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I began to fall in love with Ireland when I wrote Vicki’s Key, the second book in the Black Swamp Mysteries series. That book introduced Dylan Maguire, an Irishman who had only recently moved to America. I delved deep into the Irish culture, discovering their speech mannerisms, their history and their traditions. I had heard about Ireland throughout my life, as both my mother’s and father’s families had emigrated from Ireland to America. And when I had the opportunity to return there, it turned into something magical.
I had family records about a village called Ballygawley in County Tyrone but I never expected the people there to remember the Neely family. When they discovered that I was a Neely descendent, their reaction was always the same: “So you’ve come home again, have you now?” It felt as if I had been the one that had lived on the hill overlooking the valley; that I had only recently traveled to America and I was truly “back home again”.
I stood on the land my ancestors once owned. I was taken to a school upon which my family had donated the land; the school had celebrated more than a hundred and fifty years there and had only recently published a book that chronicled the gift of land from my ancestors. I was brought to a Catholic church that was also on land donated by my Protestant ancestors. And time and again, I heard stories of them and their generosity. It made me proud of where I had come from.
I stood in the middle of the cemetery where their bodies were buried; the gravestones had been damaged severely and one rumor had it that during The Troubles, the British soldiers had destroyed the cemetery because they had been told there were weapons hidden there by the IRA, though they never found any evidence of that. Ironically, the last person to die near Ballygawley during The Troubles was a Neely son, a soldier who had been killed by a roadside bomb.
I stood on the stoop of a tall brownstone and took pictures of my ancestor’s initials engraved above the door, along with the date he built it. I stood in the stables that he once owned and watched the cows in the meadows. I felt as though I had been transported back in time.
I did not want to leave Ireland. Unfortunately, when I applied to relocate there, I was told I could only receive a one-year visa and there was no guarantee it would be renewed after that. At one time, it was a haven for retirees—the fresh air, the friendly people and the breathtaking landscapes drew people home. But there are restrictions now requiring a minimum of £50,000 in an annual government guaranteed pension and they do not count income made from writing or through the internet. So alas, my dream of writing in a white cottage overlooking the sea has been dashed—for now. I will always hold out hope that someday I will truly go home again.
Read an excerpt:
“Nettie O’Connelly,” Jack began, “was the mother o’ nine children and a widow to boot. She lived in west Belfast within a stone’s throw o’ The Falls Road and within full view o’ the Divis Tower. It would have been the early 1970’s, so it would.” Jack shook his head. “There was violence every blasted day and night. The Catholics lived on one side o’ the road—divided by the Protestants by what is now known as the Peace Wall.”
He fell silent for a moment as he collected his thoughts. “Divis Tower was manned by British soldiers. Not much was done about violence against the Catholics—” he snorted for effect “—but violence against the Protestants, even in retribution or defense, was dealt a heavy hand. A heavy hand indeed.
“So it didn’t go unnoticed when one o’ the British soldiers stood at Divis Tower and looked down at Nettie’s home. Not once, mind ya; not twice. Every blasted day. She spent time each day washin’ and hangin’ her clothes in the yard—nine children can dirty a lot. She was still attractive, children or no; hair the color of a sunset and eyes snappin’ green. Petite thing she was.”
A gust of wind howled through the night, sounding like a woman’s protracted moan. Ciara began to paw the ground and Dougal snorted.
“We began to suspect a spy in our midst. Oh, it was a bad time, to be sure. Neighbors watchin’ neighbors. No trust, even for brothers. The slightest thing could set off the neighborhood like a powder keg just waitin’ to blow. There were brawls a’plenty. Boys gone missing overnight. Anyone suspected of cavortin’ with the Brits was dealt with severely.”
He rose and stepped to Ciara, stroking her mane in a gentle effort to calm her. “Then the ladies along the block began to notice a correlation between the colors o’ the clothes Nettie washed and hung and what happened afterward… When she washed her whites, she always seemed to leave her home at a particular time and always went a round-about ways. No one knew where she went. It wasn’t to the neighborhood butcher or grocer or any of the usual places a woman would go. Then one day she was spotted in the center of Belfast—an area declared to be accessible to both Catholics and Protestants, unionists and loyalists, which was laughable indeed.”
“So Nettie O’Connelly was a spy?” Alexei asked.
“We’ll never know, boy. That very night she was hauled from her home, right in front of her nine children. And never seen again.” Just as they thought the story was over, he continued. “My brothers were there. They told me about it afterward, I think as a warnin’ to keep my own mouth shut and my head down. They drove Nettie O’Connelly to the very spot where we were to meet the plane. Three carloads o’ men, at the least, and Nettie beggin’ for her life and for her children’s safety. A woman could scream till her throat grew bloody and not a soul would hear her out at the old lighthouse. And so it went on for hour after hour.”
Jack looked at the skies. “It would have been just about this time o’ year, I’d wager. The skies grew black around four or five o’clock and the sun wouldn’t make its appearance until nigh on ten o’clock the next morn. Long nights, they were. They said that Nettie was tortured until the witching hour approached, but she never confessed, never admitted to giving any one of us up. Not even when her children’s lives were threatened. She always maintained her innocence.” His voice grew quiet and then stopped.
After a long moment, Alexei asked, “What became of her?”
“They thought she was dead. Her body was laid out on a flat rock whilst the men debated what to do with her. Some wanted her buried, others brought out to sea. It wasn’t a night like this one, you see. There were no Northern Lights that night. No stars, not even a moon. Just a thick fog that rolled in from the sea, uncanny it was. It was so murky that the men carried a lantern from the cars to the water’s edge; otherwise, they wouldn’t have been able to find their way. My brothers said they set the lantern beside Nettie’s body while they huddled just a few feet away. They realized everythin’ had gone black around them and when they looked back, she and the lantern were gone.”
Jack inspected Ciara’s bridle for a moment before continuing. “It was easy to see which direction she’d gone; the lantern was bobbin’ along one o’ the paths, around the brambles and the rocks and along the ridgeline. They followed it for a bit, shoutin’ as those men did—” he nodded his head toward the east “—and then the lantern was snuffed out.”
He wiped his nose. “They continued searchin’ for her but it was too dark. Black as pitch, it was. They left sentinels along the main roads to Belfast and left others in charge o’ watchin’ her home and her children. It wasn’t until summer that they found her at the base o’ a cliff, her neck broken. It’s said they brought her body—ravaged by time and the elements—into the ocean some three hours out and dropped her overboard.”
Alexei joined the two men. “And that was the end of the story?”
“Oh, no,” Jack chuckled but his eyes held no mirth. “That was only the beginning. For it’s said that Nettie O’Connelly still haunts these parts after all these years, carryin’ her lantern at the witchin’ hour, lurin’ men to their deaths.”
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