A Man of Honour by Barbara Taylor Bradford

ONE

It was very windy on the top of the cliffs. He hadn’t expected that, to be sure. And it was a strong wind that buffeted him forward. It was as if two strong hands were pushing him. Mighty hands at that.

He staggered and flayed about, and attempted to stay upright. Somehow he managed to do so, but he was suddenly afraid. The cliff top was a dangerous place to be on this cold morning.

It was Monday 8 May in the Year of Our Lord 1899 yet, despite the month, the weather was icy. What bad luck he had in choosing to come here. Daft, I am, he thought, that’s a certainty.

His bright mind was racing as he continued to be battered about, and so he threw himself on the ground, deeming it the best place to be as this gale raged around him.

Once down on the ground, he began to crawl across the grass, heading for the formation of boulders grouped together. He knew these cliffs well, and there was a crevice between them. He could squeeze in there and be protected until the wind settled down or disappeared. If I be lucky, he thought miserably.

It was some relief when he reached the rocks and managed to get comfortable in the crevice. Sitting back, he pulled his overcoat around him and stuck his hands in his pockets. Although he was still shivering, being sheltered from the wind helped. He warmed up a bit.

His name was Shane Patrick Desmond O’Neill but the whole world called him Blackie. He lived in a hamlet in North Kerry, these days with his cousins Michael and Siobhan O’Brien. They had invited him to come and live with them in their cramped thatched cottage after his sister Bronagh had died a few months ago.

The twins were employed by the wealthy Anglo-Irish Lassiter family, who lived in the mansion up on the hill above the hamlet. Huddled against the rocks, his thoughts stayed with his cousins.

Michael was a gardener and Siobhan a housemaid. They were not paid very much; he knew that only too well, sure enough he did. Yet they managed better than their neighbours. He mentally hugged them to himself, because they were so caring of him in his time of dire need. His heart ached for his sister – his whole family. They were all dead now. Killed by this fearful land they lived in.

How he longed to leave this place. If only he were a bird he could take flight … soar up and away … be free of pain and sorrow.

Blackie’s thoughts shifted to the opportunity he had, and Mrs O’Malley. She was very kind to him. She mothered him and had taught him to read, far better than he had been able to before. She was the housekeeper for the local priest, Father O’Donovan. Both kept an eye on him and were now helping to plan his trip … a different future for him, if his Uncle Pat could arrange everything. I know he’ll pull it off, Blackie decided. As usual Blackie was full of optimism; a useful trait, he often thought. Keep smiling was his motto.

He had been inspired by Father O’Donovan’s confidence and filled with excitement about going to England, as thousands had before him. There was no work here, no opportunity for him to earn a few pennies. Even the grown men had no jobs.

The idea of adventure and opportunity overseas was fed by his proximity to the mouth of the River Shannon and the wild Atlantic Ocean beyond.

The wind had finally died down, gone out to sea. Blackie pushed himself to his feet. Stretching, and then pulling his coat around him, he headed for the edge of the cliffs.

He stood gazing out at the rolling waves, tipped with white foam, and felt as if the sea were calling him across the waters. In his imagination, he envisioned freedom from hardship, poverty and loneliness. He was impatient to be gone, could hardly wait for the day he would leave Ireland from the port of Queenstown. It was usually tough, even harsh to cross this dangerous sea. Some did not survive the journey, so he had heard, and he believed it to be the truth.

Blackie knew he would. He would will himself to survive, in order to meet his Uncle Pat in Liverpool, from where they would travel on the train to Leeds. He had never been on a train before in his life; the idea of this intrigued him. His uncle had a good business in Leeds, repair work and building for the mill owners and even some householders nowadays. He would teach Blackie everything he knew and make him a partner. One day.

Turning away from the roiling ocean waves, Blackie walked back towards the hamlet, his mind settling on the book he had just finished. Father O’Donovan had lent it to him. It was a book about history and Elizabeth I, an English queen from the past.

Blackie loved history, churches and cathedrals. History fed his keen mind; churches and cathedrals fired his ambition to be a builder, a constructor of wonderful buildings. Elizabeth I had been a brilliant queen, a queen who had built a country to become its very best, better than ever before.

He smiled to himself, wishing he had lived then. Suddenly he thought of the Spanish Armada, which had foundered on the Irish Sea, in front of the dark eyes of the queen herself. She had been wearing a silver breastplate and was mounted on a white stallion, waiting on Plymouth Hoe for her greatest enemy, King Philip of Spain.

Blackie laughed out loud as he thought of this long-ago event, his brain focused on the queen. He was positive she had been well aware that the harsh wind, which had unexpectedly blown up, had pushed those great Spanish galleons away from the shores of her beloved England. There was no invasion of her land after all.

Her enormous victory had been called an Act of God by the people. He bet she had known the ships had capsized because of a change in the weather, and not Divine Intervention. She was too clever to miss that. A wry smile flickered. The vagaries of the weather were powerful, he knew that.

Black Irish, that’s what I am, so called because of my black hair and dark eyes, he thought, as he contemplated those Spanish sailors of the Armada who had made it to the shores of Ireland and lived. Hundreds had stayed and married the beautiful Irish girls … he truly was descended from them and proud of it. Sure and he was, very proud.

Blackie was tall for his age and well-built, with a wide chest and broad shoulders even at thirteen. He had an inbred sense of purpose, which gave him a certain self-confidence, even an air of authority. It would be the underpinning of his life, a blessing.

This young man who had known much sadness, had grieved for his father and mother, William, his brother, and finally his sister, Bronagh. They were all buried next to each other in the church cemetery; buried in the earth they had been the victim of … killed by hunger and grinding poverty.

He sighed under his breath as he walked on. He genuinely understood that life was hard. Mrs O’Malley had told him that many, many times, and he had already experienced unendurable pain and sorrow.

It had been terrible to lose first his da then his mam and William. He and Bronagh had tried to keep going for a year after that, but after Bronagh’s death he had vowed to himself that he would make his life different, whatever he had to do to attain this. Mrs O’Malley constantly called him the poor wee bairn under her breath. That was how she saw him. Yet he knew he would grow up to be strong, a man of steel. He understood he could erase the past, create a new future for himself. Who could stop him? He had the time. He was just thirteen.

The drizzle started as Blackie was walking down the dirt road that led into the little hamlet where he had been born and brought up. Just my luck, he muttered under his breath, and started to run.

The drizzle became rain and, in seconds, it was a downpour. He was wet through as he jogged ahead, his eyes fixed on the first cottage at the edge of the hamlet. That was where Mrs O’Malley lived.

He glowered at the leaden sky. Thank God for Mrs O’Malley, he said to himself. She will come to my rescue. As she had many times.

He slowed down as he entered the hamlet. Within a minute, he was outside her cottage. He was not a bit surprised to see Mrs O’Malley herself, standing on the doorstep in front of her open door, a look of expectancy on her face, worry in her eyes.