Read an Excerpt
CHAPTER 1: Tragedy: a new beginning
Oliver Newman McKannah often had visions. This one frightened him--flames always did. He watched his 13 year-old son, Sean walk to the door of their Dublin, Ireland apartment. The boy stepped into the hallway, turned and smiled before closing the door then disappeared--forever.
Sean Brennan McKannah was born in a very small apartment only a mile from the shipping port of Dublin. It was a foggy fall day in 1780 as he slipped easily into the hands of the midwife. The stout, middle aged woman secured his tiny feet in one callused, work worn hand and hoisted him aloft to smack him briskly on his pink, bare bottom. She became alarmed when, after three attempts, he wasn't crying out against the abuse he was receiving at the hands of this giant creature. She turned him toward her and was shocked to see his miniature eyes staring straight at her. She swore later that he had a look of contempt on his doll size face as he swung his little fists at her.
His father, Oliver Newman McKannah, stepped forward, "There'll be no cryin' in that lad, missus Brennan." She scowled at the large, ruddy-complexioned, thirty-nine-year-old canal worker that had waited for what turned out to be almost his entire lifetime for the arrival of his son. She did not approve of men in the birthing room, but as all who knew Oliver were aware; he would be there.
During the following weeks, Mrs. Brennan spent considerable time in the McKannah household. It was a busy period on the canals that ran throughout Ireland, and Oliver was often away from home for several days at a time.
Myra Ellen Waithe-McKannah had a difficult time delivering her first, and as it turned out, only baby. Mrs. Brennan often spent days with her as she struggled to regain her health: deteriorated by this late-in-life childbirth. Fate intervened and prevented her from being in the apartment when tragedy struck
Oliver Newman McKannah was born in the final year of the 1739-41 famine that killed a third of Ireland's one-and-a-half-million people. Looking into his son's face, Oliver saw the same determination that was needed to survive the starving, diseased world into which Oliver was literally dumped onto the dirt floor of the mud and straw house of his parents.
His own parents and only brother had not survived the famine and Oliver knew better than many that the stubbornness he saw in this child could make the difference between survival and death. Among the gifts he'd wish for his newborn son, courage and stubbornness would head the list.
Myra Ellen Waithe-McKannah was only one year younger than her husband but still far beyond the age to be having her first baby. She beamed proudly as Laura Brennan placed the little man in her arms. He was looking directly into her eyes when the harbor foghorns began blowing again. She later said, "His little eyes widened and I swear he tried to lift high enough to see where the noise was coming from."
Oliver would always confirm his wife's words, "It's quite true, I was also watching and saw the look in his eyes. I knew the sea had called m'boy to her."
Whether to prove the legacy he had heard about for all of his childhood, or simply because he loved the sound of foghorns that blew constantly, Sean made his first trip to the docks as an adventurous eight-year-old boy. Over the next five years he was never beaten by his parents, but was severely scolded about his regular disappearances from school to prowl among the wharves and ships in the harbor. His determination to return and talk with the seamen, plus his charming ways, made him a favorite youngster with the sailing ship's captains and crews. He loved their stories of travels to far places. Consequently his dreams were not those of other boys; ships, only ships. Always with sails full of wind, searching for new adventures in new lands. A sad twist of events would soon place him within his dreams. He would be granted the opportunity to make his dreams come true at a very young age; at a very high price.
His Sunday disappearances were so common that no one noticed him leave after dinner. He always honored one request made by the father that he idolized. "Don't ever be away from home after dark or your mother will worry herself into a grave." When he rounded the corner of his street he saw the flames and rushing people. When he arrived at the apartment house he lived in, it was totally involved in monstrous flames, reaching high into the sky. He stood helplessly watching as his family passed from this life to the next. Sean Brennan McKannah was totally alone. A kind neighbor took the thirteen-year-old boy in for the night because she knew that he didn't have another living relative that he knew of. Sean was wise beyond his years, partly due to an inquisitive mind, and also by his parent's patient tutoring about the ways of the world. He realized that his neighbor's kindness was not without sacrifice because she had a young family to feed, and in these difficult times that was a task not to be taken lightly.
The fire took his parents and everything he had on earth. The morning after found Sean talking to Captain Patrick Olin Mullholland. Sean had known the robust, boisterous sea captain for two years, and always looked forward to seeing Captain Mulholland's ship the SEA DUCHESS come into port. Captain Mullholland carried cargo mainly around the British Isles, but told Sean the last time that he talked to him, "Aye lad, we'll be gone awhile next trip. We're takin' a load of wool to China." After listening to Sean's story, the captain said simply, "Get aboard lad, y'gotta have a home."
Five days later a well-fed Sean McKannah stood on the rear of the cargo schooner watching his homeland for the last time.
After a horrendous battle between Sean's land-loving body and his sea-loving mind, the mind finally won. With his seasickness behind him he began to love the roll of the huge ship as it made it's way across the Irish Sea to Liverpool for a load of wool. After a short trip to Cardiff, Wales for another load, Sean commented to the First Mate, "I love this wonderful ocean."
The Ship's Mate smiled, looked out at the gently rolling waves, then back to the young boy. "It's a wonderful life lad, but I must warn you, (Sean was too young to realize what the mischievous twinkle in the old man's eye was) she'll get a wee bit rougher 'fore we get to where we're heading."
The ship finally made it to the Cape of Good Hope off the tip of South Africa, and after thirty-seven days of beating against waves that would have swallowed the apartment building that his parents had lived in, Sean then knew the full meaning of 'a wee bit rougher.' From that day on until he left the ship four years later, the crew accepted him as a full-fledged seaman. He fought off seasickness, and it was obvious that he was frightened at times, but he never once shirked his assigned duties.
The seas calmed considerably as they headed for the Strait of Malacca between Sumatra and Malaysia. They stopped briefly at Singapore to hire a local pilot to guide them up the South China Sea to Hong Kong. Captain Mullholland insisted that Sean not go with any of the crew, as he knew quite well where they were heading for their two-day leave while the wool was being off-loaded.
Patrick Mullholland had been to Singapore a few years earlier on another ship prior to buying the Sea Duchess and knew many of the captains and crewmembers in the harbor. Captain Mullholland took Sean around and introduced him to many characters, some only a few years older than him. Most were traveling the world's wet roads in search of adventure and fortune, much the same as Sean. As Patrick took Sean around the seaport town he noticed how everyone liked the huge sea captain because of his easy ways and honesty. Even at such a young age Sean realized how fortunate he was to have been befriended by someone like the old sea captain.
An hour before dawn on the third day, the young Oriental harbor pilot instructed the crew to begin hoisting the sail then pull the anchor back into the vessel. The young, Oriental man spoke fairly good English, so Sean asked him why they left while it was still dark? "Wait, you see." Once the ship was well rigged out in canvas, the sun began peeking over the horizon. "Look," the pilot said to Sean as he pointed astern.
Sean counted eight sets of sails in the distance behind them. "Very busy time, we get in first, boat get stuff off first, we go home." The young man smiled then added, "You see?"
"Sure do," Sean answered with a grin, "why be last when you can be first?"
"Yep!" The pilot grinned, "Bess way."