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Beacon Archive

May 2004
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The Way it Was: Man of Aran
Submitted by Rod Nackerman

It was a glorious summer day in 1915, with clusters of elderberry blossoms dangling like woolly tassels from the shrubbery lining the estuary of the great Chicago River as it deposited its muddy torrent to sully the crystal-clear waters of the great Lake Michigan in the United States of America. There had been a fierce war raging somewhere in the Western hemisphere but most of the subjects of this ‘Land of the Free’ went about their normal chores, knowing little about this affair and indeed caring little about it either. It was only when the newspapers carried tidings of some American vessel being scuttled on the high seas that any interest was awakened, as the sinking of the Lusitania had aroused in the early part of the year.

So here in the narrow streets of the blustery city the bustle of the grain buggies prevailed as they plied to and fro with their swollen sacks of wheat and corn, heading for the wharves, where steamers from other lands had their hatches open to receive whatever cargo was for export. The only difference this sunny day was that the streets were much clogged by the landaus which overtook the laden buggies with scornful indifference as their affluent owners hurried out of town to wallow in the sunshine of the countryside.

Peter Boyle, a swarthy seaman, had just arrived from his home on Beaver Island in the far North. His ship being two days on the journey, and him having but little rest, he was feeling bedraggled for the lack of sleep, and being still young, in his late twenties, he was conscious of being smutty as well. All he longed for now was a tub of steamy hot water in some local saloon and a trip to the barber shop to have his beard trimmed and his bushy locks shortened to his taste. Peter had been born three thousand miles to the West on Arranmore Island. Like all island men, he had been a man of the sea all his life, as had his predecessors, and when the time came to fend for himself he had to consider emigrating, as most of his compeers had already done.

This did not worry him because he had already decided where to go, and what career to follow. Many of his friends had already gone abroad and like true island men got positions as crew-men on sea-going vessels plying here and there on the great American Lakes. Most of those he knew had settled on Beaver Island, and it was there he also decided to go. Having ‘friends in court,’ it did not take him long to get a job as a trimmer, and he was now all set to make his fortune, with Arranmore just a memory.

The sea was in his blood, and he was not afraid of it. Fourteen years earlier his older brother Dan had drowned on the Wicklow coast when The Exile, on which he was a deck-hand, foundered on a reef during a gale. But Aran folk were no strangers to such tragedies and learned to accept them as a ‘way of life.’ So on this fine morning as he ambled along the wharves he was as happy as any man in Chicago. He selected a barber's saloon on the promenade close to the confluence of the lake and the majestic river that had come in from the country many miles away. The barber was busy, and as Peter had to take his turn he settled for a cozy arm-chair close to a window overlooking the quays. After a brief spell he heard a ship's klaxon sounding close at hand and on looking out beheld a medium-sized pleasure-boat chugging down the river, with a multitude of passengers lined up on her starboard rail waving pennants and cheering while a rag-time orchestra belted out a tune from the forward poop. As Peter sat there taking in this scenario the thought struck him that the passengers were on one side and the vessel was off her centre of gravity and listing dangerously.

‘She must have no ballast at all,’ he thought as the barber nudged him that his chair was now vacant. As he walked across the floor there was a tumult of shouting and screaming coming from the street, and, rushing back to the window, Peter went rigid as he beheld the pleasure-boat's gunwale disappear under the edge of the wharf and her passengers being toppled into the swirling current. There was an outburst of yelling and screaming with street pedestrians running in all directions wondering if what they were seeing was real. A geyser of water belched into the air as the funnels disappeared below the waterline and those passengers who could swim thrashed about with others hanging onto them in their panic.

The ship's life-boat had been dislodged from its davits and was now being carried away down stream. Peter instantly bounded through the open door and without hesitation bounded into the turbulent water as many hands reached out to him, so many that he saw he was in danger of being swamped. He disregarded all pleas for help and being a strong swimmer headed out after the capsized lifeboat.

He knew the drill in such procedures, and in very little time he was safely aboard and rowing desperately back to where the helpless people were trying to keep afloat. With the energy of a giant he began hauling them aboard one by one, while others clung desperately to the sides. In less than ten minutes the lifeboat was clogged with dripping women and children, and knowing that they at least were safe he began to swim out into the depths again, searching for others. He could see none, and coming to the conclusion that many had already drowned he guided the rescued gang back to the slipway.

Just as the last of them was on dry ground, a piercing cry came from far down the estuary. In that direction he saw what seemed to be a teenage girl being carried out into the lake. Why he did not resort to the boat he had just emptied remains a mystery to this day, but he jumped into the water instead and swam strongly out towards the distressed girl while dozens of spectators watched but offered no other help.

With powerful strokes he closed in fast, and in spite of her exhaustion the girl swam to meet him. He managed to get her turned on her back. Adopting the same position himself, he grasped her firmly between his thighs and swam towards the shore. With her soaking clothes and inability to offer him any help at all, his legs began to submerge. With mighty strokes he ploughed his course backwards while his torso sank lower and lower. Eventually he shouted for help, and although there was an empty boat lying by the slip-way, no one thought of going to his aid. When the girl seemed to have died, the load on his body became unbearable. His energy was fast drying out, and enhancing his buoyancy was no longer in his power. With one final gasp he flung up his hands and disappeared below the waters of Lake Michigan.... He was far from home.

I have been told that some Friendly Society or another erected a monument to commemorate his heroic feat, and that it can be seen there to this day. Although Peter was my mother's cousin, I have never heard whether his body was ever found, or whether he is buried in the States. He was not married, and of course there are no children who could be contacted.

For those who came from Arranmore, it was not always the good life that they found.

– Bernard J. Byrne


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