The Last Grain of Tea

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER VI (15) start of chapter

Father Gordon tells many anecdotes of his missionary life among his Irish flock; and however apparently trivial some of them may appear, they afford glimpses of the early condition of the settlers in the wilderness. Drenched to the skin one day in spring, he was compelled to seek shelter in a shanty; but such was the state of that dwelling that it afforded a friendly welcome to the rain, which entered wherever it pleased through the roof; and as the priest lay on the bed, composed of two logs placed in a corner, while his clothes were being dried at the fire, he was amused at witnessing the enjoyment of a brood of young ducks that were disporting themselves in a stream that ran through the cabin.

It was in a short time after that he rode up to the door of Mrs. Macnamara, 'all the way from the county of Cork.' 'Well, Mrs. Mac, have you anything for a poor traveller?' ''Deed, then, your reverence, there's a hearty welcome, and you know that; and I have a grain of tea, and the makings of a cake—and sure they're yours with a heart and a half, and so they would if they were ten times as much,' said Mrs. Mac. The good woman at once set about making the cake, which was soon in a forward state of preparation, and then, with much solemnity, she proceeded to 'make the tea,' which, in order to 'draw' it in the most scientific manner, she placed in its little black pot on a corner of the fire, away from the blaze. Mrs. Mac's stock of candles had long been exhausted, and she was obliged to be content with the light from the hearth; but Father Gordon had to 'pay his debt to the Pope,' and, in order to read his closely-printed breviary, he was constantly poking the fire with the end of a stick. 'Take care of the teapot, Father Gordon, dear—take care of it, for your life!' remonstrated the good woman, as she observed the reckless vigour with which the priest used the improvised poker. 'No fear, ma'am—no fear, ma'am,' he invariably replied. But there was every reason to fear, as the result proved; for, in one desperate effort to shed light on the small print, the priest brought down the entire superstructure, and with it the cherished teapot, which rolled, empty and spoutless, on the floor. Here was a disaster! The poor woman clapped her hands, as she cried, 'Oh, Father Gordon, jewel! what did you do? You broke my teapot, that I brought from Ireland, every step of the way, and I so fond of it! But, Father dear, 'tis worse for you, for there isn't another grain of tea in the house—and what will you do? Oh dear! oh dear!' Father Gordon had, as penance for his involuntary offence, to wash down the cake with the water of a neighbouring spring.

No one was more surprised at the changes wrought in comparatively a few years after, than was Father Gordon, who witnessed the infancy of the Irish settlements of the county of Simcoe.

'My dear sir,' said he, 'I could scarcely credit my eyesight, it was all so wonderful—like a dream. Fine roads, and splendid farms, and grand mansions, and horses and carriages, and noble churches with organs and peals of bells, and schools—yes, my dear sir, and ladies and gentlemen, the aristocracy of the country! What a difference between what I beheld on my last visit, and what I remember when I saw the young ducks in the stream running through the cabin floor, and when poor Mrs. Mac's last grain of tea was lost in the ashes. Dear, dear! what a wonderful change! God has been very merciful to our poor people. I never,' continued the good priest, who could speak with authority as to his countrymen, whom during his long life he loved and served with all the zeal and earnestness of his nature—'I never knew one of them that did not succeed, provided he was sober and well-conducted. Drink, sir, drink is the great failing of our race; and if they had a hundred enemies, that's the worst of all. But, thank God, on the whole, our people are good and religious, and every day advancing. It is a great change from what they were in the old country, and a greater change from what I remember they were thirty years ago in this.'

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America