Death and Nightingales

Death and Nightingales

by Eugene McCabe

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781596918559
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 12/03/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 247,857
File size: 765 KB

About the Author

Eugene McCabe is an Irish novelist, playwright, short story writer and television writer. He was born in Glasgow in 1930 and moved to Ireland in the early 1940s. His work includes Heritage and Other Stories and Victims, a short novel which won the Holtby Award from the Royal Society of Literature (1976).

The major TV series event, Death and Nightingales, starring Matthew Rhys and Jamie Dornan, is based on Eugene McCabe's novel of the same name.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


A lack of bird-call, a sense of encroaching light and then far away the awful dawn bawling of a beast in great pain. For a while it stopped, as though birds and ditch creatures were listening, respectful of approaching death. Then she heard the beating of her heart and saw herself in Billy's study reading about medieval medicine from The Chemist and Druggist 1880. 'A cure for insomnia: the milk of a human female placed on the forehead will induce sleep. Place the heart of a nightingale under the patient's pillow. Poisons: aconite, arsenic, ergot, oil of bitter almonds. The Reverend J. H. Timmins, vicar of West Mailing, was acquitted on the 18th of July of a charge of manslaughter. Defendant believed the teaspoon of oil of bitter almonds administered to his wife was oil of sweet almonds.'

    In the dark pantry off the scullery she was looking into the hanging press full of veterinary medicines and gadgetry, and yes, there it was, a small, pale yellow bottle labelled 'oil of bitter almonds' with a separate label which said: 'POISON'. She put it to her nose and sniffed. The astringency of death invaded her lungs. As she watched herself pouring out a teaspoon for Billy's protruding tongue her whole body began to shake. The teaspoon trembled, spilling, and she awoke to the bawling of a beast reverberating round the stillness of her bedroom. Then a dark silence.


She sat up startled, staring out into quarter-light, into the blackness of beech branches. The agonised bawling was now unmistakable and pitiful; and there it was again: blaring, blaring, blaring. Fromwhere? The house-field? Beyond? some beast jostled down the ravine hanging by a leg or neck? A calving cow in trouble? or common bloat from gorging on the flush of May grass? Silence for thirty seconds and then a sudden mutter from Billy's room.

    She was up at the window, dressing, when it started again. She went out to the hall, tapped softly on Billy Winters' door and went in. She was aware of a lingering hum of malt whiskey and cigar smoke, a familiar body smell mixed with the sweet odour of clematis coming through the open bay-window that had permeated the upper hall and bedrooms since late April. He was sprawled uncovered on a carved bed in a grey nightshirt, his mouth open. The bawling now seemed more pronounced through his window. She touched his arm, nudging him a second time as she said 'Sir'. For an instant his eyelids half opened; closed. He turned away. If she forced him to wake and listen to the beast he would be agitated into shirt and trousers and go stumbling down the rough avenue to the gatelodge for Jim Ruttledge and help. Heart seizure? How simple if he was dead buried and gone. What then? Do I want any of this? The heartbreak of this place? Love it and hate it like no place else on earth, tomorrow I leave it forever.

    She stood looking at the back of his head, aware that she was scarcely a reach away from his clothes on the chair, the gold chain clinched through a belt loop and, at the end of it, the keys to the quarry strong-room, the roll-top desk in the study, and the massive safe behind the panelling in the dining-room.

    The bawling started again as she left his room, went out to the landing and down to the turn of the staircase. A door off the stairs led to a narrow corridor and a small return room over the kitchen where Mercy Boyle slept under a skylight with oleographs of the Sacred Heart and Parnell. Long after midnight Beth had heard her coming in from a love meeting or a crossroads dance. Heartless now to waken and involve her. That left Mickey Dolphin and Mercy's brother Gerry asleep in a loft across the yard. Mickey would be hungover, Gerry nervous and excitable. She would manage better without them.

    She went on down past the big etching of the Boyne battle, the cow pastoral and the lake scene, into the grey glimmer from the fanlight in the lower hall; past the black furniture and on through to the kitchen and scullery.

    From a drawer of the hanging veterinary press she took the canula, a hollow pointed instrument with a clearing plunger, and put it in the pocket of her skirt. Closing the press she saw again the bottle marked 'oil of bitter almonds'. She closed the press, pulled on her field boots, crossed the cobbled yard and went out — under the arched entry and down the back lane. Under rearing beech cradling a few dying stars, she felt a sense of light and openness as she left the lane for the haggard field: a white owl flitting in a group of lime trees, the scut of a rabbit's tail bouncing as it made for the safety of a ditch. She passed through the limes, emerging from their cathedral dark to a gate which led to the fountain hill. At the top of this field there was a ring-fort encircled by pines growing on a high bank. She began to climb. She could see the black conifer shapes against the redness of the coming day. She was certain the bawling had come from the fort or near it.

    She went through a gap in the bank. Inside there was a grouping of cows, agitated and lowing towards a blue shorthorn cow on her side, her whitish belly ballooned out, eyes rolling, her head banging against the ground.

    'Poor beast, poor beast,' Beth muttered, 'I'm coming,' and went over to her. Recognising her, the cow lowed quietly and kept still. 'You'll be all right,' Beth said, as much to give herself confidence as to lessen the beast's fear. She had seen Jim Ruttledge use the canula once. He seemed to drive it down with great force inches from the hinch bone.

    She breathed deeply until her hands steadied and then thrust with sudden sharpness. The point pierced through to the cow's stomach: the trapped gas hissing out like a wet log on a hot fire, a rush of foul air mixed with tiny bubbles of blood. She stood by with the plunger in case the small opening of the canula blocked; her hand over her mouth and nose, half-gagging, trying not to breathe. The smell became so pervasive and foul that she moved away, aware that her legs felt rubbery, her stomach queasy. In less than two minutes the distended balloon had slackened, the loud hiss slowing to a faint air release; then silence.

    Five minutes later the blue cow sat up naturally, blinking very slowly, shaking her head. The circle of heads watched until she uttered feebly. All then responded as she stood, her feet spread for a minute, before beginning a slow wavering walk towards a gap out of the fort. Watching this, Beth became aware of birds again: a solitary crane, crows, and daws, raucous and flapping, a chorus of starlings wheeling, whirling high above, small birds ruffling and chirruping in the greening thorns, celebratory.


She left the hollow of the fort by the north gap that looked down the long field to the Lower Lough. She could just make out Corvey Island, part of her mother's dowry, the other part a shorthorn bull calf. She had once heard Billy mutter to himself 'a scrub bull and a scrub island!' In fact the bull had grown to be a wonder and Corvey Island was beautiful. On the map it was fish-shaped and she knew there were wild goats on it. Once as a child she had asked:

    'Is it true Mama? can I live there by myself?'

    'If you want.'

    'Forever and ever?'

    'Would you be happy?'

    'It's the nicest place in the whole world.'

    'What would you do there all by yourself?'

    'Well ... I'd tame a wild goat and milk it ... I'd catch fish.'

    'Yes?'

    'I'd learn to make butter.'

    'That's good.'

    'And I'd pick blackberries.'

    'Yes?'

    'And I'd have apple trees ... I'd be happy.'

    'Would visitors be allowed?'

    'Yes but no fighting on my island or crying or shouting at night.'

    And she remembered that both Billy and her mother were so startled by her directness that she said immediately: 'I was just joking.'


The mist had cleared across the lough. She could see the island now, the brightening countryside on the far shore: Tirkennedy where her mother came from. I must fix it now in memory she thought because not for years, probably never again would she see what one day she imagined could be paradise. Tomorrow at dawn she would be in the railyard at Enniskillen looking for the guard's-wagon of a goods train bound for Belfast. From there she would take a cab to a hotel on Royal Avenue; that night she would board a packet steamer for Glasgow. Then a train to London where she would write to Liam telling him of her whereabouts. He would join her there and they would begin their lives together.

    As the house and beech trees around it came into view it seemed to her more real than anything she had planned with Liam Ward. She felt herself swallowing hard against a sudden pang of nausea. Fear? The life now growing within? A sudden cracked barking came from the top of a stone staircase leading to a loft. 'Don't be silly, Bran, you know well who I am!' The old labrador got up and came stiffly and heavily down the stone staircase: 'Don't you?'

    The wall-clock in the kitchen told her it was a quarter to six. She opened the firebox of the big leaded Denver stove where a heavy beech log still smouldered from the night before. From the floor of the oven she took out small tinder-dry twigs and laid them crossways in the firebox, topped it up with tuff, closed off the draught and placed a heavy black kettle on top. She turned and climbed the staircase to the upper hall.

     The sun had partially come through mist and cloud into her bedroom opposite Billy Winters'. She stood for a while listening to him breathe, and then went in and laid dressed on her unmade bed. She could feel blood pulsing under her eyelids. She covered her eyes with the palms of her hands, trying not to think forward. That was too frightening, Back?


What she remembered seemed mostly to be shouting from behind closed doors, passionate screaming from window to yard, things broken, thumped, thrown and torn, the dread of being near while such frenzies broke as they seemed to so simply, so often ... Her mother talking in the dining-room about Tirkennedy, where she was born: an eighty-acre tenancy across the lough, part of the Corry estate, 'old Irish, real gentry' she insisted, where her father, 'Red' Jack Maguire, was a horse-buyer-cum-horse-trainer; he was the best in Ulster and maybe in Ireland. He had married her grandmother, Rosina Quinn, a parlour-maid in the Corry house, and they had three children — of which she, Catherine, was the youngest. She then described how she had met Billy Winters at the R.D.S. in 1860 where her pacer 'Pride of Erne' had not only eclipsed but outclassed (and she had accented the word 'outclassed') all other entries; how he had plagued her to marry him, 'I was an old woman of twenty-nine, he was a child of twenty-three'; the wedding arrangements in Corry's private chapel; special dispensation from Armagh and how a Belfast or Dublin journal had described Billy as 'one of Ulster's foremost young businessmen' and her mother as having 'the white skin and flaming hair of an older, more romantic Ireland'. During the telling of this Billy Winters had kept silent. When she had finished he said:

    'You left out the best part Cathy!'

    Her mother stared back uncertainly as Billy went on:

    'Remember? when your father came out of the closet his trousers round his ankles and tumbled down that staircase into the hall: drunk, in the middle of all the guests, all laughing because Jimmy Donnelly who married us had gone on and on and on in a very long wedding speech about the ancientness and Irishness and the grandeur of the name Maguire ... because Winters don't you know is a nothing name, and here he was, father of the bride, the great horse trader, the Maguire chief himself, a clown with his trousers down ... as they say hereabouts, "a comical class of a comedown" ... or, if you want, a comedown for the comical class! Your brother Jimmy was too footless to help, and your Aunt Annie took a weak turn, so it was the bride and the bride's mother who rushed to make him decent ... The whole country had it the next day: quite an outing for the ancient name!'

    For about a minute or longer her mother had stared out the window, a vein pulsing in her neck, the blood of temper rising like a barometer to her face. When she spoke her voice was shaky:

    'When there were no fields here, before the Greenes and the Brownes, the Winters and the Somers, the rat-poor robbers with nothing names came here to rob us of what was ours, Maguire was a proud name and still is.'

    'Oh the pride's there to be sure,' Billy said, 'and sweet bugger-all to prop it up!'

    Then her mother had smashed a jug or bowl against the closing door as Billy left, and wept with rage before following him out to the hall, holding on to the banister as she screamed up the staircase after him:

    'Why must you keep on and on at me like a bloody fishwoman?'

    'Who are you to look down on fish women?'

    'I look down on no one.'

    'Some spunky boyo looked down on you once, that's for sure.'

    Her mother had covered her ears and screamed 'Stop!' so loudly that Beth backed away from the dining-room door, covering her own ears. When she uncovered them she heard:

    'I have begged your forgiveness for one mistake.'

    '"Mistake" is a nice word!'

    'What word do you prefer?'

    Then Billy's voice biting out in bitter response:

    'Miscegenation, misbegotten; Rome's cup of poison in your belly when we married! That child's not kin to me and won't inherit, do you hear me, won't inherit; she nor her kind will ever cut my trees, burn my turf, pluck my apples, milk my cows, quarry my stone, and never plough my acres ... ever!'

    'Jesus! You're like a craw-sick parrot! ... my, my, my, my, my. You stole it from us and you know you stole it.'


Later that night her mother came into her bed. Below they could hear Billy trying to pick out tunes on the piano. Too drunk to manage chords he attempted melodies with one finger; then it was as if he was banging with both fists on the piano, shouting. They could hear him on the staircase and then fumbling about in the bedroom across the hall. Then silence, through which she became aware that her mother was trembling:

    'Why does Papa shout "belly" and things like that?'

    'He's drunk.'

    'Did he hit you?'

    'I wish he had.'

    'We should go away Mama.'

    'We can't.'

    'Why?'

    'Because we can't.'

    'He's a bully ... That last time when he hit you, you said you'd kill him.'

    'That was very wrong of me.'

    'Well I hate him.'

    'You don't, love.'

    'I do.'

    'Never talk that way, that's terrible talk and I love him mostly.'

    'You don't love him, Mama: you can't!'

    'I can ... I do ... go to sleep.'


And for years after the word 'inherit' had echoed in her head: 'not inherit, not inherit, not inherit.' At first she thought it meant a running thing like a hare: that she would never run in the fields like other children. When she found out what it meant it seemed worse: 'to cast out, to cast off, to disown, to reject, to disallow; to be disowned by a father; to lose everything.' At her mother's graveside she had lost everything. Rain and the yellow clay and the coffin being lowered into water flooding up. Billy's disinheriting arm round her shoulder and the sobbing, the end of everything. Weeks of grieving and praying that death would end it all. Away then to a convent in Monaghan. Christmas and Easter with Billy at Clonoula, where he seemed to have drunk and talked a lot, and sang, and sat on the side of her bed and wept; and she had wept with him. Once trying to describe the manner of her mother's death he had been unable to continue. Years later she got details from Winnie Ruttledge in the kitchen of the gatelodge: the arrival of the bull-calf from Tirkennedy as part of her mother's dowry — and how proud she was of it, telling everyone it was called Cooley, and how everyone declared it a wonder calf, its uncommon depth, length, bone and muscle, the power of its neck and shoulders, and an eye in its head no countryman would ever turn his back on.

    As the years went on Cooley grew headstrong, ripping the copper ring from his nose, smashing his way through gates and gaps to neighbour farms, swimming across the lough to get to cows and heifers summering on the larger islands. They'd had to confine him in the stone house behind the cattle crush in the upper yard. One day he turned savage, went for Jim Ruttledge: 'Only Mickey Dolphin was close by I'd be a widow now, and when the boss heard tell of this he said he'll have to go.

    'Next day as they were loadin' him on to a trailer the sky opened. Your mother come into the yard at that minute with her cush and gig. She could see nothing with the blind of rain. The two men had the ramp up when the bull turned in the trailer, whipping it with his head, and sent the pair of boys tumbling across the yard like two twigs. Then out with him roaring mad and he had the cush gored and the gig coped and your mother in the air tossed and ripped pitiful before Mickey caught him a lash in the eye and my man got an axe to his skull. And true as God I heard the blares and trumpets of him down here half a mile away till they got a knife across his throat. Christ in Heaven what a shambles, the whole street runnin' water and blood and every man and woman in the place hysterical; but she was dead your mother, the boss holdin' her head off the street: dead dead dead and covered with a horse blanket, all to her white lovely face. And when I took courage to lift the blanket I seen ... merciful Jesus ... a wee blind bairn tore from her womb and it no bigger nor a bonham.'

    Brother? Sister? She placed her hands on her womb. There was nothing to feel. The 'bairn' conceived with Liam Ward would be less than kitten-sized. She would not tell him till their plan was accomplished, till they were well away from Clonoula, from Fermanagh, from Ireland. Aboard ship and looking back she would tell him, they were beginning both a new life and a new family.


'Miss Lisbeth, Beth, Miss Beth!'

    Mercy Boyle's face was very close. Outside the window the brightest of white May light on the palest of green beech leaves. And far above a high clear sky.

    'That's Petey Reilly at the back door, Miss.'

    'Who?'

    'The Canon's man ... he's here with a message for the boss. Did you sleep all night in your clothes?'

    'No, no, I'll explain when I come down, you tell the boss, Mercy.'

    'I will ... Happy birthday, Miss.'

    Mercy placed a small package on the bedspread and left the room, closing the door quietly. Beth untied the green ribbon, folding back tissue paper. Inside she found an ornate brass locket. It clicked open to reveal the chiselled features and hypnotic eyes of Charles Stewart Parnell.


Excerpted from DEATH AND NIGHTINGALES by Eugene McCabe. Copyright © 1992 by Eugene McCabe. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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“A miracle of a novel which combines prose of bleak, unadorned beauty with a plot that keeps you up all night wondering how it will end… a masterpiece.”
–Colm Toíbin.

Death and Nightingales should put Eugene McCabe in the first rank of contemporary Irish novelists.”
–John Banville

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