The French were within landing distance. A formidable force of well-trained, experienced soldiers were ready to disembark. For one whole day, the 21st December, the wind held its breath and the sea was calm. But the commander, General Hoche, was missing; his ship had not been seen since Brest. The generals conferred instead of landing. By the time it was agreed that the second-in-command, General Grouchy, should lead the landing forces, it was too late. By the 22nd the fierce east wind resumed. As the fleet rounded the headland into Bantry Bay it blew with the might of an opposing army. Sixteen sail made the bay; the remainder were blown out to sea. Battered and blown about, they hovered outside the mouth of the bay.

The days that followed were passed in a nightmare trance. The flagship Indomptable with its fourteen companion ships made way as far as Beare Island opposite Bantry, almost within touching distance of the mainland. But no small boat could put to sea. On the 24th the gale accelerated to a storm of so great ferocity that orders came from the Admiral that the flagship cut her cables and follow the fleet, some of which was already speeding back to France. But Wolfe Tone was not to be dissuaded and the French officers on board the Indomptable were determined to ride the storm out. The watchers on the shore could do nothing but hope and pray; the Galway militia, one hundred strong, stood prepared to take on the expeditionary force.

But time was on the militia's side and every day brought reinforcements nearer, for Dublin had heard the news and troops were hurrying as fast as wintry conditions and rugged roads would allow, to give the remnants of the French force a warm welcome on a cold day. The peasantry whom the French had come to liberate, exhibited their loyalty to, or their fear of, their masters by turning out to clear the snow-blocked roads. The ladies of the viceregal court in Dublin busied themselves knitting comforts for His Majesty's army. Gwendaline O'Shaughnessy pricked her white fingers with an uncustomary needle as she felled a flannel waistcoat.

These were agonising days for Caroline. Hour after hour of the uncertain daylight, she watched with Hugh Ro, huddled in any available shelter from the bitter, buffeting wind. The Indomptable loomed out of the mists and spray; sometimes moving figures on its decks were visible; Fergal was there, but too obscure to be picked out.

The mountains beyond the bay were covered in snow, the landscape bleak and virtually deserted. By the night of the 27th the storm became a hurricane. Even within the bay, great waves rose. One monstrous wave caught the Indomptable, stove in her quarter-gallery and one of the windows in the great cabin. Water poured in; the cots of the officers were almost torn down; trunks floated about the cabin; the officers barely escaped drowning.

When the storm eventually abated, the Indomptable was alone; her companion ships had cut cables and fled. At four in the morning of December 29th she set sail for France. The French expeditionary force dispersed without a man setting foot on shore.

Hugh Ro, his arm around Caroline, watched the battered Indomptable head out to sea. Like a ghost ship, she disappeared in the night; Caroline, seal dark and silent in her skin wrapping, leant against Hugh Ro, watching till darkness and mist shut the ship from sight. Then, with one wild, despairing cry, she collapsed in his arms. He picked her up and carried her gently down the rough path to the cabin where they had found lodging. For days she hovered between life and death, wracked by fever, exhausted, her great eyes wild, her speech rambling.

So, inauspiciously, the year 1797 came coldly to the west. And the cold which held all Europe in its grip was paralleled by a chilling of the spirit. Something unbelievable had happened. Only the wind had intervened. Bishops preached against uprising. Parliament met on January the 6th to talk of war and peace.

As Caroline's seventeenth birthday passed unnoticed, with the aid of her kind hosts, Hugh Ro nursed her back to health. It seemed that he was always there by her bedside, his hand cool on her brow, his voice strong and comforting. He sang her asleep and whistled her awake and, when she was feeling better, he disclosed that he was making a song for her: “Bla na gCarraig”, the flower of the rocks. Among the rocks of south Galway and north Clare, spring brings an almost miraculous blossoming of exquisite, even exotic flowers. From silted crannies, they spring in all their glory to paint the greyness with a profusion of colour and fragile form. Delicate they seem, yet are tough and enduring, always holding their own in a harsh environment, like hope, never defeated. She wept as Hugh Ro sang his song. She was the rare flower that he had found on the rough road of his life. No man would ever love her as this man did.

As they walked abroad along the calm and smiling shore, he turned to her with a solemn expression:

“I'm glad to see this day,” he said, “and you walking by my side again. 'Twas a hard time you went through. But you have grown up, Caroline. It's not just that you're seventeen. I think you have seen through the follies of men ..... their delusions of power and glory ..... their heroics. Life is something else, isn't it?” 

“It is, Hugh Ro. For me, I think at this moment, it is just being me ..... being true and no pretending. It's that for you too, isn't it?”

“It is. Sometimes I think I might be the last of the fili. They made songs about great victories, laments over defeats. They made gods of the victors, devils of their enemies. What they really thought was never recorded. The simple words were their living. What they really sang of maybe, was more than mortal, older than time. They celebrated the eternal struggle between light and darkness, the war of the invisible gods. And all the while, they seemed to be celebrating the feats and failures of poor actors strutting the stage of time.”

“They sang of love too.”

“They did, and that was their best singing. It was of life.”

“Even love of country?”

“Even so, but there are many ways of giving one's love for a country. I see it as better to give a life than a death. But then, I am not a hero.”

“I think you are, Hugh Ro. I truly think you are.”

It was accolade for Hugh Ro. A deep and lasting friendship developed between them during those gentle days of recovery. He came to represent for her the patient, loving father she had never known. One day, she took him into her confidence as she might a father, told him of her love for Nick Marsmain.

“When you are sure you have met the man you love, marry him,” he said. “The love of women has always crossed the boundaries of opposing hates and loyalties. Like true religion, it transcends race and creed and political affinity. If it does not, then it is a poor, slavish thing. Your love, Caroline, would be as the flower of the rocks. God grant, the man you love appreciates his fortune.”

There was anguish in his voice. “Would that he were me,” he might have added. It was not easy for him to be so much by the side of this beautiful, warm-hearted girl. It was not easy for him who had been so often a lover, to restrain his emotions. As he walked the bleak, wintry roads, he made the stations of the cross in his own flesh.