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Authors: Marita Conlon-Mckenna

Fields of Home

BOOK: Fields of Home
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Fields of Home

Only a few years ago, Eily, Michael and Peggy survived the Great Famine. Now Peggy is in America, hoping for a new life, and finally she heads for the Wild West. Eily and Michael face new challenges at home. Everywhere there is unrest, with evictions, burnings, secret meetings. What will become of them and of Eily’s little girl, Mary-Brigid?

 

Praise for Fields of Home:

 

‘Brings to a satisfying conclusion one of the undoubted achievements of contemporary Irish children’s literature’

Children’s Books in Ireland

 

‘A very rich and appropriate end to the trilogy’

The Big Guide to Irish Children’s Books

 

‘Three novels which, in my opinion, must be counted among the very highest achievements of contemporary children’s writing – from Ireland or elsewhere’

Robert Dunbar

Contents

 
  1. Title Page
  2. Dedication
  3. 1 The Homestead
  4. 2 Castletaggart Stables
  5. 3 Morning Boy
  6. 4 The Visit
  7. 5 Greenbay, Boston
  8. 6 The Wedding
  9. 7 The Widow O’Brien
  10. 8 The Races
  11. 9 Harvest Home
  12. 10 Lonesome Times
  13. 11 The Big House
  14. 12 Partings and Promises
  15. 13 Night Watch
  16. 14 The Secret
  17. 15 The Gift
  18. 16 The Visitor
  19. 17 The Homecoming
  20. 18 Blackberry Picking
  21. 19 Market Day
  22. 20 The Decision
  23. 21 The Rent Collector
  24. 22 Siege
  25. 23 Glengarry
  26. 24 Wagons West
  27. 25 A Sod of Earth
  28. About the Author
  29. By the Same Author
  30. Copyright

DEDICATION

For my husband, James, with love

CHAPTER 1

The Homestead

MARY-BRIGID WALKED ACROSS
the tufts of springy summer grass, helping her mother, Eily, to carry the heavy washbasket. She loved days like this when the sky was so blue and the grass so green you could almost hear it grow beneath your feet.

She could see her Daddy, John, down below in the potato field, weeding the drills. This year there would be a grand crop, he’d said, to judge by the healthy green leaves and stalks – and that’s what all the men were saying. Bella, the milking cow, moved slowly through the field beyond the potato patch, chewing constantly and flicking away the annoying flies with her tail.

‘Mary-Brigid, will you pass me up that shift and
those stockings of Nano’s?’ called Eily.

Mary-Brigid lifted up the soaking garments to her mother, giggling as water from the clothes dripped down her bare, skinny legs and onto her feet, drenching the bottom of her loose, blue cotton dress. Soon the line of rope that stretched between the young oak tree at the end of the field and the wooden pole near the house was bedecked with an assortment of wet clothing. Finally, Eily spread out a sheet on a bush to dry.

‘’Tis done!’ Eily smiled and dried her hands on her apron, then stopped to rest for a few minutes. ‘Isn’t it a grand day, pet!’

The soft wind that would dry the clothes caught at the strands of Mary-Brigid’s fair hair, tossing it in every direction. ‘Twas a torment how her hair always ended up in tangles and knots, while her mother’s fine hair was so easily patted into place. She watched as her mother’s gaze took in the land and fields all around them.

‘See those walls, Mary-Brigid? Your daddy’s daddy, Grandaddy Joshua, and his daddy built those stone walls. They had to dig the rocks and stones from under the earth and lift them, and they got more rocks from the riverbank, then they laid them one by one on top of each other. It took them a long, long time.’

Mary-Brigid ran her eyes along the low, grey stone
walls, each stone balanced perfectly with another, that formed the boundary of their small farm, with its potato field, the rough hilly pasture, and the stony patch where her mother’s vegetables and a square of wheat fought to grow. Her Daddy and Mammy worked so hard, clearing the soil, planting it and weeding it. Mostly Daddy had to work for the landlord, of course, tending to their own land only when he could get a minute free.

In the distance, Muck, the pig they were fattening for winter, squealed hungrily from the ramshackle pigpen.

‘We’d better get him some scraps and peelings soon,’ Eily said, ‘or he’ll scream the place down.’

They picked up the washbasket, took a handle each, and strolled back towards the neat little homestead, with its pile of dry turf, the curl of smoke from the chimney, and the bright, shining window pane winking and catching the sunlight.

‘Shoo! Shoo!’ Mary-Brigid told the hens who ran and pecked in front of her. Maisie, her favourite red hen, tried, as usual, to follow her into the shade of the kitchen. That old hen was far too cute for her own good, Auntie Nano often said. Nano lay dozing now, her rocking chair still, in front of the fire.

‘Ssh, Mammy!’ warned Mary-Brigid, ‘she’s asleep!’

‘Ssh!’ echoed her little brother Jodie, imitating her. He looked up from where he had been playing quietly
in the corner of the room.

Their great grand-aunt looked so peaceful there, snoring ever so slightly.

‘There might be some honey for you two later,’ whispered Eily. ‘Daddy is going to check the beehive for the both of ye.’ The children adored honey – a little bit spread on the fresh bread Eily baked, or spooned into their bowls of porridge, was the best treat possible. They licked their lips at the very thought of it.

Eily was always thinking of little things to please the children and make them happy. When she was a girl times had been very hard, and Auntie Nano said that she had never forgotten it.

‘Now, pet, will you do me a favour and take Jodie out to play in the fresh air!’

Jodie ran up to Mary-Brigid, his sturdy two-year-old hands grabbing at her skirt as he followed her outside.

‘Stay near the house, Mary-Brigid!’ warned Eily. ‘None of your gallivanting or exploring, now.’

Mary-Brigid sighed. She’d had a mind to go down to the stream to look for pinkeens.

‘Come on, Jodie!’ she said. ‘We’ll just have to find something else to do!’

Jodie nodded his curly brown head. As little brothers went, Mary-Brigid guessed that Jodie wasn’t the worst. He knew how to play chasing, though he was so slow at running, and he was good at playing baby princes
that Mary-Brigid had to rescue from all sorts of monsters and evil lords.

Maisie clucked about and followed them, pecking busily as she went.

‘Hen! Hen!’ announced Jodie, pointing a grubby finger at the bird.

‘That’s Maisie, Jodie. Say MAAII-SSEE!’

‘HEN!’ repeated her brother solemnly.

‘But Maisie is much more than just an ordinary old hen,’ said Mary-Brigid dramatically, hunkering down on the grass, as the dusty hen scratched at the ground. ‘Maisie is a magic hen!’ Mary-Brigid’s eyes twinkled.

Jodie stood in front of his sister, his fingers opening and closing in a futile attempt to clutch at the darting bundle of rich brown-red feathers that jumped and fluttered to escape him.

‘She lays golden eggs,’ Mary-Brigid continued, dropping her voice, ‘and she can see the sidhe! ‘But Jodie ignored her. He didn’t know anything about the fairies; he was much more interested in catching the creature.

Maisie pecked away, keeping just out of range of the two of them.

‘Jodie, if we’re good and quiet,’ Mary Brigid went on, ‘Maisie might lead us to one of her eggs, her special golden eggs.’

A shadow of confusion passed across Jodie’s small
face. He liked eggs, though what eggs had to do with this clucking creature, he wasn’t sure. But he followed his big sister, as she raced after Maisie, who was now squawking wildly and running madly in all directions.

* * *

‘You’d think the child had been caught in a thorn bush, John! Just look at the state of him!’ Eily was furious. ‘Look at the clothes I washed yesterday!’

Mary-Brigid kept her eyes on the dripping square of potato cake on her plate. What was all the fuss about? Jodie had only a few scratches and scrapes. She could see that her father was trying not to smile.

‘Do you know anything about this, Mary-Brigid?’ John asked solemnly.

Mary-Brigid shrugged her shoulders and licked the smear of butter from her lips.

‘I thought I saw the two of you chasing that yoke of a hen this afternoon,’ he added.

‘MAASSEE!’ pronounced Jodie, trying at the same time to flap his arms like the hen. Everyone burst out laughing.

‘You two rogues!’ teased their father, tousling Mary-Brigid’s wild mop of hair and sticking the tip of his little finger into one of the dimples on her cheek. ‘My laughing girl!’

‘Thank God for the food on the table,’ Nano broke
in, ‘and for the family and children to share it with.’

‘Amen,’ answered Eily softly.

* * *

Mary-Brigid stared into the flickering flames of the turf-and-wood fire. Sitting hunched on a cushion in her nightclothes, she pushed her bare toes and feet close to the heat, watching the shadows from the flames dance around the room. The regular creak of Nano’s heavy rocking chair was the only sound in the silence of the small cottage.

Eily was busy putting Jodie to bed, and John had gone out to check the animals.

Mary-Brigid blew softly on the low fire.

‘What are you doing, child?’ asked Nano.

‘I’m just giving a bit of life to the fire.’

‘You know you must be careful of the fire, dote. Come and sit by me, and let a bit of the heat out to my old bones.’

Mary-Brigid crouched beside Nano. Her great grand-aunt was the oldest and nicest person she knew.

‘Nano,’ said Mary-Brigid, tossing the tumble of blond hair from her face and resting her cheek on the old woman’s lap, ‘Nano, will you tell me a story?’

The old lady sighed, not an exasperated sigh, but the sigh of one used to such a request from a favourite
child.

‘Well, what kind of story would you be wanting, then?’ asked Nano, her soft blue eyes shining and the lines around them creasing. ‘Is it ghosts or goblins you want?’

Mary-Brigid considered. ‘No! Not that kind of story tonight, Nano. The story of long ago.’

‘Ah!’ said Nano, ‘of high kings and warriors and great deeds!’

‘No!’ frowned Mary-Brigid. ‘The story of Mammy and Michael and Peggy.’

‘Ah!’ sighed Nano, shifting herself in the chair, ‘that story.’ The child was always pestering her for that story.

‘’Tis a story of courage,’ began Nano softly. Mary-Brigid nodded, her dark eyes shining. ‘A story of a sister and a brother and a wee slip of a girl about your own age. The times were hard then, so hard. You see, the potato crop had failed. The people dug their crop only to discover that everything had turned to slime. Now everyone knew that as sure as night follows day the hunger would come. From cabin to cabin, cottage to cottage, across the fields and farms of Ireland, they knew. And they waited.’

Eily slipped back into the room. Leaning against the door she listened, as Nano’s hushed voice went on, ‘Your Mammy and Uncle Michael and Auntie Peggy
didn’t want to go to the workhouse with the rest, so Eily decided that they would run away, across the countryside, and try to find Lena and myself.’

Eily closed her eyes as she heard again the story of her youth …

CHAPTER 2

Castletaggart Stables

BOOK: Fields of Home
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