New Irish Writing: Agnes by Róisín O’Neill

May’s winning story

Illustration by Simon Rischar for the New Irish Writing short story, Agnes by Róisín O’Neill

Róisín O'Neill, the May winner of the New Irish Writing short story

Róisín O'Neill

From the long lane behind the house he hears her, but he will ignore her call until the exhortation becomes so sharp and loud he dare not defy it further.

He drops the stick he held poised to fling at a rabbit, kicks a stone in a faint show of bravado before sprinting back to the house as fast as his bulky, three-times-taken-up-to-last short trousers will allow.

By his mother’s side in a green dress at the red back door is a girl, squinting against the sunlight. Years later, he will still see her this way.

Her head tilts in discernment, watchfulness. She is small and slight, but some instinct tells him that she is a little older than his seven years.

She tries to hide behind a hank of her cropped, copper-coloured hair. His own hair is bleached almost white from spending June and July mainly out of doors, the curls shorn away on a recent first trip to the barber, after which his ordinarily stoic mother cried quietly.

His mother pushes the little girl towards him. “Take Agnes up town,” she says, proffering a rare shilling from the pocket of her floral housecoat, “get a bun each and a mineral in Dyars.”

For the month of August, she is his constant and not entirely welcome companion.

He and Davey Winston from over the road have important things to be doing: fighting over whose turn it is to be the marshal in a game of High Noon that has run all summer long, getting in at the raspberries in the gardens of Clonalla House, slingshotting rabbits, racing paper boats under the bridge at the demesne, guffawing over Davey’s pile of Desperate Dan comics.

Girls, even wordless uncomplaining ones like Agnes, are a burden. She is inconvenient, sometimes even embarrassing, with her English accent.

He himself is shy, but he has never known any child so silent and wary. “A sneaking regarder,” Davey calls her, in mindless repetition of a phrase he has heard somewhere.

Each summer after that she reappears in Clonalla.

They get on best when they are alone together, serving in his mother’s small shop. Both of them are quick with numbers and they vie to stand on an old USA biscuit tin at the counter, adding up prices with a pencil on pieces of cardboard torn off sweet boxes, counting out change, each casting triumphant sidelong glances at the other.

Agnes writes her numbers with the opposite hand to him — “a ciotóg” is his mother’s term — and she bears the endless pass-remarkable commentary this attracts from customers with her usual lack of complaint or emotion.

The brothers in St Michael’s would belt that out of you, but in her school in Birmingham she is not much chastised for being caggie-handed, she says.

These are the nicest times with her, in the shop, maybe on a wet afternoon, one of them perched at the edge of the old car seat holding the long toasting fork over the turf fire, passing the bronzed slices of bread over onto the blue and white plate for the other to slather in butter with the old bone-handled knife.

The Roscommon footballer and Galway hurler in the ‘Player’s Please’ ceramic on the mantelpiece gaze benignly but manfully out over them. The Sweet Afton billboard on the floor catches small sparks from the hearth. The inflated Chiquita banana suspended from the ceiling on a length of catgut sways gently in the fire-warmed air.

Out and about with him and Davey, she follows in their wake. She loves mart day up the town and displays rare animation as the crowds and cattle mill about. Being so small, the three of them are buffeted along in the warm damp fug of stale tobacco and sweat and bellowing beasts.

She does not mind the sour smells or the spitting and shouting and lowing. There is nothing like this in Digbeth, she says, her eyes bright.

At the children’s home where she lives, there is no wafer-and-ice-cream or buttered toast. There is no lushly grassy demesne with its shining river in her city, nor the freedom of the fields beyond.

There are streets and more streets, there is smog and falling soot, there are food coupons and there is margarine not butter because there was a war a long time ago and there is rationing still, she says, in one rare burst of volubility.

At 12 he goes away to boarding school, for which his aunt in Florida sends the fees. He is bright and it is considered worthwhile that he be given a chance there rather than go to the Brothers in town.

That summer he goes with his father on the ferry and train over to a farm outside Glasgow, picking potatoes all day and sleeping in the barns with the other men and boys from Ireland at night, doing his best to shut out the phlegmy hacking and farting and snoring all around.

The following summer, being tall and with no one particularly interrogating his age, he goes over to Birmingham and works washing buses in a yard, and stays with his aunt Tessie, the aunt who never ever comes home to Clonalla.

Summers after that he has grown even more and has bulked out enough to be useful on the building sites, where he will also spend more long summers earning towards his university fees for each new academic year.

Tessie spoils him in her fashion, and he often thinks it is a shame she did not have her own children or at least a husband.

In rare idle moments he wonders what the little girl from all those summers in Clonalla is doing now, and if she is in Birmingham somewhere still.


Many years later when he is married with children and living in Galway and after much persuading, Aunt Tessie comes to stay.

She keeps her hair in the same close-permed style that he remembers, though she has given up the vivid auburn dye in favour of grey with the faint blue tinge of the hairdresser’s rinse.

Around her shoulders she wears a scarf with a saddle and stirrup pattern, tied at the neck over a pale blue twin set.

His two little girls think she is the Queen of England, and she does possess something of that remote and proper manner. Her only break with the uniform of elderly middle England is a vivid slash of pink lipstick.

She mainly sits in the corner chair in the living room and smiles genteelly. Though she liberally dispenses 50p pieces, she has little interest in his daughters, but why would she, having no experience of children.

Her life, he reflects during that visit, was perhaps not easy. She worked on the cash register in the restaurant in Lewis’s department store in Birmingham until her 60s when her hips got too bad.

His mother had vaguely referenced a boyfriend of years before, her “fancy man” was the disparaging epithet, but that is all he knows of Tessie having had a romantic life.

He could still see her council flat in his mind’s eye, small and immaculate with many inexpensive frilled and florid feminine touches: a vase of yellow and pink plastic roses, a porcelain figurine of a shepherd girl carefully displayed on a pristine starched lace doily.

He deceived her once. She was away overnight and after an evening in the pub he let his friend John from the building site stay, putting him in Tessie’s room, where she discovered him snoring out a vapour of stale ale from under her pink Candlewick bedspread when she returned unexpectedly early the next day.

Though she adored her nephew, this treachery wounded her deeply. She was so private. The invasion was terrible to her, and even now, warm shame filled him when he remembered her hurt at this violation.

He had a sense always of her having been disappointed in life, and here he was, another man, letting her down.

The month after her visit, Pope John Paul II came to Ireland, addressing a crowd of hundreds of thousands at a youth mass at Galway’s Ballybrit racecourse, where he told the young people of Ireland that he loved them.

He had sent Tessie a souvenir postcard with the pontiff on it, his arms stretched out wide as he bestowed a blessing.


He did not imagine that a year later he would be standing above deck on a ferry bracing against the biting wind, en route to Tessie’s funeral in England, asking the grey choppy sea how in God’s name had this happened.

His last contact with her had been brief lines of greeting exchanged in their Christmas cards, hers with £10 notes for the children enclosed.

When the phone call came, he disintegrated. His wife Anita stared at him astonished and his daughters looked on bewildered, never having seen their father cry. Never having seen such a loss of control, such a visceral bawling.

It had been three weeks before neighbours alerted the council to an odour, and then Tessie’s body was discovered in her little flat. On the phone his mother related these details to him, the circumstances of the death of her sister, younger than her by just a year, with apparent matter of factness.

How Tessie would have hated that mess and disorder, he thought, that public fuss. The shame of it.


At the graveside, a small group huddles close against the sleeting rain. There is his mother and himself, his bachelor uncle, his American aunt and her husband over from Vero Beach and two neighbours of Tessie’s whom he has met once or twice. There is a woman he does not know, whom his mother greets with a curt nod.

He observes the woman watching with intensity the coffin’s descent into the earth. After the burial she stands with her head bowed a little, giving shy, diffident nods as one of the neighbours murmurs solicitously to her.

In a nearby Berni Inn afterwards he comes back from parking the car and is mildly surprised to see the woman sitting with his mother and aunt and uncles.

She rises to greet him: “Brendan”, and he sees that her eyes when they meet his are Tessie’s eyes, are his mother’s eyes, are his own.

The glacial bolt of shock begins to subside and of course, he thinks, of course, that is who she is, who she was, in Clonalla, all those years ago.

His mother will not meet his gaze when he turns to her in questioning amazement.

Later he walks Agnes out to the carpark.

“Over the last few years I saw a bit more of Mam,” she says, in the small voice that had not changed much from nearly 30 years before, “though I live in Wakefield now.

“After I was fostered, I still saw her from time to time.”

She tells him of the several foster families by whom she was cared for but, it was clear, probably not loved. She tells him of the occasional visits to Tessie, who seemed unable or afraid to love her.

She did not see her father from about the age of seven. A police constable, married with two young sons, he gladly took a transfer to Leeds when it was offered.

At 15, she left school, attracted by the prospect of earning her own way, though she would have liked to stay on. She was clever; lessons were always easy for her.

“You and me had brains to burn, Brendan,” she laughs ruefully, “not like poor Davey Winston! What was it his father called him, oh, ‘a dorán’!” She pronounces doh-rawn in the sing-song Birminghamese he remembers so well.

At 19, there had been a husband but he was a bad lot, she says, and he divines great understatement in the description.

But then later she met Roy, “a good man,” and they have two children.

She begins to cry chokingly, and he holds her, burying his own tears in her copper hair.


On the long drive back to Holyhead, his mother talked in her stream of consciousness fashion of everything and nothing, though her face showed strain and her small gloved hands clutching her good handbag were restless.

He had tried to hold his tongue, he would tell Anita later. He had tried. She had, after all, lost her sister. Her sister, his beloved aunt, her body left to decompose in the little flat far, far away from Clonalla.

“Why,” he eventually exploded, slamming his fist on the dashboard, causing his mother to jump in her seat, “Why did you never tell me?”

“Why would I tell you?” she enquired. “In any case, I thought,” she added mildly, “that you knew.”

Róisín O'Neill, the May winner of the New Irish Writing short story

About the author

Originally from Galway city, Róisín O’Neill lives and works in Dublin. She likes to write about the sharp edges of what appear to be ordinary or insignificant experiences. She’s a little bit obsessed by how our family lives shape us.

How to enter

New Irish Writing, edited by Ciaran Carty and appearing in the Irish Independent on the last Saturday of each month, is open to writers who are Irish or resident in Ireland. Stories submitted should not exceed 2,000 words. Up to four poems may be submitted. There is no entry fee. Writers whose work is selected will receive €120 for fiction and €60 for poetry. You can email your entry, preferably as a Word document, to Please include your name, address and contact number, as well as a brief biographical paragraph. Only writers who have yet to publish their first book can be considered.

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