It’s a real pleasure today to be taking part in the blog tour for the new book from Cathy Mansell, The Dublin Girls: published by Headline Review, this book will be published on 23rd July for kindle, in paperback, and as an audiobook (all available for preorder). My thanks to Emily Patience at Headline for inviting me to join: I also have a reading e-copy, with thanks to the publishers, provided via netgalley.
You might just remember how much I enjoyed Cathy’s last book, A Place to Belong, when I read it in May – you’ll find my review here. If sagas are something you enjoy – or even if you’re as convinced as I used to be that they aren’t for you – she’s an author I’d very much recommend you catch up with. If you’d like to go back a little further and find out about her earlier books, I featured Cathy’s books once before here on Being Anne – she joined me as my guest, when we took a closer look at her books then published by Tirgearr (you can read it again here).
So let’s take a look inside that beautiful cover…
In 1950s Dublin, life is hard and jobs are like gold dust.
Nineteen-year-old Nell Flynn is training to be a nurse and planning to marry her boyfriend, Liam Connor, when her mother dies, leaving her younger sisters destitute. To save them from the workhouse, Nell returns to the family home – a mere two rooms at the top of a condemned tenement.
Nell finds work at a biscuit factory and, at first, they scrape through each week. But then eight-year-old Róisín, delicate from birth, is admitted to hospital with rheumatic fever and fifteen-year-old Kate, rebellious, headstrong and resentful of Nell taking her mother’s place, runs away.
When Liam finds work in London, Nell stays to struggle on alone – her unwavering devotion to her sisters stronger even than her love for him. She’s determined that one day the Dublin girls will be reunited and only then will she be free to follow her heart.
I really wanted to read and review this one – I know how much I loved discovering Cathy’s writing – but I sadly just couldn’t manage it in time for the blog tour. So, instead, I’m delighted to be able to share an exclusive extract: make yourself a cuppa, settle down in a comfortable chair, and here’s Chapter One for you to enjoy…
Dublin City, 1950
Water dripped on to her head and shoulders, running down the thick rubber apron over her feet as Nell stretched to hang the heavy biscuit tins on the hook above her. Her arms ached and her fingers were red and sore from rubbing. It was beyond her how people could send the tins back in such a filthy state. By now, she was flagging and had lost count of how many she had washed, guessing it was near one hundred. As she dropped another sticky tin into the large vat of water, the sound of the siren that heralded the end of the eight-hour shift almost brought tears of relief. She had yet to receive her first week’s wages, having already worked a week in hand, and wondered what she and her sisters would eat tonight.
Outside on the Dublin streets, cold wind blew in her face, making her shiver as the traffic gathered momentum, belching gassy fumes into the air. She was still coming to terms with the buses that now replaced the electric trams. She glanced across to where twenty-two-year-old Liam was waiting, a shopping bag hanging from the handlebars of his bicycle. She broke away from the stream of workers flocking through the factory gates, and walked towards him. In spite of how he made her heart race, she must stay strong.
‘What are you doing here? I… we’d agreed.’
‘No, Nell. I didn’t agree.’
She glanced down. ‘I have to go. You know how it is.’ ‘Only too well. Don’t tell me you like it in there? You’re sacrificing your career, everything you’ve worked for.’
‘I can’t think about that now. I thought you understood.’
‘You’re nineteen. You can’t replace your mother. Won’t you reconsider, or at least let me help?’
‘No, Liam. They’re my family. My responsibility.’ She walked on.
At first, he didn’t follow, but then he was riding alongside her. ‘My mother asked me to give you this. Go on, take it. You’ll offend her if you don’t. I’m not giving up on us, Nell.’ He handed her the bag and cycled away.
Dear Liam. If only things were different. But they were what they were, and she had to get on with it, even if it meant letting go of what she loved the most. Tears gathered when she thought about Ma. Her death – so sudden, only weeks ago – had changed the course of their lives. A heart attack, the doctor said. With Kate and Róisín still at school, finding work had been Nell’s priority if she was to keep a roof over their heads.
She inched the bag on to her shoulder and walked along Peter’s Row until she came to Wood Street. Standing on the factory floor all day aggravated her already painful chilblains, making her feet throb as she cut through and crossed over the Halfpenny Bridge that linked one side of the city to the other. It was early November and the evenings were already drawing in. Tired and hungry, she reached Dominick Street. She glanced along the row of shabby, neglected Victorian houses, once occupied by wealthy English lords and their families before Ireland gained its independence. Now home to Dublin’s poor.
For as long as Nell could remember, they’d lived on the top floor alongside a host of decent families whom her mother had called the salt of the earth. The women no longer stood gossiping in the doorway in the late afternoon. The majority had been rehoused by the Dublin Corporation, moving to new estates in Inchicore, Cabra and Raheny. Now, only a few families remained in rooms on the floors beneath them. Tonight, the dingy hallway was dark and smelly, but light from the street lamp filtered through the broken fanlight. Bulbs were no longer replaced. As she passed through the hall, Joan Kinch – the oldest of eight children, whose mother had been a good friend to Ma – bounded down the stairs.
‘Are ye coming for a stroll down O’Connell Street later? We can take a look in Clery’s window. Sure, me mam will keep an eye on Róisín.’
‘I’m sorry, Joan. I can’t.’
Exhausted, she climbed the eight flights of stairs. The squabbles and noisy rows that penetrated the walls appeared to echo through the house tonight as she reached the top two rooms, which she shared with her siblings. When their father was alive, they considered themselves lucky to live at the top of the house, with large sash windows overlooking the street below. The other advantage was they were further away from the noise and brawls that took place at night. Her parents worked hard to give them a decent life compared to some. Her mother had kept their little home spotless, with a nourishing meal waiting. Now each time she came through the door a lump formed in her throat, and after three weeks she still found it difficult to come to terms with how their lives had changed overnight.
Róisín rushed to greet her, wrapping her thin arms around her sister’s waist.
‘Hello, pet. It’s freezing in here. Why’s the fire out?’ Nell asked.
Kate, her long auburn hair over one shoulder and her nose buried in a library book, glanced up. ‘I tried my best, but it kept going out. I can never light that thing.’
Nell bit back her frustration. ‘It won’t light without fuel. Now, put that book away and go down to the yard and bring up a bucket of coal.’
‘Ah, I hate going down there in the dark.’
Nell glared at her. ‘You should have thought about that earlier, shouldn’t you?’
Kate, used to having everything done for her by their mother, was in for a rude awakening.
‘You’d better pull your weight around here, Kate, or things will get a lot worse.’
Kate scowled at her sister and snatched up the coal scuttle.
‘I’m hungry.’ Róisín held her tummy. The eight-year-old had never been strong, and although she went to school most days, their mother’s death had hit her the hardest. She looked
up, and a curly lock of fair hair fell across her face.
Nell smiled. ‘I know, honey. You peel the spuds while I get the fire going.’ She raked the ashes and placed small pieces of wood on top.
‘Mrs Kinch called up with some of them pig’s trotters she cooked earlier.’ Róisín wrinkled her nose. ‘I hate them. They make me sick.’
‘Well, I hope you said thanks. Did she ask you questions?’ ‘She wanted to know how we were managing.’ Róisín burst into tears. ‘I miss me ma. I want her to come back.’
Nell stood up. ‘It’s all right, honey. But we have to make the best of things. Otherwise those nosey parkers from the St Vincent de Paul will come round, and we don’t want that, do we?’
The two rooms comprised a parlour, with a fireplace and two comfortable armchairs their father had picked up at the auction, a double bed where their parents had slept, and a table and four chairs. Above the mantel was a statue of Mary, two brass candlesticks with candles and matches in case of a power cut, and a framed family photograph portraying happier times. The adjoining room, where Nell slept, had a small scullery in the corner – sectioned off by a curtain – with cupboards, a heavy black gas cooker and a large earthenware sink. Their father had died before he got round to plumbing it in, so their mother had had to go down to the yard and wash the clothes in the wooden tub with a washing board and a cold water tap. The walls in both rooms showed signs of damp, and her mother had put in for a Corporation house. They were all excited about the prospect, despite the reports in the Evening Press that most of the close-knit community who had already moved were unsettled.
Kate struggled in with the coal, and soon flames were shooting up the chimney. She put the potatoes on the gas ring to boil.
‘What else have us to eat? What’s this?’ She opened the shopping bag on the table where Nell had placed it as she came in. ‘Have you got shopping, then?’
Nell nodded. If she mentioned where it came from, Kate would assume she was seeing Liam again and think about the nice treats he used to bring them. The bag held a pound of sausages, a loaf of bread and some lard.
‘Set the table, Kate, and I’ll cook these,’ she said.
Nell placed the links of sausage and the lard on a plate and took it to the scullery, where she pricked the skins before dropping them into the hot fat. To lift her mood, she switched on the radio, and her hips swayed as she worked to the beat of Rosemary Clooney singing ‘This Ole House’.
‘I love the smell of Donnelly’s sausages,’ Kate said as they sat round the table. ‘Ma always fried onions with them.’
‘Well, we have none.’ Nell tucked into her dinner and then glanced across at Róisín, whose small trusting face looked up at her big sister. ‘Come on, pet, eat something, it’ll make you feel better.’
Róisín picked up her fork and played with her food. ‘Lucy Flanagan said . . . she said if we didn’t have a mam or dad, I’d get took away. I won’t, will I, Nell?’
‘No! Definitely not. Take no notice.’ She patted the young girl’s hand.
‘But we might have to move,’ Kate chirped in. ‘There’s hardly anyone left in the tenements. Where do you think they’ll send us?’
‘I don’t know, Kate, and right now I’m struggling to pay for this place. The rent’s due on Friday.’
Nell swallowed. ‘Ma struggled, and if you weren’t so wrapped up in yourself, you’d have noticed. The money Da left her didn’t last, and what she earned as the priest’s housekeeper kept us going.’
‘She never said.’
‘You need to grow up and consider yourself lucky to have stayed on at school when girls your age are working in the biscuit factory. We both might have to do the same if we are to stay together.’
‘No. No, I won’t.’ Kate glared at her. ‘Miss Leach says I have great potential . . . and besides, I’m not working in any old factory.’
Róisín whimpered, and Nell patted her hand to comfort her.
‘That’s enough, Kate. This isn’t helping.’ Filled with despair, anger spread through Nell like a fire and she gripped the table. If their mother was here, she’d have slapped Kate.
The door knocked and Mrs Kinch, who lived on the floor below them, walked in. ‘It’s only me. I want to make sure youse are all right.’
Nell smiled. ‘We’re okay, thanks, Mrs Kinch. Please, sit down. Would you like tea?’
‘No, sure I’m grand. And call me Amy. I’m going to be keeping an eye on youse for a while, so I am.’
Kate glared at Nell, then got up and took Róisín away and sat her by the fire.
‘How’re ye gettin’ on at the biscuit factory?’ asked the older woman.
‘Well, okay, I suppose.’ Nell leant her arms on the table. ‘Have you any idea when you might be rehoused?’
‘No, but it won’t be long, love. Ten of us. And with the kids growing, we’re cramped.’
Nell nodded. ‘By the way, thanks for the crubeens.’
‘I’d be able to do more for youse if the aul’ fella didn’t drink.’ Amy gave a little laugh. ‘Ah, sure that’s the way of it.’ She glanced over at Róisín lying on the rug in front of the fire. ‘Sure, that child’s dead on her feet. I’ll be off and let you settle down for the night. You know where I am if you need ought. And, Nell, you’d better let the housing people know about your mam.’
Nell had put off writing the letter, knowing how much a new house would have meant to her ma. Amy went on, ‘The Corporation won’t give youse a house now. Sure, if push comes to shove, you can always move in with us.’
As kind as Amy Kinch was, the thought of that happening filled Nell with despair.
Doesn’t that look good? I hope it made you want to read on too. I’m so looking forward to catching up with this one – and before too long, I hope.
About the author
Cathy Mansell was born in Ireland and, although she now lives in Leicester, her Irish heritage plays a significant role in her fiction. Hailing from a family of writers, she says it was inevitable that she too would become one. She has had five novels published by Tirgearr Publishing before publishing A Place to Belong and The Dublin Girls with Headline.