Killaloe, County Clare, Ireland, April 1851
Playing games, whether for opportunity, mischief or seduction, was a pastime Kieran Clancy should have quit long ago. But ‘should’ was a word he seldom obeyed.
Maeve O’Shannassey frowned at her cornered king.
‘However did you manage that?’ she muttered, perplexed. Her pretty face suited consternation. Hell, she looked delectable no matter what she was feeling, and Kieran further warmed to the contest at hand.
‘You’ll find I have many hidden talents, Miss Maeve, games of chase being one of my specialities,’ Kieran told her.
‘And yet I continue to outrun you, Mr Kieran,’ she replied, rather brazenly for her, before moving her queen to block his knight. ‘Check, I believe.’
Kieran barely glanced at the table, raising his eyebrows instead and leaning in close to take the queen. ‘You may well run, fair maid, but you cannot hide.’ The words were spoken in her ear and he could smell her hair, still damp from the outdoors and sweet with the honey-scented soap she favoured. He held the breath in to savour it, momentarily intoxicated, before adding ‘checkmate’.
Maeve stood in a rush, almost knocking over the board, and Kieran cursed himself for breaking one of his own rules in life: appear bold but never cocky.
‘T…tea?’ she suggested, her earlier confidence gone.
Kieran sighed as she made a swift exit to the kitchen where her mother was ostensibly baking but really keeping guard over her daughter. Leaning back against the French settee, he reflected that Maeve was proving far more difficult to court than any of the local girls he’d been interested in over the years. That was probably part of the attraction – but not all of it.
The rain pelted hard against the pane and Kieran looked out, glad to be away from the fields for a change. Green and lush the farmlands near Killaloe may be, but when the wet set in it lost much of its appeal, turning soggy and grey. He studied the parlour window itself instead. Aside from the luxury of glass, it was framed by polished oak and had lace curtains, a step far above most other homes in the area, and the fine furniture and thick carpets herein further emphasised how remote the chances were that he, Kieran Clancy, a poor Irish farmer, stood any real chances with this girl.
Listening to Mrs O’Shannassey’s lofty tones drift through the door he knew he should just leave. But of course, he wouldn’t.
Kieran stood to pace the room and plot instead. It was simply a matter of evening the scales somehow, offering more than other suitors, more than material wealth and all the trappings her family prized.
Such as? he asked himself.
Well, he could work on his charm; she seemed to enjoy some of his more humorous witticisms and compliments. Hopefully that might lead to delicious stolen moments of shared desire. Noting the nervous knot twisting in his gut at the thought, he acknowledged he could well end up giving her his heart. Then he paused to look across towards town to where Mr O’Shannassey would be working today and he knew that, even if that were enough for Maeve, it would never be enough for her father.
The man was quite a success story, and it wasn’t just the impressive house that bespoke the fact. He had a thriving business at his new store, which sold everything from silk stockings to imported perfumes, but by far the greatest attraction to the locals were the apothecary vials that lined the counter, a curious assortment of concoctions, handmade, mostly, by Mr O’Shannassey himself. It seemed people couldn’t get enough of the often ill-tasting liquids that promised cures for maladies from ear infections to rheumatism.
It didn’t hurt, perhaps, that he had so desperate a clientele. Most had suffered these past few years and ill-health was commonplace. Overworked by English landlords and robbed of much of their crops by Queen Victoria, the final straw for many in the village came when the potato crops had failed a few years previously. Starvation had led to disease; consumption, cholera and smallpox. In the end many lives had been taken, including those of Kieran’s own mother and father. Where were Mr O’Shannassey’s ‘miracle cures’ then?
Kieran shoved his hands deep into his pockets, pushing resentment and grief away. It wasn’t the man’s fault that Ireland suffered so. Perhaps some of his remedies even worked, although Kieran placed far more faith in his sister Eileen’s tonics. Still, he supposed O’Shannassey was giving people hope and that was a gift in itself, even if, on their meagre wages, they could ill afford it.
Money. Kieran sighed at the enormity of the word, acknowledging that the odds against him were stacked high in this particular game. Maeve might well fall for Kieran’s romantic overtures but her parents would require a man of means, especially if he had any chance of actually marrying her.
Unless his brother Liam could pull off what he had planned.
Maeve returned then and that last glimmering thought evaporated as Kieran turned to watch her move, her creamy skin pushing against her dress as she bent to pour the tea.
‘Milk?’ she asked.
Kieran returned to the settee and he was pleased when Maeve sat beside him, slightly closer than before. Near enough for him to see the flecks of green in her otherwise brown eyes and smell that hair once more. He closed his own eyes momentarily, memorising the scent, his determination to win her returning with force.
‘Are you feeling poorly?’ Maeve asked.
‘Not with you around,’ he told her. Her lovely face flushed and it gave him a heady rush that he could affect her so. A small tip of the scales.
‘Perhaps I should fetch you one of father’s tonics.’
Kieran smiled at her. ‘I’m perfectly fine, I promise.’ He was tempted to add that he doubted her father had invented a cure for desire but that was, of course, a flirtation too far.
Maeve looked to her tea and circled her spoon about her cup demurely. ‘Father’s had some rather wonderful news actually: Lord Whitely has agreed to fund mass production of some of his inventions.’
Kieran swallowed his distaste with his tea at the mention of Lord Whitely’s name. Long how he’d ached to tell the owner of their small farm to stick his power over the tenanting Clancy family up his pompous Cambridge arse.
‘Is that so?’ Kieran said, feigning what he hoped was a mixture of mild curiosity and politeness.
‘Yes, there’s a factory in Kilrush that will start producing them next month.’
‘Truly?’ Kieran said, trying to maintain his composure, but all he could envisage were those scales dipping dramatically back against him.
Maeve nodded, her face alight with excitement. ‘Lord Whitely has invited us to dine at the family estate this Sunday to celebrate the partnership. His son is returning to Killaloe.’
Those scales weren’t only dipping now; they were set to fall over. He’d heard from Eileen that Maeve’s mother was distantly related to an earl, rendering her just passably genteel, and, even though it was slightly beneath a gentleman to work in commerce, this fact also seemed forgiven of O’Shannassey now. Such social elevation meant any hope Kieran had with Maeve was fast disappearing. Whitely’s rich but unattractive son was known to be looking for a wife and he would surely take an interest in her. And Maeve’s parents would never choose the tenant over the lord for their daughter; an aristocratic Englishman would win such a battle without contest.
Kieran had little choice but to seize this rare opportunity to win her affections, right now, while he still had any possible hope.
‘Sounds grand,’ he said, opting for nonchalance and changing the subject. ‘Another game of chess?’
‘I do believe you are a better chess player than I, Master Kieran,’ she said. ‘Perhaps I should challenge you to a game of cards instead. My cousins taught me well as a child and I don’t mind telling you I could fair whip you at whist.’
Bold but never cocky, he reminded himself.
‘I’m sure you could fair whip me at many games Miss Maeve.’
He was rewarded with another blush. ‘Really, Master Kieran, you shouldn’t say such things…’ She looked to the open kitchen door and he took advantage of her momentary distraction, taking her hand before she could stop him.
‘Maeve, I…’ He’d been about to declare his feelings but instead he took one look at her shocked face and parted lips and found himself kissing her, a sudden, heated event that took them both by surprise. Passion flooded through him as he poured all that yearning for her into the moment, before pausing to read her expression, knowing her first reaction to him was crucial. Kiss me back, he pleaded silently, and his heart leapt as she swayed towards him, but they were interrupted by a distant voice.
‘Kieran! Kieran, where are you?’
He would have done his best to ignore it but Maeve had pulled away, startled, and Kieran took a deep breath, cursing his brother Liam for his unbelievably confounded timing.
‘Excuse me,’ he said, sending her what he hoped was his most irresistible smile before standing and walking over to open the front door.
‘Here,’ he called, stepping out and bracing himself against the unwelcoming day. The rain was still falling and he pulled his coat over his neck, wishing he’d grabbed his cap. Liam turned and spied him, letting out a whoop of excitement as he ran down the cobblestone road, nearly losing his footing as he skidded to a halt.
‘It’s arrived. We got it!’ he panted. ‘It’s ours, Kieran. All ours!’
Kieran’s annoyance with his brother evaporated as he stared back, barely believing the news as he took the outstretched letter from Liam’s hands and read it under his coat to shield it from the rain. But there it was, in black and white.
‘Land,’ Kieran breathed and they looked to one another in a moment of pure joy before embracing right there in the street.
‘We have land,’ Kieran cried as they danced about now, drenched by the rain but uncaring as passers-by stopped to watch, sensibly beneath umbrellas.
‘Land, Mrs Flannery, land, Mr Leary,’ Liam yelled to their neighbours who were smiling with them.
‘It came then, lads?’ Mr Leary said.
‘Aye, it came.’ Kieran patted the letter, now safely in his inside pocket, barely able to hold back his tears.
‘You’re lucky you’ve got such a way with words there, Liam,’ Mr Leary observed. ‘They don’t give it away like they used to, from what I hear.’
‘We’ll have to pay some money off over time, but it’s nothing we won’t be able to handle,’ Liam told him, still beaming.
‘So they’re providing free passage for you to cross the ocean then they’ll just hand it over,’ Mrs Flannery said, shaking her head in wonderment. ‘Imagine that.’
Rainwater poured down upon Kieran as he looked at those old, familiar faces, lined by grief and hardship as so many of the locals were, yet finding it within themselves to rejoice in their neighbour’s good fortune. He tried to take in the enormity of what this could mean. He wasn’t the only one to leave; the Irish were emigrating in droves, forced to seek whatever work they could find in foreign cities or, worse still, taking to the crowded poorhouses – a wretched existence indeed. But this…this was something else altogether. This was opportunity. A fresh start in a new game. A chance.
‘The great southern land,’ Liam said, looking at him, then laughing at his own incredible words. ‘I’m still trying to believe it.’
‘Aye, you can believe it alright,’ Kieran said, grinning at his brother before spying Maeve as she stood at her parents’ door. ‘We’re going, the whole lot of us,’ he said, more meaningfully now, ‘as a family.’ He let the emphasis rest on that last word and Maeve sent him a tremulous smile, the scales tipping back with force.
‘Your father’d be well proud, lads – and your good mother too, God rest her soul,’ Mr Leary said and Kieran felt the tears well and fall now. ‘Never forget your roots though, boys. You’re Irish first and foremost – make no mistake.’
He watched as Maeve dipped her gaze and closed the door and wondered if her father had a vial that could alter the loyalty to Ireland that ran through all their veins. It had brought them nothing but heartache so what use was it in the end?
‘Not for much longer, Mr Leary,’ Kieran told him, ‘we’ll be Australians. Free men…on Clancy land. Clancy owned.’
Far away from the weight of English oppression, no longer mere Irish pawns, pinned in their corner of the chessboard.
The dark clouds rumbled above and Kieran bared his face to the lashing sky, letting the wonderful news wash through and consume him.
‘Checkmate,’ he told the rain.
Eileen Murphy was dancing. Not just a waltz or even a quadrille, this was a fully impassioned, whirling Irish jig. But why not? It wasn’t every day you found out your prayers had been answered and you were moving hemispheres with your entire family to New Holland, or ‘Australia’ as people now called it. Not as a convict like so many other poor souls from her country, but as free men and women to own land and build homes, with a legacy to pass down to their children. She had three already, Thomas, James and Matthew; her husband Rory often boasted he wanted a dozen sons named after all twelve apostles by the time they were done. Eileen wasn’t too sure about that. A little girl named Mary would be nice too.
Rory picked her up in his burly arms and twirled her high and she laughed with rare abandon. Life had been harsh living as a tenant all these years, bowing and kowtowing to Lord Whitely and his horrible family like they were some kind of undeserving gods. Then there were these recent, cruellest years when there’d been barely enough to eat. She still blamed her parents’ deaths from the pox on the widespread starvation, no matter what anyone said. They’d been so weakened none of her cures could save them, despite nursing them both around the clock.
But that terrible grief was behind them now, thanks to Liam’s cleverness with words, and they had their ma and da to thank for that. The English didn’t allow the poor Irish masses an education but their parents had schooled them anyway, passing down a family tradition of teaching each generation to read and write.
‘Knowledge is power,’ her father often used to say. ‘You don’t know what you don’t know until you learn.’
That adage had always confused Eileen somewhat but Liam, in particular, had taken the concept on and was always burying his head in whatever books he could find. Unfortunately they were rare commodities but the newspapers came to town once a fortnight and Liam would pore over every word before penning versions of what he read himself. His writing had consequently flourished. And now her youngest brother had used this skill to its utmost advantage, convincing the powers-that-be that a country on the other side of the world needed their farming skills and non-criminal selves. They’d even been granted free passage!
And land of their own. Oh, how her dear parents would have wept at the news. Autonomy at last.
Eileen could barely hold all the joy she felt inside her petite body. It was as if someone had opened up her chest and filled it with sunshine, and her Rory was basking in it too, kissing her more times in public tonight than was decent and drinking far too much ale. But how could she possibly chastise him when she was downing a fair share of the stuff herself? And the kisses, well, she never tired of those.
Her husband held up his glass in the air and began to sing ‘Whisky in the Jar’, his handsome face alight, eyes twinkling at her with more moisture than usual. How kind life could be when tears were for joy, not sorrow.
The little pub filled with voices as one by one all their friends and neighbours joined in and she acknowledged that she would miss her home, feeling a little misty herself. But such independence wasn’t something any one of them would turn down. It had simmered there all along, in their Clancy blood, and her grandfather John had spilt his in the name of rebellion, trying to bring it home. Perhaps one day independence would be gained in Ireland too but until then his descendants would find it on far-flung land. On soil of their very own.
‘Singing Tooral liooral liaddity,’ Rory boomed and the throng joined in, swaying and drinking as one.
Singing Tooral liooral liay
Singing Tooral liooral liaddity
And we’re bound for Botany Bay!
Liam came over and put his arm around her and she hugged her youngest brother close. He’d always been a special boy, kind to a fault, but it was his wonderful mind beneath their mother’s fair hair that had given them all this opportunity and she knew she’d be forever grateful.
She looked around for their middle sibling and spied him in the corner, singing to that Maeve O’Shannassey who looked far too buxom and ripe for the picking to Eileen’s liking. It was one thing if Kieran wanted to marry the girl but quite another if he was just having his usual fun. Her brother was a wild one when it came to drinking and womanising but Maeve wasn’t just some local wench; in fact, she was quite likely out of his reach.
Still, he did look quite smitten, Eileen had to admit. Maeve looked to be so too, her pretty face shining as Kieran bent his dark head towards hers to whisper goodness-knows-what. Perhaps she would have a sister-in-law for company on the long voyage south, Eileen mused, pleased at the prospect, but the idea faded as she noted Maeve’s glowering father nearby.
Just then the pub door banged open and to her annoyance Lord Whitely walked in with a young man in evening dress. It was his eldest son, William, Eileen realised, recognising the red hair and rat-like features of the teen who’d plagued her in her youth. He was a man now, of one-and-twenty years, same as herself, and on the lookout for a wife, she’d heard, now that he’d finished university. Education was just one of the many advantages he’d always had over her. Shame he’d do nothing useful with it, Eileen mused, figuring he’d likely be set to join his father in managing their estate and making Irish lives miserable. Quite an aspiration, she thought darkly, then shook herself out of such bleak reveries. Tonight was a celebration.
Lord Whitely and William were greeted by Mr O’Shannassey, and Eileen watched as Maeve was summoned to join them, their party taking a table at the back, as far away from commoners as was possible in this cramped pub. Maeve didn’t look very keen to go and Kieran was doing a poor job of hiding his disappointment as he worked his way towards the bar. Eileen moved to stand alongside him.
‘Drink?’ he offered, tossing two pennies on the counter.
‘Aye,’ Eileen said, ‘if you’re offering.’ She studied her brother’s dark expression as he tapped impatiently, waiting. ‘Don’t tell me you’re giving up on the lass already.’
Kieran shot her a glance, his blue eyes flashing. ‘Don’t meddle, Eiles.’
‘Who’s meddling?’ she said, shrugging her shoulders and taking the arriving ale. ‘Although it seems to me news of our good fortune hasn’t got around to all corners of this room as yet. Might even things up a bit.’
Kieran sipped his drink and gave the table in the corner a thoughtful glance. ‘Aye,’ he said, flicking his gaze back to his sister and flashing a quick, sudden grin. Eileen couldn’t help but feel a sense of gleeful anticipation as he pushed away from the bar and she followed his weave towards the Whitely–O’Shannassey party.
The crowd began to quieten down as everyone in the room paused to watch, all keen to see how the high and mighty Whitelys would react to the news that they were about to lose their long- suffering, hardworking tenants.
‘Good evening, my lord,’ Kieran said jovially.
‘Evening, Clancy.’ Whitely’s greeting was reluctant at best.
‘And what brings you out on such a cold night as this?’ Kieran continued.
Whitely gave Kieran a weary look, unused to being addressed so casually, no doubt. ‘William’s in town and wanted to have a nightcap at the village,’ Whitely replied shortly.
‘Ah yes, William. Marvellous to have you back, sir.’
William’s eyes narrowed as he stroked a white silver-tipped cane that he held by his side. ‘Who is this person?’ he said, raking his eyes over Kieran with disdain.
‘Just one of your tenants, sir. Be off with you, Clancy. None of us are interested in listening to your nonsense,’ Mr O’Shannassey said, leaning forward in front of Maeve to shield her from view. Apparently, Kieran’s earlier familiarity with his daughter had taken its toll.
‘Certainly, sir, although there was one thing I wanted to address with Lord Whitely…’
‘Tell it on the morrow,’ Whitely said dismissively. ‘I’ll be coming to inspect the state of those southern fences. They won’t do for my Moileds once the snow comes.’ The man was obsessed with his prize herd of cattle, valuing their wellbeing far more highly than that of the humans who tended them.
‘No, sir, only I’m afraid it may prove impossible to get them rebuilt in time.’ Eileen and Liam had moved to stand close during this exchange and Eileen watched the scene with held breath, noting the entire pub seemed to be doing the same.
Whitely flicked his eyes around the crowd, taking in the engaged audience, then stared down his long nose at Kieran, contempt in his voice now. ‘If I say they be built, they be built. That’s the end of it.’
‘Yes, sir, only I’m afraid it won’t be by me. Or by any of my family,’ Kieran added, clapping his hand on Liam’s shoulder and nodding at Eileen and Rory who stood behind.
‘Are you refusing to do your job?’ Whitely spat.
‘Not refusing, sir, we just won’t be able to physically do it from south of the equator.’
There were quite a few chuckles rippling through the crowd as Whitely’s jaw fell open.
‘What…what are you saying? Are you joining the navy or something?’ It was William who spoke and it caused quite a few more sniggers.
‘Well, that wouldn’t be possible for a woman and three infants now, would it? Can’t see much use for a sailor who hasn’t learnt to use his legs properly yet, let alone find sea ones.’
This made Rory chortle and Eileen had to dig him in the ribs, fighting laughter herself.
‘Out with it, man, and watch your tongue,’ Whitely said, his face red by now. ‘Are you seeking servant work in the colonies – is that it? I won’t be giving any of you Clancys letters, if that’s what you’re thinking.’
‘Oh, we won’t be requiring letters from you, my lord. We’ve one of our own, in fact. Shall I read it to you or perhaps just give you the general gist?’ He paused to observe a furious Whitely then smiled broadly. ‘Just the bottom line, I take it then? Very well. The fact is we have been given paid passage to Australia; the entire family.’ The Whitelys and Mr O’Shannassey all gaped as Kieran continued on. ‘Oh, and we’ve been given a land grant too. Choice farming area in New South Wales as it happens. We’re thinking sheep, isn’t that right, Liam?’
Liam nodded, grinning at his brother. ‘Perhaps, although cattle seems tempting. I wonder if we can purchase a few Moileds to take with us.’
‘Marvellous idea. Interested in making a sale, my lord?’
Whitely looked tempted to punch him in the face but instead he slammed his drink down and stood abruptly. ‘Come along, William,’ he grated before marching straight out of the pub, the O’Shannasseys in tow, although Maeve managed to sneak a conspiratorial smile at Kieran as they went.
No sooner had the door slammed shut than the place erupted with applause and laughter.
‘Ah, but that did feel good,’ Kieran said, shaking his head, Liam still chuckling alongside him. ‘Drinks all round!’ he declared and the violinist in the corner struck a merry tune as the crowd resumed their dancing.
‘Whitely’s got no answer to that now, does he?’ Rory said in Eileen’s ear happily. ‘We’ll have the open seas between us and them in no time, Mrs Murphy.’
‘Aye,’ Eileen said, but as she looked over at the door she couldn’t help but feel there would be more obstacles ahead of them yet, not the least the contest over a pretty girl. Still, that was Kieran’s battle, not hers, Eileen decided, turning to wrap her arms around Rory who kissed her soundly for the umpteenth time that evening. It probably wasn’t doing the family reputation any good but she just couldn’t bring herself to care. Not tonight. Not when they’d made their declaration and at long last had thrown off the shackles that had weighed on their clan for generations.
‘To Australia,’ Rory said, handing her another ale and clinking her glass. ‘And to you, my lovely. I’ll have you draped in finery like a queen in no time.’
Eileen laughed but such nonsense meant nil to a girl such as herself. ‘The only riches I’ve ever wanted are right in here,’ she said, placing her hand over his heart, ‘with no lord or master to dictate our lives.’
‘The fates will be kind from now on,’ he promised, breaking back into another song with the crowd.
Over the mountains high and steep,
Over the waters wide and deep;
Oh Séarlas Óg will win the day,
Over the hills and far away.
Eileen joined in, the yearning she’d always found in the song replaced with something new, something foreign to her until this day. She knew she’d seek it again and again from now on. It was powerful, this first taste of freedom.
About the author
Mary-Anne O’Connor has a combined arts education degree with specialities in environment, music and literature. She works in marketing and co-wrote/edited A Brush with Light and Secrets of the Brush with Kevin Best.
Mary-Anne lives in a house overlooking her beloved bushland in northern Sydney with her husband Anthony, their two sons Jimmy and Jack, and their very spoilt dog Saxon. This is her fourth major novel. Her previous novels, Gallipoli Street (2015), Worth Fighting For (2016) and War Flower (2017), have all been bestsellers.
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