This 220-page historical novel paints an intimate, compelling portrait of 1650s Irish slavery in the Caribbean, bringing to light a forgotten but pivotal period of history.
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It's May 1653. When fourteen-year-old Freddy O’Brennan trusts the wrong stranger on an empty beach in western Ireland, she inadvertently places herself in the crosshairs of Cromwell’s notorious Reign of Terror.
Freddy awakens in the cramped hold of a slave ship bound for Barbados. Ripped from her loved ones, she endures a gruesome voyage and a vile auction. Freddy, sold to the highest bidder, alone, and far from her beloved homeland, faces the brutal realities of life as a female Irish slave on a seventeenth century Barbados sugar plantation. Amidst the island's treacherous beauty, she must find a way to bear her cruel, drunken Master using her as a breeding slave and kitchen drudge.
Heartsick with yearning for her family and the farm life she knew, Freddy reaches deep inside herself for the strength she needs to protect her young spirit from being broken. As she struggles to survive rape, degradation, beatings, and the harrowing spectacle of her Irish countrymen being flogged and starved to death, the high-spirited Freddy risks severe punishment by sneaking food and medicine to the suffering field slaves. Eventually she braves more serious threats for the sake of loyal friendship and love.
Spirited Away – A Novel of the Stolen Irish is a 60,000-word historical novel that paints an intimate, compelling portrait of 1650s Irish slavery in the Caribbean.
Over the far rise they came at a full gallop, Freddy's black curls streaming behind her. She rode bareback, her wrinkled skirt tucked up between her legs and her hands resting on the horse's neck. Firewind, her handsome brown and white Gypsy Cob, flew along the hedgerow, his long white mane rippling. His leg feathers and silky tail floated in the spring air, as pure white as a morning mist. The powerful steed seemed to glide above the rolling green fields of County Kilkenny.
As she gripped Firewind with her knees and inhaled the scent of wet grass and new oak leaves, the sun went behind a cloud. The cream-colored flowers were thick on the blackthorn, among budding wild cherry bushes. Freddy's cheeks were rose-pink from the brisk wind. Suddenly a shiver ran through her. Mam had insisted she wear a dress this morning instead of the boys' clothes she preferred to wear for riding. Freddy was sure she'd have been warmer in Da's old breeches. It was time they headed homeward, though. The peat fire would warm her bones. Her mouth watered at the thought of Mam's fresh bread dipped into a steaming bowl of stew. After dinner she and Da would plant the barley. She loved working in the fields with her father.
Tall for thirteen, Freddy was bigger than her tiny mother. The girl was an exact reflection of her Da, Laurence O'Brennan. That's what Mam said. Not only did their eldest mirror his height and his wild black hair, she also had his wide green eyes, dark eyebrows, long nose, and – Mam liked to point out with a frown – his fiery temperament.
Across the verdant field she spotted a group of men walking down the lane. With a gasp, Freddy realized it was Da followed by four soldiers, their muskets pointed at his back. She pulled on Firewind's mane so he would stop. She would know Da's gait anywhere. That was him, all right, being marched away by military men. Cromwell's soldiers! She shivered again, this time with dread. Da had said they would not come until after harvest. The pungent sting of smoke hit her nostrils as she scanned the landscape. Beyond the row of distant trees, a column of ebony-colored smoke rose into the sky. The Kealy place!
The sun came back out. Freddy shaded her eyes and noticed a uniformed man standing with Mam in front of the cottage. Goose bumps ran up her arms.
"Run, Firewind!" Freddy kicked him lightly, and the strapping horse lurched into motion. They thundered down the hill and streaked across another field to the house. A thin curl of smoke floated lazily from one chimney. An English soldier towered over Mam, shaking his finger at her.
Freddy raced up to the yard. Three-year-old Cathleen and Ryanne, six, clung to their mother's legs, hiding in the folds of her patched work dress. Mam still held her broom with both hands, gripping it so hard her knuckles were as pale as her pinched face. Her hair was covered by her white work scarf. Eleven-year-old Aileen seemed frozen in place behind Mam. Standing there like that, she looked like a smaller version of Mam. Nessa was nowhere in sight. The military man leaned on his musket. His other hand rested on the handle of his sword, which hung in a scabbard from his belt.
In one swift motion, Freddy swung her leg over, yanked her skirt down, and jumped off Firewind. Leaving him to graze near the rock wall, she ran to Mam, who was backing away from the soldier. Freddy moved in front of her mother, breathing hard. She stared at the man.
"Where are they taking Da?" Freddy blurted, pointing to the lane.
"Hush!" Mam said, dropping the broom. She wrapped her arms around Freddy's waist from behind, holding her fast.
The soldier's face was shaded by a metal helmet, which sported a tall scarlet plume. He turned his head to the side and spit a tobacco-colored stream into the mud.
Mam tightened her hold on her daughter. "Let us not be keeping this soldier from his duties."
"I said hush now!"
Freddy could feel Mam trembling.
"Who might this one be?" The soldier removed his helmet and scratched his greasy-looking head.
"Our eldest." Mam leaned forward to press her cheek against Freddy's.
"And does your eldest have a name?" He put his helmet back on.
"Frederica," Mam replied in a tight voice.
He nodded and leaned in close, pointing his finger at them. Mam shrank away, pulling Freddy with her. “Ye’d best be gone when we return at dawn,” the soldier growled. He turned on his heel and marched off down the lane.
Firewind tossed his head and let out a sharp whinny.
Freddy exhaled and turned to face her mother. "Where are they taking Da?" she whispered, her voice catching in a sob.
"They said they'd spare us if he agreed to go fight in Spain, for the Crown." Mam covered her mouth, her blue eyes filling.
"But Da…" Freddy wilted.
"He goes for us, macushla," Mam said softly, easing her daughter's head onto her shoulder.
"Don't cry, Freddy!" Cathleen let go of Mam's legs and fiercely hugged her oldest sister's, then lifted her arms. Her face crumpled.
Freddy bent down to lift the wee one and hold her tight. "There, now, see? I'm all better." She balanced her on one hip and kissed her plump cheek. Rubbing the tip of her nose on Cathleen's, she ran her hand through the toddler's black curls, so very like her own.
Mam gazed toward the lane, wringing her hands. "The devil's plague on cursed Cromwell!" She hid her face in her hands and Freddy drew her into a one-armed embrace. Nine-year-old Nessa sprinted from the house and threw herself at Mam, sniffing. Aileen and Ryanne joined them in a huddle. Mam wrapped her arms around them all as best she could. The younger girls whimpered, and began wailing.
Mam shook herself, straightened her shoulders, and wiped at her eyes. "Come, my darlings, we must hurry. Those Englishmen will be back to do their worst. We must leave at once…"
"Where will we go?" Freddy asked breathlessly.
"Kate's. We're blessed to have her there, in the west. But first we must eat, quickly now, there is much to do…"
Aileen led the way inside, promising the younger girls slabs of warm bread with honey.
"Me, too!" Nessa whined, following them.
"Mmmm, it smells good," Freddy said, forcing herself to sound cheerful. "I am famished!" In truth, she was not sure she could eat. Her stomach felt strange. She cleared Mam's mending from the wooden table and placed it on a shelf in the dark corner. Two narrow, deep-silled windows provided shafts of sunlight that pierced the gloom. The white walls were plain, punctuated only by wooden shelves, a small cupboard, and Mam's rosary. Freddy glanced around the small room, wondering how much they could bring with them. Da had crafted the family's simple furnishings – two rocking chairs, the table, a straight-backed chair, and several stools. Freddy moved to the stone hearth. "Nessa, please bring the bowls."
Aileen quietly sliced the loaf of brown bread, piled thick slices on a plate, and carried it to the table. She slathered two slabs with honey and put them in front of Cathleen and Ryanne. Cathleen just sucked her thumb, her eyes huge. Ryanne picked hers up and took a small nibble. Freddy ladled mutton stew from the soot-blackened pot into wooden bowls, and Nessa carried them to the table.
Mam rushed in, carrying the wash. She put the basket on the dirt floor and took her wooden rosary from its peg. Closing her eyes, she kissed the crucifix and put the rosary over her head to wear like a necklace. "God and Jesus and Mary, keep us and guide us," she murmured, tucking the rosary inside her dress. She pulled off her work scarf and smoothed her brown hair back. Sitting in Da's place at the head of the table, she took Cathleen onto her lap and hugged Ryanne close. The others pulled their stools up.
"Let us say Grace and pray for Da's safety," Mam said. They all bowed their heads, folded their hands, and were silent. Mam was the first to pick up her spoon.
"Aunt Kate will be happy to see us," Aileen said, stirring her stew.
"She will, she will." Mam took a piece of bread from the plate. "Please pass the butter."
"We can help with her new babe," Freddy offered, noticing a deep crease between Mam's eyebrows.
"I'll help too!" Ryanne blurted.
Mam smiled at her. Her smile faded as she realized none of them had touched their food. "First, help by eating your dinner," she began. "Come, my girls, we must be strong for Da. He would tell you to eat as much as you can, for the journey."
"A journey to the west," Aileen said dreamily, dunking her bread into the steaming stew. "We'll pretend to be tinkers! We'll cook outdoors like them, and sleep under the stars!"
"I wanna be a tinker!" Cathleen hollered.
"Me too!" Ryanne put in, taking a big bite of bread.
"And me!" Nessa crowed.
"I'll ride Firewind alongside the cart," Freddy said, her mouth full of potato. "That way there'll be more room for the rest of you."
"Yes…" Mam chewed on the back of one knuckle as she fed Cathleen stew. "Right. Freddy, I'll need you to harness Big Blue to the cart. Check his shoes, feed and water him, pack his oats, and bring the cart to the door…"
Freddy nodded, slathering butter on another chunk of bread.
"Aileen, watch the wee one while I pack provisions and clothing. Cook up the rest of that mutton so we can take it, then fetch water to douse the fire. Nessa, roll up all the blankets for the journey, pile 'em by the door. And wrap the Bible in my shawl."
"What about me?" Ryanne asked.
"I could never forget you, my sweet," Mam said, brushing the tip of Ryanne's little nose with her finger. "Can you wash up all the bowls and spoons, dry them, put them in a sack, then sit in the window and watch the road?"
The girl nodded eagerly.
Mam finished her stew, stood, and glanced around the room, again wringing her hands. "Remember, girls, evil returns to the evil doer. We hold our heads high. Freddy and Aileen, I want you to wear your rosaries. Now, we must make haste!"
Freddy carried her bowl to the wash shelf and headed out the door. She spotted Big Blue in the middle field, still harnessed to the plow, his head drooping. Da had just shoed the gentle draught horse last month. Surely he was ready for the travel.
She stopped to soothe Firewind, hugging his neck. "Good boy," Freddy whispered to him. He was the best friend she'd ever had. Mam didn't care for him, though. She particularly disliked the way her headstrong daughter rode him through the fields, astride and in knee breeches.
"Frederica!" Mam hollered out the door. "Catch the milk cows and tie them to the back of the cart, and fetch the milking bucket. Quit your idling with that confounded shaggy beast! Ye'll be the death of me, girl…"