SEARCH for her new novel The Letter Home really got Shannon author Rachael English thinking about the horrors of the Great Famine, particularly how it devastated West Clare, writes Owen Ryan.
The novel, which hit bookstores last week, examines how the Famine experience still resonates today, more than 170 years after it began.
One of the main characters is Jessie Daly, who has just returned to West Clare, having lost her job in the capital, and she begins to learn what happened back home in the mid-19th century.
“Jessie is back home after being in Dublin for a decade, she’s broke, she’s unemployed and she’s adamant that she’ll be back in Dublin in two or three weeks, it’s only shortly time to regroup.
“But upon meeting a guy she went to school with, she becomes interested in the story of a woman called Brigid Moloney who lived in the same area during the famine.
“Jessie discovers that Brigid was living on land that now belongs to her family, so she becomes interested in trying to find out what happened to Brigid. But the more interested she becomes, the more the story turns.
“Part of the book is set in the present day, partly with Jessie in West Clare, partly with another present-day character called Kaitlin Wilson who is in Boston trying to trace her family tree. character that connects them in several different ways is Brigid Moloney who lived in West Clare in the 1840s. The story goes back and forth between the 19th century and the present day.
While the famine was one of the darkest periods in Irish history, it was sometimes overlooked in the country’s consciousness.
Rachael said she was struck by an article she read about an individual death in the Famine, and it helped her write about this period.
“One of the things that sparked this idea was an interview in the Clare Champion a few years ago with a historian who wrote a book on the famine in which he recounted how one of the first deaths recorded by the famine in the country was that of a widow who walked from the vicinity of Dysart towards Ennis to try to find food for her children.
“When you hear stuff like that, it really stops you in your tracks, that woman walking into Ennis trying to find food.”
At first, she admits she knew relatively little about the Famine, but was quickly gripped by the enormity of the events of the time and the harshness of West Clare.
“I was a little bored with myself knowing so little. I knew the facts that we all learned in school and obviously over the years it’s something we’ve talked about a little more and there was more interest in this period of history. But certainly my knowledge of local history was very limited. I became fascinated the more I started to read about it, the more you read about what happened in that part of the world.When times were tough, during the worst times, in parts of West Clare the treatment of people was notoriously bad, they really suffered.
The County Clare Library website provides a huge resource for those interested in the era she says, with details of the names of those who died as a result of the burn and, in many cases, information about their death.
“They have Kilrush workhouse records, just hundreds and hundreds of names of people who died in a single year. I tried to count them but there were too many.
“But for part of 1850 and part of 1851 I took three surnames that would be popular in the area, Keane, McMahon and McInerney. With only these three surnames, in a workhouse, in a county in one year, there were 150 deaths. Entire families had to die.
She says many of those who died were children, while adults died terrible deaths, weakened by food shortages.
“A 50-year-old woman who died was described as a weak old woman. A 50-year-old man was found by the side of the road unable to speak because he was too weak.
“When you start reading this kind of material it’s hard not to be completely mesmerized by it, trying to imagine these lives in places that we all know, these were the lives that people lived there. 170 years.”
For much of the writing, she was confined to Dublin, with Covid-19 meaning travel restrictions were in place.
However, she was eventually able to travel to West Clare, where she tried to imagine what might have happened during times of famine.
“Sometimes I think you have to walk around, look at the landscape and imagine what it might have been like 170 years ago. You look again at old collections of stones and other things, and you wonder if they were houses, who lived here, what happened to them, where did they go, all these questions.
Rachael was writing about two women who come to a full realization of the extent of the devastation of the Famine, just as she herself learned about the subject.
“I found it easy to imagine that if you thought you had a personal connection, you would become a bit obsessed and it might change your perspective on your own life.”
Part of the novel deals with how people share common experiences across generations, with the three characters having some common experience.
“Part of the story is about the huge differences between life then and now, but it’s also about what the three women have in common.”
While the Famine is the backdrop to The Letter Home, she says it’s still a hopeful novel and there’s humor in it.
“It’s dark sometimes because it’s impossible not to be. But I like to think it’s ultimately hopeful.
“I’d also like to think that as far as Jessie’s story goes, because she’s quite a lively character and adjusting to being home after years of living in Dublin, I’d like to think there’s humor in Jessie’s story and her worldview.”