SUMMER 2014 / VOL. 14 ISSUE 2
‘Coolboreen’ Tackles Irish Civil War

By Eva O Callaghan

On May 14, 1921, Winifred Barrington was caught up in a republican ambush and killed. She was the only daughter of Sir Charles Barrington, owner of Glenstal Castle, now a Benedictine monastery. Local legend reports that Winnie, a young woman well-liked by the people of Murroe and East Limerick, was mistaken for her friend, an auxiliary policeman or "auxie" who was known for his tough measures during the War of Independence. Eva O Callaghan’s Coolboreen tells the story behind the ambush. As in all historical fiction, characters and events, while inspired by a real story, are ultimately fictional constructs.

Chapter 1 May 16, 1921
He was here before. Memory throws up random pieces of a puzzle but guards others, crucial to the picture, guards them jealously for herself. He was here alright, but he realises there is much that he can't remember. Those gates, though, these he remembers - tall, iron, imposing. Still, even in these turbulent times, they are not locked and that says something. They creak now in just the same way as that other time, long ago. 

It's the journey there and back that he recalls, much more clearly than the visit. Memory offers the clop of a pony and trap on the avenue, and how his father got him to say the word 'rhododendrons'. He had questions, a lot of questions that day. He remembers how patiently his father had listened to him, how his father had tried to answer him and to explain things, things he later realised were very hard to explain. He remembers too something important that was not said, and how he felt it inside the silence, and how it made him feel protective of his father and of his village, although he was the child. Why they came there in the first place, and what they did, he cannot remember, though it must, he supposes, have been about milk.

"Look, rhododendrons," says his father.

"Rhod-do-den-drums," says Paddy.


"Rho-do-den-drons. They're everywhere."

"They grow like mad, Paddy. Especially in lime soil. They'd take over, except for the deer. The deer hold them back."

"How?" asks Paddy. "How do the deer do that?"

"They eat them," answers his father.

"The trees are different here, Dad."

"The Barringtons planted species from all different countries. South America and all," says his father.

"Which tree comes from South America?" Paddy whispers with awe.

"I'm not sure," his father admits. "Now, hold tight, here's another bend."

The pony pants as the avenue twists and inclines.
"It's going to rain, I can feel it in my bones," says Paddy, looking at the huge black and white fresian cows starting to lie down, their bellies against the lush grass. 

"Are you mimicking me, you little rogue?" says Matt. The edges of his eyes crinkle into a smile. Paddy laughs and nods. Then he tugs his father's sleeve.

"Dad, what are those?" Fairytale plants, like giant rhubarb loom over them. 

Paddy draws a deep breath, overcome by an odd mix of fear and wonder. He tugs his father's sleeve, harder and twice. "Dad, look! It's a castle. I thought we were going to a field near somebody's house." 

"We are," says his father. "That is their house. The field is down the avenue."

"Who are they?" Matt hears his son's question with all its resonances.

"The Barringtons," he answers. "You know that."

"Yes, but who are they?" asks Paddy again.

On the way home, they stop in Murroe village for apple drops. Paddy remembers how he wondered what he had done to be good. Apple drops always meant he had been good. He remembers the yellow and red and green swirls like rainbows, and his sticky hands, and the sour-sweet taste in his mouth as they passed the linen mills and the Clare Glens and rode on through Newport up towards Knockfune. He remembers how he loved the road, and the countryside and the steady, blue presence of the Galtee Mountains. Even then, he felt it with passion, the pride of place. 

"Are we back in Tipperary yet, Matt?" he asks, for he has a fascination with maps and county borders. His father reaches over and tickles his ribs.

"You can call me Matt when you are eighteen."

Paddy squints. "Thirteen years, I'm not waiting that long. No way." He folds his arms on the trap edge, and rests his chin on them, watching everything through the up-and-down motion of the pony and trap. The movement rattles his teeth; he exaggerates the rattling.

"Ah, Paddy, stop. Look, let's learn something. Plants, how about that? Give you a head start for school in September. Come on, now...cuckoo flower, shepherd's purse, ragged robin." Matt points as he names them. 

"Foxgloves," says Paddy, pointing to the tall stalks with purple bells, growing up out of the ditch. 

"Very good. Forget-me-nots. Clover. Furze. Lucerne," says Matt, pointing again. "Now, Paddy, you're the teacher. You tell me what's what." He smiles as Paddy points and names, his memory quick and flawless. 

"You know, Sir Charles thinks you're a smart lad," says his father after an easy silence. "He says you have a promising mind." 

"I can't wait to go to school," says Paddy. "I want to read all the books. How many more months? Is it three and a bit?"

"That's the lad, quick at your sums and all. We'll have you doing the creamery books in no time."

"How long more back to Knockfune?" Paddy yawns.

"Ah, a few miles yet, son."

Paddy rests his head against his father's side. His face clouds with the dawning of a thought. He sits upright.

"Dad. Why are the Barringtons so rich?"

"Because, Paddy, they're on the side of power."

"Did the King of England take the land off the Irish and give it to their family?"
No, he didn't, Paddy. The Barringtons bought that land and they built the castle with their own hard-earned money. Their granddad's granddad was a clockmaker in Limerick city. He worked hard and his sons worked hard and in time they all became very wealthy."

"Well, Dad , you work hard, and when I grow up, I'm going to work hard and then we'll all be wealthy."

His father pauses and then answers. "We are wealthy, Paddy. We have a fine roof over our heads and plenty of food to eat. If you have enough, then you're wealthy."

"Dad, I meant really rich like them. Sir Charles is a nice man, isn't he?"

"He is that."

"And the girl. Winnie. She's nice."

"She is."

"And are they Irish or English, Dad?"

"Well, what makes you Irish, Paddy?"

"If you're born in Ireland, you're Irish."

"Well, then they're Irish."

"Irish Protestants," says Paddy.

"That's it," Matt nods.

Standing at the gate now, Paddy hesitates, strokes his stubble and breathes deeply. He leaves his bicycle against the farmyard wall across the road. He pats the left breast pocket of his jacket, checking that the envelope is still there, his condolence letter inside it, handwritten. Then, he walks up the avenue, deliberate, heavy steps.

"Would you not reconsider?" Tom had said last-night as they stood outside the door of The Dáil, the pub in Knockfune.

"Reconsider?" asks Paddy, his voice low.

"Yes," says Tom. "Reconsider going up there. Post the letter. Or send a messenger. Don't go up there yourself. You could end up face to face with the father, for God's sake."]

"The post?" says Paddy, raising an eyebrow. "The post gets intercepted. How can we of all people rely on the post when we have a captured mailbag sitting in the dugout? This letter has to arrive. My mind is made up, I'm going there. " His jaw is set.

"You're out of your mind," says Tom.

Paddy has his own way of seeing things. The next step is what matters. Decide what you need to do, and do it. Clear the emotion of what has last happened, clear it from your mind as if you were sweeping a yard. Otherwise, it clouds things. He looks up now, up above the trees that line the avenue right and left. There are clouds, thick low clouds, like blobs of cream. In a field to the left, fresians lie down forecasting showers. 
He walks around a bend and sees them again, those strange plants. In the near distance, a tall man stands a on a step-ladder, clipping rhododendrons. The man turns, sees him, raises his hand and climbs down from the ladder.

"I'm the gate-keeper," says the man. Paddy notices a curious mildness in his voice, this man, almost a giant in height and strength. "Can I help you?" A question that can often mean the opposite; Paddy is taken aback by the sheer sincerity of his tone. Used to the need for vigilance, he waits before he responds, eyes watching everything - the man's demeanour, what he does with his hands, the surroundings. But no, there is none to be found, no trace of hostility. The gate-keeper is a welcoming man. Slowly, Paddy reaches into his left breast pocket for the letter.
Editor’s Note: 
Eva O Callaghan holds an M.Litt in Italian literature and is currently working on a Parallel Text (Italian/English) of short stories of Dino Buzzati, a learning aid for English-speakers to study Italian. She lives in the vicinity of the peaceful Glenstal Abbey, Co. Limerick, where Coolboreen, her first novel, is set. She has a background in teaching and facilitates on writing workshops in Limerick and Dublin, including an workshop at Glenstal Abbey earlier this July. If readers would like to be included on her mailing list, or share a response to the first chapter of Coolboreen, contact her at



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