Nora O'Neal does not get discouraged easily and her friend Milly helps her when difficulties arise. They volunteer to help the injured in hospital while they are waiting for the Provost to admit Nora. They meet a poor family with a few odd characters and one who is useful because he happens to know the Provost personally and does repairs for him. They meet up at a slum in Dublin where hardship is the name of the game and ambition is hard to come by. Nora misses home (Kerry) but she adapts herself to urban civil war without much trouble. World War I and the Spanish flu are causing havoc. Still she perseveres.
Chapter One — Nora Leaves for Dublin
On the way to Dublin Nora O'Neal stopped in Kilkenny to see Olga Kerensky. Olga's house was on the main road. Nora remembered it well but not the big brass knocker on the front door. Maybe it was new. She reached up for it and slammed it down a few times. She sniffed the air around her and wondered where the beautiful roses were. She could smell them as if she was standing among them. There wasn't a sign of them anywhere. Once she was in a bog and the rose smell made her think of a lot of butterflies in a garden.
Olga opened the door herself, wearing a long apron with berry spots on the middle of it from making jam. She leaned down to embrace Nora like a lost daughter. A string of affectionate names came from Olga, making Nora feel like a lost sheep or someone in a fairy tale. She heard herself say, "I'm so happy to be here again, Aunt Olga. You are so good to let me in to your lovely house. I'm a bit bedraggled from traipsing over the fields to get here. It's still a long way to go to get to Dublin and I'm dreading it entirely."
"I have tea and sandwiches for you, Nora. You must be hungry after the traveling."
"I am starved altogether," said Nora. She put her satchel down and a red-haired maid picked it up and said she would store it in the hall closet. Nora was glad to be relieved of the old satchel; everything she needed for living in Dublin was rolled up inside it. Two dresses, some knitted stockings, underwear and a shawl made on her loom.
Olga gave her a clean towel and told her to wash up in the basin she kept in the kitchen. A mirror on the wall in front of the basin showed Nora the streaks of dust on her face from the road. After washing she glowed; she left the soap and towel near the basin.
Olga said, "Much better, Nora, after your washing." Questions about the trip followed. Nora sniffed the jam cooking on the stove. Blackberry or raspberry. She wanted to dip a spoon in it to taste it.
She was happy to tell about all the harvesting going on along the way and the cows blocking the tracks in a few places. It was a great country if only the English would go home and take care of their farms. Her father was out cutting turf now for the winter. He wouldn't have herself to help him and would have to rely on the lads. They were all growing up and a big help at home if they weren't in danger from the English who blocked the roads with their lorries. They were all missing her now and did their best to stop her from going to Dublin but she was set on doing the best she could with the chance to learn some new things like Greek and geometry. She wasn't sure why she needed to know them but she was willing to find out about it. Her father wasn't sure either. Olga was the one who was sure about learning those things. Maybe Russians are all like that.
Olga listened carefully. Then she said, "Children grow up and move on to better things so he must be proud of you that you are off to college to learn about the world."
"Ah sure he'd be proud of me if I was a tinker. He's no trouble at all to please. It's a torment for him that I'm in a city filled with soldiers and fires if you believe what's in the papers. I've been dreaming about explosions and body parts in the road. I hope it won't be as awful as my dreams. My nightmares, I'd call them. I hope you never have dreams like mine. I never dream of going to school or reading a book. It's always some terrible thing happening."
"If you're careful, Nora, you will escape anything as awful as your dreams, I'm sure."
"In Brosna they say Dublin is filled with British soldiers, spies and what's left of the rebels. They have the shops burned to the ground and overcrowded hospitals. Not enough doctors for all the victims. Sure the doctors are gone to France with the soldiers."
"You'll be safe with Milly near Stephen's Green. I've been there myself. Stay away form the slums. They breed rats and crime. Remember your family has a sea captain who is famous on the Atlantic. That makes you very important." Olga put her berry-stained hands on Nora's shoulders and told her to just be herself in Dublin and stay out of trouble. Nora tried to feel important but it didn't work.
"Go away with yourself. I'm not important at all no matter if my uncle is a Captain or my cousins are joining the army. My father is a farmer. I'm a weaver. I have no business going to Trinity at all. My mother thinks it's a mad idea and expects me to go home in a few days. I hope I can prove her wrong but I'm not hopeful." Nora's voice had a twinge of regret verging on sadness. There was plenty to be sad about. No peace at all in the world and the price of tea was enough to destroy anyone.
Olga ignored the remark. She poured tea for them in the kitchen and set out some sandwiches and pickled onions. Nora sat down and waited till Olga was ready to drink her tea. Nora looked around the big room as if to remember how it looked later when she was far away from it. Mirrors and paintings, tapestries of dancing elves and flowering trees, windows as big as doors, lace curtains with light shining through onto the rugs. The rugs themselves filled with designs so complex that their weaving would require years of training. Nora was overwhelmed and covered her mouth as she gazed at all the decorations. She muttered some words of praise such as how she had never seen the likes, et cetera. Olga smiled proudly. Olga knew that Nora's home wasn't as beautifully decorated as her own but she had seen the simple charm of the place on her last visit.
"Does your mother think I'm vain because I'm a foreigner and have travelled far and wide? Or does she think I'm full of ridiculous ideas?" Olga frowned when she asked the question, as if she was really worried about it.
"Not really. She thinks you're spoiled and rich." Nora drank some tea and asked if Olga brooded about what her mother thought of her. She really couldn't imagine anyone being worried about Nell's opinion. Nell accepted everyone, rich or poor and forgave easily things that others would hold onto. Nora ate several pickled onions and said she enjoyed them very much. They made her mouth pucker up.
"Well that's true. Until recently I had a very good life in Russia but the political situation made it difficult to live there and I was glad to escape. I can always use my education even if I lose everything else. That's why I want you to be educated."
"That's so kind of you, Olga. I hope it will be possible in Dublin now that so much trouble is there. I'm expecting to be under siege the minute my train arrives at the station. I imagine so much wreckage all around me. I have dreamt of it although I haven't seen it myself yet." Nora started eating a little sandwich with cheese, a new flavor to her. "Is this bread your own baking?"
"The British will have it under control soon. Don't worry. Tell me, how were the roads on the way here? Were there blockades? Yes, I baked that bread. Of course."
"At crossroads, yes. Farmers directed me to the side roads so I wasn't bothered."
"It's more dangerous at the crossroads. I always avoid them. You have a natural instinct to avoid crowds but in Dublin you'll find them everywhere. If a large crowd gathers, don't be in the middle. Get away as fast as you can. Trinity will be like an armed camp with soldiers everywhere. It's safe there. When the Provost assigns you to classes, you'll know where to go. If after a few months you feel you aren't safe or you are not learning anything, you can leave. Just because you are intelligent doesn't mean you must be well educated. You can read on your own, explore on your own. Many geniuses avoid school but if you learn Latin and Greek then you can learn anything. Medicine, law, music, and so forth. What do you think?"
"I think I'm very ordinary and not so intelligent as you believe. I hate to disappoint you. Others are much smarter than I am. I'm convinced of that. What I can do is see through situations where some might be confused. I see possible ways out. But if the Provost doesn't like me when we meet, maybe he won't let me into the classes. Maybe he'll tell me to go back to Kerry, never mind being educated."
Olga frowned at that suggestion. She waved her hand as if she disagreed. She began to pass her fingers over her braids that circled her head. Her dark eyes looked far away, toward the trees outside the window. The leaves were beginning to fall.
"Nora, I have some friends who travel to faraway places – Russia, New York, Athens, all sorts of places, and they always say they like this part of Ireland best. I wonder sometimes if my friends are spies because they travel so much and speak so many languages. One of them sells patent medicine on the side, as if it's his only business but really, he is very busy helping various armies to get weapons and he is paid for his service. He sells machine guns to Russia, cannons to Japan. No wonder Russia lost its navy." Olga poured some tea and bit into a scone. Nora marveled at her stories. She wondered if they were true or made up on the spur of the moment. How could a man do all those things at once? Nora admired the china teapot with its blue designs all over it; she thought everything in China must be blue since they had so much blue scenery on their pots. It was far away, twice as far as Boston but if you had a ship, it was possible to get there in a year or so. The distance made tea expensive. Some tea came from India; that was a little closer.
"So if I learn some foreign language, will that help me with people like that? People who sell guns and cannons for wars?" Nora leaned forward to hear Olga's answer. Olga stirred her tea and smiled. She herself knew five languages well enough to be understood in several countries.
"If you learn even one language it will be good. Latin is a good one. Greek will help you with science, should you want to work in chemistry or physics. Women do that in some places. Not in your village, but in the important places. I had a dream about you that you were sailing in the Mediterranean, with sailors and pirates. I wouldn't want to see that. Just study and learn something. Improve yourself."
Nora wasn't sure where the Mediterranean was exactly but she liked the sound of it. A beautiful sounding word altogether. She felt important that Olga dreamed about her and she hoped that she wouldn't disappoint her when she went to Dublin. She liked the idea of pirates but the sailors didn't interest her. If she ever ran into pirates she might just run off with them. She would disguise herself as a boy.
They walked down a long tree-lined street that brought them to a castle near the river. Olga said it was the old Ormond place but she wasn't sure who had it now. Three rivers converged near there. Rumors of magical things happening and spirits meeting in the rivers were commonly spread about among the people. The sea rose up into the rivers, warming everything, especially in the spring and visitors came from all over. It was a very English sort of place but the Irish lore had a place among the people. Artists came to Kilkenny to learn from experts. English Royalty had a connection to the place long ago.
The next day Nora continued on the journey to Dublin, through Carlow and soon the sun was setting behind her and the dark city lay ahead. She felt herself passing through one world and into another. She hoped she was leaving behind all her bad dreams. The bad dreams might be coming true once she got there.
The train ride to Dublin was interrupted a few times by British inspectors checking the passengers over. When her turn came, she told them she was visiting a relative. She watched the scenery change gradually from country to city. A milling crowd waited for the train as it pulled into the station in Dublin. The smell of thousands of turf fires wafted up to the sky wrapping everything in a haze of smoke. She waited till everyone got off the train then she grabbed her satchel and walked to the steps, cautiously stepping down onto the unfamiliar platform, gripping a cold railing as she searched the station for signs of life. She felt like a bird with a broken wing.
A young man approached her, asking if she was Nora O’Neal. She felt relieved that a stranger would know her. Corporal Maurice Ashley from Trinity College walked all the way with her and carried her satchel to her lodgings near Stephen’s Green. “You’ll enjoy the classes at Trinity, particularly the biology classes. The frog’s anatomy is much like our own, you know. I’m sure you’ll enjoy that and of course, botany is grand. We go from mosses to oak trees and examine specimens under the microscope. Some of them are thousands of years old and then the Classics—Homer, Virgil and those fellows. The Greek is a challenge. It takes some getting used to before you catch on.”
She listened attentively to Ashley but his accent was different from anything she’d ever heard before. He wasn’t Irish but if he was from England he seemed very ordinary, not at all like the aristocrats she saw in Kilkenny. Of course, England and Ireland were still fighting together in France. They were an odd combination of friend and foe. On top of it Dublin was under siege. Nora quickly grasped the terror of the place, a city in the throes of a disaster. So many places were still burning and people dashing about as if they were in a terrible hurry. A shame they couldn’t all get on the train and visit Ballybunion for a week or two. Take their minds off their troubles. Some small children ran across the path into the street looking half-starved, a mangy dog trotting along beside them.
“Don’t mind the poor wretches,” said Corporal Ashley, looking satisfied. "The children in this place are like orphans. They roam around the streets and are always asking for tuppence. If you give it to them, fifty more come up and ask for theirs. So it’s hopeless. God knows where they sleep at night or what their parents are up to.”
“I suppose they’re out working in the factories or in jail,” said Nora. “They wouldn’t be sitting at home rocking by the fire if they had children like these. I wouldn’t be surprised if these creatures had no homes at all.”
“They came here from the little farms west of here with dreams of glory in their heads, expecting to find work or learn a trade and then they end up in some alley with drink taken and forget why they came in the first place."
Suddenly a lorry filled with soldiers raced down the cobblestone street passing a trolley and barely missing a few bystanders. A sudden downpour sent people running for cover but they were all used to such weather and spent many a day with the rain pouring down on them.
“What’s their hurry?”
“No hurry at all. They drive like scalded cats just to keep us on our toes.”
The houses were close together here with lights in the windows. Cats and dogs walked among the crowds and seabirds flew over them following the Liffey to the sea. The city was cut in two by the river.
Milly Bloom’s house was on Hume Street, a short street close to Stephen’s Green. It wasn’t as nice as the High Road in Brosna but she wouldn’t be out walking much by herself at any rate so it didn’t matter. Milly greeted her in the doorway, showed her the room she’d have and offered her tea and cake. Corporal Ashley helped Nora with her belongings and Nora was generous in her praise, saying he kept her from being harmed by the awful crowd of soldiers racing in the street and the pouring rain coming down on them all. Milly was all business welcoming Nora and showing her the room she would have while she lived in Dublin. The big brass bed had a lovely quilt on it and seemed big enough for a flock of sheep. Milly's mother usually slept in it while her father roamed about taking care of business. It would be nice to have a normal person sleeping in that big brass bed and maybe getting up in the morning to do something. Her mother was a person with no ambition except to give the occasional concert. Her voice was good. She needed a lot of care and comfort. Her father was the man for the job. He tended her as if she was some sort of Queen. He brought her breakfast in the morning, tidied up the kitchen, fed the cat and did the shopping. Her mother rested up most of the day.
Nora thought the bed much too large but would probably get used to it. She even hoped her nightmares would fade once she slept in the new bed. She sat down on it and noticed it had springs underneath. That was a novelty she'd have to get used to. If she moved she might wake herself up. She said the room would be fine and asked if Olga had sent the rent money. She had.
After pouring tea for them both, Milly said she’d been taking photographs all day.
"Why?" asked Nora.
“We’ll see who wants to pay for them. I’d like to sell them to someone in New York but England is closer.” Milly knew that England had connections to America so she might have her pictures across the Atlantic some day.
"I'd like to see them in the newspaper but some printers use them for postcards or magazines. People want to see what's happening over here without coming here and risking an accident. So they look for photos. Photographers travel all over to get good pictures."
“Once we had our picture taken years ago. Someone coming along the road with a big camera and a load of pictures taken and he left us with one of them near a wall. Behind the wall was a cemetery. I was about ten. We had no idea what we looked like at all. We could hardly tell who was who when we looked at the photo."
The young man gazed at Nora as if she was an alien. Her way of talking was so different from what he heard around Dublin, it might have been Swedish. He had to concentrate on her phrases to understand her. Nora told him to have a seat for himself so he looked around wondering if that was allowed. He felt uncomfortable although he had done what was expected, that is, deliver the girl to this house where she would live while taking classes. If a photo was taken at this moment, it would look like a little family group. Each of them had trouble understanding the other although English was their common language. "Ah well," said Nora, with resignation.
Corporal Ashley sat down on a chair with a dishtowel over it and loosened his collar. Milly explained what they would be doing to get Nora sorted out at Trinity College. She sensed that Nora was anxious about starting out. She was a girl from the west, a farmer’s daughter, after all. She wasn’t used to the hustle and bustle, the smoke and fires of Dublin after its rebellion. Milly poured tea in cups with flowers painted on them. Nora traced the flower with her finger, put her hand in her lap. She felt embarrassed suddenly but didn't know why. She thought she was in the way, a bother to people. She didn't usually feel that way but the excitement of traveling and feeling hungry made her uneasy. She was tired from travelling and fearful of what might happen next in the ruined city. The sounds of gunfire could be heard through the windows. That would take some time to be getting use to.
“I’ll have to take you shopping for your school things. Pencils, and notebooks. We can meander over to the college and have a look at it. It’s a fright around that area after all the burning and shooting in April. A thousand people killed just because they were living in the area, never mind the rebels and the soldiers. Now we have to live with the army everywhere, stopping us in the street if they take a notion. It’s enough to give a person the shivers just to cross the street.”
“The tea is good,” said Nora. “Now I’m ready for anything at all.”
“If your Aunt Olga has sent the tuition, you should have no problem starting your classes. But you must be hungry. Don't mind me, I'm thoughtless." Milly reached up over the stove for a basket with slices of brown bread in it. She passed them to Nora with some butter and cheese. "Have as much as ye want. I'll make more in the morning."
The two visitors helped themselves to the bread and drank several cups of tea. Milly had a blue willow sugar bowl but the other tea things were white with flowers painted on them. She often made a meal of tea and brown bread if there wasn't anything better to eat. Maybe a bit of cheese would show up.
“I’m sure she has sent the money. She has more money than Queen Mary,” said Nora. "I don't know where it's all coming from but she knows people who sell cannons and guns to Russia so there's no telling where the money comes from. I'm not making that up. She told me she knows them."
“Now don’t be exaggerating, Nora. Queen Mary owns the Bank of England.”
Nora wondered how a queen could own a bank. Queens had ordered invasions and had her pirates loot the castles owned by foreigners. That was where the royal jewelry came from and thanks to their big cannons and powerful ships, the powerful English could go wherever they wanted. She hoped to see them out of Ireland but who would take their place? The rebels were not all in agreement. She knew that from hearing them talk at home. Some wanted Ireland cut off from the rest of the world. Some wanted them connected. Nora favored connection.
"Here's to Ireland owning the bank," she said as she raised her teacup and drank some. Corporal Ashley laughed and said he doubted they would be able to handle the money. "Sure, anyone can handle money. When the British go home, we'll print our own money and it will be beautiful."
They walked over to Trinity with Corporal Ashley and looked around the quadrangle. Soldiers guarded the entrance. Milly said armed guards were everywhere. Corporal Ashley wished them a good evening and headed for his quarters. The University looked more like an army base than a place to study. The recent rebellion had made every place part of the city’s defense. If the rebels won their freedom, Trinity might become a rebel school, the property of the present powerless people. Nora's mind couldn't handle all the confusion. She imagined the worst things happening to her in this dark and threatening place. If this was college, she'd prefer to remain ignorant. The full moon over the dark buildings gave a sinister look to the whole place. The smell of continuous fires didn't help at all.
At Stephen’s Green Nora took off her shoes and walked in the grass. People stared at her and Milly. Men in trench coats walked along the cinder path watching people. An atmosphere of brooding fear was in the air, as if some vampire might suddenly appear. This was the city where Bram Stoker had been inspired to write Dracula and suspicions about unnatural beings filled the terrorized streets. Rebellion was for daylight. Vampires were for the night. Nora felt a strange tension in the air. Her heart was agitated in her chest. She breathed in the smoky air slowly, trying to get as much air as she could.
“Nora, we’ll have kidneys tonight. They smell terrible but so tasty. Do you like them?”
“I’ve had them a few times. I don’t know if I’ll be hungry tonight at all.”
“ I’ll fry them up for us with onions.”
Nora wondered if Bram Stoker liked kidneys fried with onions, blood leaking out of them on a plate. She already knew she would not have an appetite for the kidneys.
Walking along they passed a few public houses and a small house with the sound of chanting children coming from an open window. They came to a bridge over the Liffey and Nora looked over the railing into the misty green river. If she was an artist, she would paint the sparkles in the water. The sparkles made her feel better.
“It’s named for Anna Livia,” said Milly. “She was famous long ago.”
“Oh,” said Nora. “We have a few of them in Kerry. We have rivers, bridges and stories about goddesses from long ago. Every hill is named after something.”
A man with an umbrella walked towards them. Milly reached for her purse. Nora’s mouth opened as if to say something but the man put his finger to his lips. A few soldiers approached from behind a tram and the man took something out of his coat pocket and handed it to Milly. She put it in her camera bag without a word. Nora thought he looked familiar but she couldn’t place him.
The soldiers searched the man, patting his coat and checking his pockets but found nothing so let him go. “Can’t be too careful,” the man said. He was smiling as if this was an expected event and Milly walked along with him for a short distance, then reached into her bag and slipped a gun into his pocket. “Always glad to help,” said Milly. Nora watched him walk away from them; she thought he was a rebel. He was dressed like an Englishman. If he had a rebel uniform on, he'd be the image of someone she met in Cork. They kept going on their way. Nora had no idea where she was going and only hoped Milly knew. She could be looking for something. The light wasn't good for pictures so it wasn't that.