Hennessy First Fiction winner: The Dead of Winter by Henrietta McKervey

Typical, just typical. I’ve trudged five cold, rain-sodden miles out from Newport to visit Grace O’Malley’s castle only there’s nothing to see. Not even a sign - unless you count the tatty Office of Public Works: Keep Out notice swinging from the broken railings, which I don’t. What was I expecting to find, I wonder? A boom-time Interpretative Centre? Jaunty, pirate-themed cafe? I jam my hands harder into the pockets of my fleece. Even a leaflet would have been nice.

Rockfleet Castle sits at the edge of the water, squat and square and solid. It must be black as soot on the inside.

Now that I’m closer (that gap in the railings somewhat undermining the creaking authority of the Keep Out notice) I can see that the castle is the edge of the water: its walls climb from the sea, a gift thrown to the land. I have taken myself away from my life for three days. “That’s all I want,” I told my husband, “three days away.”

“A mini-break?” he said. “There’s great deals - hotels are on their knees this time of year. But I’m too busy to take time off.” He was sitting on the end of our bed, clipping his toenails. “Maybe,” he said, “if Mam took Cuan, and Jack went to your sister? I’ll think about it.”


Each slim sliver he placed neatly on the floor, and when he was finished he gathered them into a pile. A tiny white shoal dropped into the bin under his night table. For me to fish out, I supposed.

“By myself,” I said.

“You want a mini-break by yourself?” He looked puzzled. I realised he could imagine only the holiday we would take together. Us, sipping Guinness in country pubs; us frittering away a day in deciding where to have dinner. He thought I wanted the holiday I would have with him, only without him.

“I want to be alone. For three days. That’s all. I won’t get through the winter otherwise.”

“But what about the boys?” he said, in bed now, the glow of the iPad ghoulish on his face. He thinks I make too much of it. Of her. That it - she - consumes me. That I alone tighten the iron band around my heart. I know he thinks it, and he knows I know.

Water laps the sides of the castle, licking the stone. “You alright there?”

“Jesus!” I jump, whirl around. “You scared me half to death!”

“Sorry.” The man is wearing an oil slicker and black bobble hat. He steps back and holds up his hands as though I am a cranky dog, liable to nip. He looks older than me, though that could be the beard. He points down a half-hidden slope that leads to a small jetty. The prow of a boat bobs in and out of sight. “You were getting fierce close to the edge.”

“I was looking for a door.”

“It’s around the far side, but the castle’s shut up for the winter. You’ve no fear of ghosts then? It’s haunted by Grace O’Malley herself.”

“Yeah,” I say, “sure.”

He nods and I can’t tell whether he didn’t get that I was being sarcastic, or just didn’t care.

“She died here, but her head was buried out on Clare Island and her body is said to set sail from here every night in search of it.”

“There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

“There’d be no such thing as ghost stories, so,” he shrugs. “I’ll take you out in the boat, if you want? I’m done fishing, there’s feck all out there today but it’s light enough for a half hour.”

“You’re a fisherman?’ I say, stupidly. “I’ve never met a fisherman before, which now strikes me as odd, considering how much fish I eat.”

“Yeah,” he says, “But in the summer I do better from the tourists. Two-hour tour, €20 a head. Seals, mussel farms, Louis Walsh’s summer house, the lot.” When he nods the bobble on his hat jigs up and down. “They can’t get enough of Louis Walsh.”

I imagine my husband’s look of horror if he could see me now: alone in the dusk in a dead-end with this stranger, this sea-faring giant.

My jeans are stiff from the rain and it’s awkward to climb down the metal ladder to the boat, so I take off my thick gloves. I gasp when my hands touch the freezing iron and he - Murrough, his name is - grabs my elbow.

Once again I picture my husband’s face (waves of horror, a distinct undertow of reproach) and all of a sudden I’m conscious of the scared thump in my heart and about to exclaim, “No! do you know what? I think I’ll leave it for today after all”, when he jumps back saying, “It’s them last few rungs are the tricky ones, people jump thinking they’re in, only they’re not.”

We chug out into Clew Bay, the engine announcing us to the darkening sea. I guess I can always fling myself overboard if I have to, though the water looks so unforgiving I decide I will take my chances on board.

I feel an unexpected pang for the Seaview Hotel, for my small room with its commanding view of the leisure centre’s external ventilation system. Guilt had caused me to book cheaply and unwisely, and thanks to its Winter Warmer Offer - three nights for the price of two, breakfast and dinner thrown in - the hotel is humming with guests. My fellow bargain hunters are either much older than me and enjoying mid-week leisure time, or families with pre-schoolers.

“I took the early retirement package,” a man had confided to me in the lift, his pinkish cheeks and juniper breath telling a story of golf, of gin and tonics at the nineteenth. “And we’ve not looked back since.”

I am that holiday oddity; a woman alone. In the restaurant I’ve noticed older women looking curiously at me. The mothers of small children regard me with something more like envy: I know they are picturing my long hours of unbroken sleep in clean sheets, and my not driving around aimlessly for an hour every lunchtime because the toddler refuses to nap in the €20-per-night-surcharge travel cot.

I have spent the last two days rambling up and down The Greenway trail before coming back to the hotel for a late swim when the pool is quiet. I have kept myself busy and alone. That way I can think about Poppy, can let her fill my thoughts entirely, and still play fair - more than fair; play kind - with the present. When I phoned home Cuan and Jack were chatty and said they missed me. My husband sounded tense and bemused and only when I hung up did I realise why: he hadn’t actually believed I’d go.

“Who owns that house there?” I point at the long low lines of grey stone; a ghostly shape flittering through a bank of winter trees.

“Yer man who used be the American Ambassador. Funny enough, no one gives a feck to see his house”’ The boat motors along for another minute and then, “Once upon a time,” Murrough says.

“What?” This must be his patter for tourists. “A fairy story?”

“A true story.”

“Then you shouldn’t have once upon a time. If your story is true, it’s a legend and they can’t start with once upon a time.” I am aware of how daft, how childishly pedantic, I sound.

“It’s my story.” He doesn’t look at me. “I can have it whatever way I want.” I turn my head to the sea because my eyes have filled with tears.

“Once upon a time,” he says, then laughs. “Fair enough. In 1593, Grace O’Malley, pirate queen of Ireland, set sail for London from the very same harbour as ourselves. Her youngest son Tibóid - her favourite for reason of being born at sea - had been taken prisoner by the English and charged with treason, which carried a sentence of death.” He pauses. I edge closer to the wheelhouse.

“She sailed her ship the Malendroke as if her own life depended on it and when she got to the Thames Estuary word was sent to Queen Elizabeth. Pirate corpses hung along the Estuary, so she’d have known her fate if she didn’t play her cards right.

“Elizabeth sent her a list of 18 questions, but when she received Granuaile’s answers she left her waiting six weeks before agreeing to see her.”

His voice is bigger than the story needs. I suppose he’s used to a chattering, camera-flashing audience.

“It felt like a lifetime to Granuaile, but it was a good omen; she’d been warned she might be still waiting at Christmas.”

Christmas. Poppy died on December 22, three years ago. “She had meningitis,” I’ve heard my husband tell people, but to me meningitis had her. It consumed her, destroyed her. And now, when summer is over and the boys go back to school, I feel the draw into winter as a tug to that date.

I close my eyes and let 400 years fall away. Two women living men’s lives face each other. A Queen trussed up in a farthingale, face harshly painted, rotting teeth shored up with pieces of stale bread. Bright and garish, she is a flightless tropical bird. Grace O’Malley has hair woven from waterweeds and loose, homespun clothes. Her face is raw from a life at sea. They are the two most powerful women of their age and the only time they will ever meet is for one to beg the other for a life.

The boat lurches and seawater slops over my jeans. Spray touches my eyelids and they shoot open. Through the wet light of the wheelhouse his yellow oil slicker gleams like gold.

“. . . and so,” he is saying and I realise I must have missed a bit, “Granuaile’s words worked. Elizabeth released her son and let her ply her trade in peace in these waters. The Queen was so impressed she had her lads draw a map of Ireland with Granuaile included as a chieftain of Mayo. She was the only woman ever to be named a chieftain.”

He pauses and raises his eyebrows till they disappear under his hat. “And,” he adds with a grin, “they all lived happily ever after.”

“How do you know so much about her?”

“My own people are descended - I don’t know how many greats back - from her grand-nephew. He was another Tibóid.” He turns the wheel in a wide arc. “Let’s head in now, maybe we’ll get a seal or two to perform for us on the way.”

We head back for the harbour and Newport and the road to Dublin and my life of the last three years and the years before that and the years yet to come. I can’t see it, but I know Croagh Patrick rises, tall and broad and severe, from the mists on the land to one side. I turn my back to it and look at Rockfleet looming ahead, the moon turning its grey stone to silver.

“The castle was owned by Granuaile’s second husband, Murrough says, “but under Brehon Law she divorced him by calling, ‘Richard Burke, I dismiss you’, from a window and lo! it became hers. ‘Twas easier done in them days,” he grins.

I picture her on the turret, red hair fizzing and gossamer-thin nets spinning from her fingers as far as her eye could see and her heart could want.

He tucks his boat into the crook of the harbour and we clunk up the ladder. My lungs are full of sea-cold air, my throat scratchy with salt. I offer him €20.

“Ah, you’re grand,” he gently pushes my hand away. “You didn’t see much after all.”

And from up ahead I hear the wind grab the loose Keep Out notice and beat it, beat it hard against the railings.

Henrietta McKervey has an MFA in creative writing from UCD and won UCD's inaugural Maeve Binchy Travel Award. Her first novel, What Becomes Of Us - set in RTÉ as it prepares for the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising - will be published by Hachette in March