, and ma three big sons is aboard an aw. Whit a
great day it is fur us. Talk aboot the pride o’ the Clyde.”
Betty nodded, but before she could comment, a youngish woman
with a child in her arms and from the look of her, another child in her belly,
spoke up: “A great day indeed. Ma man’s on the Daphne as weel. he really wanted
to stay here and watch the launchin’ wi us frae the shore. It’s by richts his
day aff, ye see. But Ah jist tellt him, don’t ye be daft, says Ah. You get on
board wi’ yer pals. It’ll be a great experience for ye, Bert. And forbye, we
can aye use the extra bawbees.”
Everyone in earshot nodded in agreement, for surely there
was not a family on Clydeside but needed every farthing they could get in order
to keep body and soul together.
Suddenly, there appeared to be some activity from the
platform party. A wild cheer went up from the waiting crowds. The elderly man,
who had previously spoken with such pride of his three strapping sons, turned
to Kate. He jerked his thumb down in the direction of young Andrew who was
still holding on to the handle of the pram, for fear of getting lost in the
thick of the crowd.
“Listen, Missus. The wee fella will no’ see ower much o’ the
launchin’ frae doon therr. Gie’s a haud o’ him and Ah’ll hoist him up on tae ma
Kate smiled. “Oh, that’s real good o’ ye, sir.”
The elderly man shrugged away her words of thanks.
“Nothin tae it, Missus. Fine weel Ah ken aw aboot bairns. In
fact, Ah must tell ye ... one o’ ma lads oot therr on that boat, his wee
wifie’s expectin’ a wean soon ... so ony day noo Ah’m gonnae be a grandfaither.
So, Ah micht as weel get in a wee bit o’ practice. But quick noo wi’ the wee
lad. Or we’ll miss the launchin’ aw thegither.”
He raised Andrew high above his head and then positioned the
lad comfortably on his shoulders.
“Haud on tight tae ma heid, son. Ye’ll get a great view.
Aye, this’ll be a day for you tae remember when ye’re an auld man yersel’.”
No sooner were the words out of the proud father’s mouth
than an almighty cheer went up from the crowd. The pipers again started up
their melodies, and amidst scenes of intense excitement and enjoyment flags
were waved on all sides and even soft tweed bunnets were taken off and waved
Those whose hands were free of children clapped loudly and
turned to speak to, slap on the back, or otherwise congratulate perfect strangers.
On all sides, snatches of pride-filled conversation could be heard.
“Ma faither’s on that big boat, so he is.”
“See ma man. Idle for a helluva lang time. Jist got work
last week on the Daphne. Lucky for him, eh no?”
Kate smiled when she saw Hannah was still savouring a sticky
piece of puff-candy, the orange rivulets of which were dribbling down the poor
child’s chin. Taking a rag from under the sleeve of her dress, Kate spat on the
ready-made hanky a couple of times and leant forward to mop at Hannah’s face.
So intent was Kate on trying to keep Hannah still long enough to get her
cleaned up, she didn’t see the next part of the launching.
A sudden collective intake of breath from the thousands of
watchers on the shore immediately followed by the dying and ragged strains of
the pipes as the music drifted away, unfinished, made Kate raise her head in
time to see the vessel turn right over and capsize into the murky waters of the
A horrible stillness, a silence which could be felt,
followed this unbelievable event. With hand-held flags still in mid-wave,
everyone gazed in fascinated horror towards the river, as the Daphne was drawn
downwards, ever downwards, into the stinking waters of the great river, it was
clear that without warning and before their very eyes, the river had claimed
its latest victims.
Gradually, as the full horror of the situation dawned on
their stunned minds, a new sound was heard: a low, animal keening from the
women, young and old, already mourned the loss of a dear one. Strong men wept.
With tears pouring down his lined face, the elderly man, the soon to be
grandfaither, in an instant grown older than time itself, gently removed Andrew
from the perch of his shoulders. With a sorrowful look at Kate, he forced out
the words: “Ah’ll hae tae get awa hame tae ma wife. She’s an invalid, ye ken.
Ah jist dinnae ken how Ah’m gonnae break this news tae her. Her three bonnie
laddies. All gone. Oh, Christ Almichty. This will kill her. Kill her, so it
will. Oh, God help us all this day. Ah still cannae thole the idea.”
Now muttering incoherently to himself, he shuffled away,
making his way through the crowds of weeping, wailing relatives.
Kate, her arms by now around Betty’s shoulders, stroked her
friend’s hair. And all the while, Betty moaned: “Oh, my poor Declan. And his
widow-woman mother. God. Why should this have happened? Why in the name o’
Christ, does God allow such sufferin’?”
It was while she was looking over Betty’s shoulder Kate saw
the young mother to whom they had earlier spoken ... the young,
heavily-pregnant girl who had actually persuaded her husband against his will
to go aboard the Daphne on that fateful day.
The baby still clutched in her arms, the young mother-to-be
was gazing about her in shock. It was clear that any minute, once the full
impact of the tragedy hit her, she would keel over. Kate eased herself away
from a now noisily-weeping Betty. That done, she went towards the young mother
and with some difficulty, prised the baby from her clutching fingers. Then, holding
the serenely sleeping child in one arm, she enfolded the stunned and shocked
young woman with the other.
How long they stood locked in this timeless, wordless
embrace, Kate had no way of knowing. How Betty, the distraught young mother,
and Kate herself, or even any of their own children got home that day, Kate was
never entirely sure. The rest of the day, the struggling, frantic crowds of
weeping men, women, and children all became a blur. But forever, she would
remember with clarity the shriek that had gone up from the unknown and unnamed
young widow: “Oh. Ma man. Ma bonnie man. Dear Sweet Jesus. Gie me back ma poor