The epic begins with Meghann “Meggie” Cleary, a four-year-old girl living in New Zealand in the early twentieth
century, the only daughter of Paddy, an Irish farm labourer, and Fee, his harassed but aristocratic wife. Although Meggie is a beautiful child with curly red-gold hair, she receives little coddling and must struggle to hold her own against her numerous older brothers. Of these brothers, her favourite is the eldest, Frank, a rebellious young man who is unwillingly preparing himself for the blacksmith’s trade. He is much shorter than his brothers, but very strong; also, unlike the other Clearys, he has black hair and eyes.
In Drogheda, Meggie meets Ralph de Bricassart, a young, capable, and ambitious priest who, as punishment for insulting a bishop, has been relegated to a remote parish in the town of Gillanbone, near Drogheda. Ralph has befriended Mary, hoping a hefty enough bequest from her to the Catholic Church might liberate him from his exile. Ralph is strikingly handsome, “a beautiful man”; Mary, who does not bother to conceal her desire for him, often goes to great lengths to see if he can be induced to break his vows. Ralph blandly shrugs off these attentions and continues his visits. Meanwhile, he cares for all the Clearys and soon learns to cherish beautiful but forlorn little Meggie. Meggie, in return, makes Ralph the centre of her life. With Frank gone and Hal dead, Meggie clings to Ralph more than ever. This goes largely unnoticed because Ralph has now been her mentor for several years; however, as she ripens into womanhood, some begin to question their close relationship, including Ralph and Meggie themselves. Mary Carson has also noticed their changing relationship, and from motives of jealousy mingled with Machiavellian cruelty, she devises a plan to separate Ralph from Meggie by tempting him with his heart’s desire: a high place in the Church hierarchy. Although her will of record leaves the bulk of her estate to Paddy, she quietly writes a new one, making the Roman Catholic Church the main beneficiary and Ralph the executor.In the new will, the true magnitude of Mary’s wealth is finally revealed. Drogheda is not the centre of her fortune as Ralph and Paddy have long believed but is merely a hobby.
Until tomorrow: The lofty pine is oftenest shaken by the winds; High towers fall with a heavier crash; And the lightning strikes the highest mountain.