Thousands sailed

For the dverse prompt, music, poetry and (in this case) protest.


Thousands sailed or walked or crawled

From barren fields with famine scrawled

Across the ocean, desert sands

Or mountains capped with snow.

They left behind their loved ones

And the only life they knew,

Because to stay was death

And that was all they had to know.

Thousands still are sailing

Fleeing hunger, they believe

(Their children like ghosts wailing)

They have no choice but they must leave,

No one leaves his home

If there’s any way to stay,

Whatever hatred’s shouted,

Whatever politicians say,

For the waves they swallow children

As they swallow up the sun,

And we pack up our humanity

Then we turn our backs and run.

We turn our eyes from suffering,

There’s nothing we can do,

Our house is full, no room for more,

Though we know it isn’t true.

We sing our songs of how it was

When all the world was green,

And paradise a cabin

At the end of a bóithrín.

And the songs that they are singing

We know them, they’re the same,

About love and land and leaving

And they should fill us all with shame.


Published by

Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

58 thoughts on “Thousands sailed”

  1. Great song and a great poem, Jane. This is a topic than can never be exhausted. I love that only the one phrase is in parentheses, and it’s the one that is sure to break hearts.

    1. It’s one of my favourite Pogue songs. The lyrics are so good.
      We tend to forget that emigrants take their children with them not to be cruel, but because they don’t want to leave them behind.

  2. Most wonderfully written, I had to look-up (bóithrín) and when I did the word was place very creatively…

    Question does words like bóithrín, just drop out of your head or possibly long years of school?

    Good afternoon, things are always the same in my life, interesting!

    kiss kiss


    1. The word crops up often in irish songs, usually anglicised to boreen. It’s the typical sentimental image of the winding country road leading to a whitewashed cabin 🙂

  3. “I walked on bones”… yes, I read about a woman who was in a UN refugee camp for 20 years! she is (luckily) now in America (before the mess) but she traveled across Africa to get to the UN Camp and the horrors she tells – raped many times and had three children from the rape. Kept them, mothered them, loved them. She is a testament to the human spirit – Anyway this poem made me think of her…

    “No one leaves their homes if there is any way to stay…” Powerful! And the linked song is very intriguing as well. Thank you.

    1. Thank you! I’m a Pogues fan, and this song is one of their best. We all come from the same place, and that place is our mother’s womb, not a pile of stones or a place name on a passport.

  4. I too was drawn to the line about the children as ghosts. In parentheses. As we turn our backs we tell our brothers and sisters of the earth this: that their children are as ghosts to us, less than human, something many do not believe in. It’s easier that way to put a bed sheet over our heads, plug our ears and repeat, “You are not real. You are not real…” Who’s the less-than-human ghost?

    1. I agree with you, but it’s the kind of sentiment most people would agree with, at the same time adding the NIMBY proviso. We don’t show much real compassion at the group level.

  5. You have challenged us with a call to compassion that is falling on deaf ears. Your reminder is that we have all come from somewhere seek a better life. Well done. I like the song as well.

    1. Thanks Dwight. I’m a big Pogues fan. You’re right, we don’t have the right to be anywhere in particular and hive off the best bits for ourselves. We are all the product of a wave of invasion and colonisation at some point in history. There are no pure bloods or land rights.

  6. So sad, Jane. I learned a new word here, bóithrín and I’m attending a class on immigration (taught by an immigrant) at my church to learn what we can do.

      1. My grandparents were immigrants. It does make me wonder why we were blessed with wealth compared to so many in this world.

      2. Your grandparents had the good fortune to emigrate to a country at the beginning of its economic expansion. The US is a rich country with a very high standard of living. You left the rest of us behind decades ago 🙂

    1. Thanks. The song takes a slightly different perspective on emigration. Often people are fleeing more than just hunger, and they’re not necessarily enthralled by the place they end up.

      1. Yes, it really was the homesickness for them, for me it was an adventure. But they left everything. I’m not sure they really thought about it, I think it hit them hard because they weren’t quite sure of what it was all about.

      2. I used to see it in the family of my grandparents’ generation. They always pretended they were going to go back even though they knew they were kidding themselves.

  7. Especially here in America, where we are all children of immigrants, this closing of doors and turning of backs is totally incomprehensible. Shame and more shame. (K)

      1. It seems as though all the old rules are being discarded. The Danish elections will be interesting with the left wing party taking on board the propositions of the far right to get their electorate. Maybe the Green parties will take over when the dinosaurs collapse.

      2. Maybe. 😉 In this time its very difficult to decide between left and right wing, much more between true and false politicans. I think most of the assets are away, and know we can act like “Wall-E” in the movie. 🙂

      3. It was too easy, get a ticket with one party and sit with it for life. Politicians are being called to account for their personal (in)action rather than their party’s.

  8. For the waves they swallow children
    As they swallow up the sun,
    And we pack up our humanity
    Then we turn our backs and run

    Those lines hit me especially hard. You have a strong ability for Jeremiads, beautiful and searing and unavoidable. These lines reminded me of the Goya (next comment)

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