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.
A 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.”
“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 In the past six years I have read countless texts, facts, statistics, historical documents, proceedings of parliament, letters, and old newspaper articles to further my understanding of this world changing event.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.
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,
(Goodbye and blessings)