Set primarily on Drogheda—a fictional sheep station in the Australian Outback named after Drogheda , Ireland —the story focuses on the Cleary family and spans the years to The novel is the best selling book in Australian history, and has sold over 33 million copies worldwide. In , the novel was adapted into a television series also called The Thorn Birds that, during its run 27—30 March, became the United States' second-highest-rated miniseries of all time behind Roots. Meghann "Meggie" Cleary, a four-year-old girl living in New Zealand in the early twentieth century, is the only daughter of Paddy, an Irish farm labourer and Fee, his harassed but aristocratic wife. Meggie is a beautiful child with curly red-gold hair but receives little coddling and must struggle to hold her own. Her favourite brother is the eldest, Frank, a rebellious young man who is unwillingly preparing himself for the blacksmith 's trade. He is much shorter than his other brothers, but very strong.
Forced to choose between the woman he loves, and the Church he is sworn to, Father Ralph's ambitions win, and he stays with the Church, eventually becoming a Cardinal in Rome. De Bricassart never realizes that Meggie's bright, compliant young son, Dane, is his child, even when the boy comes to Rome to study for the priesthood. After Dane's tragic death, Meggie must choose between her own comfort, and the independence of her beautiful, willful daughter Justine, a talented actress. McCullough's tome, almost pages in length, details the private lives of three generations of the Cleary clan over 55 years, and paints a convincing portrait of the trials and rewards of life in the Australian desert, and one woman's doomed love for an unavailable man. Meggie Cleary is a beautiful, but lonely little girl of nine with red-gold hair, when the family moves to Drogheda. Meggie's brothers are all busy with the ranch, and she is soon forced to quit school to care of the younger children. Ralph de Bricassart, a handsome young Roman Catholic priest, befriends the child.
Having nothing else with which to read myself to sleep, I took it to bed with me. When the clatter of the nightingales the original thorn birds gave way to the pre-dawn chorus, I was still reading, utterly engrossed in the best bad book I had ever read. Rereading it now, the same thing happens: I read on hungrily wanting more, but not of the story of forbidden love between damsel and cleric. The main plot of The Thorn Birds has always struck me as absurdly implausible, probably because I can remember too clearly the time a priest asked me in the confessional if my impure thoughts involved any particular person. The temptation to answer "Yes, Father! You, Father!