(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The Thorn Birds considers three generations of a sprawling Irish family, the Clearys. At the novel’s beginning, Fiona and Paddy Cleary are eking out a meager living from Padraic’s work as a sheepshearer in New Zealand. The life is hard, especially for Meggie, the only girl among Fiona and Paddy’s children. However, the Clearys receive a notice from Paddy’s wealthy sister, Mary Carson, in Australia, that she wants them to move there and learn to run the operation on Drogheda, her Australian homestead. She tells Father Ralph de Bricassart that they will inherit the property when Mary dies.

Mary does not explicitly promise the Clearys that they will inherit Drogheda, although that is implied in her offer to them. Mary loves Father de Bricassart, though he does not return her love, and she is jealous of the attention he pays to Meggie. She deliberately places Father de Bricassart in a dilemma that will test his character. She leaves two wills: One has been filed with her lawyer, leaving Drogheda to the Clearys. The other she leaves in her house with a letter to the priest; in this will, she leaves her estate to the Catholic Church. Her fortune, in excess of thirteen million pounds, is a huge amount in the 1920’s. It will buy Father de Bricassart’s place in the Catholic hierarchy. Father de Bricassart has the option of destroying the second will and leaving in place the will that leaves Drogheda to the Clearys—but he does not. He puts the second will into effect, ensuring that he will rise in the Church. He eases his conscience by noting that Mary has left a considerable income to the Clearys, as well as residence in her home. The management of Drogheda goes to Paddy, his sons, and eventually his grandsons. Although Father de Bricassart suffers some guilt, he never looks back.

In the 1934, Meggie marries Luke O’Neill, a stockman on Drogheda. Luke takes her to Queensland, where he plans to work in the sugarcane. He puts Meggie to work as a housemaid, takes control of all her money, and generally treats her as the acquisition he sees her to be. Luke is obsessed with making and saving money. He makes every effort to prevent Meggie from getting pregnant; he goes off and works for weeks on end without seeing her. Meggie does eventually manage to get pregnant, but she has a difficult pregnancy and a difficult delivery. She names the baby girl...

(The entire section is 974 words.)

The Thorn Birds Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Thorn Birds is Colleen McCullough’s second novel, and her most widely read work to date. Its publication propelled her to immediate literary stardom and ensured her status as a widely read author. It is also a showcase for the themes and literary styles that recur in her later works.

Meggie Cleary is the central figure in The Thorn Birds. The only daughter in a family of six sons, she is “the perfect female character, passive yet enormously strong.” While she is still very young she and her family move to Drogheda, a massive plantation in the Outback owned by Meggie’s aunt, Mary Carson. Natural disasters occur at every turn and are almost entirely unrelieved by human warmth, especially for a mere girl like Meggie. She is befriended, however, by a handsome and ambitious priest, Father Ralph de Bricassart.

With this beginning the course of events at Drogheda are set. Meggie grows up encompassed by Drogheda, which her aunt wills to the church rather than to the family. She feels a duty to it and to the land that is more compelling than a desire for happiness for herself. Ralph feels a duty to his own ambitions to become cardinal which are, for him, more compelling than his relationship with Meggie. Within the confines of Catholicism they both accept that love must be subordinated to his career as priest and to her responsibility to contribute to the survival of Drogheda. Characteristically for McCullough, the women...

(The entire section is 436 words.)