The Kennaway Woman
As famine sweeps across Ireland, Nora O'Neal clings to hope that her lover in America will send for her. Devastated by news that he has married to someone else, she turns to the Kennaway Scheme as her only hope of survival. The plan to send a shipload of destitute women to South Africa on board the Kennaway appears a godsend, but Nora soon discovers a drawback. On arrival, the women are destined to marry German Legionnaires, men settled on land granted to them in the Eastern Cape after the Crimean war.
Nora is horrified at the thought of marrying a stranger but must face the fact that the alternative is starvation. Or life in a whorehouse. When the Kennaway docks in Dublin, she joins the crowd waiting to board.
Soon after landing in East London, Nora meets and marries Johan Detmann, one of the many men seeking a wife. As the pair travel along the lonely road toward her new home, she wonders what lies ahead, unaware that she is about to enter a land troubled by famine, hardships, uprisings and bloody Frontier wars.
Nora O'Neal shivered as the coffin slid into the open grave. Her lip trembled but no tears fell. She had cried for Mama and baby Sue and for so many others who lay in this churchyard, buried beneath mounds of black earth. And now it was Papa's turn. She would have cried for him too, had she not felt so numb and cold. She swayed, and for a moment had the strangest feeling none of this was real, that she was floating somewhere far, far away, and that the redheaded woman standing at the graveside wasn't her at all.
Nora pulled her shawl tight around her shoulders and stared down into the grave. It was hard to imagine Papa lying in that long, narrow box. Hard to believe she'd never hear his voice again, never see his eyes light up when she came into the room. Papa, who'd worked so long and so hard in a desperate effort to keep his family alive. Nora closed her eyes to blot out the memory of the last few, terrible months. The images haunted her dreams at night, but she would not allow them to intrude during the day. Not while she had strength to push them away.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” Father Donahue intoned. He hunched his shoulders against the wind and glanced up at the sky, as though anxious to be gone before the drizzle set in and became a steady rain. The wind dropped then gusted again, sighing through the trees and ruffling the leaves at their feet.
Nora's gaze strayed to William and then to Deirdre, standing beside him, clinging to his arm for support. Not so long ago, her brother had been big and brawny with a ruddy complexion, a man proud of his strength. Now he was little more than a shadow, his cheeks hollow, his clothes hanging off him as though they belonged to someone twice his size. Deirdre had changed too. Her pale face and drab hair bore little resemblance to the pretty girl William had married less than a year ago.
The thought of the wedding brought a lump to Nora's throat. On that day the church was filled to overflowing with family and friends. Afterwards, at the reception, Papa welcomed the guests and danced with Mama. He raised his glass to one toast after another, and ended up more than a little drunk. That grand occasion was the last time anyone in Dunshaughlin had cause to celebrate because the following morning, when Papa got out of bed, he discovered the circle of withered plants in the middle of his potato field. By the end of the week, every plant on the farm was dead. Then, in a relentless march, the blight spread to the farm next door.
When Papa's first potato crop failed, he planted another. Then another. And yet another. When that blackened and died, he dug up the seeds and carried them into the kitchen. When the last rotten tuber was gone... Nora shuddered for that was the first and only time in her life she'd seen Papa cry. She'd known then it was the beginning of the end.
Nora read the names on the wooden crosses that fanned out in long rows to the edge of the churchyard. So many O'Neals: John, Emma, Cathleen, Rory, and Maryanne. Aunt Ellen and Uncle Jim. Grandmama and Grandpapa. Many of the guests who had danced at the wedding lay here now. Others had fled to the city in the hope of finding jobs that would keep them and their families alive. Still others had sailed away to make a new life in a new land. America. That's where Tom Kelly was right now.
Thinking about Tom made Nora's heart beat faster. Tom, with his blue eyes and dark, curly hair. Tom, with his quick smile and teasing ways. Tom, who could have had any girl in town, but who had chosen her, Nora O'Neal. Although he'd been gone for almost a year, his image was as vivid and fresh as though he'd left yesterday.
How could she forget the sound of his voice, his smile, the way he laughed, or the way he kissed her? It would be easier to forget how to breathe. His parting words were etched in her memory. I'll send for you, m'darlin'. As soon as I'm settled with a job and a place to stay, I'll send for you.
That promise had kept her alive during the grim months when one member of the family after another faded away. She'd clung to it, dreaming of America and of Tom, waiting for the day when the ticket to America would come. She would not allow herself to consider the possibility that Tom might forget. How could he? They'd been sweethearts from schooldays. More than sweethearts. Nora's face grew hot as memory of the hours they'd spent in the hay loft came back. The fact that Tom's letters had grown fewer and further between, then stopped altogether did not mean he'd forgotten. There was some other reason, there had to be. He was ill, or working so hard he didn't have time to write. Or maybe his letters had gone astray. Or maybe...