CLADDAGH GIRL – Virginia Ryan

 Chapter One

The Claddagh, County Galway, Ireland
October 1904

The daughter of the Claddagh King stood in the early-morning sun and eyed the patch of beryl-blue squeezed in between a row of whitewashed cottages. She took a deep breath, promising herself that she’d get moving after the next breath or, for certain, the one after that.
It was a crystal-clear day that she wanted to cherish. Sure, there was the spinning and washing and bread to be baked. The last of the harvest to be picked, boys’ socks in need of darning, and fish to be sold at the end of the day. But she didn’t have to go to school, and for the freedom from its stone classrooms and equally cold Dominican Sisters, thirteen-year-old Nell O’Connor was grateful. She inhaled deeply one last time, savored the crisp, briny scent, and set herself down at her wheel.
Nell took a roll of wool that she’d combed the day before and wound it about the spindle. Spinning the large wheel slowly at first, she drew out a strand of greasy wool and twisted it into as fine a strand as she dared, picking out mottled bits of leaves and twigs that had remained through the carding. She kept the wheel in motion as she moved back and forth with the fleece, until spinning out of her careful hands was a strand of yarn that would meet Mam’s approval. The monotonous task required concentration, but not so much that Nell couldn’t let her mind wander.
She’d positioned her spinning wheel by Da’s caged wren, just outside their cheery red door. Mam said she kept the top half of the door open to hear the bird sing, but Nell suspected she also wanted to keep an eye on her daughter. Nell didn’t mind. She was determined to prove that she was no longer a silly little girl with her head in the clouds—or out to sea—but a young woman who would one day make a fine fisherman’s wife, maybe even a queen of the Claddagh, just like her mother. She wanted Mam to see how hard she was working. She wanted the neighbors to see that she was serving her father well.
Nell set her shoulders and focused on her basket of fleece. The proof of her worthiness wasn’t in how she looked but in the skill with which she did her chores. Was her wool soft and fine? Could she mend a net quickly and securely? For what price could she sell Da’s fish? These were the ways a Claddagh woman was measured.
Her basket was half empty when sharp cries broke the soothing sound of the wind. It was a keening, slowly easing its way into the village. Goosebumps rose on Nell’s arms. The ominous sound was guttural in its resonance, unmistakable as a portent of death.
Even from a distance, Nell could see that the source of the keening was the old hag. Her long white hair, untethered from shawl or headdress, fell loose over a faded blue cloak, and she wore sagging men’s breeches tucked into a pair of leather boots. Some said Eilish was a healer, others thought she a witch. Nell didn’t know what she believed but found her so fascinating that it took her a moment to notice the band of men coming after her. Some pushed a cart, and their steps were arduous, as if their feet were heavy or the path uneven.
Nell recognized them at once. Billy the hake, Peader the salmon, Aiden Riley, and the rest of the fishing fleet. They looked to be all present, all twenty-three of them, except for her father. She searched among them; he would be noticeable for his stature. Like a whiskey barrel, she’d heard him described—short and broad across the shoulders and chest, with legs like a cow’s haunches, muscular from all the days of standing squat on the bow of his hooker, peering out to sea for gulls dipping into the water in search of herring and hake on the run. But Da was nowhere to be found.
As they drew close, Nell saw that in the cart was a man, his limp arms and legs dangling over the sides. A sickness churned in her belly as the motley group moved past cottage after cottage. She wanted to cry out to them to stop where they were. Go in with your sad news to the Callahans’ house, the Martins’, the Byrnes’. But the group walked on and Eilish continued her mournful lament, until they stopped in front of Nell.
The man in the cart looked like a ragdoll left overnight in a garden. His clothes clung to his body, and his head tilted toward one shoulder. Specks of dulse and kelp dotted his hair, which covered his face. It didn’t matter. Nell knew it was her dear Da.
She could neither move nor cry out, though it felt as if her heart would explode in her chest. She seemed bound to her spindle, as if the yarn had wrapped itself around her legs, wound around her mouth like a gag. Only when Mam flew out the door, Michael in her arms, could Nell move. She caught the baby as her mother fell to her knees by the cart.
“Good King Ned was righting a twisted sail on the North Star,” Eilish said, coming closer now, her voice no more than a whisper. “The men say he lost his footing and pitched into the sea. By the time they’d fished him out and fetched me, God have mercy on his soul, his spirit was already gone.”
Nell’s mother crawled halfway into the cart. She cradled her husband’s face in her hands and pushed the hair away from his eyes, as if doing so would make him all right again. “No, no, macushla! This can’t be,” she cried, smothering him in words of love and kisses, something Nell had never seen when he was alive.
Then Mam rushed to Eilish, her tears run dry. “Do something! You must have a spell or a potion in there.” She grabbed at the worn leather satchel that Eilish wore slung across her chest. “Save him, please!”
“I’m a simple bonesetter, Orla. A healer. I don’t bring the dead back to life.”
“You didn’t even try!”
Eilish pried her bag away, and Mam fell to the ground, groping at the hag’s dusty boots, pleading and crying for a miracle that even Nell knew would never happen.
“There’s nothing to be done, Orla. He was under too long.” The old woman looked at Nell now, her watery blue eyes sympathetic but her voice firm. “You let me know if she needs anything to calm her nerves,” she said. Then she turned and walked back down the hill, resuming her mournful song.
In the days that followed, Nell regretted for the first time that her father had been Claddagh king. The entire village and folk from the whole west coast seemed broken-hearted over the death of good King Ned. Nell resented their grief, these mute fishermen and sobbing women, acting as if their loss were as deep as her own. She wanted them to leave. She wanted time alone with Da, time to say good-bye in the right way. But this was not to be. Every time she thought there’d be a moment, someone would sidle up to her and share a memory of time with her father.
“So sorry for your trouble,” they’d say, some barely able to get the words out or meet her eyes. Instead they’d tip their flat caps and take seats around the table where her father was laid out, candles at his head and feet, and her mother frozen by his side for two days and two nights. The mourners took turns keeping Mam company, taking breaks by the hearth to share songs, stories, and, to Nell’s mind, too much poteen. It sometimes seemed more like a party than a wake.
The day of the funeral, the skies were dark with low clouds and a sharp wind cut through Nell’s cloak. It seemed now that everyone had cried their eyes dry, and so they all—her mother, Seamus, Owen and Michael, their neighbors, and the fishermen—formed a cortege and shuffled silently to St. Mary’s for a Mass and then a burial on the green overlooking Galway Bay. The only sound was from the old hag Eilish, serving as bean caoineadh, keening the familiar words:

An é sin an Maicín a d’iompair mé trí ráithe?
Ochón agus ochón ó!
Nó ‘n é sin an Maicín a rugadh sa stábla?
Ochón agus ochón ó!

(Is that the wee babe I bore nine months in my womb?
Alas and woe to me!
That was born in a stable when no one would give us room?
Alas and woe to me!)

Eilish’s singing made Nell angry. It was ridiculous—she hardly felt sorrow for poor Mary. Why, she should be angry, not sad! Jesus could have saved himself, could have prevented his mother from all that heartache, unlike Da, who had lost his battle with the sea through no fault of his own.
As she thought these things, Nell felt guilty and confused. It wasn’t Mary’s fault, it was her son’s. And then Nell was ashamed for thinking such things of the Virgin Mary and Christ. She made the sign of the cross and asked God for forgiveness. Yet with every verse Nell felt more and more exposed, as naked as the brittle twigs that stood on each side of the path leading to the graveyard.
Finally it was over—the wake and the Mass, the burial on the green. Nell was relieved. She believed that now things would go back to the way they had been before her father drowned. The boys could go off to school, Mam would take care of the baby, and she could busy herself with the spinning and weaving and cooking and cleaning. If she could just carry out those tasks, there was a chance she might not collapse under the weight of grief.
It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate the times when Mrs. Callahan and the other ladies brought them a fish stew or nice brown bread. But accepting their help meant they would want to come into the house for a visit. After a time, Nell started meeting them at the door. She didn’t want them to see her mother still bedridden with grief or, worse, how poorly she herself was managing. After a while, the neighbors stopped bringing food.
One cold December morning, after the boys had gone to school, Nell was mending by the fire when she heard someone calling outside their door.
“Orla O’Connor, are you home? I’ve got something to talk over with you. Are you in, love?”
Nell looked at the shrouded figure under the rug on her mother’s pallet. She knew from the slightest of movements that her mother was awake. She whispered, “It’s Bindy O’Riordan, Mam. Should I let her in?”
Her mother’s elegant white hand emerged from mound of wool, flicking the air carelessly, as if swatting away a fruit fly or moth that had found its way into the cottage.
So Nell went to the door, its top half opened to let in the morning light. “Herself is under the weather, I’m afraid. Is there something I can help you with, Mrs. O’Riordan?”
Bindy leaned forward and strained her neck, trying to see for herself. Nell shifted just enough to block her view of the dirt floor in need of tamping down, of the massive pile of darning heaped by the side of the hearth, of her spinning wheel gathering dust in a corner.
“That’s a shame, it is. I was hoping to speak with her directly. It’s news of great importance and sensitivity.”
“She’s come down with a touch of cough. Sure, and it would be shame if you were to catch it yourself.”
“Well, you see…” Bindy hesitated and cleared her throat. “Your dear departed father, God rest his soul, was such a fine king, he was. But St. Stephen’s Day is upon us, and the men decided amongst themselves last night that it wouldn’t be right or advisable to head into the day without having a king overseeing the celebrations. You know how wild those boys can be.”
Nell did know. “Ah, sure, you know yourself,” she replied, not sure what else to say.
“They’ve settled on Eoin the Salmon as the next king.” Bindy was red as a beet now, and, in a way, Nell felt sorry for her—but not enough to ease her awkwardness. Nell was under no false illusion that her father was coming back, but hearing that there’d be a new king, probably with his own little princesses, made Nell want to cry. She’d assumed that her father’s spirit would rule over the Claddagh at least until the spring solstice, when they usually held their elections. Surely the men could behave themselves, out of respect for Da, on St. Stephen’s Day? Couldn’t they see that he was still with them?
Her despair came out in silent tears, and Nell felt foolish, like a child of four instead of a thirteen-year-old who should be able to manage her emotions as well as the house.
“I’m sorry, Nell. Oh, the unfairness of it all. ’Tis a heavy cross you must bear.” Bindy reached out and patted Nell’s shoulder.
Nell wanted to cave into the touch—it had been so long since she’d been held. But Bindy was on the outside of the door, and she was on the inside.
“Ah, so, when your mam is able, you’ll tell her?”
Nell nodded and said good-bye. She stood for a moment and watched Bindy walk back down the lane. Some of the other women had come to their doors—to watch, she supposed, for any reaction. Without opening the door, she reached out and set Da’s wren free. Then she closed the top half of the door. It could stay closed forever, for all she cared.
Mornings, after that, were the worst. Nell kept thinking that this was the day Mam would start acting like a mother again. She’d bring her a cuppa and some porridge with a cheery greeting as soon as the boys went off to school, then tell her the plans for the day.
“Is there anything you need, Mam?”
Mam never replied.
It wasn’t just the housework that felt out of control. Cheerful baby Michael became cranky, bleating all day like a lost lamb. And Seamus and Owen were getting into scuffles at school. Finally the Sisters sent home a note, summoning Mam to a meeting. It was the ultimate humiliation when Nell had to go to in her place.
Nell washed her face and feet and put on her best shawl before heading up to the Piscatorial School. She remembered how eager she had been just last year to stop being a student, vowing never to return until she had children of her own. Oh, she thought now as she walked, to be a student again and not have to manage the house! Why had she been so eager to grow up?
She glanced up at the statue of the fisherman standing atop the school and looked to where he was pointing. Out to sea, where her father had gone. She’d never paid much attention to it before. Now the stone man seemed to be speaking just to her.
Inside, a novice clad in white led her to Sister Bartholomew’s office. Nell kept her head bowed and her hands clenched by her sides, half expecting to get a whack on her palms the way she often had as a student.
“Finnoula O’Connor,” Sister Bartholomew said, surprised. “It’s your mother I expected.”
Nell was afraid to meet the nun’s stare. She’d always been afraid of Sister Bartholomew. “Mam sends her regrets but isn’t quite up to it. Under the weather and all that. I’m afraid you’ll have to count on me to pass on whatever it is you need her to know.”
Sister Bartholomew sighed. “And how long has your mam been under the weather? A week, a month?”
“More than that, I’d say,” Nell admitted.
“And it’s you that’s been taking care of your brothers?”
“It is, Sister,” Nell replied, feeling the color of shame on her face.
“’Tis a sad thing when a woman loses her husband and children lose their father, especially a man as good as King Ned. But grief doesn’t absolve us of our responsibilities. It pains me to have to remind you that St. Dominic’s is a school, not a barnyard. If your brothers are to continue in their studies, we expect them to act, and smell, like civilized young men, not animals. Is that clear?”
Nell nodded. A whack on the hands would have been less painful.
Later that day, Nell tried to reason with the boys. She sat them down after clearing away the evening tea. “You need to try harder. We all do. The nuns aren’t going to stand for it. And then what would you do? What would Da think?”
“You can’t tell us what to do!” Seamus shouted. “You’re not our mam!”
“Yeah, you’re not our mam,” Owen echoed.
They stormed off, ignoring Nell’s demands that they wash up before climbing the ladder to the loft and going to bed.
The weeks turned to months, the months became a blur, and even Nell knew that she had stopped trying. Mam was never going to get out of bed, and the boys were never going to listen to her. One cold, rainy morning, many Sundays after St. Stephen’s Day, she woke up at dawn out of habit and then pulled the covers over her head, sinking back into a delicious dream where the sun was shining and all was well.
When she finally got up, she brought her mam some tea and confessed that she had missed Mass.
Her mam sighed. “No matter to me, no matter at all.”
Two days after that, the new young cleric, Father Finley, showed up at their front door. Nell was only a little surprised to see him. He hadn’t been to the house since the wake.
Father Finley sat on the edge of a chair by the hearth, neglecting the lukewarm tea that Nell had given him. Nell wondered if he could tell that she’d poured it for herself earlier; she’d only taken a sip or two.
They sat in silence until her mother emerged from behind the calico curtain where she slept now, alone. She wore one of Da’s old jumpers over her once white sleeping dress. She hadn’t bothered to cover her unruly, unwashed hair, and it looked as if she had smudged ashes from the hearth under her eyes, so dark were the rings. Her once radiant skin was dim and gray. Nell prayed that Father Finley wouldn’t tell his gossipy neighbor about this state of things.
“Mrs. O’Connor, your situation here has become untenable. You have no income, your children are behaving wild, and now you’re missing Mass. Out of grave concern for you and your children, I spoke with King Eoin, and we’ve come up with a plan.”
Mam’s eyes grew wider than Nell had seen in months, and Nell wondered too: What kind of plan?
“We’ve sent for your brother-in-law. It’s time to welcome the prodigal son home.”
Nell was shocked. They hadn’t seen Desmond in the three years since her Da had banished him, his own brother, from the Claddagh. It was the night before the fleet was to resume its springtime fishing: Desmond had woken the whole village when he showed up drunk, dancing and singing on the village green, with a red-haired harlot on his arm. As young as she was, even Nell had known that there is no worse harbinger of bad luck to a Claddagh fisherman than the sight of a red-headed woman on the eve of a fishing trip. Though the villagers were down to their last bits of food and coins after the long winter, her father had had no choice but to delay the fishing by a week, and he had banished Desmond from the Claddagh forever. There’d been no sight of Desmond since then, no mention of him except in Mam’s nightly prayers.
Clearly Nell’s mother was shocked too. She spoke more than she had spoken in months. “’Twas King Ned who send Desmond away. I won’t go against my husband’s wishes. He honored the law of the Claddagh. He knew what was best for us, for all of us. I won’t do it.”
“Orla, those superstitions are nonsense. I’ve heard them all before—the fear of red-headed women, foxes, a single magpie. I’m not saying what Desmond did was right, but the past is the past, and you must find it in your heart to forgive him. Offer him a chance to make it up to Ned and your family. There’s no other choice. Nell can’t manage. You can’t manage. King Eoin has already gone up to Galway. He’s offered Desmond a place on one of our boats and secured a solemn vow that he’ll follow the law of the Claddagh and take care of you and the children. It’s what Ned would have wanted.”
Nell wasn’t so sure.
A few days later Desmond arrived, wearing a suit with sleeves that stopped halfway past his elbows, dirty black trousers, and an expression of impatience.
“Jaysus, you’re letting the place go, Orla.”
His look at the children made Nell feel as if they were part of the furnishings. His smile exposed a row of soft brown rot where the top front teeth should be.
“No freeloaders here, understand? And no noise.” That seemed to be directed at the boys. He pointed a finger at Nell, stopping an inch before her nose. “I like my tea hot and sweet, and ready before my feet hit the floor.”
She nodded without making eye contact.
Desmond moved into the small room behind the hearth, the place where Da had held his council meetings and stored his nets and fishing gear.
Nell wasn’t quite sure why Desmond had agreed to King Eoin’s offer. He seemed miserable all the time. More so, even, than when she was a little girl. But he hadn’t been living with them then, so for all she knew he’d always been miserable. Nell spent her days now picking up after him and preparing foods the way he liked. His foul mood settled over the family like a heavy, damp blanket. They had more fish to eat and more to sell, but there was no getting away from the unpleasant stench that came with his presence.

Author’s Statement

Claddagh Girl is a family saga that follows Nell O’Connor Keegan and her big, Irish-Catholic family as they navigate through the tumultuous first half of the twentieth century in a dying New England mill town. Though the story is told from multiple perspectives, Nell’s impact on the key characters is seen in every chapter.
The story begins in the Claddagh, an ancient village in southwest Ireland, in 1904. Nell is thirteen years old when her father dies in a fishing accident. Then her peaceful world is turned upside down when her uncle moves in to support the family and habitually assaults Nell. The village healer recognizes what is happening and intervenes with a potion and a plan to get Nell away from him. She also trains Nell in her healing knowledge.
Nell keeps her traumatic past a secret as she moves to America, marries, and has nine children. Fear and guilt guide her choices as a wife and mother. She uses her healing knowledge to manipulate her husband and children, all in the name of love, but her interference damages their relationships, taints their decisions, and leads to tragedy and heartbreak. Nell despairs when she discovers the unintended consequences of her meddling, but she finds atonement with the help of Magdalena, a daughter-in-law she once spurned. Magdalena becomes Nell’s apprentice, and through their work together Nell rediscovers that the most powerful way to use the ancient knowledge is not through fear or guilt but with forgiveness and love.
My father was one of thirteen children, with twenty years separating the oldest and youngest. They were amazing storytellers and kept us enthralled at the holidays with their sometimes differing perspectives on the Depression, World War II, segregation among ethnic groups and races, and the roles of women and the church. Although this novel is not their story, several real-life experiences influenced the plot: the 1938 Hurricane, daughters-in-law moving in with grandparents during World War II, and the love story between one of my cousins and a Japanese-American woman who was interned.
Another inspiration for this book was the first color photograph taken in Ireland, in 1913, of a young woman from the Claddagh. The Claddagh people were highly superstitious and spoke Gaeilge (Irish) long after the rest of the country had been forced to give it up. They wore old-fashioned clothes, clung to traditional practices, and were ruled by their own king. The village was razed in the 1930s. Nothing remains of the Claddagh today.

Virginia Ryan lives on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. She has worked as a writer for newspapers and in non-profit organizations. She received her MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Lesley University in 2017. Her focus since then has mostly been CLADDAGH GIRL. Recently, she has had essays published in the literary journals Adelaide and Anak Sastra and in Delta Sky Magazine.

Embark, Issue 13, October 2020