Authors: Anne Bennett
|HarperCollins Publishers (2012)|
A deeply moving saga of a young couple with high hopes for a bright future in rural Ireland, only to find themselves embroiled in the uprising of 1916 and having to make a new life for themselves in Birmingham.
Rosie's family doesn't have much money, but she's rich in other ways: she loves her life on the farm, her sisters, her friends, and even her spoilt baby brother. When Danny Walsh asks her to walk out with him one Sunday, it's a dream come true.
Everyone agrees that they are made for each other and soon they are married. But Danny's young brother runs away to join in the uprising of Easter 1916. Danny is a man of peace but has no choice; he must find his brother and bring him home. Before he can be released, Danny must swear to take his place.
Danny will never be free of his pledge. He takes Rosie and their small daughter to what they hope is safety in Birmingham -- but the fight to survive has just begun, as nobody will employ an Irishman when...
To my only son Simon, with all my love.
Rosie McMullen never thought much of the beauty of the countryside she lived in, like the verdant green hills to each side of the farm. These were speckled with sheep and dotted here and there with cottages very like her own and had rivers that shone like silver ribbons in the sun trickling down them that fed into the large lake beside Blessington village.
She lived with her parents Minnie and Seamus and her two younger sisters, Chrissie and Geraldine, on a small, but prosperous farm just over two miles from the village in County Wicklow, a county that was often dubbed ‘the garden of Ireland’.
She took it all for granted like she did her home, that squat, whitewashed, thatched cottage, with the cobbled yard in front of it, full of strutting hens pecking at the corn and grit. There was a barn to one side of the cottage, a byre to the other, a midden at the back and a spring well in the first field. The cottage itself had a large kitchen with a curtained-off bed, in the corner where Rosie’s parents slept. There were also two other bedrooms, the first and largest one, which opened directly off the kitchen was used by Rosie and her sisters and at the end of that room another door led into a smaller room, which remained unoccupied until Rosie took it over for her first ten years.
From the cottage window, Rosie could see the winding lane leading up to the road with cultivated fields to one side of it and the pasture land to the other side, where the cows stood placidly chewing the cud.
However, Rosie’s childhood was a harsh one, even in this idyllic place and came to an end entirely by the time she was just ten, when in October 1907 her mother gave birth to a baby boy she named Dermot. Rosie’s sisters were eight and six, and from the moment Dermot let out his first newborn wail, it was as if they’d all ceased to exist.
Neither Minnie or her husband had ever been particularly demonstrative with their affections towards the girls, and Minnie especially, was always quick to find fault. She would fly into a temper for little or no reason and smacks, or strokes from the strap was a regular feature of their childhood. They never questioned this, it was just how things were. But, Dermot, they were soon aware, had a totally different kind of upbringing.
At only twenty inches long, Dermot ruled the house and all in it. Neighbours trailed to the house to offer their congratulations and catch a glimpse of this marvellous child, as if Dermot McMullen was the first child born to the family. Seamus’s hand was shook over and over. He was stood drinks at the pub by the men, while the women brought gifts for the baby and cakes and other fancies for the family. The three girls were mostly ignored, but if they were noticed at all, it was only to be asked if they weren’t delighted altogether by their wee brother?
Strangely enough, Rosie was. She had no argument with the small baby and she often stole away to gaze at him. He looked so vulnerable. He had a dusting of light silky hair and his skin was a creamy colour, his eyes the milky blue of the newborn. She was enchanted by his tiny flexing fingers with minute nails and his podgy little feet, which would kick out in freedom when he was released from his bindings. No, Rosie
couldn’t blame the wee baby for the changes in the house, but as time passed, she blamed her parents and particularly her mother more and more.
Minnie was unaware of how her eldest daughter felt. In fact she seldom thought of her at all, now that she had her son. She would have said, if asked that her daughters were not neglected, they were fed, warm and kept clean. Rosie, if ever she’d given voice to her feelings, would have said that, though their basic needs were attended to, they were never given a kind word or shown a warm smile. Rosie would have liked her mother’s eyes to soften when she looked at her daughters sometimes, the way they did when they lighted on Dermot and to be spoken to in the soothing, gentle way she reserved for the baby.
She never discussed these things with her little sisters, but resentment began to burn inside her and she promised herself that she’d never make a daughter of hers feel so unwanted, however many sons she might have.
Dermot’s eyes eventually turned bluey/grey, but his skin stayed fair and he developed dark blond curls. The three McMullen sisters all looked totally different to their brother. They all had large, dark brown eyes with a dusting of freckles beneath them and across their pink tinged cheeks and the bridge of their snub noses. Their hair was as dark as their eyes and fell in natural waves down their backs.
Each Saturday night, Seamus went into one of the pubs in Blessington village and the girls would have their weekly bath. Minnie would help bring the bath in before the fire and help fill it and then they’d be left to their own devices. It was Rosie who lathered her little sisters and washed their hair, remembering to use the water from the rain barrel outside the door for the last rinse, so as to give their hair extra shine.
It was Rosie who helped her sisters from the bath and dried them and towelled their hair to stop it dripping before attending to herself. And later, when they were all bathed,
the water emptied pan by pan into the gutter in the yard, and the girls dressed for bed, Rosie would plait all their hair, so that it would be wavy for Mass in the morning.
And the next morning, while her mother attended to Dermot, Rosie would see to her sisters, brushing their hair and checking that they were tidy and that their boots were fastened correctly and they had a clean hanky up the leg of their bloomers and the collection farthings secure.
Chrissie and Geraldine accepted Rosie as their substitute mother without complaint and so possibly felt the lack of a mother’s love and attention less than Rosie did. And Rosie felt a sort of fierce protective love for her two little sisters and took a pride in their appearance.
When they stepped out for Mass dressed in their best clothes with bonnets tied beneath their little pointed chins, and their boots shining with polish, they looked lovely. All three girls were dressed the same for Mass, but though many of the neighbours smiled at the girls, their attention was all for Dermot.
Wasn’t he the little dote? Hadn’t he grown so? Wasn’t he the best baby in the world, so good, so contented? Surely Minnie didn’t know she was born with such a child and with three daughters to help her rear him.
In truth, the girls seldom got a look in where Dermot was concerned. Minnie seemed to either be nursing him, or cuddling him most of the day. She’d instruct Rosie from the chair before the fire in frying rashers and eggs for Sunday breakfast after Mass and later Rosie would cook the meal.
Rosie learned fast. Nothing enraged her mother more than vegetables burned onto the pan, lumpy gravy or inadequately drained cabbage and she had no wish to inflame her mother’s temper. So, without complaint, she learned also how to make soda bread, barnbrack and apple pie.
She’d always been used to helping. It had been her lot for long enough anyway, particularly as she was the eldest. She
knew it was what most girls did and that it would stand her in good stead when she married. But, just sometimes, she would have liked to hold the baby, to feel his warm little body against her and see his eyes looking into her own.
Minnie however, guarded him jealously, only letting Seamus hold him grudgingly. Babyhood though, doesn’t last forever and as Dermot began to crawl, and then pull himself up to stand and walk, he wasn’t content to be cuddled all the day. He loved all his sisters, who were always willing to stop what they were at to do his bidding, but Dermot’s favourite in the house was Rosie and he was devoted to her.
Dermot began at the County School in Blessington the September before his fifth birthday. Rosie and Chrissie had both left school by then and Geraldine, who had been eleven in June had just one year left, so it was her job to take Dermot up to the school while Rosie and Chrissie helped wherever they were needed, on the farm, the house, or the dairy.
Rosie had settled well in to the mundane life, although she often missed the company of the girls at school and as she neared fifteen she noticed changes to her body she could have done with advice over, things that she could hardly discuss with a younger sister. There was no-one she could think to ask and she often wondered if thinking about it too much could be construed as a sin.
Then, one dreadful day, she’d gone to the privy outside, driven there by severe stomach cramps and found she was bleeding from her bottom. She came in, her eyes swollen, her body weak from crying for hours, for she was convinced she was dying.
Even then, she could hardly bear to tell her mother, but fear eventually overcame her embarrassment. ‘You’re not dying,’ he mother told her brusquely. ‘It’s what happens to every woman, every month.’
Rosie’s eyes opened wide in astonishment. She’d never heard of such a thing. Minnie McMullen was hazy about why women
had periods and the workings of a human body – it wasn’t something a good, Catholic woman should know about she felt. But, she knew the monthly periods were connected somehow with having a child, and this was what she told Rosie.
Rosie looked at her in horror. She knew very little about sex and what you did to have a baby, but from the odd snippets picked up in the school yard, she knew you had to ‘do’ things with a man and she knew that to do those things before you had a husband and then to go on and have a baby, was just about the worst thing in the world. She’d be like Cissie Morlarty who, people said, had been expecting when she was but a young girl and there had been no boyfriend in sight. Anyway, whatever the truth of it Cissie was sent far away from her home to a place for bad girls so the rumours went and she was never seen or heard of again.
Rosie, gripped with desperate fear cried, ‘But, I’m not having a baby. I don’t want to have a baby.’
‘I didn’t say you were, you silly girl,’ Minnie replied sharply. ‘And I trust you won’t think of having a child until you are respectably married. This other thing is just part of being a woman, so that you can have a baby when you’re ready.’
Rosie was relieved beyond measure that she was normal and she wasn’t dying, but there were still things she needed to know and she decided to ask her mother now, while they were talking of intimate matters. ‘Mammy, how do babies get into you?’
Minnie’s lips pursed. ‘There is no need to know those things, or even ask about them until you’re married. Then, all will come clear to you.’
How? Rosie wondered, but she didn’t ask. One look at her mother’s face convinced her it would be a waste of time. Maybe, when she married, her husband would tell her. She hoped to goodness he knew something about it, or they’d never have a child.
She spent a lot of time as she reached her mid teens thinking about boys, wondering who she might marry and whether it would be someone around them, like Larry Sullivan the son of the blacksmith, or Rory McCabe, whose family owned a farm similar to their own, or even Dessy Finnegan, though when she thought of him she had to smile, for the boy was so small she stood head and shoulders above him like most of the other girls.
However, none of these boys attracted her in any way. In fact, they irritated her more often. Perhaps feelings change as a person gets older she mused or maybe she’d be swept off her feet by someone else entirely. She wondered what it would be like to fall in love, how it would feel to have a man’s hands upon you. Of course, that verged on impure thoughts and then would have to be confessed to Father McNally and yet she could scarcely prevent thinking of such things when she was in her bed at night.
Really though, when she thought deeper about it, she wondered if she’d ever have a boyfriend. She’d had to do so much with her sisters since she’d been ten that she’d seldom had time to think of her own appearance. She brushed both her sisters’ hair a hundred times each before plaiting it for bed, but her own waves got a cursory brush and she’d spent so long seeing that Chrissie and Geraldine were neat and tidy for school or Mass, that she scarcely had a minute to think of herself.
She examined her face and body critically in the mirror in her room and could see she had little to recommend her. Her eyes she felt were as dull as her hair, her skin sallow and while her body was thin enough, it had no shape to it at all.
She had few to compare herself with, for she saw her contemporaries only at Mass or the village, if she went in on Saturdays. There was a social in the church hall once a month for young people over the age of sixteen, but Rosie didn’t think she’d ever be allowed to go. She knew her mother didn’t
approve of such goings on. Rosie didn’t mind too much for she had nothing to wear, the serviceable day clothes and outfits for Mass were not the sort of clothes to wear to a dance. She knew too, the possibility of her mother spending money to get her new clothes, especially the things suitable for a social, was as likely as her flying to the moon, and she had no money of her own.
But, despite all this, there was a boy, a man almost, Rosie liked and his name was Danny Walsh. She was the same age as his younger sister Elizabeth, while Sarah his other sister was another two years older and he had a younger brother Phelan, who was the same age as Geraldine. The girls had all been at school together and when she talked to them after Mass, she had ample time to study their older brother, Danny.
He was a well set up and muscular young man, and from being out in all weathers his face was always bronzed. As he was the eldest son he was set to inherit the family’s farm and he carried that assurance with him. His mouth turned up at the sides as if he was constantly good humoured, his chin was determined and strong and his sparkling eyes were as dark as the mop of brown curls he sported.
Rosie, knew that nobody as handsome as Danny Walsh would look the side she was on, and she kept her thoughts about him to herself and only dreamed about him in her bed at night when she was tucked in beside her sisters. However, Danny Walsh had noticed the young girl with the deep brown eyes and hair that shone in the sunlight, but he also knew how old she was and he was no cradle snatcher.
In the spring of 1914, Rosie was sixteen and a half and Danny’s feelings for her had deepened, though he had no idea how she felt about him. He was no flirt and didn’t give his heart freely and that Sunday morning he decided it was time to see if Rosie liked him enough to step out with him and he dressed with extra care. The McMullen family came out of
church and Minnie and Seamus stopped to speak to some neighbours just a little way from the porch.