Sir Thomas Fitzgerald, a wealthy landowner living at Castle Richmond, County Cork, married Mary Wainwright, whose former husband was believed to have died in Paris. There were three children, Herbert, Emmeline and Mary. Nearby lived the Countess of Desmond, with her daughter Clara and her young son Patrick. Owen Fitzgerald, a relative of Sir Thomas, and his heir after Herbert, lived at Hap House not far away. Owen was in love with Lady Clara and considered himself engaged to her, but the Countess would not acknowledge the engagement, giving as her reason the unconventional life Owen was supposed to live in his bachelor quarters. Her real reason was that she herself was in love with him.
For some time before the story opens, Matthew Mollett, representing himself to be Lady Fitzgerald's first husband, had been blackmailing Sir Thomas, threatening an exposure that would make their children illegitimate and give the estate to Owen. Mr. Prendergast, the family lawyer, urged a frank acceptance of the situation. Sir Thomas died, broken-hearted, and the family were preparing to leave the castle when the lawyer discovered that Mollett had been married before he met Mary Wainwright and that consequently her marriage to Sir Thomas was a legal one. Herbert succeeded to the estate and married Lady Clara Desmond. Throughout the book there are moving descriptions of the famine of 1846-47.