In the Family Way

Other submissions by WordSmith-Jacqueline:
If you want to read their other submissions, please click the links.
The Two Seeings (Paranormal & Supernatural, Book Award 2023)
The Scottish Witchfinder (Historical Fiction, Book Award 2023)
Slaves of Men and Gods (Young Adult, Book Award 2023)
Writing Award Sub-Category
Award Category
Golden Writer
Logline or Premise
The resilience of the Maguire family is clear in last-born Mary's life; brought up to be a good Catholic girl or so her famine-surviving granny thought. On ending up in a tricky situation, Mary discovers a way to fight back with Cumann Na mBan in 1920s Glasgow, before deciding to travel to America, looking to find what was feared lost.
First 10 Pages

In the Family Way

by Jacqueline Smith

PRELUDE – Mary Maguire

The letter in Mary's hand shook with the tremble travelling through her body as it made its way down her arms, then shook again as a final jerk of her fingers propelled it to the floor. Seeing the name of the adoption agency Mary shook again as she realised it wouldn't have caused quite such a dramatic reaction to most other people but for her, it had been so long. She'd not forgotten, could never do so. But why hear now? Her breath was ragged on her shocked inhale making her cough, her breath coming fast and shallow as she stared down at it.

Maybe it wasn't that. After all, it could just be a request for a donation like most of these types of letters. She was getting carried away with herself; panicking for no good reason. She was thrown because how could they have found her? She hesitated to pick up the letter and then did so gingerly with the tips of her finger and thumb, holding it as far away from her body as possible while memories tumbled one over the other in her mind. Images of trains and faces, colours and places, and a rush of emotion pulsating in her belly as she quickly opened the nearest drawer and dropped in the letter before slamming it closed. She’d deal with it later, much later...donation or not. A deep exhale escaped her lips as she stumbled into her small sitting room and collapsed; still trembling into an armchair--then the remembering began.


It was like the same problem she had with her family. No sooner would she have sorted herself out and there they were. Try as she might to disappear them into the family drawer in her mind, at points over the years eventually one or other of her remaining sisters or brothers would write or call looking for her opinion or help or to give her some unwarranted, unwanted bit of advice or news; usually of the disturbing kind.

It hadn’t always been like this. She was the baby of the family, or at least of those in her generation. Then again, apparently her brother, the eldest one - first born and usually most lauded, had been and gone before she was born and already aged thirty-one by then. So maybe there’d been more than one generation even just between her and her siblings. Bernie had not been forgotten. Having died in the First World War, his death was recorded at Arras in Belgium for posterity. But not just in Belgium, she reluctantly reminded herself, but much closer to home on a stained glass window in St Michael’s Chapel in Kirkston. Its very name made her shudder at the thought. Stale scents of incense and old man sweat wafted in from the past and she wrinkled her nose, sneezing it away before the memories sneakily surfaced. But yes, that village had been her beginning and went on to shape her future. Though some other, older family influences shaped her just as much, and had refused to stay in the past.

Her Granny O’Connell had early on confused everyone by reverting to her maiden name after her husband died, but then again that was mostly hearsay to Mary, having come at the tail-end of her own mother’s lengthy reproductive surge. God, how could she have managed having all those children so close together? It was beyond Mary, but as these things turn out, not beyond her older sister Nora, who’d had as many into the next generation and God only knew where they all were now.


Still, Mary had loved her Granny O’Connell. She remembered that visiting her was a bit of an adventure, especially as a child in those days. For Mary the journey was from Kirkston to Granny O’Connell’s wee single-end in Tradeston, Glasgow using the horse buses, though that first time at the stop in Moorhead, wide-eyed, she’d watched the scary horses towering hugely above her. Nora had shaken her from her glaikit stare, pulling her up the steps into the carriage but not before she saw the horse dropping a big smelly plop on the cobbled street. “Oooh yuck!” she exclaimed, holding her nose while giggling as other adults behind hurried her forward with a brisk push to sit next to Nora, who hissed “Eejit!” at her. The horse buses weren’t around for many years longer after she first began staying with her Granny O'Connell. A couple of years later came the trams and a less bumpy ride.

They’d left home to travel that day after coming out of Mass. Their mammy had been a one for ensuring they got to the evening service at St. Michael’s at least once a week as well as Mass on Sunday mornings. Then there was confession once a month too. At school round in Broad Street, they had prayers morning, noon and night. It was the same for everyone and she had actually enjoyed, or at least been quite affected by her Holy Communion service with the others in her class at school the year before, but who could say it wasn’t to do with her mammy being ill at that time too.

She, like all the girls, had to wear a white tunic and veil while the boys wore white sashes with their smartest shirts and trousers. It seemed to her like a bairns’ version of the adult weddings she occasionally glimpsed happening at the chapel; no scrambles at the bairns’ version though.

She remembered being in the church downstairs in a small hall where they all waited to be called up to receive their first host from the priest. She was listening to the hymns being sung in the distance, especially the one, ‘Faith of our Fathers’, when she felt a strange sensation of something alighting around her shoulders. In her belly, the feeling was like a deep presence and she had the urge to bend to her knees, but by that time she had to follow her classmates into the church to take their seats until called forward. Did that mean she’d received Jesus into her soul like in the prayer she’d said with her mammy that morning? What else could it mean and who could she have asked with her mammy sick in bed and not wanting to bother her?

A First Communion

My Jesus, I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament. I love You above all things,
and I desire to receive You into my soul.
I believe it because you have said it and
I’m ready to give my life to maintain this truth.

Waiting for them in front of the altar was Father O’Toole, who spoke Irish the same way her Granny O'Connell did. She didn’t much like Father O’Toole with his smelly breath and fingers touching you all over whenever he got the chance, but her mammy wouldn’t hear a word against him. She’d realised this after hearing her brother complaining and her mammy giving him into trouble for “Saying bad things about a priest. Do ye want to go to hell?” Was he getting special treatment too? She had a quick glance at him now, standing behind the priest waiting to do his duty as an altar boy for the service. Frank winked at her while his pal Sean had his head down engrossed in trying to undo the mangled chain of the incense burner. After the service the schoolchildren filed back downstairs to have a short Communion breakfast of a bread roll and a cup of milk.
Weeks before her Communion Father O’Toole had told her to come to the chapel where she was to sit with him in the sacristy as he tested her Catechism. Always she had to start by answering his questions, the same ones they had to answer every day in religious instruction at school:

Who made you? God made me.

Why did God make you? God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next.

And it went on and on, but Mary thought the scariest bit, after many more questions and her sometimes hesitant answers, was the first part of the Apostles Creed:

Where is God? God is everywhere.

Does God know and see all things? God knows and sees all things, even our most secret thoughts.

Father O’Toole expected her to come to the chapel after school most days and she thought that was just so unfair. He wasn’t asking any of the other children that she knew of, so she guessed he wasn’t scaring them with his smelly hissing breath on their necks as he demanded that if she loved God, she should be very grateful for his attention. “Ye’ve been singled out of all your classmates to be given this special treatment,” he’d said with a strange crooked smile. After he told her this she had, at first, felt very special and didn’t want to share her secret with anyone, not even her best friend Kathleen at school. But mostly, because after stroking her in her dirty places and grasping her against his bony chest, she would tremble and shudder, especially when he’d warn her that God not only knows and sees, he hears all things too, “So ye’d best not tell anyone or God will be fierce angry with ye and take away all your special treatment and leave ye to burn in hell, so.”

She trembled with fear most of the time, her mammy getting annoyed with her for always dropping things and jumping with fright at the slightest touch. Each Sunday morning her belly cramped at the thought of going to Mass, but who could she tell? God would hear her. She’d be punished much worse than this if she did. After she made her Communion, it carried on for her coming Confirmation and after that was completed he said, “Ye need me guidance so ye don’t become a bad girl hanging around the fellahs at school. I’ll look after ye in the flesh, like your own father would if he was still here and not already taken to heaven to be with God. Ye’re very blessed to have me guidance, Mary.”

“Thank you Father,” she’d say as she blessed herself, shakily genuflecting under his creepy stare. She had thought to ask her Granny O’Connell on one of her monthly visits but as years passed her Granny had become maudlin, spending more and more time talking about her days in the old country.

“If we had no hope - for a cure, for the end of war, for being free of abuse, or for having food, warmth, clothing, and shelter - we would have no reason to go on. What you hope for doesn't matter, but rather the essence of hope itself.”

Bernie Siegel



Chapter 1 - An Droc Shaol - Annie

As a woman might do in Ireland when under the influence of deep and absorbing grief, Annie O’Connell did now in Glasgow when she sat down. Locking her fingers into each other, she swayed backwards and forwards in silence. Talking again about An Droc Shaol -'The Bad Times' had set her mind racing with memories flooding in fast. Her granddaughters had lust left to return home to their mammy in Kirkston. She tried to rest but her mind refused, taking her back again until she could remember standing outside her family's cottage. Though Co. Meath and much of Leinster were not quite so hard hit by the famine as in the west country, the house and yard had about them all the marks of recent decline. The thatch on the roof was becoming black, and in some places rotting and sinking. The yard itself was untidy and dirty, there being none of them left with the energy or inclination to clear or sweep. Everything had the sickly sweet smell of decay.

The hedges were coming apart and walls breaking down as drystane by drystane fell to the ground and not returned to their place in the wall. Broken gates were lying about, or swinging on single hinges, no longer needed for the long-ago sold pigs. The whole air of the farm was disturbing to Annie as she looked at it, seeing it now from a stranger's view and couldn’t avoid feeling shame over what had become a pointless struggle that they’d finally had to abandon. The chimneys, where the thatch had sunk down, stood up with the incrustations of lime round their bases. She could see that some of the corner bricks had fallen from the gable and the plaster was dropping from the walls and in several places, broken on the ground. The whitewash was becoming yellowed and blackening with growing mould, its smell adding to the odour of decay and neglect.

Earlier, herself and some other women and girls had been seen by those neighbours not bedridden with the fever, at any hour of the day gathering weeds and herbs of all kinds to sustain the meagre supplies left to them. She’d had a verbal scuffle that morning too before trudging home after procuring a few handfuls of young nettles, chicken-weed, sorrell, bug glass, and casharraivan roots (that would also be used for a tea or mashed in a poultice to help bring down swelling in bruises and sprains) to bring home as food. The busybody who’d been traipsing close behind her was soon pointedly demanding,

“Ye brazen jade, why are ye taking the casharraivan when ye've already got some chicken-weed in that there ciseán?”

“What, in the devil's name are ye drivin' at?" Annie snapped, while carrying on pulling from the patch of dandelions. The woman harrumphed and tutted and couldn’t quiet herself.
“Many a poor stranger is lying in ditches, barns, and in outhouses without a living being to look to them, or reach them any single thing they want. And ye're takin as much as ye can while only being a colleen on her own.”

“There's my mother, father, and three little ones to feed too.” The woman flushed a little, the only colour in her pale cadaverous face.

“To be fair, I'm nothing but a born devil when the fit's on me. God bless you, a colleen machree and make you what you ought to be.” She still watched though, waiting while Annie reluctantly pulled a last dandelion before she left the woman to finish off the patch. Carrying in her basket what she'd collected she headed for home; or to what used to feel like home.

Inside, the tables, chairs and general furniture of the house had once looked cared for but want of energy had descended in the event of all the illness and death. The months of poverty and hunger had undone the years of their previous efforts at home-keeping. The floor was beginning to break up into dips and gaps; the tables and chairs now sitting lopsided on the uneven ground. The dresser, though clean, had a cold and bare look. But worst of all, inside the chimney-brace where, in more prosperous times, they used to be able to keep sides of bacon preserved with salt arranged in rows; now showed nothing but dusty hooks on one side of the old salt-box. On the other side a stripped string of onions. With a little buttermilk in a jug, her family would be able to have her scavenging efforts with the few herbs she’d gathered.

What was left of the family consisted of her mother Mary O’Connell, and Annie, being the eldest daughter, who in the last few months Mary had seen lose her usual brightness, and the younger sisters and brother. All of them were scantily and poorly clothed in rags, and if that slinkeen had needed any more proof that poverty was among them, it was found in their heartbreakingly pale, emaciated features; in their careworn and depressed exhaustion, which slowed her family's movements to dead slow or stop. It was in the unusual dejection of her young sisters and brother, who, instead of being their usual cheerful and lively selves, now moped about without energy and sat drooping in corners or arguing over a space to warm themselves near the sparse fire.
They brightened for a moment when she described the scolding from that woman. Her mother, her eyes full of concern, asked, “Did ye get afeared of her?”
“Not of a vile scuabán like that, so. Before I let out the devil in me and told her the grass should grow at her door, she made her apologies and gave me a blessing, so I left off with the cursing.” Annie could feel her fierce anger rising again at the injustice of the woman's accusation. Her mother said,

“Well, I'm glad of that. We've enough troubles without us women fighting and ending up pulling out each other’s hair out, so.”


That whole summer had been a sunless and wet one. In fact, the ceaseless rain fell day after day, week after week and into the months, until the heart-breaking realisation arrived that any change for the better would now come too late. It seemed in those conditions that nothing was certain except famine, disease and death. The season was, of course, late and any crops that were ripe had a sickly look that spelled crop failure.

Most of the fields, which, in other autumns, would have been ripe and yellow, were now covered with a thin, backward crop. It looked unnaturally green, meaning maturity was out of the question. Low meadows were underwater, and since alluvial soils removed sediments and nutrients flowing in the adjacent water, the ravages of the floods were visible in layers of mud and gravel deposited over many of the wilted cornfields. The peat turf lay in soggy heaps, for there hadn’t been enough sunshine to dry it properly for use. Because of this wetness in the firing, the appearance of the countryside was dreary and depressing. Owing to the difficulty with which it burned, or rather wasted away without light or heat, their view was of only masses of billowing black smoke that trailed slowly across the sky. In addition to the somber hue that the absence of the sun cast over everything, the smoke hanging like dark omens or as Annie’s mammy muttered while blessing herself: “T'is pisthroges it is; damnable evil charms!”