Disclaimer: Not mine, this is just for fun
Pairing : None
Description: What would Liam’s life have been like before he met Darla?
Feedback: Yes Please - to firstname.lastname@example.org
Author’s notes: I’ve tried to make this story as historically accurate as possible, and during the course of my research, some interesting facts emerged. It seems that it would have been extremely likely that Liam and his family would have been Protestant, and not Catholics. The majority of the merchant classes in Ireland from the 1700’s were Protestant, and as such avoided many of the punishing laws that applied to those of the Catholic faith.
It is also (despite the show’s back story) very unlikely that Liam’s family would have lived in a village. Instead they would have lived in Galway city itself, in a townhouse not far from where Liam’s father had his linen warehouse.
Donnellan is a Galway name – and from one of the Galway Tribe families. There were Donnellans who were merchant traders in Galway in the 1700’s. Burke is also a genuine Galway name.
There is a place called Caldargh, and it does have an annual fair held on the 21st September, and it is about two miles from Castle Blakeney.
The Galway Blazers are one of the most famous hunts in Ireland, they were founded in the 18th Century and are still hunting hard today.
Steeplechasing was invented on the hunting field in Ireland in the 18th Century.
Horses are my lifelong passion – so I’d hope that all the horsey descriptions are spot on!
Thomas Donnellan sighed with annoyance as he watched his son in the neighbouring office. To a casual observer the handsome young man would have seemed engrossed in his work, head down, quill scratching busily, the very picture of an industrious clerk. But Thomas was not a casual observer, and knew from discouraging experience that sorting export documentation never resulted in the dreamy concentration that his son was demonstrating at this moment.
Thomas banged into the office, slamming the door behind him. As he expected, Liam sat bolt upright, and quickly pulled invoices and supply lists on top of whatever it was he had been working on. “Father…ye startled me.”
Thomas shook his head disgustedly. “Show me what ye were doing, Liam.”
Liam put on his best look of aggrieved innocence. “Sure, Father, it’s the dockets for that new customer in the Gironde ye asked me to process.”
Thomas felt the familiar surge of anger at his son’s blatant lie. He reached out and swept the papers off the high clerk’s desk. As they scattered over the knotted wooden floor of the warehouse office, he caught sight of an inked drawing among them. He bent to pick it up and then straightened again and waved the offending sheet of paper in Liam’s face.
“What’s this then? Since when has an export docket looked like the drawing of a leppin’ horse? I can’t leave you alone for two seconds together before you’re wasting time, ink and paper. I don’t pay you to sit and doodle now, do I?” Thomas ripped the drawing in two and threw it into the waste basket.
Liam looked at the torn up picture. “Don’t pay me much of anything” he muttered.
“Well, perhaps I’d be more so inclined if you weren’t such a useless lump of good-for-nothingness” Thomas retorted. “Don’t you forget that this business puts food in your mouth, and a roof over your head. And it’ll pay for your future too, unless you keep on the way you are – I’ve worked hard to build up this business, I’ll not see you ruin it by your feckless ways.” And with that Thomas turned on his heel and stamped back to his own office.
Liam shoved the stool back from his desk and climbed down to start picking up the papers that were littering the floor.
“Stupid old bastard. As if I want to inherit this bloody boring warehouse in any case.” He glanced up and out of the window, chafing at the fact that he was stuck in this gloomy room on a glorious autumn morning. Liam had already crossed swords with his father even before they had finished breakfast. He had planned on half a day out with the young entry, but as soon as Thomas had seen Liam shouldering on his brown covert coat instead of his usual office coat, all hell had broken loose. “Ye can forget following hounds this morning. We’ve a mountain of work to get through at the warehouse, what with the French trade doing well, and now that new customer in the West Indies. Ye seem to forget you have responsibilities. There’ll be no more gallivantin’ off with those ruffian Blazers each time the air gets a bit crisp.”
“But O’Hara’s got a youngster he wants me to show hounds….”
“O’Hara doesn’t care if you get your neck broken – ye’re needed at the warehouse and there’s an end to it.” Thomas had put his fists on his hips and stared down his mutinous son until Liam had pulled off his coat and flung it angrily on the floor. “Aye. Well, don’t be far behind me”
Liam had waited until his father had left the room before unleashing a stream of curses. Kicking the covert coat into one of the corners of the breakfast room, he had dragged on the black worsted three quarter coat that he wore to the office and with a face like thunder had walked the half mile to the warehouse to start yet another dreary day.
James O’Hara was a wizened leprechaun of a man, brown skin the texture of leather and the gait of a man more used to being astride a horse than on his own two feet. It was difficult to tell how old he was, and he didn’t know with any real accuracy himself, but it was generally assumed that O’Hara was in his late fifties. He had four grown children, and another two in their late teens, although there had been three others that had died before they had got beyond their first two years of life. His wife was as shrivelled as he, with a tongue like a stinging wasp, and a strength in her that was belied by her shrunken frame. Together the O’Haras ran a hireling business, which in his father’s time had been an adjunct to the main business of horse dealing. But since the Cromwellians had enforced the laws prohibiting Irish Catholics from owning or selling any horse for more than the sum of five pounds, they’d had to build up other ways of earning a living instead.
O’Hara was lunging one of the several three year olds that he had brought down from their summer grazing, and which had grown on enough to start breaking. The bay youngster had thrown up its head and was snorting at the sound of another horse approaching at a gallop. O’Hara swore as the young horse bucked and leapt in excitement instead of working quietly on the end of the long lunge rein.
“For the love of God” O’Hara shouted irritably “Haven’t you the sense you were born with to come into the yard like a civilised crature, instead of a heathen with the hounds of hell at his heels!”
Liam swung off his blowing horse and waved apologetically at the irate horse coper.
“Sorry Mr O’Hara – didn’t know you were working a horse.”
“Eeejit. Well, now ye’re here, might as well make yerself useful. Fetch a saddle to put on this. Where were you this mornin’ anyway? Had to get Denis to take out the chestnut. It gave him three tumbles and left him in a ditch.”
Liam shrugged. “Had to work. But I’ll take it out on Saturday if ye like.”
O’Hara scowled. “Aye. Well, it’s learned a few tricks now, so don’t be surprised if it turns itself inside out to get you off.”
Liam laughed and went to fetch a saddle from the tack room. He’d been coming to O’Hara’s yard for a while now, and he and the older man had fallen into an easy friendship based on their shared interest in all things equine. At first O’Hara had been suspicious of Liam, he’d seen his type more than enough over the years. Young, middle class, rebellious good-for-nothings. They came all the time to hire his hunters when theirs had fallen lame, or for visiting friends. More often than not the hirelings were returned with bleeding mouths and bleeding flanks, or broken kneed from reckless jumps into sunken roads. These young men fancied themselves as thrusters – neck or nothing types over fences, with a brutality to match their lack of finesse on a horse. O’Hara had marked Liam Donnellan as one of these to begin with – his smart mouth and swaggering manner making the catholic O’Hara feel resentful of the fact that he had to be polite to such an arrogant pup. He’d deliberately picked out a flighty bright bay mare with a mouth like iron for the protestant merchant’s son to take out for the day, hoping she would give him a crashing fall or two to serve him right. Instead, the mare went like a lamb for the young man. O’Hara, following hounds with second horses alongside, saw how young Donnellan instinctively balanced himself, keeping out of the mare’s way when she was readying herself for the jumps, while encouraging her onwards with a squeezing – rather than kicking – heel. And because nobody was sawing at her mouth with heavy hands, the mare stopped pulling and settled into the day’s hunting with a will that O’Hara had not seen in the horse on previous occasions.
It didn’t take O’Hara long to discover that Liam was kept short of money by his father. His suggestion that Liam earned a few shillings and as many days out with hounds as he liked by bringing on youngsters to become safe, schooled hirelings was taken up by the young man with alacrity. O’Hara didn’t give a fig if Liam arrived nursing a hangover from the night before, or sporting bruises from drunken fist fights as long as he was able to throw a leg over a balky youngster and get it to go sweetly. The arrangement suited them both perfectly. O’Hara – who was feeling the effects of years of horsebreaking in his joints – got a good jockey to work the horses for very little money. Liam got all the hunting in that he could manage, and cash to spend with his friends gaming in the taverns. There were other benefits too. More recently, O’Hara had spotted the possibility of getting around the five pound limit on selling horses by getting Liam to front his business at the sales. The young protestant – not subject to this law – posed as the owner of the horse for sale, and got a percentage of the value of the sale in return. Both O’Hara and Liam were fully aware of the illegality of what they were doing, and neither cared a jot one way or the other.
Liam was rummaging around in the tack room, trying to find a saddle that didn’t look as though it was going to fall into several pieces as soon as he put it on the horse’s back. The walls of the cobweb-festooned tack room were full of arcane bits of horse equipment, from martingales to rusting snaffles and bent stirrup irons. In the spaces left between all these accoutrements there were endless curled up drawings of some of O’Hara’s horses. One of O’Hara’s younger daughters had seen Master Liam idly sketching one day. Her curiosity piqued, she’d peered over one of his broad shoulders and gasped in delight at the drawing of a mare and foal that were grazing peacefully in one of the pasture fields. Ever since, Liam had been encouraged to draw the horses that came and went from the yard, and those were the sketches that now adorned the tack room walls.
Returning to where O’Hara had the bay youngster circling quietly once more, Liam dropped the saddle onto the fence and leaned against it, waiting for the horse coper to finish lunging. At O’Hara’s nod, he swung himself over the fence and carried the saddle across to where the horse was now being held firmly by the bridle. Liam let the youngster have a good sniff at the cracked leather of the old saddle, and stroking his hand down the horse’s neck and onto its back, he quietly slipped the saddle onto the animal’s back. The horse tensed, but O’Hara kept murmuring endearments at it, and Liam waited until he could see the young horse’s ears flick forward and back once more – alert, but not afraid. Only then did Liam attach the girth to one side of the saddle and let it hang down the horse’s side. Moving slowly but confidently, he went around to the other side of the horse, reached down and drew the girth up under its belly. The youngster sidled away, tail swishing, but Liam simply followed it until it stood quietly again. Then he lightly girthed the saddle. Stroking and patting the bay Liam waited a few moments before tightening the girth by one or two holes. This was repeated twice more before the saddle was firmly secured onto the horse’s back. The youngster fidgeted and pawed, but didn’t explode. The stirrup irons were slipped down the leathers so they were hanging loosely, and then Liam stepped away to allow O’Hara to start lungeing once more.
The unfamiliar feel of the hard saddle on its back, and the stirrups that banged against its sides startled the young horse into bucking and twisting on the end of the rein. It leapt and pulled, but couldn’t escape either the saddle or the lunge line, and after about ten minutes it settled back down into a trot.
“He’s ready for you to have a sit now.” O’Hara said. Stopping the horse once more, the wizened Irishman held it firmly with his left hand on the bridle. Liam came up to stand facing the horse’s side, and bent his left leg back so that O’Hara could reach down and boost him up into the saddle. Liam had just enough time to slip his feet into the stirrups and gather up the reins before O’Hara had unclipped the lunge rein and jumped away. The young horse – already confused and a bit worried about the strange saddle now panicked with the weight of a rider on his untried back.
He tried to buck and twist, but Liam was by no means a lightweight, and his long legs clamped around the horse’s sides sending it forward and away from the pressure. Sending the youngster forward so strongly prevented it from throwing its head down and bucking off his rider, and after about twenty minutes of half- rears, hops and bucks the young bay horse seemed to realise that he couldn’t dislodge the human that was sitting on him and gave in. Liam immediately patted the horse on its neck, and slid off. “Good horse, there’s a sensible lad. We’ll have him out next week, for sure.” He said to O’Hara who merely nodded and indicated that the saddle could now be taken off.
Once the young horse had been put back into the shippen that served as stabling for the horses in for breaking, O’Hara and Liam returned to the tack room, where the inevitable bottle of poitin was unearthed from underneath a dusty pile of rugs. O’Hara took a long swig and handed it to Liam who did likewise.
“There’s talk of heavy bettin’ on steeplechases this season.” O’Hara said, taking back the poitin for another drink.
“Aye. It’s these rich types comin’ over with their English Thoroughbreds. Stupid eejits’ll end up breaking their necks – the horses haven’t a clue how to deal with a bank.” Liam sounded dismissive, but couldn’t help feeling jealous of the young men and women he saw in and around the more fashionable parts of Galway City. They didn’t have to slave away all day in a fusty linen warehouse, listening to the whining of a money-grabbing, god-fearing father. Liam took another pull at the bottle of the illegally produced spirit.
“It’s nothin’ to me, in any case. The stakes are too high for me to afford t’put a bet on, bloody English bastards, think they own us all.”
O’Hara snorted. “Accordin’ to the law, the bastards do. Still, that’s not what I was thinkin’. Seems t’me that we could make a penny or two from the steeplechase itself.”
Liam perked up. “What, you mean us take part in the race?” O’Hara shook his head. “Not us – you. Seems like you’d like a chance to show those English gentlemen and their ladies a thing or two about covering Galway country, eh?”
Liam’s face fell. “Still an’ all, we’ve nothin’ in the yard that can hold a candle to those fancy thoroughbreds, I’d be two fields behind them in no time.”
“True. But ye can ride like the devil, and ye said yerself that those English horses have no clue over a good old fashioned Irish bank. Reckon that what you’d lose on the flat you’d more than make up over the fences. I’d be willin’ to put a wager on yer back.” O’Hara passed back the poitin, a shrewd glint in his faded blue eyes. Liam looked at him, puzzled.
“Ye might be willin’, but you’ve no more cash than me. Like I said, these Lords and Ladies wager for high stakes – out of our league.”
“It’s true. But if we sell a couple of the youngsters, and pool whatever we have between us – we should manage to put together the entry wager.”
Liam was silent, momentarily both humbled and proud that O’Hara should have such faith in his capabilities as to wager money from sales that would keep the yard and his family going for over a month or longer. Then the excitement of taking part in one of the Blazers’ steeplechase races overtook him and he took another deep swig of the liquor. “Yer on.”
Liam handed his horse to the ostler at the livery yard where his father kept his riding horse and the stocky cob that drew the Donnellan’s outside car when the family went to church. Brushing down his coat, Liam turned to walk the short distance back to his home and nearly bumped into the small figure of his ten year old sister who had crept into the yard behind him.
“Jasus, Kathy, I nearly ran ye over. What are ye doing here?”
Kathy frowned at her elder brother’s language, but didn’t comment. “I came te warn ye. Father is on the warpath – ye were supposed to be at home this afternoon, attendin’ the Brownes when they were visitin’ us, remember?”
Liam groaned and slapped his forehead. “Oh God, yes. I completely forgot….still an’ all, I’d have slipped away as soon as I could even if I had of been there. That daughter of old man Browne is as ugly as sin and a bible basher to boot.” He pulled a face imitating the plain features of Sally Browne. Kathy giggled, but her brown eyes – so like that of her brother’s – quickly turned serious again. She adored Liam, despite, or perhaps because of the big age gap between them. There had been many miscarriages and two still births before Kathy had finally been born, and there was a twelve year difference between brother and sister as a result.
“Still, Liam, they were expectin’ you to be there. Father’s disappointed and shamed that you let us down like that.”
“Well, that’s decided me then. I’ll not be going home to another tongue lashin’ if I can avoid it. Thanks, love, for the warnin’”.
Kathy looked alarmed. “Where are you going then?”
Liam knelt down in front of his little sister and chucked her under the chin. “Somewhere warm and welcomin’, don’t you fret. Now just you run back home – and you’ve not seen me, alright?”
Kathy smiled up at Liam, nodded, and set off back down the street to their house. Liam stood back up again, and with a smirk, headed in the opposite direction.
The tavern was already full of men drinking and laughing when Liam pushed open the door to the smoke filled room. The peat fire burning in the open fireplace added its own distinctive smell to that of the acrid pipes and the yeasty tang of the beer that was being swilled. Liam peered into the fug trying to see if any of his friends had arrived yet. He caught sight of Sean Burke who waved him over.
“Jesus, Liam, you must smell it” Sean chuckled, pointing at the foaming jug of beer that had just been slopped onto the table. “Hey Kitty, bring another tankard over, will ya?” he called to the young serving girl who was bustling about the tavern, trading insults with the regulars. She looked up and nodded, smiling at the new arrival. Sean guffawed. “She can’t resist yer charms, Liam m’boy.”
Liam’s smirk widened. “Too true, Sean, Lad. She certainly didn’t resist ‘em the other night. A fine handful she was too.”
Sean shook his head enviously. “Yer a greedy sod. What about leavin’ some of them for the rest of us?”
“Can I help it if the wenches fancy me as their jockey more than they fancy you?”
“I’d have thought ye’d be more cautious after the last time one of them turned up at your doorstep with a belly out to here.”
Liam shrugged. “Aye, me father nearly killed me, but who’s to say I was the only one who’d been up there? Anyway, the old man would have died a thousand deaths before he’d see me wed a catholic wench, bairn or no bairn. He’s still got designs on marryin’ me off to one of the daughters of one of the bigger merchants in the city.”
“And doesn’t he know that respectable families would lock their daughters in a convent before they’d let them anywhere near you…is he blind to the fact that you’ve the worst reputation as a rake in the city?” Sean asked.
Liam just laughed and supped his beer.
Sean Burke was a fair haired young man, and at twenty three a year older than his best friend Liam Donnellan. Unlike Liam, he wasn’t the eldest – or indeed, the only - son in the Burke family. Like the Donnellans, the Burkes were middle class, Sean’s father being a merchant specialising in tea and luxury goods for the Anglo-Irish community in Ireland. And it was rumoured that the Burkes were still not averse to the odd bit of smuggling to swell the coffers. Like Liam’s own grandfather, the Burkes had found it expedient to convert to Protestantism when the Cromwellians had overrun Ireland nearly a hundred years since, but unlike Thomas Donnellan, Sean’s father was a protestant in name only. The Burkes were proud of their Galway Tribe heritage, being able to trace their lineage back to the Irish kings of the 12th Century.
Sean was one of five brothers and sisters. He had an open, friendly face with twinkling blue eyes - when they weren’t bloodshot through drink. He and Liam had been friends since schooldays, attracted to each other’s recklessness and desire for adventure. As the years passed, Sean had found himself more of a follower than the leader. Liam had matured into a strapping, powerful young man, topping Sean by over a head in height, and with the kind of good looks that seemed to send the women foolish with desire. Still, he didn’t envy Liam too much. At least Sean’s father was tolerant of his wild son’s excesses – even amused by them – whereas Liam was forever being berated and criticised by his own father, and forced to work in the family business to boot. And as far as the women were concerned….well Sean was great at offering comfort to the girls who had been cast off by his handsome, feckless friend.
He watched as Kitty sashayed over to their table, holding another jug of foaming ale. She plonked it firmly on the table and squealed as Liam pulled her into his lap.
“Don’t think ye’ll get around me that way – yer payin’ for that jug, make no mistake about that” she said, slapping playfully at Liam’s wandering hands.
“Ah, Kitty. Don’t be breakin’ me heart with that cruel talk, ye know I just want to taste your sweet lips” Liam’s hand sliding under her skirts left Sean in no doubt which lips Liam was talking about. Kitty squeaked again, but her eyes were heavy with arousal, and Sean chuckled as he realised that once again Liam wouldn’t be having to pay for beer – or anything else – that evening. The girl wriggled off Liam’s knee, planting a kiss on his mouth as she did so.
“Ye’ll be here all evenin’ then?” she asked, nodding at the beckoning of one of her other customers.
“Sure – why would I want to leave you, now?” Liam sent Kitty on her way with a slap on her rump.
Sean leant back in his chair, looking at Liam with undisguised admiration. Liam grinned back and filled both of their tankards with the fresh jug of beer. “Stick with me, Sean, we’ll be drunk as lords and it’ll not cost us a penny.” He leant forward over the table. “In the meanwhile – let’s talk about steeplechasing”.
It was after nine in the morning when Liam finally arrived back at his home. Bleary eyed and picking hay out of his uncombed hair, Liam looked very much the worse for wear. True to his word, he and Sean, and some other young fellows who’d joined them during the evening, hadn’t had to pay for the beer which flowed freely and they’d got roaring drunk. He’d spent the rest of the night in a hayloft with the all too willing Kitty, and was sporting her nail marks all down his back as a testament to his success with the girl.
Now he was hungover and sore, and not in the best of tempers. Fortunately his father had already left for the warehouse, and although Liam knew he’d have to suffer his father’s anger later, he wanted to put it off for as long as he could. He crept into the house via the scullery, hoping to take a kettle of hot water up with him to his room so that he could get the worst of the dust and dried sweat off his body before changing his clothes. But his luck was out. The kettle was cold, and his mother was in the kitchen giving the maidservant the shopping list to pass to the grocer and the butcher when they called.
“Liam? Is that you, lad?”
Liam sighed and went into the kitchen. “Mornin’ mother. Is there any tea?”
Agnes Donnellan looked despondently at her dishevelled son.
“I’ll get Maria to put the kettle back on. If you’d been here two hours since you could’ve had both tea and breakfast. I suppose there’s no askin’ you where you spent last night?”
Liam merely grunted and sat himself down at the scrubbed kitchen table.
Agnes regarded Liam for a moment, and then sat down opposite him. “Lad, why do ye seem as if ye’re courtin’ trouble with yer da all the time? He only wants what’s best for ye. He was bitter ashamed yesterday afternoon when the Brownes came calling and you were nowhere to be found. And ye’ve made things worse for yerself by not coming home at all last night, ye do know that, don’t ye, son?” She reached out and laid her small hand over one of Liam’s large ones.
Liam clenched his fist and drew it away from his mother’s touch. “But that’s the trouble, Ma. He’s so set on doing what he thinks is best for me, that it doesn’t matter a whit what I might want.”
“Liam, love, what do ye want?”
“I know what I don’t want, that’s for sure. I don’t want to spend the rest of me life rotting in that blasted warehouse. An’ I don’t want to be married off to some ugly shrew just so he can build up the bloody business even more.”
Agnes flinched at Liam’s coarseness, and shook her head at him. “That kind of language isn’t helpin’ ye, son. You and yer father, yer like bulls butting heads. Can’t ye try to understand his point of view a bit more? I worry about ye, Liam. Look at ye, worse from the drink nearly every night, covered in bruises more often than not. And the company ye keep….ye have to admit their reputations don’t reflect well on them – or you. Ye’ve not learned that sort of behaviour in this house, for sure.” Indeed, Agnes was at a loss to understand why her son had turned out so wild and reckless. She herself was the daughter of a desperately respectable Anglo-Irish protestant family who had come over to Ireland in the last century. Liam’s own father and grandfather had both been hard working men, anxious to better themselves and make a respectable name for their family in what passed for Galway society. However, Agnes had heard stories about the Donnellans, and suspected that a little further back in the family’s Celtic history there had been less respectability and more heathenness than Liam’s own father was ever prepared to acknowledge. Perhaps Liam was a throwback to those wild tribal creatures. She hoped not, for all their sakes.
The kettle started to bubble and spit on the range. Maria wrapped a cloth around the handle and poured some of the water into the teapot.
Agnes stood up. “Go on with ye, Liam, take the water and make yerself look a bit more decent. I’ll bring a cup of tea up to ye once it’s brewed.”
Liam pulled himself to his feet and went up the stairs without another word.
Half an hour later he was washed, changed and on his way to the warehouse. Squaring his broad shoulders, Liam stuck his hands in his coat pockets and walked – head down – straight to his desk, hoping that his father was in the main warehouse or talking to a customer. Once again luck was against him.
“Liam! Get in here. Ye’ve some explainin’ to do.” Thomas had promised himself that he wasn’t going to lose his temper this time, but the sight of Liam - nearly two hours later than he should have been, and without a word of apology – made his blood pressure rise despite his best intentions.
Liam came into his father’s office, face set, brows lowered.
“What do ye think yer playin’ at? Do ye set out to let this family down? If ye do, then I have to tell ye, yer doing a grand job of it. Yer a disgrace to yer mother and me. An utter disgrace. I suppose ye were out drinking and whorin’ with those ruffians ye call your friends. I’ve a mind to take a belt to ye, so I have!” Thomas was breathing hard now, face red and angry.
Liam kept up his stubborn silence, knowing that arguing with his father got him nowhere, but feeling his own rash temper bubbling just under the surface.
“Well, if ye think that yer going up to O’Hara’s again this season, ye’ve another think comin’. Ye’ve spent altogether far too much time with that scallawag, and mixing with those heathen Blazers hasn’t helped neither. From now on ye’ll stay away from that yard and forget hunting completely. Ye’ll put the hours in here that ye should, be around to be polite when we have visitors, and come to church with the rest of yer family every week instead of once in a blue moon. I realise now that I’ve been altogether too lax with you.”
Dark eyes flashing, Liam faced up to his father.
“An’ just how do ye think ye’ll make me, father?” he bit out. “It may have escaped yer notice, but I’m not a bairn any longer. Ye can’t make me stay in me room, and I’ll surely not stand quiet while ye take a strap to me. I’ve no wish to disrespect ye, but ye’ll not stop me having a life of me own.”
Thomas banged his fist down on his desk. “A life of yer own? What, to waste in drink or gaming, or getting the pox from one of those slatterns at the tavern? Or perhaps ye’ll do it quick and break yer sorry neck riding one of O’Hara’s half wild nags.”
“Aye, perhaps I will. At least it’ll be better than spendin’ the rest of me life in this godforsaken warehouse.” Liam was now shouting as loudly as his father.
“It’s to this godforsaken warehouse that ye owe the fact that yer not a starvin’ peasant eatin’ potatoes and not much else. Get out of me sight before ye make me do something I’ll regret.”
“Don’t ye fret, I’m going. I’ve had enough of yer preaching to last me a lifetime.” Liam slammed out of the office. Thomas slumped down in his chair and rested his head in his hands.
The thunder of hooves on the old turf was echoed by the beating of Liam’s heart as the chestnut gelding took a hold and stretched out into a pounding gallop. Hounds were singing and streaming away across the grass, with the field following close behind. They’d already had one sharp run and were now on the scent of a second fox, and the chestnut had so far shown no inclination to do anything other than get to the front of the field and leap everything put in front of him. Liam let the young horse have its head, and let out a whoop of sheer joy as they cleared a stone wall with feet to spare.
O’Hara had taken one look at Liam’s thunderous expression as he cantered into the yard, and had slapped a saddle and bridle on the chestnut’s back almost before Liam had jumped off his own horse and come into the stables.
“Here. If yer quick ye’ll catch the Blazers. They passed here not five minutes since headin’ in the direction of Collins’ Wood. I expect they’ll be drawing Lakely copse right about now. This ‘un needs the run. Let’s hope he’s forgotten the fun and games he had with Denis.”
Liam’s face brightened. “Thanks Mr. O’Hara, this is just what the doctor ordered.”
“Yes, well off with ye, lad.” O’Hara watched as Liam vaulted into the saddle and not giving the chestnut time to think about mischief, he’d spurred the horse into a canter and was off down the lane after the hunt.
Liam had caught up with the Blazers, who were exactly where O’Hara had said they’d be, and was just in time to see hounds begin to run fast and silently from the other side of the copse. There was a blast on the horn and the field set off behind them. The chestnut, seeing the hounds threw a brace of bucks, neither of which unsettled Liam one iota, and then took an enthusiastic hold of the bridle as they joined the field in the chase. The first fence was a briary wall with a heavy drop into a lane so narrow that each horse had to turn at right angles as it landed. It was a tricky fence that would catch out a novice horse or rider, but Liam steadied the chestnut, giving it a chance to balance itself properly before making the jump. Liam leant his whole weight right back as they dropped into the lane, and was turning his body left even before the chestnut’s hind feet had touched the ground. The young horse pecked slightly as he landed, but recovered himself swiftly and was off up the lane after the other horses as though he’d been doing this sort of thing all his life. Liam gave the horse’s neck a quick pat. “Clever lad, keep on with that and we’ll have a grand day”. The chestnut snorted and tossed his head as if in agreement, and then they were scrambling out of the lane over a pile of stones and furze bushes and galloping towards a tall, stone-faced bank. The Blazers were riding with the recklessness for which they were famed, and the leading half-dozen charged the obstacle at steeplechase speed. Tempted as Liam was to follow their lead, he wanted to give the chestnut the best chance of success, so once again he quietly checked the horse slightly, allowing the youngster to collect himself before tucking his hindquarters well underneath him and powering up to the top of the bank. Not giving the horse time to hesitate on the top, Liam kicked on, leaning well back once more, and horse and rider plunged off the other side, landing well out and away from the ditch that yawned at the bottom of the far side of the bank. But it appeared that hounds could do no more with the line they were hunting. The field gathered together as the hounds were whipped in, and then they began to jog towards the next covert.
“That the horse that nearly killed young Denis last week?” A ruddy faced landowner nodded at Liam’s chestnut. “Bloody liability. Trod on a hound as well. Looks more mannerly with you, young man.”
Liam grinned at the compliment. “Aye. The trick is to make them think that work is a pleasure rather than a duty. As often as not they’ll go kinder as a result. A bit like women, really.”
The landowner laughed and handed Liam a hipflask. “A bit like all of us, in fact. Are ye entering any of the steeplechases this season, then?”
“Hopin’ so, if we can find the right horse. No point runnin’ if yer not in with a shout.”
“That’s true. Ah, looks like they’ve found again.”
The rest of the morning passed in a blur of fences, ditches, banks, and bursts of galloping all interspersed with moments of socialising or watching hounds working. Liam could have gone on all day, but was conscious that the chestnut was beginning to tire, and he had no second horse. Reluctantly he said good afternoon to the Master, tipped the huntsman and left the field.
He took his tired horse quietly along the lanes back to O’Hara’s yard, sliding off about a mile out to loosen the girths and slinging the reins over the animals’ head to walk alongside it the remaining distance back to the stables.
O’Hara was strapping a big grey hireling in the yard as Liam arrived back. One glance at the young man’s mud streaked and happy face told O’Hara that Liam’s black mood had disappeared completely.
“Went well, then?”
“This is a good ‘un, make no mistake. Honest as the day is long, and bold as ye like. Mind, I’m not sure he’ll suffer fools gladly. Might be better to sell him on to a private home rather than risk him as a hireling.”
O’Hara nodded. Liam might be a young tearaway, but O’Hara respected his judgement when it came to horses. “Aye well, a couple more outings, and likely we’ll sell him in the field. We’ll put it out that it’s your horse. Might even make a couple of pounds.” He pointed in the direction of the shippen. “Denis is mucking out. Get him to rub the horse down. I’ve a horse in that might do us for the steeplechase.”
Liam handed over the chestnut to Denis, and quickly followed O’Hara round the back of the shippen to the small paddock where new arrivals were put to settle in. He gave a low whistle of appreciation as he saw the new horse for the first time.
It was a good looking black gelding, with plenty of blood in its breeding and a fine head, marred only by a mean look in its eye. As it saw the two men approaching, it laid its ears flat back and gave a threatening shake of its head.
“This is a bit out of the ordinary run for us.” Liam said, head cocked to one side, studying the animal. “Where’s it come from?”
O’Hara tapped the side of his nose. “Found it in a field…a wanderin’. Shouldn’t think it’s owner cares what’s become of it”. Liam chuckled. “Oh, Aye…wanderin’”. Occasionally O’Hara took possession of horses in a less than legal way, and they were quickly sold on and out of the county.
“It looks a bit too well bred for someone not to miss it. Why was it turned out? What’s the matter with it?” Horses like this one usually belonged to the gentry, and were kept stabled and not in the field.
“It’s a bastard, is what’s the matter with it.” O’Hara told him, leaning on the paddock fence and lighting his stinking pipe. “Story is it half – killed its owner’s son. It dropped his rider on the floor, and then clog danced on him. The only reason it didn’t get a ball between the eyes then and there was the owner had paid a pretty penny for it. He turned it away some months since, and daresay has completely forgotten about it. I’ve since heard that it’s not the first time it’s tried something similar. But it’s virtually full blood and can lep like a stag.”
“Jaysus, and here I was thinkin’ ye liked me.”
O’Hara grunted. “S’up to ye, lad. But I reckon that black bastard could be our best chance of takin’ the steeplechase pot, if ye can get a tune out of it.”
Liam blew out his cheeks, considering. “Aye well, at least me Da will have the satisfaction of bein’ proved right if I break me neck on the thing. If yer sure we won’t be caught racing a stolen nag, then we’ll give it a go.”
O’Hara chuckled and slapped Liam on the back. “Good lad. We’ll leave him te settle for a day or so, then slap a saddle on him and see what happens. Come on into the house, the wife’s brewed up, and ye must be ready for some tea, and something with a bit of a nip to it to chase it down.”
With one last glance at the black horse, Liam followed O’Hara into the house.
Life in the Donnellan household had settled back into a state of uneasy truce after the latest row between father and son. Agnes, ever the peacemaker, had persuaded Thomas that letting things lie for a bit might be the wisest thing to do, and had cajoled her son into turning up at the warehouse for work as normal the following day. Both men avoided each other as best they could, nodding awkwardly at each other if they happened to meet on the stairs or anywhere else. But there was a simmering atmosphere of bottled up anger the whole time, which was more than wearing for all members of the family, especially for the mother and daughter.
Kathy was in the sewing room with her mother. Both Liam and her father were at the warehouse, and the girl was enjoying the lighter mood in the house now that the two men were gone from it for the day. She was deftly hemming a tablecloth prior to embroidering it. Agnes was repairing yet another rent in one of Liam’s linen shirts. The girl paused in her work and looked up at her mother.
“Ma, did Liam and Da ever get on?”
Agnes frowned, but continued stitching as she thought about Kathy’s question. “Eh, lass. There’s a question. They seem have been at each other’s throats since the beginning of time. I’ll confess that even as a wee lad yer brother was a handful. Not a bad boy, but always wanting to be off somewhere he shouldn’t, or idling the day away drawing when he should have been at his letters.”
Kathy smiled. “He’s a good artist, though isn’t he Ma? I’ve lots of his drawings and sketches that he’s done fer me. Some of the people and animals look like they’ll jump right out of the paper at ye.”
“He is that.” Agnes smiled fondly down at her daughter. Kathy was sweet natured and biddable, so different from her elder brother. But Agnes also knew that Liam loved his baby sister, and showed a patience and good temper when he was around her, that was so often missing in his dealings with others. She sighed a little. “Unfortunately, those drawings don’t put bread on the table, an’ it drives yer Da wild to see him wastin’ time sketching when he should be doing something more productive.”
“I wish they wouldn’t fight so much. It’s like neither of them speak the same language, and can’t understand what the other’s trying to say to them.”
Agnes was slightly shocked at her daughter’s perceptive comment. Kathy had hit the nail on the head, that was exactly how it seemed between father and son. But there seemed no way of bridging this language gap, and Agnes often feared for her son’s future. She fully expected that one day a line would be crossed – one too many bridges burned – and Liam would either be thrown out of the house, or would storm out never to return. It had nearly happened just over a year ago when that poor girl had arrived at the door, begging to see Liam. Agnes had never seen Thomas so angry, so much so that he had taken his strap to Liam, something that had not happened since Liam had got taller than his father. Liam had disappeared for over a week after that, leaving Thomas to sort out the mess he’d left behind. Somehow things had been patched up enough to let Liam return, but Agnes wasn’t stupid. She’d heard some of the gossip that surrounded her son, could see for herself that he drank too much, fought too much and no doubt gambled and flirted too much as well. But there didn’t seem any way to persuade Liam to mend his ways before it was too late. She became aware that she had stopped sewing and was staring into space. Giving herself a little shake, Agnes smiled again at her daughter and returned to her work.
“Don’t worry, love. I’m sure it’ll all work out in the end” she said reassuringly to Kathy, who smiled back and continued to hem.
“You bloody sod, ye can stop that before ye start.” Liam slapped the black horse’s nose as it snaked its head round to take a crafty nip at him as Liam put the saddle on its back. The gelding flung its head away and stamped bad temperedly. Liam finished girthing the animal up and stood back a moment regarding it.
“Yer a mean one, that’s for certain. Wonder who soured you up so badly to get you hatin’ the world so much, then? Well, this is your last chance. Rip me up and it’s a hound’s breakfast ye’ll be.”
Liam led the horse out of the stable and motioned to Denis to come and hold the animal’s head while he vaulted onto its back. The horse stood quietly enough, and didn’t bat an ear as Liam asked it to walk into the big schooling paddock. O’Hara was waiting by the gate, and shut it after Liam, sucking on his foul pipe as he watched the young man getting the feel for the horse as it ambled around the paddock.
Everything seemed to be going well until Liam squeezed the horse’s sides asking it to trot. Instead of going forward, the animal’s head came right up, its back hollowing away from under its rider. Ears flat back and with the whites of its eyes showing, the horse backed off from the bridle and gave a half-rear. Liam squeezed a little harder and the black horse went straight up in the air, forcing Liam to throw his arms around its neck to stay on. This was a game that the horse had played many times before, and if expecting to be spurred and whipped it plunged forward, unleashing a series of violent –head between the knees – bucks. Liam sat the first four or five, but as the gelding added a lethal twist to its bucking he became unseated and the seventh huge buck saw him cartwheeling through the air to land heavily by the fence. In the blink of an eye, the horse had turned, and spying its fallen rider made straight for him as though to trample him. Liam rolled under the fence in the nick of time just before the horse got to him.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph that was close”. Liam got to his feet, brushing off the dust and soil as best he could.
“Aye. Want to try again?” O’Hara looked at the horse, which was now standing, reins hanging by its front feet at the other side of the paddock. Liam nodded grimly in reply and crawled through the fence to retrieve the horse. It allowed itself to be caught easily enough, but the flat back ears and tail swishing told Liam that the horse was well up to another fight with him. Liam led it back over to where O’Hara was waiting.
“I think I can look forward to more of the same if we go again the same way. This one’s got too much blood in it to give in, it’ll kill itself or me before that happens. We’ll have to have a think about it.”
O’Hara nodded in agreement. Sometimes a horse could be bullied into behaving, but blood horses like this one were a different proposition altogether. Liam thought for a moment.
“Tell ye what. Leave me to have a play with him for a bit. Let’s see if we can get inside that murderous noddle of his. I’ll take him into the breaking pen for a wee chat.” The breaking pen was a small round paddock with high fences to discourage horses from jumping out. It would give Liam the chance to get closer to the black gelding, but at the same time, if something went wrong, he’d have a harder time escaping flying hooves and snapping teeth.
As Liam shut himself and the horse into the pen, O’Hara turned back to the stables. “Give us a shout if ye need some help, then, won’t ye.”
Liam ran the stirrups up, and turned the leathers over and through the irons to secure them in place. Then he knotted the reins firmly so that they wouldn’t flop around and come over the horse’s head again. Then, to the horse’s evident surprise, Liam turned it loose in the paddock. For a second the animal looked at the young man, and then trotted away, but the shape of the school forced him to trot around in a big circle. Liam stayed in the centre of the paddock, keeping a wary eye on the horse, but not looking directly at it. He waited until the horse slowed to a walk, and then stepping towards the horse he looked hard into its eye and made it trot on once more. This game went on for nearly half an hour – Liam sending the horse on each time it slowed – until the horse started to drop its fine head and bend its inside ear towards where Liam was standing. Its big, pink tongue slurped out of the side of its mouth and it chewed on its bit. Liam turned his own body so that he was standing shoulder on to the horse instead of facing it. Seeing the man’s posture change to a more relaxed, non-threatening one, the gelding slowed once more, and turned in from the circle, approaching Liam slowly, licking and chewing all the while. Liam waited until the horse’s head was nearly on his shoulder, and then he slowly walked away from the horse, which followed him. They walked around the schooling paddock like this, horse following man for a few minutes, until Liam stopped and gently stretched out his hand to scratch the horse just in front of its wither.
“There lad” Liam crooned “We just have to get to understand each other a bit more, don’t we? Ye’ve to learn that life can be fun with the right attitude, eh?” He slowly ran the stirrups back down the leathers and unknotted the reins, murmuring sweet nothings at the horse all the while.
“Now, I’m just going to jump up again for a little sit.” Liam vaulted lightly back into the saddle. The horse started forward, but Liam didn’t pick up the reins or clamp his legs to the horse’s sides. He just sat quietly, and even though it felt as though the blood animal might explode into another flurry of bucks, Liam stayed loose and relaxed as he could, and the horse gradually relaxed too. Liam let the horse wander about the paddock until he could feel the back muscles swinging under his seat. Then he just imagined how it would feel if the horse was trotting forward underneath him. Liam pictured the raking stride, and the powerful rhythm of the horse’s trot, and how good that would feel. The gelding started to trot. Reins still loose, Liam kept his seat light and balanced, and just let the horse enjoy the sensation of moving forward freely with a rider on his back. After a few minutes the horse came back to a walk, and Liam leant forward and gave its neck another scratch. “There now, that wasn’t so bad, was it? That’ll do for today, yer a good lad really, aren’t ye.” He slid off and led the horse out of the paddock and back to the stables.
Over the next couple of weeks Liam and the black horse got to know each other much better. The going wasn’t always smooth, and Liam came home most days sporting new bruises and scuffs from where he had been dropped on the ground by the gelding. But there was never a moment when he felt that it was time to give up on the high tempered animal.
The day came when Liam was quietly schooling the horse in one of the big fields, when he heard the sound of the hunting horn drifting towards him on the wind. The gelding’s head came up – ears straining forward – and Liam caught a glimpse of half a dozen couple of hounds streaming up the hill over to their left. The black horse snorted and whinneyed excitedly.
“Aye. It’s about time we saw what ye’re really made of, isn’t it lad.” Turning the horse, Liam cantered it straight at the five barred gate leading out of the field and towards the hunt. With a neat jump, the gelding popped the gate as though it were a two foot pole and with a flick of its tail galloped to join the rest of the field.
Liam couldn’t restrain a whoop as the horse lengthened its stride. He’d never sat on anything with this sort of class, and the sheer power of the animal made him feel quite drunk with excitement. In what seemed no time they were with the field, and hot on the heels of the pack which was setting a scorching pace across the old turf. What followed was a very fast fifteen minutes; but time seemed to stand still for Liam as the empty fields rushed past. Fences came and went in a flash, while the wind sang in his ears, and the dazzle of the low autumn sun was in his eyes. The hounds came and went from view, sometimes pouring over a green bank, sometimes driving across a field, and soon there were only hounds and the huntsman in front of Liam and his horse.
Liam found himself coming hard and steady at a stone-faced bank with broken ground in front of it. The black horse shortened his stride and standing well away from the jump he rose like a stag out of the tussocky ground. It was only as horse and rider were in the air that the obstacle revealed itself as consisting of not one bank but two, with a deep grassy lane between each bank. The gelding seemed to only touch the top of the first bank before he had sailed over the lane in a towering flight to land as if on springs still on a downhill slope. Gasping for air, Liam galloped on, to pull up a couple of minutes later as the hounds gave the fox best. He patted and slapped the sweating neck of the black gelding. “What a horse! What a horse!”
The field master came up to stand alongside him. “Aye, Master Donnellan, that’s a fine big-jumped horse ye have there. I thought ye were a dead man when ye faced him at that bohereen”
Liam laughed, a little embarrassed. “I’ll not lie – it were a bit of a facer for me too. I confess that I’d completely forgotten where I was and what that bank was like. I’m not so sure I’d have attempted it otherwise!”
“Well, I admire yer honesty. Will ye be enterin’ him for one of the bettin’ steeplechases then?”. Liam patted the horse again. “Aye, we’ll be up fer the run, that’s for sure.”
“Ye’d better let me have his name, so I’ll be sure to put a small wager on his head.”
Liam frowned. He didn’t know the gelding’s name, and couldn’t have revealed it even if he had, as the horse was stolen. At that moment another of the field trotted up to congratulate Liam. “Boy, ye ride like the very devil himself, and though that horse is as black as the pit, he looks like an angel to ride across country”.
Liam’s face split into a wide grin. “Aye, an’ he is that. So if ye want to wager on us – his name’s The Angel.”
“Don’t be makin’ any plans fer next Saturday, lad. Mr and Mrs Browne have invited us to join them at the annual fair at Caldragh, and ye’ll be squiring Sally fer the afternoon.”
Liam stared at his father in horror. Next Saturday, the 21st September – Caldragh Fair. And the steeplechase that he was entered for.
“But…ye never go to Caldragh Fair. Ye always say its full of drunks and heathens – no place for a respectable family….”
“Aye. Well as much as I think that, Mr Browne has other views on the subject. They go every year it seems. Anyway, it would’ve been rude of me te refuse him. So we’re goin. As a family, ye hear me?”
Liam nodded mutely his mind racing. It was too late for him to cry off now – even if he’d a mind to, which he certainly hadn’t – the betting had already started in earnest, and O’Hara had placed a month’s income on Liam’s back. Liam’s drinking pals, including Sean Burke had also scraped up enough cash between them to place a sizeable wager on Liam and The Angel to win.
As soon as he was able, Liam escaped from the warehouse and went to the tavern, hoping that Sean would be able to come up with a solution.
Sean was already quaffing down his first tankard of ale as Liam appeared, looking hot and bothered in the doorway. He motioned to Kitty to bring over another tankard and to refill the jug. There was no bright smile from the girl this time, so Sean guessed that Liam had tired of the wench and thrown her over. That was a bind, he’d enjoyed the free drinking while it had lasted.
“Eh, and you’re looking all over a tizz, Liam. What’s up?”
“Me blasted father and those cursed Brownes. They’ve only invited us all te the fair next week – and I’m supposed to be squiring that pig faced daughter of theirs all afternoon.”
Sean looked confused. “But you’re in the steeplechase…”
Liam banged his fist on the table. “I know. And how am I going to be in two places at once? Even if I could slip off, me father will flay the skin off of me back if he finds I’m riding in a wagered steeplechase. Jesus – can you imagine his face if he sees me riding The Angel…in front of his posh friends an’ all. He’ll have a seizure on the spot”. Liam ran his fingers through his already untidy mop of dark hair, loosening the ribbon that held it in its ponytail even further.
Sean shrugged and took another pull at his beer. “I can’t see why yer so bothered. Ye hate the sight of Sally Browne in any case, so if ye leave her on her ownsome it’s nothing to ye. And I’ve never known ye to be worried about what yer father thinks of ye in any case.”
Liam paused as he digested his friend’s comments. Sean was right, why was he so bothered if his family saw him racing? It wasn’t as though they were in a position to do anything about it.
“I suppose it’s just that I know there will be another unholy row about the whole thing, and the last time I thought I might actually clout him, he got me so riled up. This might end up bein’ the final straw.”
“Ah, ye’ll win it by a furlong. He’ll be too proud o’ ye to make a fuss.”
Liam doubted it.
It had taken ten minutes to work the outside car over the bridge at Caldragh, so dense was the crowd of people and carts. It was an unseasonably warm day for the time of year, and the taverns were full to overflowing with the flotsam and jetsam that any event like this one always attracted. Gypsies and tinkers, peasants and drunkards all milled around aimlessly, getting in the way and being roundly cursed by the drivers of the more respectable people who had come for a day out.
Liam sat squashed next to Sally Browne, who giggled and tittered at the slightest thing, fanning herself in a manner that she thought coquettish, but which he thought inane in the extreme. Mrs Browne, Agnes and Kathy sat opposite, with Mr Browne holding the reins and Liam’s father sitting next to him. He tried to ignore the shouts of greeting that were flung at him from every side, hoping that his parents had missed the fact that their son was so very well known by these ruffians and scallawags.
“Hey Liam – savin’ yer energy are ye?” a voice called out from the crowd.
Sally peered around to see who had shouted out. “Why, Master Liam, there’s a powerful lot of people seem to know ye.”
Liam just grunted in reply, wondering how soon he would be able to slip away to help O’Hara ready The Angel.
Finally they arrived to a spot where - by an unspoken understanding – all the traders and merchants families had gathered. Here the atmosphere was rather more genteel, although many of the husbands and fathers had gone to place their wagers down amongst the rabble. Liam handed Sally down to the ground, and before he could move away, she had linked her arm firmly through his.
“Isn’t this a grand spectacle, then. All those brave horses and riders – so exciting.” Sally beamed up at Liam.
“Sally, dear, yer an incurable romantic” Mr Browne said. “There’s nothin’ brave about them – a load of vagabonds and ruffians – even the wealthy ones. Still, if they want to risk their stupid necks, I suppose it’s up to them. The world certainly wouldn’t miss most of them. Beggin’ yer pardon, Madam”. This last was hurriedly addressed to Agnes, who briefly wondered why Mr Browne should feel the need to apologise to her, until her eyes were drawn to her son. She flushed as she realised Mr Browne classed Liam amongst those self same vagabonds and ruffians.
On the pretext of going to get the ladies some refreshments, Liam made his escape as soon as he could. Being a good bit taller than most of the people around him, Liam was quickly able to spot O’Hara talking to Sean, and waving, he made his way over to them through the press of people.
“Hello Liam, I thought we’d lost ye for sure.” Sean joked, slapping his friend on the back. O’Hara just stood to one side smoking his pipe.
“Well, I’m here now. What’s the crack?”
O’Hara answered. “Bettin’s heavy. There’s a keen field forward for the steeplechase, and the prizewinner’s pot looks to be a good ‘un.”
“Aye” Sean agreed “but ye’ve some stiff competition, lad. There’s at least three toffs over from England that rumour has it are hard men to hounds and fast as the wind over fences.”
Liam frowned. “There’s most of the thrusters from the Blazers, as well as half a dozen other hunts from around the country too. It could be a right shove and push.”
“There’s nothing to touch The Angel when he’s on song. Just ye make sure ye stay out of the worst of the mess ups.” O’Hara said firmly. “Now get on with ye. Denis has hold of yer horse, ye’ll be wantin’ to warm him up.”
The wagered steeplechase differed from the usual ‘chases that usually happened after the end of a day’s hunting, where young bloods pitted themselves and their horses in a gallop from one village steeple to the next. These races were purely for fun, with no formal betting. The Caldragh Fair steeplechase, and others like it, were more organised affairs, with serious money bet on the horses and jockeys. The race was still across natural country with the line taken from Caldragh village steeple to the neighbouring church steeple of Castle Blakeney, about two miles as the crow flew. To make it interesting for the spectators, the steeplechase didn’t end there, but the riders had to go around the back of the Castle Blakeney church and gallop back the way they had come, finishing back at the start point in Caldragh.
Over the last few years, steeplechasing had become an ever more popular form of racing, with hunters that had won a few races fetching high prices. It wasn’t without its risks, and every race saw plenty of falls and crashes, which all added to the excitement of the spectacle for the spectators.
The Angel was on his toes, the noise and bustle of the crowd upsetting him and making him fidget and sidle about. Denis held the horse too tight, making the animal even more tense. Liam took the bridle from the relieved boy and stroked the horse’s neck and shoulder.
“Steady, lad. Ye’ll need all your energy for the race – don’t be wastin’ it fretting now.” The black gelding nudged at Liam, rubbing his face up and down the young man’s sleeve as if to relieve an itch. He walked the horse around the collecting paddock, taking the opportunity to size up the competition. A flutter of apprehension made Liam feel slightly sick as he saw the gleaming, well muscled thoroughbred horses pacing around the paddock, most with smartly turned out grooms leading them from white cotton lead ropes. He felt shabby in comparison, and wished for a moment that O’Hara had plaited The Angel’s mane. Still, he wasn’t the only local riding, and he gave a nod of recognition as a fellow Blazer waved at him from on top of his own hunter.
“Ready to get up, then?” O’Hara had come along side and was tightening The Angel’s girth and giving the tack a last minute check.
“Aye. He’s settled a bit. Let’s hope he doesn’t decide to go up and back instead of forward.”
O’Hara handed Liam his hipflask, which was filled to the brim with poitin. “Here, ye’re as white as a ghost.”
Liam accepted the hipflask gratefully and took several large swigs. Grimacing, he handed it back to O’Hara, who took a swig himself before slipping the flask back into his pocket.
Liam vaulted up onto The Angel’s back and gathered up the reins. O’Hara let go of the horse’s bridle and moved away, watching carefully all the time, and ready to leap forward and grab the animal’s head if it showed signs of rearing. But The Angel seemed to sense that this was an occasion. He arched his glossy black neck and stepped out proudly. Liam felt a surge of pride. His confidence returned as he saw punters taking note of the number pinned to his saddlecloth, and consulting their formbooks. One well-dressed gentleman seemed to be taking a particular interest. Liam hoped his wallet was as well-filled as his waistcoat.
Then the steward was shouting at the riders to take up their starting places. There were at least forty horses and riders in the steeplechase, and all jostled and elbowed each other to try to get the best position. The flag came down and they were off.
“Tally Ho!” Someone shrieked as the field pounded over the first field at a gallop. The English Thoroughbreds led the field over the first meadows, with everyone else packed close behind, but a couple of banks checked them somewhat, giving the local riders a chance to catch up. Liam hung back a little, for he knew that steeplechasing in the style of old fashioned thrusters – going hell for leather at everything – was a quick road to a broken neck. He kept his eye on the ground, and watched how the leaders jumped and landed, and as a result reaped the benefit of their mistakes and discoveries without going first. The Angel rode a nice easy chase for the first mile or so, and then the field entered light woodland, with the trees well spaced out, and Liam touched his heels to The Angel’s sides and moved up.
There is a moment every jockey knows, when he feels his mount surge forward, and he lies with his head down being brushed by the mane, and sees the gap narrowing ahead of him, and knows he has the legs of the field. Liam felt it then as he thundered past the ruck, hearing the thud of the hooves and seeing the clods thrown up from the damp turf, feeling the wind in his face as the trees flew past; he heard the yelps of the riders as they cheered their mounts on, laughing and cursing. God, it felt good to be alive.
The racers thundered through the woodland like a charge of dragoons, and were soon out on a long, rising incline. The lighter riders held the lead to the crest, but as they came over and down it was the turn of the heavier men. Liam went past the thoroughbreds and pounded down to the hedgerow, launching The Angel at a small gap. Then it was on and away over hedges, lanes, ditches and fences until suddenly Castle Blakeney’s steeple came into sight.
Liam still had speed in hand; The Angel took a rail fence as though it were nothing; and then they were on pasture with only one hedge between them and the common that ran up to the churchyard. In what seemed a flash, Liam had rounded the back of the churchyard and was heading back the way he came. Heart pounding like a trip hammer, Liam glanced back and realised that the field had shrunk considerably, with only a dozen or so horses and riders still in the race. There were now only two horses in front of him, and both looked to be tiring.
“Go on, boy – let’s show them how a true Galway Blazer does it.”
He felt the black gelding lengthen his stride in response, and they started to gain relentlessly on the riders in front. One of the riders glanced back, and took a whip to his frothing mount, desperately urging a last link of speed from the beast, but the horse was blown and couldn’t give another ounce. Then Liam was past him and neck and neck with the final rider. Together they took the fences, stride for stride, jump for jump, but every time they landed, The Angel pulled away that little bit faster until Liam was leading by first a nose, then a neck and then a length. Back through the woodlands they went, weaving in and out of the trees, and then they were in the sunshine once more, with the Caldagh steeple in front of them and screaming crowds urging him on. With a wild yell of joy, Liam passed the finishing line, and The Angel, sides heaving, nostrils red as poppies dropped from a canter into a jog, and then to a walk. Liam was surrounded by people slapping The Angel’s sweat-drenched neck and heaving flanks, and reaching up to shake Liam’s hand and pound his thighs in congratulation. Liam leapt off his exhausted mount and threw his arms around the horse’s neck. “What a horse! Yer a wonder and no mistake.” Then Denis was taking The Angel’s reins from him, and Liam was swept off by the noisy, elated crowd to collect his prize money and the cup for the winner of the Caldargh Fair Steeplechase.
Liam was nearly out of breath with all the back slapping and congratulating of the happy punters that had bet on him and The Angel, and had accepted countless swigs of spirits on his way to the prize giving. His head was swimming with the noise and the sheer exultation of having won the race and he truly felt that this was the happiest day of his life.
But as he was swept into the prize-giving enclosure, it was clear that something other than his win had taken the attention of the Fair committee. Liam saw Sean Burke gesturing at him and mouthing something, but he couldn’t make out what his friend was trying to tell him. Then, with a sinking heart he saw his father looking both furious and embarrassed next to the table where the cup was perched – together with the prize money pot. Next to his father was the well-dressed gentleman that Liam had noticed in the collecting paddock, but now the man’s face was black with rage. O’Hara was nowhere to be seen.
Then Liam’s father caught sight of his son. With three long strides he had come up to Liam, and with all the strength that fury engendered, he struck Liam hard across the face. There was a collective ‘Aaaaah’ from the crowd, half horrified, half delighted at this turn of events.
“Ye scoundrel…not only do ye disobey me by taking part in a wagered race, but ye do it on a stolen horse!”
Liam had reeled back from the blow, and now rubbed at his cheek, desperately trying to think of a way out of this situation, and failing completely. Thomas gestured back at the angry gentleman who had been talking to him earlier. “This gentleman, Mr Hickey, is the owner of that horse ye’ve jest ridden half to death. He spotted ye in the collecting ring earlier, and came to look for those associated with the jockey – Liam Donnellan. Mr Browne heard about Mr Hickey’s enquiries and pointed him in my direction. God, Liam, ye’ve done some things te shame yer family, but I reckon ye’ve outdone yerself today. Mr Hickey’s called the parish constables – ye’ll be in gaol before ye know it.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Liam saw O’Hara elbowing his way through the crowd. He shook his head desperately to try to warn the horse coper, but O’Hara ignored him and marched up to The Angel’s true owner. Liam was surprised to see one of the Englishmen who had ridden in the race alongside him. There ensued a brief, urgent conversation between the three of them, with both Hickey and the English rider glancing over to him several times. At the same time as Hickey and the Englishman shook hands, the parish constables arrived. There was more pointing and gesticulating, with the crowd now including all members of the fair committee as well as the parish constables and half the spectators of the race, who were having a whale of a time at this unexpected turn of events.
Liam groaned as the crowd parted and the senior parish constable made his way over to where Liam and his father were standing.
“It appears that ye’ve been let off the hook, lad.” The constable nodded back towards Hickey, and the Englishman. “ Mr Hickey’s agreed not to have ye arrested for stealin’ his horse after all. It seems that the young English gentleman was fully expectin’ to win the race, and was so impressed with Mr Hickey’s horse, that he’s offered a fine sum for it to take back and race in England. The Fair committee have suggested to Mr Hickey that he takes the prize money for the race – which is a fair old sum as the bettin’ was heavy – as his own. O’Hara is to be made te give up all his winnin’s too, including his stake, and in return Mr Hickey won’t press charges.” The parish constable turned to Liam’s father. “Mr Donnellan, sir. Mr Hickey knows yer right shocked and ashamed of yer son’s actions – and knows yer a decent man. He’s happy fer you to stand bail fer young Liam here, on the understanding that he mends his ways.” The constable paused a moment. “It’s me own opinion, Mr Donnellan, that ye’d be wise to discourage yer son from spending’ time with O’Hara and his like.”
Liam opened his mouth to protest, but the constable fixed him with a steely glare. “I’d watch what ye were going to say, lad. Ye do know that if it were proved that ye’d known the horse were stolen, that as like as not ye could be transported – or at the very best get a public whippin’. I think Mr Hickey has been more than generous to ye and O’Hara.” He doffed his hat to Thomas. “I’ll bid ye good day, Sir”.
Liam was finally alone in his room. All the way back home, he had had to listen to the sobbing of his mother and his sister, and endure the embarrassed silence and averted gazes of the Browne family. His father had ignored him, sitting ramrod straight, every fibre of his body radiating anger and shame.
Liam himself had seethed with a cocktail of emotions. He felt keenly that he had been untreated unfairly. The Angel had been an unrideable brute, turned out to rot in the pasture. He’d turned the horse into a fine race winner, and Hickey had reaped all the reward, prize money, his and O’Hara’s winnings and the staggering sum of £30 from the sale of the gelding to the Englishman. Hickey had every reason to feel generous. At the same time, he knew that he’d escaped severe punishment. The parish constable hadn’t been exaggerating when he had told Liam that he could have been flogged and transported if the magistrates had decided that he knew the horse had been stolen.
But his overriding sense was one of defeat. Liam knew that there would be no way he could return to O’Hara’s yard, and that one of his greatest pleasures was now forever lost to him. He sighed heavily and lay back on his bed, staring up at the cracked and stained ceiling.
Liam’s father hadn’t spoken one word to him since they’d arrived back at the family home, he hadn’t needed to – Liam could feel the disappointment and hurt coming from him as though they had been blows. This silence was in some ways worse than if his father had shouted and bawled at him, and as soon as he could Liam had slunk up the stairs to his bedroom.
There was a quiet knock at his door, and his mother came into the room, holding a cup of tea.
“Ye must have a thirst on ye, son. Ye’ve not had a chance to take refreshment all afternoon, I expect.”
Liam turned onto his side away from his mother.
Putting the cup down onto the small bedside table, Agnes came to sit on the edge of the narrow bed, and looked sadly down at her unhappy son.
“Liam, lad. What are we to do with ye? It’s like yer setting out to ruin yerself, and for the love of God I don’t understand why that should be.” She reached out and gently stroked his dark hair. “Eh, son. Ye’re a fine looking young man, with yer health and yer strength, and a family that loves ye…what are ye looking for that ye can’t find, love?”
And all of a sudden it was too much for Liam. He could resist blows and angry arguments, but his mother’s gentle touch and her soft, sad voice opened the floodgates of his pent up anger and despair. He gave a harsh sob and turned to bury his face in his mother’s skirts in a way that he hadn’t done since he was a boy.
Agnes said nothing, but stroked his hair and rocked him until the storm had passed, and her son was lying quiet once more. She bent over him and dropped a kiss on his head.
“Drink yer tea now, there’s a good lad. It’ll be getting cold. I’m going back downstairs – yer Da will be wanting some supper soon no doubt, and Kathy needs her hair combing out. Why don’t ye pull yer boots off and I’ll send Maria up with something for ye in a bit.” Liam heard the door open and close and the sound of his mother’s shoes tapping down the staircase.
He listened to the everyday household sounds. A door slamming, footsteps, low voices, the rattle of pots and pans. Then he remembered the wild excitement of the steeplechase – the power and speed of The Angel, the glorious leaps and jumps. The way his heart had pounded in his chest, and the sheer thrill of danger that left him gasping for breath. And he knew with a certainty, that whatever he was looking for – he would never find it in the life his family wanted him to live – and he was equally certain that he’d never be able to stop looking for it until he found it.
Or it found him.
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