Astute novel a reminder of how Famine changed us all
Review: Billy O’Callaghan
The years between 1845 and 1848 stand as the single bleakest period in Ireland’s long and troubled history.
Brought to famine by a widespread potato blight, one and a half million people fled these shores and the same number again died of starvation and associated diseases.
The history books hoard the facts and paint a wide and harrowing picture, but it is in story and song, the true vernacular of the people, that the real suffering has been exposed.
Laurence Power’s new novel, Black ’47, focuses on the worst year of the famine, and its impact on the landless families of Skibbereen and the Mizen in Co Cork.
With a father and brother are wrongfully shipped as convicts to Australia, the burden of Sean O’Brien’s family’s survival falls heavily on the shoulders of the young man. Work is scarce, money and food even more so. Sean takes what is going, the occasional day of hard physical labour as a field hand.
But he has a small advantage: a rare talent as a fiddler and singer that he hopes will one day pull him and his kin out of the bothán in Holmes’s boreen. In partnership with his renowned minstrel uncle, Paddy Harrington, they sell their music to the Protestant elite and quickly earn a reputation as the premier musical talents in the entire region. That is, until the first signs of blight begins to appear and the Gale Day rents cannot be met.
Faced with catastrophe, some among the wealthy elect to turn their backs and protect what is theirs under the dictates of British law.
Others, like the Quaker, Abigail Penn, who attempts to organise a shipment of grain from Virginia, and the Reverend Freddy Trench, who sets up soup kitchens, are so moved by the plight of the poor that they see no alternative but to help.
The passion that Power feels for his subject is clearly evident. His style is unobtrusive, his research extensive and thorough, and a considerable proportion of the text is presented in dialogue, which grants the story an easy flow, but at times somewhat compromises the characterisations.
The result is an ambitious novel, one possessed of a great many merits. And while it should be read and enjoyed as the straightforward narrative of a boy coming of age in the most terrible of circumstances, surviving against nearly impossible odds, it can also be appreciated as a treatise on colonialism, politics and social inequality. The novel is also an astute broad-spectrum consideration of how what happened during those tragic years shaped, for good and ill, the Ireland we know today.
Just in time for The Gathering, a timely reminder indeed.
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