Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901
Hyacinth “Hycy” Burke is the son of a wealthy and respected peasant who has allowed his wife, a woman with social pretensions of her own, to spoil the boy. With his mother’s approval, Hycy has become a dissolute young man. Because his father, Jemmy Burke, tries to curb him by reducing his allowance, Hycy enters into partnership with whiskey smugglers to supplement his diminished income.
When one of the prettiest young women in the area, Kathleen Cavanagh, catches Hycy’s eye, he determines to seduce her. Unfortunately for his plans, he misdirects two letters. One, intended for Kathleen, goes instead to Bryan M’Mahon, who truly loves Kathleen; another, intended for young M’Mahon, goes to Kathleen. Later, after being publicly snubbed on more than one occasion, Hycy resolves to have revenge on Kathleen and her true admirer. Any additional villainy can scarcely put him in greater danger than he is already in; he has already been an accomplice to burglarizing his father’s house, has taken a large sum of money, and has been an active accomplice of smugglers. It is through his fellow smugglers that he plans to get his revenge.
A law in Ireland requires the inhabitants of a township to pay fines for any illegal distillation and smuggling of whiskey in their township if the actual culprits are not known. Bryan M’Mahon’s farm at Ahadarra covers an entire township, and if he were to be required to pay such a fine by himself, he would be ruined. To carry out his plan, Hycy enlists the help of the nephew of the local goods inspector. Hycy promises the nephew the chance to lease a fine farm if the latter will press Hycy’s suit for his sister’s hand. The farm, of course, is Bryan M’Mahon’s.
Bryan is not the only member of his family facing tragedy. Both his and his father’s farm leases have run out, and death has prevented the absentee landlord from renewing them. The new landlord, a well-meaning but weak and inexperienced young man, is ruled by his agent, who wishes to see the M’Mahons lose their farms, leased by the family for generations.
Hycy carefully makes his plans. What he fails to realize, however, is that he has made enemies while Bryan has made friends; consequently, some persons who know of his villainy are prepared to take measures to thwart him. Nanny Peety, a pretty, virtuous beggar girl, resents Hycy for his many attempts to seduce her. She knows something of his plans, and she was a witness to the burglary that Hycy and his accomplice committed. Nanny’s aunt, Kate Hogan, loves her niece and also thinks highly of Kathleen Cavanagh. She is willing and able to help them, because she is married to one of Hycy’s smuggling associates. Patrick O’Finigan, a drunken schoolmaster, is also friendly to Kathleen and Bryan.
The plot against Bryan is put into operation when an anonymous letter from Hycy sends the inspector to discover the illicit still at Ahadarra, on Bryan’s farm. Faced with financial ruin and his family’s loss of their leases, the young peasant does not know what to do. Because his own honesty keeps him from believing that Hycy is working against him in such a manner, Bryan even takes advice from the man who is bent on ruining him. A parliamentary election is taking place in which the M’Mahons’ landlord is standing for a seat. The voting results in a tie until Bryan, angry with his landlord and following Hycy’s advice, votes for his landlord’s opponent. By doing so, he makes himself appear false in everyone’s eyes, for his landlord is a liberal who favors the Irish peasantry and religious freedom, while the opponent is a conservative who works against the peasants and the Roman Catholic Church. By taking Hycy’s advice, Bryan finds himself worse off than before.
When Hycy sends another letter and encloses in it a fifty-pound note, it looks as if Bryan has accepted a bribe for his vote. The evidence is so damning that even Kathleen, who loves Bryan sincerely, is forced to believe him guilty. Faced with calamity and disfavor in his community, Bryan and his family plan, like many unfortunate Irish at the time, to emigrate to America in order to start a new and more successful life.
Bryan’s friends, however, go to work for him. Displeased at Hycy’s treatment of her niece and the troubles facing Kathleen when she loses her beloved, Kate Hogan begins investigating Hycy’s activities. She, Patrick O’Finigan, Nanny Peety’s father, and others gather additional information about Hycy and present it to the magistrates with their demands for a hearing. At the hearing, it is proved that Hycy robbed his father, had been an accomplice of the whiskey smugglers, had placed the still at Ahadarra to incriminate Bryan, had plotted to make his victim appear to have taken a bribe, and had also become a counterfeiter. Confronted with the proof, Jemmy Burke gives his son two hundred pounds to leave the country and stay away. Hycy’s accomplices are arrested, convicted, and transported as criminals from Ireland, thus becoming the “emigrants” of Ahadarra. Cleared of all charges, Bryan resumes his rightful place in the community and in the affections of Kathleen.
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