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Seven Long Years

By Joe McMaster - Click for Bio

Sometime ago while researching my family roots, I came across a webpage on the Internet, which contained a copy of an old court document. It was a very short report about a young man who just happened to have had the same last name as myself. As you might very well imagine it certainly did catch my attention.

The year mentioned in the document was 1838, and it said that a young man called McMaster had been sentenced to seven years transportation for receiving stolen goods. He was sentenced in a court of law in a small town called Antrim, which incidentally is only a few short miles from where I was born and where I spent my formative years.

I could not help but sit back and wonder at my finding. What if, I was related to this young man from the far distant past? And if I was, then what if I could go back in time and sit in the courtroom on that very day? And what if I could?

Those few ‘what ifs’ only helped to fuel my imagination and so I sat down and wrote a little story of what I thought it might have been like for that young man, or indeed any young man on such a day. A day when a complete stranger would tell him he was going to be taken from his home and family and sent to some far off land. A land the young man probably never heard of before.

Perhaps writing my little story afforded me the privilege to travel back in time, to be with him on that day, at least in my own mind anyway.

Instead of receiving stolen goods, I had him steal a loaf of bread, because it was for such trivial things as that,Van Dieman's Land, now known as Tasmania one could be sentenced by the courts to ‘transportation’ - seven years transportation!

That particular sentence meant the young man would have been put on a prison ship with all sorts of hardcore criminals and sent on a long and grueling sea journey to Tasmania.

For most prisoners, even if they survived the long and dangerous sea journey, the seven-year prison sentence that followed was more often than not to become a life sentence away from their home and families. Mainly because, after the long ocean crossing came seven hard years of imprisonment! And even then, if they were lucky enough to survive those seven hard long years of imprisonment, most likely they could not afford to pay for the trip back home again to Ireland. Even if they had wanted to or not!

Perhaps that is why I called my little story …

Seven Long Years

Young Tommy stood in shivering silence as his boyish fingers nervously played with some long loose threads. The very same threads, which vainly tried to secure the different coloured patches to his well worn trousers.

And all the while his bright blue eyes peered down at the floor where he could see all too well the numerous knots trying to hold together the remnants of a pair of long ago laces.

By now the tears in his eyes had overflowed and were dropping to the floor. Falling down and splashing about as they landed on his faded black leather boots, which were secured however briefly to his bare feet by those very same laces.

The old battered hat, which Tommy held cautiously behind his back had once upon another time belonged to an uncle. An uncle, now deceased, whose head in healthier days had been much bigger than Tommy's.

And so, Tommy placed this ‘hand me down hat’ behind his back, not only out of some measure of respect for the man in the long black robes, but because he knew that he dare not try to wear it.

Tommy knew if he placed the hat on his head, it most surely would have slipped right down over his ears, and in doing so would have covered his eyes. He then would not be able to see the man sitting slightly above him. The man in the long black wrinkled robes! The very same man, who was now squinting and staring and glaring at him with his small bespectacled eyes.

The loud booming voice, which echoed around the courtroom and which seemed to go on forever, more than made up for the small bespectacled eyes as the word ”Guilty” rang out from the mouth of the man dressed in black. "Guilty! I say I find you, and I do so by reason of the evidence presented before me today in this court of law." It seemed to Tommy as if the words were spat out more so than spoken. And all the while, the cantankerous old judge fumbled about with some papers in front of him, as if indeed they were all the proof needed to verify such words.

"In finding you guilty," and before Tommy could even start to process those first few words, the same voice thundered and roared, "lift up your head young man when I speak to you!" It was only then that the sickening feeling residing in the empty pit of his stomach suggested to Tommy that he might have to pay dearly for the bread he had stolen. For it was a loaf of bread stolen so that his family would not have to go hungry which had brought him to this very place.

"Seven years transportation!" said the voice. The words, which Tommy heard held no special meaning for him as he had never ventured more than a mile or two from his home in all of his thirteen years.

But the voice ranted and raved on regardless, and the final words rumbled and rambled and bounced off the courtroom walls like a summer’s storm in full bloom.

"Seven years transportation on the very next prison ship sailing from Ireland. Seven long years is your sentence young man … you're going to Van Diemen's land!"

So said the man in the long black robes with the small bespectacled eyes.

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