Julie Foley is sixteen when she and her family are evicted from their humble mountain dwelling in the Mayo town of Attymass. Their crime is rental arrears. It's 1847 and the potato famine has impoverished Ireland. Corpses of men, women and children lie strewn across the ditches and fields, having dropped like flies from fever, exhaustion and starvation. Thanks to the generosity of the hedge schoolmaster and his wife, Julie and her family are given a lifesaving opportunity to emigrate to North America. But first they must survive the journey aboard one of the 'coffin ships' where thousands of their countrymen and women have perished before them.
Since childhood, Julie has yearned to become a teacher. Can Fionn McDonagh, the young Irish rebel and poet, persuade Julie to hold on to her dream despite the squalid conditions on board the 'Elizabeth and Sarah'? Will Julie's faith keep her dream alive when her family settle in the working-class district of Griffintown in Montreal, and the only chance of earning a shilling is working in domestic service? Can Julie's dream of a teaching career survive as she toils under the cruel eyes of her employer, a wealthy Northern Irish widow who owns a mansion on Mount Royal?