The Irish Healer - By Nancy Herriman


At sea, 1832

My name is Rachel Dunne.

I am not a murderer.”

Rachel tightened her grip on the ship’s wooden rail, as if she might choke into silence the echo of her own voice. Better to focus on the receding sight of Ireland’s blue-green hills, seek to memorize every bounding stream, every wisp of misty fog, every rubble-walled farmer’s field, than to remember. For who knew how long—if ever—it would be before she saw her beloved homeland again.

“Oh, Mother,” she murmured over the slap of the paddle wheels and the hiss of the steam, the scree of persistent seagulls skimming the boat’s wake. “How did it come to this?”

This parting, this going. Deoraiocht. This exile.

Mother was not there to answer Rachel’s question; they could only afford ship’s passage for one, and Rachel was the one who had to leave. Mother and the rest had stayed behind in Carlow to mend the damage Rachel had never meant to cause. Restore the honor of the Dunne name in a town already prone to dislike them for their English ways. Once Rachel had been a healer, but she could not heal the scar upon her family No more than she’d been able to heal poor Mary Ferguson, who had died so quickly and so quietly even Rachel had been at a loss to explain the how and the why.

I would never harm the ill. I am a banaltradh . . .

A healer. If the thought didn’t hurt so much, Rachel might laugh. She had vowed never to let herself be a healer again.

Against the cool spray of the sea, Rachel knotted her fringed shawl around her neck, the charcoal wool warming her skin while her thoughts chilled her soul, and wrapped her arms about her waist. Cove of Cork dwindled, its pale stucco and limestone homes that snaked along the hillside becoming indistinct, its proud fleet of yachts bobbing at anchorage transformed into specks of white upon the cerulean blue waters. Two islands, bristling with storehouses, obliterated the last of the view The paddle-steamer chugged past the looming stone forts that guarded the mouth of the bay, Forts Camden and Carlisle, names Mrs. O’Rourke had helpfully supplied when they’d set out. Next, according to Rachel’s traveling companion, would be the lighthouse guarding the shoals, white-splashed with waves, and then the Irish Sea.

And England.

Mother’s birthplace, but an alien land to Rachel.

She reached into the pocket hidden deep within the folds of her brown kersey skirts. Her fingers closed around the muslin bag tied with a grosgrain ribbon to keep the contents intact—dried leaves of mint, pennyroyal, and gentian. Mother had pressed the sachet into Rachel’s hand when they’d parted in Carlow, a final gift as Rachel had readied to climb onto the post chaise bound for Cork Harbor. Her mother’s soft green eyes had brimmed with tears, tears she’d kept at bay to stop the twins, clinging to Mother’s skirts, from crying. Poor Sarah and Ruth. Too young to understand what was happening. And Nathaniel, trying hard to be the man of the family, straight-backed and sober, but at fourteen not truly ready for the role.

Rachel clutched the bag. The mixture of herbs was meant to help Rachel should she feel faint or dizzy. If she had not fainted in a stifling Carlow courtroom with her fate in jeopardy, however, she would not faint now. Lifting it to her nostrils, she inhaled, the aroma pungent and sweet. Right then, she would rather the herbs had been dried heather from the knoll beyond their house, or the lavender her mother used to scent the linens. Or maybe snippings from the peppery scarlet nasturtiums that grew by the kitchen door. The aromatic bits of her life.

“Ho! Stop now!” A proper English gentleman, coat collar turned up to graze his whiskers, shouted at a scrum of boys quick to turn the quarter-deck into a play field. They shouted back a string of Gaelic curses and chased each other along the length of the planking.

“Don’t let those hooligans bother you, miss,” the man said.

“They do not bother me, sir. I have a brother who is just as high-spirited.”

His gaze made a quick assessment of Rachel’s status as a lady. He could not fail to note her serviceable dress, well-worn shawl, and Irish-red hair—and find her lacking. “Heading for England for work, I presume?”

“I have a situation with a physician in London.” She shuddered anew at the thought. At the irony After all she had been through, to find herself in