1848: the third year the potato crop failed in Ireland. The Protestant landlords have absconded back to Britain, leaving the Catholic peasants to fend for themselves, while the English feast on the massive amounts of Irish food they’re importing every day.
With two younger brothers to feed, Molly O’Brien takes her father’s place on the road gang, building a road that runs from her tiny village to the river and no farther. Yet sixteen hours of labor a day will not garner enough wages to buy food for her family.
She is beyond despair. Beyond prayer. And so far beyond the tenets of her childhood, she has decided to offer her body to the first man with the price of a loaf of bread. But when a stranger takes her hand, will her sacrifice be enough to save her siblings?
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Several years ago, I saw an article about a memorial sculpture being installed in County Cork that celebrated the aid the Choctaw Tribe in America gave to the Irish during the Great Potato Famine. My mother has a smidgen of native blood, so the article caught my eye.
As I read it, I realized that my father’s family—coming from County Clare as they did—had to have lived through that famine. I did some research and learned that it was a totally avoidable disaster, which cut Ireland’s population by 25% while food was being exported to England at astronomical rates.
I felt compelled to tell the stories of the survivors—the ones who somehow held body and soul together and found a way to prosper.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
My grandmother, Nell, who was born just after the famine, heard of the hardships of the famine from her mother and father, and lived with the aftermath until the family emigrated to America at the turn of the century. The character of Molly O’Brien was born out of those stories.
My male MC, John Patrick Donovan, is a combination of the three men in my family who have influenced me the most, my father, my grandfather and my uncle, who were all named John.
(Note: “colleen” is an Irish word for girl, not a character’s name; “bawn” means fair or pretty.)
CHAPTER 1: Late Summer, 1848
The afternoon sun played against the waves of the River Shannon, turning them silver, making them glint like thousands of small fish leaping joyfully upstream to spawn. The banks were lushly green, the sky brilliantly blue. High white clouds, soft as cottongrass tufts, tumbled away to the east.
A girl stood on the western bank, her hair glittering in the late summer sun. The breeze lifted it, teased it, made it fly around her head like a bright red halo—unkempt, untamed, yet somehow holy.
Brushing the wisps of hair away, she stared into the river. Her dress hung upon her in rags. She was thin—so thin the sapling behind her threw a greater shadow. She had no stockings, no shoes, no shawl or kerchief to protect her against a day that was growing cool. And she had no hope.
She was beyond despair. Beyond prayer. And so far beyond the tenets of her childhood that she’d decided to offer her body to the first man with the price of a loaf of bread. At that moment, a voice behind her spoke.
Molly looked around, saw a man with dark hair and dark eyes, clean-shaven and well dressed. Her relief at his appearance was quickly eclipsed by shame. She could not speak.
“Colleen bawn,” he murmured in a smooth baritone as he extended his hand. “Come and walk a little ways.” She took his hand without conscious decision, and turned away from the river.
She walked slowly, in time with his steps. He seemed lost in thought and she did not know where they were going, or how she should ask for payment.
She stopped at last and he looked over at her. “I must have bread, sir.”
“I am sorry, colleen, I did not hear you.”
“I will give you my body, sir, but please… I must have the bread first.”
“The bread? Are you hungry, lass?” He shook his head forcefully, raised a hand to rub his brow. They are all hungry.
“No. Yes. No, ’tis not for me.” She twisted away, ready to run. If he did not want her, why had he spoken? Or would he take her and then not pay? But she must have food. She turned back to him, shoulders slouching, fingers laced tightly together. “Please, sir. Just a single loaf I need. For my brothers.”
“I see.” Taking a pipe out of his pocket, he tapped tobacco into it. “And how many brothers have you?”
“Two, sir.” She did not see why it mattered, but she would answer all his questions if he would only give her bread.
“And where are they, colleen?”
“At the croft. I mean the cottage. It’s… it’s not much of a cottage, really… but…”
“I see.” The man stared at his pipe before he lit it. “All right, colleen, suppose you come with me. We will get you bread. Then I will go with you to the cottage and afterwards, you will come with me again.”
“Yes, sir.” She straightened up once more. He might think he needed to go with her, but she would have returned to him. “Thank you, sir.”
He held his hand out again and, like a child, she grasped it tightly. He led her to the public house and bade her sit on the bench outside while he went in. Her body was taut with anxiety. She relaxed only slightly when he came out carrying a fairly large sack.
She could see two loaves of bread in it, but dared not hope they were both for her. It was all she could do to keep from asking, from begging. Nor could she tell him that the smell of his pipe—the heavenly smell of tobacco—was making her stomach ache from hunger. She pointed out the way, then trotted along beside him saying anything that came to mind to keep from begging for that second loaf.
She told him a tale of tragedy—of how her mother and father had died of starvation, slowly and horribly, her father eating nothing at the end, so that his children might live. How she had taken her father’s place in the public works, because she was the eldest child and her brothers too weak from the fever. “I work outside, breaking rocks for the roads because the workhouses won’t let you out at night. I must care for my family. I am all they have left, and I will break rocks forever if I have to. Yet fifteen hours a day will not buy even a loaf of bread.”
Her voice broke when she spoke again of her mother. It had been a week since her death, and she had not had the price of a proper coffin. Her mother had been placed in a mass grave with the others who had died that day. The priest had said some words at the gravesite, but her mother’s name had not been mentioned, for there were too many to name, and too many whose names were not even known.
“But I have my brothers still to care for. And that is why…”
“Aye,” he said, interrupting her gently. They went the last few steps in silence.
The cottage was indeed a ruin. Its walls were blackened with mildew, its thatched roof half undone. She entered first, both of them stooping low to get through the opening that served as the door. The smell—a mixture of mold, must, human excrement, and the sweetly sour smell of blood—made the gentleman gag. Molly paid it no mind. Her brothers lay on the dirt floor on thin beds of rags, the blankets covering them almost transparent. The younger had bright dark eyes and a ghostly smile for her. The elder lay motionless, his breath coming in small, ragged moans, his eyes half-open and unaware of their presence. His limbs were but sticks with flesh hung loosely from them, his belly swollen in a tragic parody of pregnancy.
Silently, she accepted the sack of provisions the man held out to her. Though her lips moved, no words came.
“I will wait outside,” he said. “Make no rush. There is time enough.”
“Thank you, sir.”
He wasn’t out the door before she was digging into the sack. It was much heavier than she’d expected. Under the bread was a wedge of cheese and a bottle of brandy. And wrapped in straw against breakage, were three hard-cooked eggs and a small crock of butter.
“Oh, Johnny dear, look,” she breathed, waving the cheese under her little brother’s nose. “We’ve cheese! and eggs, and even butter! Even butter for our bread! It must be a miracle!”
“Let me see, let me see!” He dipped a skinny finger into the butter and sucked it off with a moan of pleasure. “Oh, Molly, nothin’ ever tasted so good. Give some to Willie, too.”
But the other boy lay unresponsive still.
“Nay, I’ll give him some brandy first. ’Twill make him feel better. And then later he will eat.” She lifted William’s head gently and, holding the bottle to his lips, poured a few drops into his mouth. He swallowed convulsively and she poured another few drops. He looked up at her finally, his lips twitching into a smile.
“There,” she said, “you’ll have more in a bit. Right now it’s time to get you cleaned up.” Quickly but gently she washed him, stripping the dirty rags from beneath him and replacing them with clean as she went. The dirty ones went into a pile outside the door; she would wash them later for the morning. She glanced around as she stepped outside, but did not see her benefactor. No matter. She would find him again. The village was not so large that he could get lost in it. She stepped back in to wash her hands in an old china bowl, drying them on her skirt.
Tearing the bread into small hunks, she dipped them into the butter, for there was no knife left anymore. The softer middle pieces she gave to Johnny as they were easy to chew. Besides, she had a liking for the crispness of the crusts herself. A few pieces she soaked thoroughly in the brandy for William. He was too weak to chew, but she made the bits small enough and wet enough to melt in his mouth. They finished the first loaf, along with the butter, and then she shared the cheese with Johnny, the sharp tang of it like heaven in her mouth. She closed her eyes and held back a sigh of pleasure.
“Oh, I’m stuffed,” Johnny sighed. “And isn’t it wonderful!”
“’Tis good at that,” she agreed, wrapping the eggs carefully in the straw and storing them with the second loaf for the morrow. “Now you have some of this brandy and you’ll sleep well tonight. And you, William, some for you, as well. After a good rest, you’ll both have an egg in the morning. But I must return this crock. To sleep quickly, both of you, and I’ll be back in a bit.”
Obediently they closed their eyes, and she watched them fondly for a minute. Beneath her breath there was a fervent prayer. God in heaven, thank you for this day. Thank you for this miracle. I almost thought… No, I knew you would answer my prayers. Dear God, let them live—let them live one more day. She bowed her head. God, forgive me. Do not hold my sins against them. Let them live for one more day.
Gifford MacShane is the author of historical fiction that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit. Her novels feature a family of Irish immigrants who ultimately settled in the Arizona Territory. With an accessible literary style, MacShane draws out her characters' hidden flaws and strengths as they grapple with both physical and emotional conflicts.
Singing almost before she could talk, MacShane has always loved folk music, whether it be Irish, Appalachian, or the songs of the cowboys. Her love of the Old West goes back to childhood, when her father introduced her to the works of Zane Grey. Later she became interested in the Irish diaspora, realizing her ancestors must have lived through “An Gorta Mor”, the Great Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800s. Writing allows her to combine her three great interests into a series of family stories, each including romance, traditional song lyrics, and a dash of Celtic mysticism.
MacShane is a member of the Historical Novel Society and an OwnVoices writer. A self-professed grammar nerd who still loves diagramming sentences, Giff currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband Richard, the Pied Piper of stray cats.
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