When Sara Quinn rounded the bend of the narrow road she
saw the convent at the top off the hill, the mist blurring its harsh
grey outline. The big iron gate gave a reluctant creak as she pushed
it open. She stood in the gateway for a few seconds to gain her composure,
all the while her lips moved in silent prayer. "Dear Lord, please
let the child be born safely," she whispered. Walking to the door
she pulled the bell rope and waited. A young pale faced nun peered out
at her from the dark interior.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
"Iím Sara Quinn. Iíve come to see my daughter
"Come in and Iíll see if Mother will see you,"
she said nervously.
"There is no need for me to see the Mother Superior.
Just take me to see my daughter. Has the baby been born?" Sara
"You will have to see Mother. You can wait for
her in here," she replied, opening a door along the corridor.
Inside the sparsely furnished room Sara paced the floor nervously. Walking
over to the small window overlooking the front gates, she watched a
group of brown clad children walk past the gates with heads bent. A
few paces behind them a young, somber looking nun stared straight ahead,
Sara shuddered as she watched. "The orphans, poor wee souls,"
she said aloud. Just then the door opened behind her. Turning around,
she was greeted by an elderly nun.
"I am Mother General. Sister tells me that you
are the Quinn girlís mother."
"Is she all right. Has the baby been born yet?"
"Yes, the child is born and your daughter is
fine. A girl was born this morning. Sit down Mrs. Quinn, we need to
talk," she said showing her a chair in front of a big desk.
"Please," Sara asked anxiously, "can
I see them?"
"You may see your daughter presently. But, before
you go up I need to talk to you," she said. Again she pointed to
the chair. Sitting down reluctantly, Sara met the cold gaze of the elderly
individual seated opposite.
"Before you see your daughter, I have a few
things that I must tell you. As you are no doubt aware, your husband
was adamant that the child should be brought up by the Sisters in the
orphanage. So, I donít want her to become attached to the infant. It
will only make it harder when the time comes for parting."
Cold eyes stared back at Sara as she spoke. Again
she felt a shudder run down her spine, at the mention of the orphanage.
The picture of the sad downcast, brown clad little bunch of humanity
that she had just seen came back before her eyes.
"Iím trying to change my husbandís mind about
the orphanage. I want her to bring the child up herself. With our help
of course," she added.
"Children brought up in the orphanage are fed,
clothed and well instructed in their faith. And many of them enter the
convent in adult life. I feel in many ways that they have a better start
than they would otherwise have growing up...under these circumstances.
Anyhow, I very much doubt if your husband will change his mind."
"Well, we will see. Can I see them now?"
"You can see your daughter. But not the child.
Your husband made the arrangements, and he was most insistent that you
should not see the child."
Sara felt again the deep anger towards her husband,
an anger that was all consuming. Smiling across at the nun to hide her
feelings, she said, "he was angry then. But, he is coming to terms
with it better now. He just needs a little more time," she said
gently as she looked into the eyes of the woman opposite, hoping that
her lies were convincing.
"Be that as it may. But until such times as
I am given further instruction from him, I must obey his order."
Once more their eyes met. The nun smiled a thin smile before she spoke
again. "I will get one of the Sisters to take you to your daughter.
Just wait here," she said from the doorway.
Alone again Sara tried to control the deep anger
inside her. "Damn you anyway John Quinn. Why are you punishing
us?" she mouthed to the silent room. When Maura told her that Seamus,
her cousin and neighbour had repeatedly molested her, she thought that
her anger had reached its peak. Then when she tried to tell her husband
John and he refused to believe her that anger spilled over to breaking
point. The memory of his hateful words still rang in her ear. "Donít
lie to me. Seamus is my own flesh and blood, he never laid a hand on
her. She will never put a foot inside this door again. She has brought
disgrace on me and all belonging to me," he had shouted repeatedly
at her. But now she must control her anger as she waited to see her
daughter, somehow she must try to bring comfort to her only child, whose
whole world had been torn apart at the tender age of sixteen. How could
she tell her that her father refused to allow her name to be mentioned
as though she had never existed, and that she had to lie about coming
here today? She knew that she couldnít tell her this; she had suffered
enough already.From her position on the bed Maura Quinn watched the
young nun as she bathed her new- born infant. She had spent hours alone
in an agonizingly painful labour, and now she felt drained of all emotion.
The babyís cry seemed to come from a great distance while she watched,
as if she were somehow an observer looking on from a distant place.
Then suddenly the child was placed in her arms. She stared down at the
tiny perfect creature, then she saw her bottom lip tremble, and in that
instant a rush of unexpected love flooded through her. "I will
call you Mary Kate," she said gently. "Sheís
hungry," the nun said stiffly as she put her to her breast. "You
can feed her yourself for the first few days. It will give her a better
chance of survival. But after that you leave her in our care,"
she added. "We donít want you getting attached to her, under the
circumstances." She cleared her throat nervously and walked from
Alone Maura gazed at her new born daughter with a
mixture of wonder, love and pity. She was mystified as to how a perfect
little being like this could have come out of such a hateful union of
fear and blackmail. "I have nothing to offer you, nothing,"
she whispered. The door suddenly burst open.
"You have a visitor downstairs. I will take
the child," the nun said breathlessly.
"Please donít take her away."
"Itís orders, she is not allowed to stay. I
will take her back at feeding time." From the doorway she looked
back at Maura with a small tolerant smile.
"You are so young, please, do as I say and forget
about this wee one. To get attached will only cause you more grief.
Just pray that the good Lord will help you to forget."
Five minutes later the familiar face of her mother
came into focus as she bent over her. The familiar comfort of her motherís
arms filled Maura with that special feeling of security that had so
often soothed her worst fears in childhood.
"The baby is so tiny and helpless, and so lovely."
Her muffled voice sounded in Saraís ears.
"I want to go home with you, and take wee Mary
Kate with me. The nuns keep telling me not to get attached to her. They
say she will be taken to the orphanage." Her voice shook with sobs,
and Sara felt a sharp pain rush through her. "Will he let me come
home yet?" she asked. Freeing herself from her motherís embrace
she looked into her eyes. "Will he?" she asked again.
"Not yet love. But Iím still working on it."
"He still doesnít believe me then," she
said with a quiver in her voice. Sara shook her head slowly.
"I havenít given up. He's a stubborn man, your father. But heíll
come round." Saraís words sounded hollow in her own ears, for in
her heart she knew that she could never persuade him to allow his daughter
to come home with her child. She hoped the encouraging smile she gave
her, hid her true feeling of sorrow and despair. All too soon it was
time to say their farewells. "I will be back soon, very soon,"
Sara said gently.
"Please beg him to let us come home." Her
voice broke. "He must believe it wasnít my fault."
"I will try. Donít worry, leave it to me. I
will think of something," Sara said with a smile of encouragement.
Outside, the mist was beginning to clear. Sara stood
looking back at the convent, but the weak sunlight failed to add warmth
to its grey walls. A fitful wind smelling of rain made the tall trees
shiver and whisper quietly, like cold old men. Sara shivered, then walked
with heavy steps down the bray towards the station.Three days after
her motherís visit Maura was moved to a small room at the other side
of the convent. The nuns had stopped bringing the baby to her to be
fed. As she stared at the crucifix on the opposite wall, she felt sure
that she could faintly hear Mary Kateís cry. The sudden loud voice of
Sister Mary coming from the other side of the door made her jump.
"Mother wants to see you now," she said
poking her head around the door. "Come, Iíll take you down to her.
Maura stood up unsteadily.
"What does she want me for?"
"Well Iím not.. er.. allowed to say," she
said, sounding nervous.
As she followed Sister Mary down the stairs she wondered
what lay behind the sudden summons to see The Mother General. More than
anything else she wanted to go home with her baby. Try as she might,
she could not remember how long it had been since her father left her
here. The nuns had for the most part treated her with cold indifference;
it was almost as if they were afraid to show her any affection. When
they reached the bottom of the stairs they both stood at the Mother's
door. A thin smile formed on the nunís lips as she knocked.
"Iíve brought Maura Quinn, Mother. Will you
be needing me again?" she asked.
"Yes, Sister, Iíll call you when its time"
she added, nodding at her. "Sit down here, I have something important
to tell you, about your future." She pointed to the chair in front
of the big desk. Maura walked over and sat down apprehensively. Across
the desk the elderly nun looked at her for a few moments, then clearing
her throat she broke the silence. "Your father came here a few
days ago to discuss your future" she began. "A decision was
made, which I am now going to tell you about." Maura waited without
taking her eyes from her face. "I have a boat ticket that your
father bought for you. A single ticket to New York. The passenger ship
leaves on this afternoonís tide, so you see there is no time to lose
in getting your belongings together," she looked Maura straight
in the face, showing no emotion.
"But my baby! I canít go without her, and I
must see my mother first. Why did you wait until now to tell me this?"
her voice shook with emotion as she struggled to keep back her tears.
"We decided it was best to wait until now to
tell you, as I rightly guessed your hysterical reaction. You are very
lucky that the good Lord has seen fit to give you a new beginning my
girl, and as for the baby, you know that it is out of the question to
even, think about taking the baby with you." She began pacing up
and down behind the desk as she spoke. "Thank God the baby will
be looked after, and you can began a new life, and maybe, in time the
good Lord will forgive you...for all this." She stopped pacing
and accusingly waved her finger in Mauraís direction.Seated between
two of the middle aged Sisters, Maura was driven to the quayside where
the steamer was docked. With one Sister at each side of her, she was
escorted towards the gang- plank. Then one of the Sisters went on ahead
with the ticket in her hand. When they started to climb on board, she
heard a familiar voice. Her heart leapt for joy, and within seconds
she was in her motherís arms, laughing and crying all at the one time.
"The receipt for your ticket fell out of his
pocket. Only for that, I wouldnít have known where you had gone."
The nun became flustered and agitated, as she clung on to Mauraís arm.
"Come on, itís time you were on board. We have
to see you to your cabin as we were instructed," she called above
"Itís all right. I will look after your baby
until you get home again. Please love. Donít cry. Write to me as soon
as you arrive. Send the letters to Ballyneely care of Molly," her
mother whispered in her ear, in her familiar soothing voice.
"I donít want to leave my baby. I donít want
to go" she sobbed. Then she was tugged away from her motherís arms
with the assistance of the second nun who had suddenly reappeared. When
they reached the top of the gangplank, she looked down at the busy dock
for her mother, but she had lost sight of her.
"Come on child, we have to find your cabin yet,"
one of the nuns said crossly. When on board the gentler of the two nuns,
asked one of the Stewards for directions to the cabin, and Maura was
led stumbling along narrow corridors, and down staircase, after staircase
to the bowel of the ship. They reached the cabin at last, and one of
the nuns opened the door. The interior was small and poky, two bunk
beds and a wash basin summed up the furnishings. A battered trunk sat
on the floor.
"It looks like your cabin companion has already
been here. Sister and I will leave you now, we will wait at the bottom
of the gang-plank until you sail". The gentler of the nuns turned
back and kissed her on the cheek.
"God bless you child," she said before
closing the cabin door.
Left alone Maura sat stiffly on the edge of the bunk,
her thoughts running wildly around in her head. Suddenly she ran for
the door, in panic she scurried along corridors and up flights of stairs.
ĎPlease God let her still be thereí she panted as she at last reached
the deck. A huddled mass of passengers pressed against the rails of
the middle deck, it was impossible for her to see beyond the backs of
their heads. In desperation she ran towards the stairway leading to
the upper deck. As she began climbing the stairs a steward blocked her
"Sorry Miss, first class passengers only,"
Back on the middle deck, she pushed her way to the
front. She looked down desperately trying to catch a glimpse of her
mother. The ship was already moving away from the quay, making it harder
to distinguish one face from another. On the quayside she could see
handkerchiefs fluttering like moths in the yellow evening light. Tears
blinded her eyes, as she made her way back down to the cabin. When she
opened the door, a young dark haired girl sat on the top bunk, her eyes
red and swollen from crying.
"Hello, Iím Hannah Mc Laughlin. We will be seeing
a lot of one another for the next three weeks or so. I hope you donít
snore," she said with a grin. "I know your name already, I
saw it on the label of your trunk. Your Maura Quinn," she added.
"Hello Hannah, Iím glad to meet you," Maura
said in a low strained voice. Taking a long look at her cabin companion,
Hannah noted the brown eyes that seemed too large for her pale face,
and the brown frock that hung over her skinny frame. ĎMy mother would
never have allowed me to go to America if I looked as pale and skinny
as she does. But, she could be pretty, even beautiful if she wasnít
so pale and delicate,í she thought to herself. Then she asked.
"Iím going back out on the deck. Do you want
"No, but thanks, Iíll just lie down for a wee
while, I have a headache," Maura answered.
"See you later then. I want to see the last
sight of the land. My brothers and sisters said they would watch the
ship, from Clonmore hill".
When the door closed, she lay alone and bewildered, the throb of the
engine reminding her that she was moving unwillingly further away from
all that she knew and loved.Maura lay on her bunk staring at the small
porthole in the stuffy cabin. The ship lurched and tossed on the restless
Hannahís head hung down over the top bunk clutching her rosary beads
tightly and praying loudly above the noise of the storm. She had not
anticipated the fury of an Atlantic storm, when she decided to emigrate,
to America. "There is a good demand for dressmakers in New York,"
Aunt Mary had assured her in her letter. As the ship heaved and tossed,
she thought she would not survive to see either New York or Aunt Mary.
In her terror, she was sure that the ship would sink.Maura lying in
the bunk below felt no such panic. Her only prayers were for Mary Kate.
She longed to hug her once more, and to feel her tiny hand clasp her
finger. These were precious memories of the stolen moments she had spent
with her in the convent nursery. "I didnít expect to love you Mary
Kate," she whispered to herself, making no attempt to wipe away
"Thank God we are still alive, the storm is over," Hannahís
shouts woke Maura from a heavy doze. Her head hung over the top bunk,
her rosary beads dangling a few inches from Mauraís face. "I must
get my clothes on quick, and go and see if there is any damage."
She jumped down from her bunk in one leap.Maura smiled to herself at
her new found friendís energy and optimistic approach to life. Meeting
Hannah had made life worth living again for Maura. She shuddered at
the memory of her second night on board when she almost ended it all.
Looking into the dark waters, it seemed the only answer to her pain.
She had stood gazing into the dark water for what seemed like an eternity,
her mind had become calm, almost a hypnotic state, when Hannah voice
came from behind her.
"What are you doing? God itís freezing out here,
you will catch your death." When she made no reply, and she caught
sight of one foot on the middle rail, the horror of what Maura was contemplating
dawned on Hannah. She grabbed her by the shoulders, then forced her
back until her two feet were firmly on the deck. She struggled but Hannahís
physical strength overcame her resistance.
"For God sake Maura! Tell me Iíve got it wrong,
you werenít thinking of ...." Hannahís voice trailed off.
"What if I was? Just leave me alone and mind
your own business. Why did you stop me?" She broke into hysterical
sobs, while Hannah continued to hold her in a tight grip.
"Sure, it broke my heart leaving my home and
my family too, but I had to go. I will be able to help them at home,
when I get a job and can send some money, and so will you. It will be
alright, youíll see, and into the bargain, there is your immortal soul
to think about," Hannahís voice went on relentlessly, rocking Maura
back and fourth, still holding her in a vice like grip. Hannahís voice,
firm and kind slowly penetrated Mauraís troubled mind, gradually her
sobbing ceased. Hannah loosened her tight grip "Do you want to
tell me about it? Come on down to the cabin and weíll talk, thatís if
you want to tell me." Not waiting for a reply she slowly guided
Maura down the steps to the cabin. Hannah wondered again why fate had
decided that she should have been chosen to share a cabin with this
strange unhappy girl. She remembered seeing her for the first time the
day they sailed. At first she noticed the grim faced nun holding the
arm of the pale faced girl as they began climbing on board. Then she
saw an older woman run towards them, they threw their arms around one
another. The nun looked angry and tried to prise them apart, looking
around her wildly as if, she was trying to summons help. Hannah had
viewed this scene from the deck only now understanding its significance
as Mauraís sad tale unraveled