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The New Priest of Dunquin: First Chapter

When I think of John, the first thing I remember is his laugh.

Oh, he had such a wonderful laugh! He had a great many wonderful things about him, understand, but that laugh! It was like angels singing, like all the bells of heaven rang just for me. He laughed easily, my John, and far more often than was proper.

I was prepared to hate him. Hating came easily when I was sixteen and filled with the useless rage of poverty. The Church in their infinite wisdom decided to send one John Calhoun, young, handsome, and brimming with potential, to the far end of the Dingle Peninsula.

Now the Peninsula’s a bit of a tourist destination, I understand. It was not at the time. It was the end, the very far ends of the earth.

Our last priest died unexpectedly the previous autumn, so the flock in our small town had been without a shepherd for several months. That was, my parents assured me, why I’d gone so wrong. Why I raged against life on the Peninsula, which had been good enough for them, saints bless it, and good enough for my grandparents and my great-grandparents and my great-great-grandparents.

And the lack of a priest was the only reason Ma and Da could imagine why I’d refuse to marry Patrick Dougal.

It could have nothing to do with the fact that Patrick Dougal seemed one step away from a simpleton, always answering any question with a long pause and then, “Huh,” a sound so close to a sheep’s bleat it made me imagine the Dougals had bred with mutton somewhere far back in the line. Or the fact that young Patrick’s face was pale and lumpy, like bread still rising, or that, if we married, I knew we’d be living with his witch of a mother, whose shrieks the entire village could hear rising over the cliffs like the evening mist.

Oh no, my flat-out ungodly refusal to marry could be laid squarely on the shoulders of our winter-long lack of a proper priest. And so, when John Calhoun finally came to tend to the faithful of Dunquin, my parents marched me there straight away.

The new priest was not what I expected. He’d arrived late in the night, taking the train to its very last stop and then meeting old widow O’Conner to travel the rutted roads in her ancient Rover. By daybreak, there was already a line of parishioners waiting to unburden their sins in the ancient stone church. Apparently, it had been quite an eventful winter. By the time Ma and Da finally dragged me into his study, it was getting on tea time.

Father John. How can I describe what waited for me inside that door? He’d come all the way from seminary in Dublin, and he looked like the city. He was elegant where everyone around me was coarse, and delicate where everything in my life seemed so harsh. I’d never before known a man could be beautiful, but Father John was beautiful, even more so than red-haired Meg, the darling of all the boys in Dunquin and the envy of all the girls.

I tried not to stare at him as Da explained the problem.

“So, Father, if you could find it in your heart to, well, explain things to her,” he said, fumbling with the words as his cheeks flared red.

“It would be my pleasure,” the priest said, without so much as a glance in my direction. He made a careful note in the book on his desk. “Please send the young lady in my direction next Wednesday.”

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