Choosing A Topic For My Novel – The Great Irish Famine

Words fascinate me.  Their sounds convey meaning. Yet meanings change as words join forces into stories of the past, present and future.  Of all three types of tales, historical sagas intrigue me the most.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Quill_and_ink.svgA brilliant piece of historical writing has the power to connect us to our past, helping us find meaning in our present day lives.

Writers are story tellers and I long to tell the story of our Irish ancestors.   Over the twenty-something years I have spent living in America I have often heard people say:

 

“My family came here at the time of the Famine, but that is all I know.”

 Image Credit

“The Famine” is  a distant scar on the collective memory of the Irish diaspora here in America.  Many have told me they would love to learn more about this great calamity, but there are few recent fiction books written about the topic.

Two most notable novels are Liam O’Flaherty’s “Famine”, published in 1937, and Walter Macken’s “The Silent People” published in 1962.  In future posts I will share my reviews of these books, and more contemporary novels of the Famine.  I think I have read them all.

And so six years ago, when my triplets were born, I started creating my novel of the Great Hunger in my “spare time.”  Honestly I didn’t write much.  As I rocked colicky babies to sleep in my arms, I dreamed of my plot, my heroine, her trials and tribulations, and above all her determination and will to survive.

“The Famine!” I hear you gasp. “What a very depressing topic!” I may be crazy, but truth be told, I found my novel planning very therapeutic.  It helped distract me from the mayhem of my own life with four little ones aged two and under.  When my life seemed crazy, I always thought “it could be worse.”  If my ancestors made it through the famine, then I knew my life’s challenges were really a thing of nothing.

And so, my novel was born.  In the past six years I have read countless texts, facts, statistics, historical documents, proceedings of parliament, letters, and old newspaper articles to further my understanding of this world changing event.

My book has grown word-by-word, chapter-by-chapter into a novel chronicling the tragic course of events which culminated in the Great Irish Famine, a calamity so devastating a kingdom was engulfed in turmoil, forcing exile that would reshape nations for decades and centuries after.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Skibbereen_by_James_Mahony,_1847.JPG

Skibbereen by James Mahony 1847 – Public Domain

Image Credit

I think echoes of the famine have always haunted me, especially since I spent so much time as a child in Skibbereen, an area devastated between 1845 and 1850.  Before completing such extensive research for my book, I envisioned my Cork ancestors as victims, huddled around the hearth, hungry and afraid, not the survivors they truly were.

School history lessons in 1970’s Ireland made me think my forefathers had died.  In my head my family lay amongst the victims.  But if they had died I would not be here.  I am the descendant of survivors.  And so for me, the story of survival not death, is the one that needs telling.

I started questioning my view of the past.  What did my family do to survive?  Did they close their doors, shut themselves off from the world, conserve their resources and watch neighbors die and leave for America?

I learned that not only the Irish suffered.  All who lived on the small island of Ireland, both rich and poor, Irish and English, were trapped in a tragedy that destroyed a generation, altering a people’s thinking forever. The people of Ireland marked each other both callously and compassionately. We became “the silent people”.  I believe these chains of silent shame can only be broken, if we come to understand and accept how all the people of Ireland were affected by this devastating episode in Irish history.  The overlapping lives of my novel celebrate the capacity of the human spirit to stumble, to err, to forgive, to seek fulfillment, and above all else, to survive and endure.

I always carry a notebook, recording words, thoughts and simple stories that strike me as meaningful.  In the coming months I will share a series of posts, underscoring my understanding of the Irish Famine.  I’ll even explain why I still call the event the “Famine”, despite scholars now insisting we call it the “Great Hunger”.  I will share book recommendations, facts and stories, and even delve into my interpretation of how the famine played a role in creating the infamous Irish psyche of today and yesteryear.

I have worked on a few novels in the past, but never completed one to my satisfaction, one I could proudly present to a publisher.  Not until now.   My current novel-in-progress is nearing completion.  I am working tirelessly to edit and fine tune each chapter, so that my perfectionist’s streak will finally grant me permission to share it with the world.

When I do not post on this blog as frequently as you might like, please know that I am probably working feverishly on my book (or ferrying kids from soccer, to swimming, to Irish dancing, or else I am just plain exhausted).

Please forgive my sporadic blogging, as I finally complete my book, then learn and explore the complicated world of agents, editors and publishers. I look forward to this journey, praying my Irish ancestors’ love of the spoken and written word, continues to live through me.

 

 

Slán agus beannacht leat!

(Goodbye and blessings)

 

 

Irish American Mom

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Comments

  1. Riobárd de Móinbhíol says:

    Good luck I/A Mom, I have read several books about the Famine and look forward to yours. Though a depressing time in our history, I believe it is imperative that we are made to know and subsequently learn from it. Most people, especially us of Irish descent in the U.S., have very little knowledge of the hardships the Irish have endured for centuries. As the Irish were forced to starve in Ireland, Irish Catholic immigrants here were being discriminated against wholesale. Being aware of how my people were treated and how they eventually overcame that mistreatment, I believe makes me a more rounded person today. I don’t live in the past, but I am fully aware of that past. Once again, good luck and coinnigh an creadamh (keep the faith), RdeM.

    • Hi Riobárd – Coinnóidh me an creidimh ar mbealach deacair an scríobhnóir atá os comhair amach uaim. Go raibh míle maith agat le do chreidimh i mo scéal.
      Thanks so much for stopping by and for your supportive words about my novel-in-progress. I think there are many stories begging to be told about the Irish experience here in America. When I finish this book about one girl’s struggle to survive the Famine, I hope to start a book about the Irish and the Cherokee people here in Kentucky.
      Take care and thanks for visiting my site. Stop by whenever you have a moment to spare to share in my ramblings.
      Mairéad

  2. I came across your blog recently while searching images, and I’m so glad I was lucky enough to find you! I love your posts, and your book topic sounds fascinating. Three of my four grandparents were of Irish descent and I certainly consider myself Irish, yet I know so little of Irish history. I’d love to read about your recommendations of Irish history books – and your own book someday too!

    • Sarah – I am delighted you found my blog. It is amazing how powerful search engines are. Many readers have found my blog as they search for images. I will start sharing more snippets and stories from Irish history in the coming weeks and months, and especially some of the insights I have learned about the Famine. I hope someday you will be able to read my book – I dream of being a published author. Finding an agent or a publisher can be an arduous task, but I have a thick skin and am well prepared for those infamous rejection letters. I take heart from the knowledge that J.K Rowling’s manuscript for Harry Potter was rejected a number of times, before it was finally accepted. I am sure those agents and publishers are now regretting their hasty decisions. Anyway, enough of my ramblings. Thanks again for stopping by and for leaving such a nice comment. All the best and enjoy your weekend.
      Mairead

  3. Mairead, what a wonderfully written post – you are truly gifted with words! Wishing you luck with the completion of your novel…it’s something I would be eager to read.

    • Thanks Elizabeth – my work is really just beginning. Editing unnecessary words and paragraphs is the hard part now. Fingers crossed I find an agent or a publisher someday soon.
      Best wishes,
      Mairead

  4. Diana Church says:

    I discovered your blog while searching unsuccessfully for a cream of vegetable soup recipe like the ones my husband and I enjoyed during our time in Ireland last year. We visited a small Famine museum in Thurles, County Tipperary during our stay. Several of my grandparents of varying generations back immigrated to America between 1820-1845, including one from County Cork. I will look forward to your upcoming posts on the Famine, and will be awaiting word that you’ve not only secured a publisher but that your novel has finally been published. What an endeavor! The best of luck to you.

    • Thanks Diana. When I am back in Ireland this summer I must check out the Famine museum in Thurles. So happy to hear you had the chance last year to visit Ireland and the counties your ancestors hail from.
      Farmhouse cream of vegetable soup is one of my favorites. I must add it to my recipe to do list, but I am afraid I have not been as diligent as I should be with cooking and photographing recipes lately. I have been focusing more on my book. Thank you for your good wishes for success as I continue on my journey towards publication. All the best,
      Mairead

  5. This is great to hear Mairead. I can’t wait to see the final product. The very best of luck in making it as perfect as you would wish :) I’m sure it’ll be very popular

    Liam

    • Liam – Making it as perfect as I wish it to be, may be my problem. I keep reworking paragraphs and chapters. Editing is hard work. Right now my manuscript is just too long for a first novel, so I keep on cutting. But very soon I am going to say: “That’s it! I’m done!”. But then it will be time to start working on the next story forming in my head.
      All the best,
      Mairead

  6. Penny Wolf says:

    I too ponder what my ancestors have gone through, even as recent as my own parents. Survival of any kind, anywhere is the ultimate accomplishment. I like to think that we are the best composite of all of those before us. As you said “Or we wouldn’t be here”. To just think of their works and struggles surely would delight them.
    I’m ready to start reading your book right now!

    • Penny – Our ancestors’ tenacity and determination to survive, sometimes against all the odds, truly is the reason we are here today. I love reading historical fiction books, but I find lately every book seems to be about royalty or else their mistresses. I prefer books that tell stories of where we truly come from. Few of us are descended from royalty, so I would like to give life to the ordinary people whose survival made our way of life possible.
      Best wishes, and thanks for stopping by.
      Mairead

  7. Maureen O' Hanlon says:

    Well done Mairead, what a beautiful Irish name you have, wishing you all the best ,I enjoyed reading your blog on the great Irish famine, best wishes on your new book, ” you can do it “

    • Thanks Maureen. I am keeping my fingers crossed I will be able to do it. The hard work is ahead of me trying to find a publisher who likes my story. For every book published, there are over 1000 rejected. Here’s hoping mine will be the one to make it to the top of the pile of files on the right person’s desk.
      Take care,
      Mairead

  8. Hi Mairead, Once the really hard work is completed, the really hard work begins. Looking forward to purchasing my signed copy at one of the successful upcoming book signings. As for the famine, my only family story comes from my Nana, when they asked her if she ever wanted to return to Ireland she responded, ” Why, they’re all dead, all my people are dead.” It’s funny how a bit of time and distance, added to some songs and stories, erase the pain of generations past.
    All the best ,
    Brian.

    • Brian – The really hard work is definitely ahead of me. I have been told to brace myself for all the inevitable rejections. Good thing I was educated by the nuns in Ireland, who weren’t too keen on gushing praise, always preferring to point out what could have been better.
      Your nana’s reaction when asked about returning to Ireland personifies the pain endured by our forebears. Their pain has left an indelible mark on our consciousness, and although it has faded with time, a deep seated awareness of their suffering remains.
      Have a lovely weekend. I hope you aren’t snowed under this weekend in the blizzard hammering the northeast.
      Take care and be safe,
      Mairead

  9. Something you may not have come across. The famine on the coast was as a result of the new ways to make chemicals from other than seaweed.
    The ‘history’ story as propagated in schools is a mix of nationalist and catholic propaganda. That of itself isn’t a bad thing only not quite true or even valid. I find a handy way to cut through the layers of self-interest propaganda is to remember if you are alive your ancestors watched their neighbours die.
    Mind you, you have far better resources in the US than I have here. Try the archivist at Notre Dame, Fordham, BC or Georgetown. You might be surprised at what they’ve got in the stacks. Basically any University with a Celtic Studies programme will have more than any one place here.

    • Vincent – That is very interesting about chemicals being possibly responsible for the blight on the coast. I had not read that, and will have to check it out. I think we learned history from the perspective that the landlords and the English were totally responsible for all of the devastation. Although they were far from blameless, I have learned there were many factors working against the poor landless laborers and cottiers. My challenge now is to interweave facts into my story all the while holding readers’ imaginations.
      Thanks for suggesting I visit Notre Dame. It is probably the closest school to Louisville with an Irish studies program. I might just take a trip up there one of these days.
      All the best, and enjoy the rest of the weekend. I hope it’s not too cold in Ireland.
      Mairead

      • No dear, you are missing what I’m saying. The burning of seaweed made the natural population of the coast far higher than it should have been. Think the Highland Clearances, there people were moved from inland to the coast to make seaweed cake for the production of gunpowder. It was the same in Ireland. Or think on the pattern of the fishing settlements in Newfoundland. If the supply ships stopped running and you had a natural disaster then the whole thing would be far greater.
        Did you ever ask yourself what the dickens a Sayers was doing out at the far end of the Dingle peninsula.

        • I burned the midnight oil last night working on a chapter of my book, so I’m not surprised I missed your point, Vincent. I understand what you are saying now. Ireland’s abundance of seaweed on the western coastline, helped turn even the most rocky of fields into plots fertile enough to grow potatoes. Without that piece of the puzzle, the land on the shore would have been unable to sustain such a dense population. Thanks for clearing this up.

          • That too. But mostly there was an actual chemical industry all along the coast. A really serious industry that exported to the gunpowder factories.

  10. Hi,

    I have been reading your blog for a little while and felt I had to comment to say that I think writing a novel is fabulous and the topic is so interesting. I can not wait to read it when it is published as I am sure it will be.

    I enjoy your blog and it was nice to see you in my reader today!

    • Jan – I am so glad to hear you enjoy reading my ramblings. I’ll stop by your website when I get a moment to myself a little later on. A big thank you for letting me know the topic of the Irish Famine interests you. I may have trouble finding a publisher, since I have written my saga in third person, rather than first person which seems to be preferred for historical fiction of late. However, my topic is so multi-faceted and layered, it cannot be told from one person’s perspective only. I am not going to let that deter me, and just keep moving forward with it. Thanks for your vote of confidence.
      All the best,
      Mairead

  11. Oh Mairead! I can’t wait to enjoy your novel, I have no doubt it will be brilliant! Congrats to you on the determination to finish it :)

    • Thanks Grammy – just three more chapters to finish and I’ll have a manuscript with a beginning, middle, and end. The middle is a little wordy right now, but I’ll start slicing and dicing those paragraphs pretty soon. Thanks for your words of encouragement.
      Mairead

  12. That’s very exciting news that you are working on a Famine novel Mairead! Congratulations on getting it this far. You must be superwoman! There are plenty of great recipes already on your blog we can enjoy trying and perfecting while you are book-editing.
    (Praise was pretty much non-existant from the nuns as far as my memory goes too).

    Best of luck with it,
    Mairead, in Atlanta

    • Thanks Mairead. I can assure you I am far from superwoman – my house is never perfect. I could spend my whole day wiping finger prints and picking up toys, so I gave up long ago. I am lucky too to be a stay-at-home mom while my children are young. Those few hours each day when they are at school are fantastic. It’s amazing how much can be accomplished without distraction. When my kids are tucked up in bed at night, I entertain myself by reading and writing rather than watching television (Downton Abbey is my one exception these days).
      All the best,
      Mairead

  13. Congrats on the book writing Mairead!! I can’t imagine writing a book with four little ones! I’ll be awaiting the day you let us know it’s available. Good luck with finding a publisher, etc!

  14. Dear Mairead,
    I am so excited for you! And excited for myself since I can say that I knew you as a blogging friend before you became a famous novelist!!!
    I love the way you write and look forward to your book with great anticipation.
    Love,
    Kay

  15. Hello Mairead,
    I just stumbled across your blog and find it most interesting and informative!
    Quite coincidentally I just finished John Kelly’s book “The Graves are Walking” and find the topic quite interesting. My last trip over (I’m irish-american,mom was from Kerry and my dad was from Armagh) I stayed in Ballybunion and traveled south down the coast through Cork to Kinsale. As you know it is very beautifull rugged terrain where the mountains sweep down to the sea. I couldn’t help thinking of all the tens of thousands of people who struggled to eck out an exsistence on these slopes. Little physical evidence beyond a few remnants of house foundations remain. Your book will help keep their memories alive!
    I look forward to your book and trying some of your recipes!

    Niall

    • Niall – “The Graves Are Walking” is a moving account of the Famine. It paints a terrifying picture of the human toll of the Famine. When I visit the west of Ireland and experience the harsh, rugged countryside, I too always think of the people who lived off the land at that time. I hope my book will tell their story.
      Thanks for stopping by my blog. I hope you enjoy some of my Irish recipes.
      All the best,
      Mairead

  16. Hi Mairead,

    Hi Mairead, I too, have a dream to write a historical novel (but of a later period), for now I’m writing a contemporary one as I feel I need the push to try and get something published (as otherwise by the time I’ll have done the research, I’ll never write the novel!)
    The Famine is a fascinating period in history and I really look forward to reading your published book. One of the beauties of blogging is not only does it help to hone your writing but it can really help to build your community which will help to promote your wonderful book. I wish you well in finding the right publisher.
    Lorna

    • Lorna – Historical fiction really is time consuming. It is amazing how you can’t take anything for granted. I have set my novel in West Cork, and in one piece I describe the fuchsia flowers. Then I started thinking, maybe fuchsia wasn’t there back then. I found out it got introduced in the 1700’s, but I wonder if it had spread all over the place by the 1840’s. The details take so much time.
      Anyway, wishing you every success with your writing endeavors. I hope your current novel is progressing well, and that you find time to work on it with blogging and all your other interests. Pushing to the finish point is the greatest challenge. It is so hard to stop tweaking and finally say “I’m done”.
      Thanks for stopping by.
      Mairead

  17. Mairead, it’s so exciting to hear that you are in the final stages of writing your novel. I’m in the final stages of the book I’m writing, too. All the best as you finish and seek publication!

  18. Jen Sullivan says:

    I love this blog!! I stumbled across this thru pinterest while looking for new ways to cook rutabagas. I will definitely be reading this often. Keep up the good work!

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