Ten-year-old Ulick Burke, who lives in a cottage near a canal in Ireland, dreams of running down to the water to watch the boats passing, but his mother strictly forbids him to leave their garden. He remembers a time when he walked with his father along a towpath; his father stopped to talk with lockkeepers and promised one day to take Ulick on one of the barges that go to Shannon to meet ships coming up from the sea. Now Ulick is alone, because his father, a soldier, is away from home, and his mother will not let him play with the children who pass by on the other side of the garden gate.
Ulick takes refuge in his dreams, imagining that his father has gone off to war on a barge. He wonders what it would be like to hide on a barge that might take him to the battlefield where he could meet his father walking about with a gun on his shoulder. However, Ulick finds such dreams to be poor stuff, especially since his mother keeps him at home. He is expected to remain aloof, like his mother, who has named their home “Hill Cottage” and has had the name painted on the garden gate. It is the only cottage in the parish that has a name.
Ulick’s dreams center on the idea of running away, although he is afraid that his mother will follow him and bring him back home. So desperate is this shy, attractive boy that he considers burning down the cottage. Instead, his excruciating loneliness is relieved by a big boy who asks Ulick to give him gooseberries from the garden. Eager for companionship and hating the idea that the older boy might make fun of him, Ulick gathers the gooseberries and they become friends.
Soon Ulick finds himself in the company of the bigger boy’s friends, with whom he engages in mild adventures, such as overturning rocks in a brook and stabbing eels with a fork. Ulick is entranced and happy until his...
(The entire section is 756 words.)