Peg Magner and her family tumbled from a rotting ship onto the dock at Ellis Island, and thanked her lucky stars to be alive. It was a miracle they’d all survived the journey, while so many others bobbed in the waves between here and Ireland. That was until she spent two weeks in the hellhole that was called ‘The Five Points’, after which she thought a quick death at sea might have been an ease to them all. Two weeks was more than enough to convince Peg that her family needed to find someplace better to live.
Philadelphia was growing out of all proportion, in the year 1876, it was turning from a waterside town into a burgeoning metropolis. A constant flood of immigrants were streaming in from the harsh boroughs of New York. Sean, Peg’s husband was worried they would starve on the roadside before the journey was complete. However, in the end, the ragged family didn’t have to walk one mile, thanks to a deal Sean made with a steamer boat captain. Sean and the captain fell in with each other over a tankard of ale, and it proved to be a fortuitous day indeed. Sean agreed to load and unload cargo, as well as paying a small fee, for which four miserable Irish wretches could sleep on deck among the casks of whiskey. Even though the fee was small, it represented nearly half of the family’s worldly wealth.
By the end of the loading, Sean’s hands were the colour and texture of minced meat. The day was all but gone when the boat slipped its mooring, and the smokestack belched dirty coal-smoke into the night air, Sean staggered over to where Peg and the kids were huddled and dropped to the deck.
“Sweet Mary above, what have they done to you?” she said, seeing the blood spatter on the deck from the ends of his trembling fingers. Peg bandaged Sean’s flayed hands with strips of cloth torn from her underskirts, and let him rest on her lap and sleep amid the warmth rising from her body.
Soon she felt the first small waves raise the nose of the boat, and a fine sheet of spray whipped across the deck. Peg gathered the children to her and wrapped her shawl around them all, like a mother hen taking her chicks under her wings. The journey took nearly two days. The passage was mercifully calm, which Peg took to be a great omen for their new home.
Peg and Sean were blessed with twin girls, now four years old. The girls loved the boat and delighted in playing chase between the stacks of barrels. Their names were Aishling and Aine, two cherubs with flaming red curls and a faces full of freckles.
On the afternoon of the second day, the ocean swell lessened dramatically as they entered the Delaware, but that was the only indication they were making their way inland, so huge was the waterway.
“Sean, is everything in this place so big? Rivers as wide as the sea, land you couldn’t walk if you lived to be a hundred, and so many people,” Peg pondered, shaking her head at the water after Sean had explained they were now steaming up a river. A few hours later the banks closed in on either side, and they could make out buildings beyond the growth of trees from time to time. Soon the buildings multiplied until there was no bank left to see. A fog of smoke hung over the docks as they moored in Philadelphia, dulling the strong October sunlight. Sean braced himself for the backbreaking task of unloading the boat. Peg had cut pads from her only jacket to cover his hands, to give him some little protection.
“Ah Peg, you’ve gone and destroyed your coat! Winter is coming, and you will need that more than I need these,” he said when she presented him with the stitched woollen pads.
“I’ll need a husband with hands able to work, to bring in a living for the four of us,” she said, pressing the cloth pads into his hands and shoving him gently toward the gangway.
While Sean toiled, Peg and the girls went in search of lodgings. Wherever she looked there were signs which said, “No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish.” It was a mantra that she’d encountered often in New York. At first she’d been shocked, but now it washed off her like rain from a goose. Her wanderings brought her further and further into the city. Soon she came across a section of clapboard houses, thrown up so shoddily they leaned over the narrow lanes, blocking all view of the smog-stained sky above. This teeter-totter of buildings housed dozens, if not hundreds of people, all thrown together by poverty. Whole families living in one tiny room shared a privy if they were lucky, they slopped out piss buckets into the street if they were not. Here, the mud clung to Peg’s boots in foul smelling lumps, but she did her best to clean them before climbing the steps of one house after the other.
At last, she agreed a lease on a room. She paid in advance for a month with what was left of the family’s savings. The Magners would be one of the few white famlies living in this part of Philly, which sat in a no-man’s land between Seventh and Lombard Street. When Sean had finished unloading the steamer, they carried all they owned on their backs and moved in one go to their new home.
It took a while but Sean found work at a Tannery on the docks, moving stinking hides covered in lie and tallow. Every night he washed in the freezing water of the Delaware before making his way home. Even so, the smell of rotting animals could not be shifted from his skin. It wasn’t all bad in their new home. Peg even found what she thought of as a little bit of Ireland in the shape of a small park, aptly named ‘Star Garden Park.’ The paths were lined with majestic ash, oak, and maple trees. Someone had even hung a rope swing from a low-hanging bough which the girls loved to play on. Aine was a right whelp and was always giving her mother the most terrible frights by hiding, and refusing to come out until she was found.
On the last day of October, Peg and the girls were in the park as always. Aishling and Aine were taking turns on the swing, while Peg sat on a nearby bench and fretted over the looming rent. It could have been a minute, or it could have been five, before Peg noticed the chatter of little girl voices had stopped. She looked up and Aishling was alone on the swing, gently swaying over and back.
Peg got to her feet and walked over, calling for Aine to come out of where she was hiding, but she didn’t. Peg checked all the bushes and trees, but her little Aine wasn’t hiding behind any of them like she normally would. Dread filled Peg’s whole body. She grabbed Aishling from the swing, dragging her along as she searched every inch of the park, yelling herself raw. As a last resort, she ran back to the tenement, hoping against hope that Aine had come home by herself, but the tiny room was empty. Her unnatural cries of agony ringing through the house were frightening, and soon drew a crowd of black faces to her open door.
“My baby is gone. My baby is taken,” Peg wailed at the gathering crowd. One slim young woman broke a hole in the crowd and ran away down the stairs. It was only minutes before she reappeared, shadowed by a huge breasted woman the colour of a starless night. The crowd parted before this woman like the Red Sea had done for Moses. Her face was a patchwork of long healed welts, raised by an expertly laid whip. Her eyes were brown, with yellowed whites, they looked neither left nor right, but took in everything. Her substantial lips were pursed and the flesh of her neck wobbled as she walked. The crowd fell back, respectfully bowing their heads.
“Lady, Lady,” said the thin girl, shaking Peg by the shoulder in an attempt to break through her hysterical crying. “Diss be Mama Tess, she is come to help, Lady.”
The elderly woman squatted low on creaking knees. She roughly grabbed Peg’s face between two paddle-like hands. When Peg continued bawling, one hand lifted an inch, then landed a thunderous slap. The sound caught in Peg’s chest and her eyes finally registered the dark face floating inches from her own. Holding Peg’s chin, the woman drilled into Peg’s mind with ageless eyes. After a second, the woman looked away, fixing her gaze on the tiny red-haired girl cowering in the corner. At last, the huge woman spoke, her voice deep and melodic, the words exotic. The thin girl translated the strange dialect for Peg’s benefit.
“Mama says it is not too late, the bond between such girls is strong. Your daughter can be found, but you must take us now to where she and the little one were last together,” the young woman said. Mama dragged Peg to her feet with one beefy hand, while lifting Aishling in the other. Peg was shoved into the still growing crowd. To begin with, her legs walked, while her mind struggled to cope with what was happening, then they ran, when she realized this was her last hope of finding Aine alive.
Peg reached the swing well ahead of anyone else. Collapsing to the ground, she threw her arms around the plank of wood her daughter sat on not an hour past. She was then roughly pushed to one side by Mama, who placed a shocked Aishling onto the seat. Mama kneeled, getting face to face with the child, then she began rocking over and back. From her huge chest a low hum of noises gathered strength, soon the air was filled with wild sounding words which made Peg’s head spin. The crowd following the hysterical woman had swelled to nearly fifty, but none approached the Mama Tess, who they clearly held in awe. As the huge woman stroked Ashling’s cheeks, her words grew in volume, and speed. Aishling’s eyes glazed over, Mama was now nose to nose with the child, peering deep into her hypnotised eyes. A second grew into two, two into an age. Peg and the crowd held their collective breaths. It was Mama who broke the spell by bounding to her feet and dashing off towards the far end of the park without even a word. The crowd sprinted after her, like a pack of hounds on the scent of a fox. For an old woman, she was unbelievably fast. Even Peg, who was driven on by terror, found it hard to keep up. Mama Tess dashed out of the small park, heading for the river. Down streets and lanes she led the still growing gang, Peg at the head of them all, with Aishling crushed to her chest as she ran.
Without warning, Mama Tess stopped at the door of a back alley tavern. She flung it open with such force she split one of the planks in half. Inside sat a group of rough looking mountain men. They wore wild beards and their clothes were made from animal pelts. Mama approached the group and pulled the one sitting nearest her to his feet. She grappled with the man pulling him close as if he were as light as a feather. The man struggled in her grasp, lashing out and landing a succession of blows. He may as well have been beating his fists against the trunk of an oak for the effect it was having on Mama Tess. Suddenly, her deep voice erupted in a fountain of blood curdling words. Her clawed hand carved symbol in the air, and the wild man she held in one hand shuddered. Mama’s voice grew louder. White foam appeared on the man’s lips, his eyes bulged and filled with blood. With a tremendous scream, Mama grabbed the air above the man’s chest, grasping something only she could see before yanking it away from the man with an audible pop. The man gurgled, then crumpled to the table, dead. The rest of the mountain men stood rooted to the spot with shock, as vomit, blood and beer ran from the table onto the floor. Mama Tess reached out and grabbed another man. This time her words were nearly English as she said, “Girl chille!”
Mama Tess dropped the man from her grasp and watched him scurry around to the far side of the tavern. He shoved a bench away from the wall. Beneath it was a tiny trap door. Mama Tess strode over and hooked the door with one meaty finger. She threw it open and revealed a head of bright red curls. Peg screamed with joy as she rushed forward and plucked her precious girl from the dank hole, bedraggled, but alive.