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 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...
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