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Esther's Altar

Smith, Paul

London and New York: Abelard-Schuman


Esther's Altar

Plot Summary

Esther Quinn lives at the top of a run-down, overpopulated Dublin tenement house, and it is to her “altar” (a statue of the Blessed Virgin) that all her neighbours come to pray. But on the days when Esther has blindfolded the statue, everyone immediately becomes alert, because this is usually a sign that trouble is awry. The novel implies that the chain of events that unfolds during Easter week in 1916 is somehow connected to Esther’s altar, which is blindfolded throughout the course of the Rising.

After John Goss, Esther’s neighbor, disappears to join the rebels, he finds himself part of a group of men in charge of several British soldiers. When John refuses to shoot the soldiers, insisting that they should be held for questioning instead, he is placed under arrest for disobeying orders. Later, he manages to escape and return home, hiding in one of the more obscure basement rooms in the tenement house. But soon the British come looking for him, offering a sum of fifty pounds to anyone with information of his whereabouts.

Meanwhile, John’s mischievous child neighbour Janey Rielley becomes aware of his hiding place when she hears him conversing with another neighbour late at night. She sells this information to Christina Swords, who is desperate for money because she wants to bribe her lover to marry her. But after she offers information to the soldiers about John's whereabouts and John is shot as a result, she is plagued by guilt. Christina's pain is exacerbated when she learns that her lover has gone to England to marry someone else. In a frenzy of delirium, she hides out in her room, where she mutilates her face with the shards of a broken mirror. Then Janey Rielley arrives, insisting that Christina give her money in exchange for her silence about the information given to the British. Christina chokes Janey to death and hides the body among the mass of sheets on her bed. Hysterical, she slinks through the city and throws herself over a bridge.

Main Characters

  • John Goss

  • Christina Swords

  • Janey Rielley

  • Esther Quinn

Significant Minor Characters

  • Sarah Goss

  • Mollo Goss

  • Jamesie Goss

  • Liam Martin

  • Ba Fay

  • Maisie Collins

  • Hammy Collins

  • Alfie Doyle

  • Billy Boy Beausang

  • Jeremiah Hudson

  • Harriet Rielley

  • Darky Kelly

  • Jemmy Dillon

  • Jim Feeney

  • Mickey Lynch

Publication History

The novel was first published in hardcover in January 1959 by Abelard-Schuman (London and New York). A revised hardcover version of the book was published in April 1977 by Quartet Books (London) under the title Come Trailing Blood. Novel is currently out of print.

In 1965, Smith adapted the novel into a play for BBC Television. A stage version of the earlier BBC production was produced for the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre in 1985.

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