A Nest of Simple Folk

by John Francis Whelan
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1195

Foxehall is a bleak, remote manor house, and the family that owns it keeps to themselves. Rachel and Anna Foxe are content to live prim maiden lives, poverty-stricken remnants of a landed family. Judith Foxe, however, marries Long John O’Donnell, a secretive farmer. Judith is cut off with a dowry of five fields as a punishment for marrying beneath her station; for seventeen years, she does not see her sisters. The marriage is a good one for Long John. Poor as he is, he feels that Judith’s five fields were good pay for taking an unattractive wife. When their tenth child, Leo, is born, Rachel condescends to sponsor him. Afterward, it seems to Judith that Leo is her only true son. When her husband is near death, she is determined that Leo should be the heir.

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James, the oldest son, works like a servant for his harsh father. As the oldest, he will inherit the home farm. Phil is next in line; by rights, he should have had the five fields. Long John obstinately refuses to make a will; as he grows weaker, however, Judith harries him into telling a lawyer how the property should be distributed. She also dresses Leo in Phil’s clothes and tricks her weak, dying husband into pointing to Leo as the heir to the five fields. By this act, James inherits only the heavily mortgaged home farm and the obligation to find husbands for his numerous sisters. Leo is given the five free fields, with Phil receiving only what James will share with him.

After the funeral, James drives the family home. Young Leo senses James’s state of mind and offers to give him all the land, an offer which infuriates the older brother. James whips Leo savagely and drives him off the farm. Leo goes to live with his maiden aunts. Rachel and Anna do their best to make a genteel aristocrat of their rough and surly nephew. Nicholas, a ne’er-do-well, is his tutor, and Nicholas himself is rough. A long debate ensues over Leo’s future as a doctor or a gentleman farmer. Leo has little preference, but when he is sent to Limerick to study with Dicky, his doctor cousin, he goes willingly enough.

Nicholas is influential in molding the boy’s sympathies and accompanies him on the journey. Because the tutor had told him of the past insults and atrocities by the aristocracy, Leo becomes angry at the injustices suffered by the poor farmers. In Limerick, the two call on Frankie O’Donnell, Leo’s uncle, a tavernkeeper who is a revolutionary at heart. The rough welcome there is in sharp contrast with his treatment at Doctor Dicky’s house. The old doctor is a gruff Protestant and a teetotaler. Leo is out of place in his country clothes. After a trial term, Leo is sent home in disgrace; he has no aptitude for medicine.

For years, Leo lives an idle and dissolute life. After his aunts die, he becomes the owner of Foxehall. Taking no care of the property, he hunts, carouses, and chases girls. One of them, Philly Cashen, is turned out of old Mag Keene’s house because of her pregnancy. Distraught, Philly goes to Foxehall. Although she knows that Leo is guilty, Judith refuses to help the girl. At last, Judith leaves her youngest son and his fine house and returns to live with James. Philly is not the only girl Leo ruins; another is Julie Keene, who is too young to have been able to resist him successfully.

The Fenian spirit pervades the countryside. Although a landowner, Mad Leo joins the plotters and leads a raid on the police post. By chance, Julie sees them and runs to warn another sweetheart of hers, a detective. The plotters are seized, and Leo is sentenced to fifteen years in jail. While he is in prison, his mother dies, but Leo does not know of her death; his family never informs him. A change of government brings an amnesty, and after ten years, Leo is released.

Julie is still unmarried. Holding no grudge against her, Leo courts her again, and when she becomes pregnant, he mortgages his land to raise money to send her to Dublin. Julie gives birth to a boy, gives him away, and returns as happy as ever. Leo continues his shiftless ways and eventually loses his land to his grasping brother, James. Finally, with the help of a neighborhood priest, Leo is bullied into marrying Julie, and the strange couple set themselves up in a small paper shop in Rathkeale.

Bid, Julie’s pretty youngest sister, comes to live with them after a time. Before long, she is walking out with Johnny Hussey, a police officer. After innocent Bid visits the police barracks with Johnny, Leo questions her closely about the visit, for at the age of sixty, he is still an ardent Fenian. Bid assures Leo that the police officer has said nothing about him, but she half guiltily remembers some joking remarks she had heard. Leo is perturbed. Julie is almost hysterical and demands that Leo bring back their lost son. To quiet her, he finds Johno O’Donnell, now a twenty-year-old sailor, and brings him as a nephew to Rathkeale.

After Johnny searches Leo’s room and finds suspicious letters, the police begin to watch Leo carefully. Still a fiery patriot, Leo plans with his son, Johno, to bring into a river port a shipment of rifles that Johno smuggled aboard his ship. Leo and a few Fenians are waiting with a skiff to take them off when the police surprise them. Leo fires a warning shot. When an officer is wounded, the conspirators quickly row out into the foggy harbor and escape. Leo lands on the other shore. Returning to Rathkeale, he is arrested and sentenced to five years in prison.

Meanwhile, Johnny marries Bid. When he is transferred to Cork, they take Julie, now old and broken, with them. After Leo’s release from prison, the old couple see nothing to do but to live with Johnny, who had been promoted to the post of acting sergeant. Johno and his wife complete the family circle. Denis, Bid’s oldest boy, was always prim. Because Leo and Johno are gusty and loud, Johnny encourages his son to be different. Bid regards Denis as a potential scholar and plans for his education. Old Leo has a small shop where he sometimes takes bets. As always, he knows what is going on among the revolutionaries.

Bid takes in lodgers to get money for the boy’s schooling. Although she is always tired, her efforts seem worthwhile. Nevertheless, Denis is a disappointment to her. He has no head for studies and gives up his ambitions after he fails the civil service examination three times. Worse than that, he quarrels with his father.

Rifles are cracking all over Ireland. When an uprising breaks out in Dublin, Denis, after helping Leo and Johno to escape arrest, calls his father a police spy and takes shelter with the O’Donnells. Like Ireland, his is a house divided.

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