First published: New York: Harper & Row, 1977
Subgenre(s): Literary fiction; saga
Core issue(s): Catholics and Catholicism; guilt; healing; priesthood; repentance
Ralph de Bricassart, a priest and later cardinal in the Catholic Church
Meggie Cleary, the only daughter of the Cleary family
Fiona Cleary, Meggie’s mother
Padraic “Paddy” Cleary, Meggie’s father
Mary Carson, Paddy’s sister, owner of Drogheda
Patrick Cleary, Meggie’s brothers
Luke O’Neill, Meggie’s husband
Justine O’Neill, Meggie’s daughter
Dane O’Neill, Meggie’s son
Rainer Moerling Hartheim, Justine’s lover
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 Justine. Luke does not bother acknowledging the birth of his daughter. Meggie is having such a difficult time recovering from the pregnancy that she accepts the offer of a vacation on Matlock Island, a gift from her friends and employers. Her friends’ plan is to send Luke to join her when he shows up, but Luke is not interested. When Father de Bricassart arrives for a visit and asks where Meggie is, they send him to join her. They believe him...
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when he says he only wants to see her. Father de Bricassart and Meggie have an affair that lasts long enough for Meggie to become pregnant. When she realizes that she is expecting a child that is most likely Father de Bricassart’s, she arranges to visit Luke for what is to be their last encounter. Then she returns to Drogheda.
In 1938, Meggie gives birth to a son she names Dane. She swears never to tell de Bricassart that the child is his. By this time, de Bricassart is an archbishop working in the Vatican, and the unrest that will become World War II is beginning to gather force. Fiona, who lost Paddy years before in a fire, works with Meggie to maintain life at Drogheda. When Dane is seven, Fiona tells Meggie that she knows who fathered the boy; she also tells Meggie that she will pay for what she has done.
In time, de Bricassart becomes a cardinal. When Dane decides he wants to be a priest, his mother is horrified, believing that the Church has robbed her of both the men she loves. Ultimately, however, she sends him to seminary in Rome, putting him under the care of de Bricassart. Justine, who has become an actress and something of a star on the London stage, visits Dane in Rome. They have tea in the Vatican with de Bricassart, and she is introduced to Rainer Moerling Hartheim. Rainer is a friend of de Bricassart and something of a self-made German magnate. He and Justine begin a long friendship, although at first Justine refuses to allow the relationship to become romantic.
When it is time for Dane to be ordained as a priest, all of the uncles on Drogheda attend the ordination, but Meggie refuses. After the ordination, Dane plans to take a holiday in Greece, and Justine is to join him there. She receives notice of a chance to play a part she covets, however, and returns to London, while Dane continues his stay in Greece. On the beach, he sees some tourists caught in the undertow. In rescuing them, he loses his own life. Dane’s death is hugely devastating to his family. Justine blames herself for not being there and ends her relationship with Rainer. Meggie flies to Rome and secures de Bricassart’s help to transport Dane’s body home for burial. At this point she tells him the truth about Dane’s parentage, and de Bricassart helps her; he even goes to Drogheda to officiate at Dane’s funeral, but he dies of a heart attack while there.
Justine decides to leave the stage to return to Drogheda for good. Ultimately, however, Meggie knows that the move will be destructive for Justine, and she writes to her, urging her to stay in London. Justine reunites with—and marries—Rainer.
One of the strongest Christian themes in The Thorn Birds appears to be that the wages of sin is death. Those who engage in sinful activities lose someone dear to them. Fiona had a child before she was married to Paddy Cleary; that child, Frank, eventually winds up in prison for thirty years. Meggie loses both de Bricassart and Dane. De Bricassart loses the son he never knew and eventually his life. God, as envisioned by Colleen McCullough, is not only a jealous God; he is a vengeful one, as well.
However, other sins seem less frequently punished. De Bricassart can do the Clearys out of their inheritance with impunity; he rises in the Church anyway. If he suffers pangs of conscience, those pangs do not deter him from his clerical ambitions. Dane is presented as perhaps the most pure-hearted character in the story, and for that and his heroism, he drowns, the sins of the parents visited upon him.
It remains for Justine, not presented as a likable character at all, to effect a degree of healing in the family. She suffers great guilt when Dane dies, though she was not responsible. Meggie finally rises to an unselfish act by freeing her from her need for repentance, allowing healing to come to the women in the family and allowing Justine finally to love and be loved.
Sources for Further Study
- Cassill, Kay. “The Thorned Words of Colleen McCullough.” Writer’s Digest, March, 1980. Looks at the way McCullough works, particularly how she went about creating the story and the characters in The Thorn Birds.
- DeMarr, Mary Jean. Colleen McCullough. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Examines nine novels by McCullough, including The Thorn Birds; includes a biography of McCullough.
- Morris, Gwen. “An Australian Ingredient in American Soap: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough.” Journal of Popular Culture 24, no. 4 (Spring, 1991): 59-69. Compares the novel to similar American works, pointing out those elements that are distinctly Australian. Also considers religious themes, noting the novel’s Puritanical slant.