Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 756
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 mother catches him at play. When he covers his face with his hands to protect himself from his mother’s slaps, she puts a live bee down his back, and he runs away screaming in pain from the stings.
After relieving himself by rolling in a ditch covered with leaves, Ulick crosses a meadow and sees a barge coming through a lock. He runs along the canal, following the boat and thinking how much he hates his mother. He calls to the bargeman, wanting the man to take him aboard. Then he plunges into the water, determined to reach the barge. He sinks in the water, rising once to see a green light and the barge’s rudder moving. After losing consciousness, he awakens to find himself on the barge.
Sensing the bargeman’s willingness to take him home, Ulick pretends to have run away from Shannon, which he learns is seventy miles from his cottage. The bargeman agrees to take him “home,” and later Ulick slips away as they approach Shannon. He spends the night in a haystack and is discovered by a woman who is as kind to him as his mother is cruel. She is a lone widow who takes the attractive Ulick, with his bright blue eyes and soft curls, as her adopted son. Three years later the widow dies, and Ulick, now thirteen, sets out on a wild, rough life. His escape from Hill Cottage now seems like a tale heard in infancy.
Some years later, after Ulick has sailed the coast of Ireland and explored most of its harbors, he decides to revisit Hill Cottage. He is amazed to find a boy just like himself, whose mother has forbidden him to come down to the canal. The boy’s name is Ulick Burke. Ulick accompanies his namesake to the cottage and finds that indeed his mother, who has changed little, has had another son, and that his father is again away from home. Although his mother offers him a bed for the night, she reiterates that he was a wicked child. She thought that he had drowned in the canal because his cap was found in the bulrushes. After telling the younger Ulick some tales of the sea, Ulick leaves the cottage and boards the barge, filled with bitterness over his childhood but determined to make his way in the world. Only children, he thinks, throw themselves in the water because their mothers do not love them.