The struggle of the Irish people for independence is one of the compelling historical dramas of the twentieth century. 1949 tells the story of Ursula Halloran, a fiercely independent young woman who comes of age in the 1920s. The tragedy of Irish civil war gives way in the 1920s to a repressive Catholic state led by Eamon De Valera. Married women cannot hold jobs, divorce is illegal, and the IRA has become a band of outlaws still devoted to and fighting for a Republic that never lived. The Great Depression stalks the world, and war is always on the horizon, whether in Northern Ireland, Spain, or elsewhere on the European continent.
Ursula works for the fledgling Irish radio service and then for the League of Nations, while her personal life is torn between two men: an Irish civil servant and an English pilot.
Defying Church and State, Ursula bears a child out of wedlock, though she must leave the country to do so, and nearly loses her life in the opening days of World War II. Eventually she returns to an Ireland that is steadfastly determined to remain neutral during the war.
1949 is the story of one strong woman who lives through the progress of Ireland from a broken land to the beginnings of a modern independent state.
The Irish Century Novels
1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion
1921: The Great Novel of the Irish Civil War
1949: A Novel of the Irish Free State
1972: A Novel of Ireland's Unfinished Revolution
1999: A Novel of the Celtic Tiger and the Search for Peace
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
1949A Novel of the Irish Free State
By Morgan Llywelyn
ForgeCopyright © 2004 Morgan Llywelyn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFlaming in the western sky were the banners of a salmon and gold sunset. Birds sang themselves to sleep in the hedgerows; shadows flowed like water across the hills of Clare.
As the gray stallion galloped up the lane toward home, a startled blackbird exploded from a gorse bush. The horse shied violently but the girl on his back merely laughed. "Heart of a lion, you," said Ursula Halloran.
Reining the stallion to a halt, she stroked his neck. He pawed the ground and snorted with belated courage. "Easy, Saoirse, stand easy now." Until he was obedient to her will she would not allow him to move forward.
Caught in a bubble of time, they waited.
When she was a toddler in the Dublin tenement district, Ursula had been known as Precious. Applied to a scrawny waif with huge blue eyes staring out of a pinched little face, the name was ironic. Irish slum children were far from precious in 1914.
Eleven years-the last five spent on a farm near Clarecastle-had wrought a transformation in the girl. The pale hair of infancy had given way to a heavy mane the color of oak leaves in autumn. Healthy freckles were spattered across glowing cheeks; puberty had brought a hint of gray to her eyes. Her smile revealed excellent teeth, a rarity among the Irish.
Early malnutrition had left its mark, however. She would always be too slender. The angular planes of her face did not conform to the current fashion for feminine beauty, though in old age they would be magnificent. They might have been carved from the stones of ancient Ireland.
In her imagination Ursula never pictured herself as a mythic warrior queen. Her models were living patriots: Maud Gonne, the passionate revolutionary who had inspired W. B. Yeats and personified Caitlín Ní Houlihan, the eponymous spirit of Ireland, in his most famous play. Or Constance Markievicz, the fearless rebel countess who had turned her back on rank and privilege to fight beside the men in the Rising of 1916.
Ursula kept a scrapbook devoted to the countess.
The beauty of those famous women meant nothing to her. It was their inner fire she sought to emulate. When country lads followed Ursula with their eyes she thought they were seeing her as she saw herself. Heroic in her heart.
The blazingly yellow blossoms of the gorse smelt like coconut. Atop a hillock in the adjacent field stood a solitary thorn tree; one of the fairy trees enchanted when Ireland was young. The white lace mantle that was its springtime glory had almost gone. When a breeze set the last few petals adrift, bereft branches clawed the sky with empty fingers.
Ursula felt an inexplicable connection to Ireland's ancient magic, as if time were a curve without beginning or end and some remnant of druidry slumbered in her blood. But there is a new magic now, she thought. Invisible waves of power are racing through the air. Uncle Henry says they will change the world.
His letter in her pocket was like an unexploded bomb.
She slipped one hand into her woolly jacket and withdrew two envelopes. The flap of one had already been torn open. Taking out the letter, she strained to reread Henry Mooney's typewritten words in the fading light.
20 May 1925
I hope this finds you well. Ella and I are in good form, considering everything, and our little Isabella is a blessing in these troubled times. For such a wee mite she certainly has a mind of her own. She reminds me of you in that respect. You must come up to Dublin to see her. Soon.
The deliberate emphasis was disturbing. Newspapermen like Henry never underlined words.
His letters to Ursula invariably included commentary on political events, an interest they shared. This time he wrote sourly: "The partition of Ireland is a disaster, even worse than the Act of Union that forcibly joined this country with Britain. Partition stranded thousands of supporters of the Union within the Irish Free State. But that was the price the Unionist Party was willing to pay to cut off a portion of the north from the rest of the island and turn six counties into what they call 'a Protestant state for a Protestant people.'
"As you know, Protestants in the south are not discriminated against. Sadly the same is not true for the Catholics who now find themselves stranded in the north. The government of the Free State-most of them Catholics themselves-has abandoned these unfortunate people to their fate. Mobs describing themselves as 'loyalist'-meaning loyal to the king of England, I suppose-are attacking them with impunity.
"Have you heard of the B-Special militia in Northern Ireland? It is composed of Protestants who belong almost without exception to the Orange Order. The B-Specials have undertaken to solve the problem of sectarian violence in the north by the simple expedient of eliminating the Catholics. According to the latest figures I've seen, over six hundred have been killed in the last couple of years. Ten thousand have lost their jobs and twice that number have lost their homes.
"In the dictionary I once gave you is the word pogrom. Look it up. You will find that originally a pogrom was the organized massacre of Jews in Russia. It now describes what is happening to Catholics in the north. When we began the struggle to free this island from foreign domination, who could have foreseen it would turn out this way?"
Henry's letter concluded, "Next month I shall be off to London for a few days. I hope to sell a feature article on the British Broadcasting Company, which is about to liquidate as a private corporation and go public. I have mixed feelings about broadcasting. As a print journalist I am committed to the written word, yet I predict that one day all communications will be carried on radio waves. Wireless transmission will change the world, Little Business."
Ursula smiled at Henry's use of the old pet name. No one else ever called her Little Business.
On the back of the letter was a postscript in his wife's graceful handwriting. "You really must come soon. We have something to discuss which cannot be put into a letter. Henry wanted to travel to Clare to talk to you, but I would not allow it. I was afraid for him. You understand."
I do understand, Ella, Ursula thought sadly as she tucked the letter back into its envelope. There would be trouble if Uncle Henry came to the farm.
The Irish Civil War, which some called the War of Brothers, was only two years in the past. The wounds to the Irish soul were still bleeding.
Gathering the reins and clucking to her mount, Ursula sent him forward at a trot. A gentle blue twilight soon enfolded them. When they reached the long lane off the Ennis road Saoirse pricked his ears and broke into a headlong gallop, eager for his bucket of oats.
The stallion was kept in the barn at night. By the time Ursula unsaddled him, rubbed him down and fed him, the pungent smell of lamb stew was drifting across the walled farmyard between the kitchen at the back of the house and the barn.
Ursula gave her horse a parting caress, rubbing her cheek against his silky neck. Sitting on a stile was considered enough amusement for teenage youngsters in rural Ireland. But Ursula Halloran had a horse.
Saoirse raised his head from his oat bucket long enough to nicker after her as she closed the barn door.
With boyishly long strides, Ursula crossed the farmyard to the house. Her own stomach was rumbling with hunger. Yet she paused for a moment before going in.
Framed by the open top of the half door was a familiar picture. At a large kitchen table covered with an oilcloth sat a lanky, dark-haired man, sipping a glass of poitín. An old woman as plump and soft as a buttered scone was cooking a meal on the black iron range set in the mouth of the cavernous fireplace.
Every evening Ned Halloran and his Aunt Norah repeated this scene. Every, every evening. As predictable as the tick of the clock on the wall.
Radio waves can travel to faraway places, Ursula thought as she gazed into the kitchen, places where people live different lives. Exciting lives. Things happening. If I could ride on radio waves ...
When she entered the room, Ned Halloran and his aunt looked up in anticipation. Ursula could light a room with the candlepower of her smile. Tonight, however, she merely gave a preoccupied nod. "I'm back, Papa."
"What's wrong?" Norah Daly asked sharply.
"Did ye call at the post office?"
"I did of course. There was a letter from Kathleen in America." Ursula dug into her pocket and produced the two envelopes, dropping the unopened one onto the table.
"What's that other one?" Ned Halloran wanted to know.
"Just a note for me, Papa." She stuffed it back into her pocket.
The look he gave her was a dagger of green glass. "From where?"
"Dublin." He spat out the word.
"Don't be starting on the girl," the old woman admonished.
"All I said was Dublin, Aunt Norah."
"It was how you said it. I'll have no rows in here."
Ned's cleft chin jutted at a dangerous angle. "I'll fight where I like."
The old woman left her cooking for a moment to pour an additional inch of poitín, colorless as water and potent as fire, into his glass. "Wrap yourself around this now and don't be making trouble."
She returned to the range and thrust a long-handled spoon into the pot. A critical sip, a shake of the head. "There's no flavor to this lamb at all. Frank butchered it too young, so he did. Chop another onion or two," she said to Ursula, "and would you ever make some dumplings?"
Ursula hated cooking. "Can't Lucy and Eileen make the dumplings?" she asked hopefully. Ned Halloran's sisters liked to cook. Or so they claimed.
Norah Daly pushed a lock of gray hair back from her forehead with one liver-spotted wrist. "Eileen's walking out with her latest young man and Lucy's gone down the fields to fetch Frank for his tea. He'd not eat otherwise. The poor crayture works all the hours God sends. Unlike some not a hundred miles from here," she added, shooting a narrow glance at Ned, "who waste their time drilling with the Mid-Clare Brigade."
"I think Papa's very brave to remain active in the Irish Republican Army under the circumstances," Ursula said. "It's almost as bad as it was after the 1916 Rising, except now it's other Irish men, instead of the British, who're jailing our patriots. What Papa's doing is more important than milking cows and planting cabbage. He's fighting for the Republic that was stolen from us."
Norah retorted, "Don't be preaching Republicanism to me, girleen. Did I not join Cumann na mBan meself? But that was then and this is now. Do ye not read the newspapers? They're beginning to print Republican with a small r."
"Changing a capital letter to lower case doesn't mean a thing."
"Our side lost the war, Ursula!" Norah cried in exasperation. "The IRA Volunteers were ordered to bury their weapons! The Free State government is perfectly within its rights to arrest those who won't accept its authority. I agree with your Uncle Frank. He says we should be planting crops that fill the belly instead of filling the churchyard."
Ned Halloran picked up his glass and the letter from America and strode from the kitchen. The stairs creaked. A door slammed overhead. A furious fist thudded against a wall. Again and again and again.
There was no more political talk in the kitchen. Ursula took a sulphur match from the box beside the range, and, clenching the matchstick between her teeth to keep her eyes from tearing, she began chopping onions.
After a time Norah said, "What was in Henry's letter?"
Ursula removed the match. "Only the usual Dublin goster. He sent you his love, though."
The old woman's face pleated into a smile. "He's not the worst in the world, is Henry. He's almost as dear to me as my poor dead sister's children, may God a' mercy on her. It's a terrible thing entirely, this quarrel between Henry and your father."
"Half the families in Ireland aren't speaking to one another," said Ursula. "The Civil War's too recent."
"You think that's the trouble?"
"What else could it be?"
Norah did not answer. Difficult questions were best ignored.
There was a scraping of feet outside. Frank, the oldest Halloran, balding and bony, clomped into the kitchen. "Stones in the high field wanted clearing," he said. Thanks to a new set of badly fitted false teeth, he spoke with a whistle. He hung his cap on its customary nail and dropped wearily onto a chair. The farm was killing him. Wearing him down, demanding more than he had to give. Although he hired men to help with the work they never stayed very long. In the end Frank felt it was all up to himself.
His father had sown and planted according to the stars in the sky and the phases of the moon. In those days the farm had flourished. On the death of his parents, the land had come to Frank as the oldest son. He dismissed his father's theories as "pagan airy-fairy" and would have nothing to do with them. Month by month and year by year, the place was slowly failing and he did not know why.
In his secret heart Frank hated the farm.
His sister Lucy followed him into the room. A sober, stolid child, she had grown into a sober, stolid woman, with thick eyebrows and a graceless body. Lucy was the second of three Halloran daughters. Kathleen, the family beauty, had married a prosperous American and was living in New York. Eileen, the last born, was a dimpled flirt who was expected to make a good match locally.
No young men took Lucy walking out. People said of her, "She won't have a man on foot and the men on horses pass her by."
Few options were open to rural spinsters. If she did not emigrate Lucy could either become a shop assistant in town, or serve as unpaid labor on the family farm. Lucy disliked farm life, but she had no taste for shopkeeping either and lacked the desperation to emigrate.
If-as seemed increasingly likely-Frank remained a bachelor, and the widowed Ned did not marry again, upon their deaths the farm would pass to Lucy. By that time she would be long past childbearing. Ironically, she would have plenty of suitors then-feckless men looking for a woman of property to support them.
Of all those in the Halloran household, only Ursula truly loved the land. She was the one who walked the fields in every season, examining the condition of soil and crops, checking on walls and fences, pausing often just to look. To gaze out across hills and fields, feeding her soul with their silent poetry.
Yet for reasons everyone understood and no one talked about, the farm would never be hers.
"There's a letter from America," Norah said while Lucy poured a cup of strong tea for Frank.
Excerpted from 1949 by Morgan Llywelyn Copyright © 2004 by Morgan Llywelyn. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.