Irish-American author Scott D. Pomfret draws on a rich vein of faerie realism in his new book, The Hunger Man.
This novel places the Great Irish Famine in stark relief, making it a compelling retelling of Ireland’s defining disaster.
On behalf of Waterford-based publisher Ninestar Press, I'm delighted to introduce you to Scott, and his new novel.
Before we delve into a synopsis of the plot, let me first hand you over to Scott, a Boston based attorney, who will share his family story and love of Ireland.
Scott Pomfret's Irish Connection:
Blame my Irish grandfather, a native of County Tyrone but a long-time dweller in Ballsbridge Dublin, for my love of words. He was a man of extraordinary erudition -- an Irish minister of education, a fluent Francophile, a devotee of Japanese culture, a scholar of Saint Patrick, and a poet and playwright to boot! He even had a play produced at the Abbey Theater!
While he cannot be held responsible for my novel The Hunger Man, my grandfather’s spirit inhabits it a bit. One of my fondest memories of his mischievous spirit was a trip we took to visit sites and sights outside of Dublin. It was not terribly far, but we were four Irish American children under the age of ten and I am sure driving him crazy.
He pulled over in the yard of a Protestant church and we spilled out on the gravel. He said it was a well-known fact that Catholic children who ran three times counterclockwise around a Protestant Church would meet the Devil Himself. He raised his eyebrows.
My brothers and sister and I cocked our heads and cowered, half-stepped in the right direction and then held ourselves back, caught among skepticism, fear, giddiness, and the urge to self-destruction! We urged him to admit it was merely a fable, but he only shrugged and assured us if we were so confident, we should not hesitate to give it a whirl!
I visited Ireland dozens of times between birth and age sixteen. I remember: bottled milk topped with cream at my grandparents’ door; my grandfather’s being one of the “Doors of Dublin” on the famous poster; a trip to Belfast at the height of the Troubles that I insisted upon at age ten or so; miniature golf with my cousins; the port of Dún Laoghaire; the endless delays at Shannon Airport; the pilgrimages to the Book of Kells; the rashers; my grandparents’ neighbor’s children’s great disappointment that our Boston accents weren’t much thicker.
I published a poem at age eight that was still folded in my grandparents’ books long after I stopped visiting as regularly. Perhaps on account of that poem, my grandfather gave me my first collection of Shakespeare -- a gorgeous, gilt-edge, leather bound volume I have to this day, scarcely dared open for fear of soiling it!
I ultimately got my Shakespeare elsewhere, but my grandfather also gave me Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger, the most famous if not entirely most accurate of the histories of the Famine. For many years, The Great Hunger lingered unread on my shelves until in the late 1990s I finally plowed through it.
I immediately began planning what was then a screen play -- a straight but disastrous love story -- but soon tabled it for other projects. In 2013, I picked up the pieces of that story and fashioned an outline of a novel. And then for the next two years, I read every book or account of the Famine I could get my hands on, including as much first-hand stuff as I could track down.
While at work on the history, my grandfather’s mischievousness tickled something in my brain. How wonderful it would be to write a novel anchored in Irish History, but deploying a homespun distinctively Irish brand of Garcia Marquez’s magic realism.
I read every tale of the Faeries and other characters of Irish folklore and literature I could lay my hands on. I read Heaney and Yeats and Kavanagh and Mahon and Grennan and all the great Irish poets to sharpen mainly my sense of rhythm and humor. And soon I had the mischievous voice of Ciaran Leath, the main narrator of The Hunger Man, and also the makings of a “Faerie realism” with deep roots in the soil and culture.
What no one bequeathed me, however, was any knowledge of the Irish language. So when I went to write my character Ciaran Leath, and wanted to litter his English with his native Irish tongue, I struggled to find the words. Many I pulled from the historical accounts; a few I borrowed Google Translate and other online sites that speak in the various dialects of the island. It’s my secret (and now yours) that these ancient words -- Scáil and Rath and Fear Gorta-- are in fact my entire vocabulary!
Two other inspirations bear mentioning. First, I have bastardized the course of history here a bit for my literary aims. I deliberately conflated and made coincident historical events that took place years apart to help tell a particular story.
My heroine, for example, is named Muireann O’Rahilly. Students of Irish history will recognize in the last name one of the martyrs of the Easter Uprising of 1916. One of my mother’s closest friends as a child, and certainly her closest as an adult, was Ann O’Rahilly, a great granddaughter of the Easter hero.
Ann and I had a special bond -- she brought me to my first Shakespeare play and watched me perform the part of MacBeth in fourth grade.
She was a collector of antique books, which she bequeathed to me when she passed all too soon from cancer. I had the honor of being the executor of her estate and I return that honor in making, from her memory, a part of my heroine.
The other inspiration for my heroine was my cousin Muireann O’Sullivan, a doctor in real life, an extraordinary and quirky spirit, who was perhaps the first person to recognize I was gay (or at least not much interested in women!).
She, too, passed too soon from cancer, leaving a wonderful husband and daughter, and my character is a tribute to her spirit.
Recently, I had the chance to travel with my mother, her brother, his wife/my aunt, and my father to Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
Primarily a collection of art inspired by or arising out of the Famine and the Irish diaspora, the Museum is a showcase for the best fruits of the otherwise withering blight.
I hope and pray that The Hunger Man does one-hundredth the part to honor the tough bastards who survived … and those that did not.
About The Hunger Man:
Weaving fabulist elements with Irish history, The Hunger Man tells the story of a clan of Irish revolutionaries, the O’Rahillys. After attacking a British food convoy in early 1845, the O’Rahillys kidnap a young English officer named Julian Hawke. This first act of overt rebellion unleashes a series of events that inextricably ties the O’Rahilly clan to Hawke and to the seanachie or storyteller Ciaran Leath, but also seals the family’s fate.
The only daughter, Muireann O’Rahilly, an aspiring physician, betrays her brothers when she yields to the strong mutual attraction between her and Hawke. Hawke tries to balance his love for Muireann and his growing love for Ireland with his duty to suppress the budding Young Ireland rebellion. Ciaran Leath, who falls in love with both Julian Hawke as well as an angelic young tinker man, foresees both the coming famine and the disintegration of his adopted O’Rahilly clan, but finds himself unheard and powerless to protect them -- or himself.
Encountering spirits of the dead and other bad portents, Ciaran Leath invokes his old benefactor, the ancient Faerie Fin Bheara, but in doing so learns something devastating about himself and of what he is capable. When the O’Rahilly clan sets its sights on assassinating Queen Victoria, whom Hawke is sworn to protect, during her 1848 state visit to Cork, the stakes loom large for all involved, and the story turns inexorably toward a tragic end.
This comic, romantic, and ultimately tragic struggle against starvation, oppression, and one’s own worst impulses, plots an epic arc from London and Dublin, to Cork and New York City, and pulls no punches when addressing British indifference-bordering-on-persecution.
The Hunger Man is a lyrical, historical novel of magic, Faeries, haunts, spirits, legends, ancient kings, monsters, and lovers in a country desperate with hunger. In this clash between the British Crown and the Irish people, there can only be one survivor.
Irish American Mom's Review:
When Scott first e-mailed me about his book, my knee-jerk reaction was to decline his review offer, thinking Irish American Mom's readers might not be interested in a book with a gay sub-theme.
As I read and re-read the synopsis for Scott's novel, I started mentally checking some criteria for featuring books on my blog.
- Irish or Irish American Plot √
- Irish or Irish American Author √
- Based on The Great Irish Famine √
- Published by a Small Press √
- Historical Fiction √
Scott's book checked all my boxes. I e-mailed Scott requesting a review copy of his novel. His reply touched my heart ..."I'm just grateful you're willing to take a look."
Realizing Scott's promotional assistance may be limited because his book is pigeon-holed within a gay fiction genre, I acknowledged my rejection of his guest post would be based upon a fear of hurting other people's sensibilities. Refusal to help Scott introduce his novel might even border on prejudice, and that is just not who I am.
I think it's important to feature a variety of Irish American authors, including those whose experiences are different to mine. Diversity matters in the world and on my blog. I wish to acknowledge the vast complexity of all the wonderful readers who check out my ramblings.
I feared I might not appreciate a novel featuring a gay character. But once I started reading Scott's fast paced, energetic book and captivating plot, I was hooked. The Hunger Man contains a warning about graphic violence. I found the descriptions in keeping with the tragic times the novel depicts.
The primary narrator of the tale is gay, but this is a sub-theme, and not central to the subtly interrelated and fully realized story line. Reading this book, by an author who is not exactly like me, simply broadened my own perspective of the world, and Ireland's history.
Written from three distinctive points of view, The Hunger Man is a character-driven story, allowing the reader experience Ireland's devastation through Muireann O'Rahilly's compassion, Ciaran Leach's superstitions, and Julian Hawke's bigotry.
Initially the plot moves at a carefully controlled pace to allow the author time to learn a little back story, and to become familiar with this era in Irish history.
Throughout the action, Pomfret flawlessly intertwines Irish conversational sentence structure and a Gaelic vocabulary which led me to believe he is a fluent Irish speaker. Surprised to learn he is not a Gaelic scholar, I concluded time spent in Ireland in his formative years developed his appreciation for Irish syntax and language flow.
Novels of the Great Irish Famine are inherently sad, and this is no exception. Overflowing with mythical lore, this meaningful tragedy conveys tenderness, sympathy and compassion for all the characters involved, even the misguided Julian Hawke.
But it's Muireann's untamed determination, strength of character and will to survive that captivated me to the very last page.
This book is a magical, mythical read that delves into the tragedy that was the Great Irish Famine. It is a captivating story told by a masterful storyteller, whose Irish roots are clearly evident on each and every page.
I wish to thank Scott for introducing us to his brilliant writing, and for affording me the opportunity to feature another novel of The Great Irish Famine here on my blog.
Happy reading to all!
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
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