Monday, May 26, 2008

O'Connor's Sea Story

Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea (2002)is part thriller, part historical fiction. Principally he has researched the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, and the emigration to America that happened at that time. In the early 1840s the population of Ireland was around four million, as it is today. By the later part of the decade it was less than half that, after somewhere around a million deaths and a similar number of emigrants, most to North America.

The phrase "potato famine" suggests that the catastrophe was due to natural causes but as O'Connor rightly emphasizes this was very much a human-caused event, tied directly to the feudal system of English lords and Irish tenants imposed on that society after Cromwell's depredations in the late 17th century. With food available, those without the money to buy it were allowed to starve, even as price-gouging merchants continued to display food in shop windows and the landed gentry suffered no interruption of luxury. In fact, the large textile fortunes of 19th century Ireland (Blarney for example) were established after the native Irish had been forced off of the land by deliberate rent increases to free former small farmlands for grazing. The human cost of this included trenches where tens of thousands of bodies were buried in mass graves, as England stood by with much lampooning of the supposedly inferior Irish in the London press. The famine was also arguably the fatal blow delivered to the Gaelic language, which was still widely spoken in the early 19th century.

Against this background O'Connor has spun a period drama involving the passengers on a refugee ship bound for New York in 1847, including Lord Kingscourt, heir to a bankrupt estate in Connemara, his family, and a number of Irish from the same place travelling in steerage, where passengers are dying rapidly of disease and starvation. David Merridith, Lord Kingscourt, is basically a refugee himself, a terribly damaged man with a morally compromised past, but a decent person. His stalker, Pius Mulvey, a dispossessed former tenant now the veteran of a life of crime and murder, is much the same. The aim of the novel is to show how an inherently corrupt system made monsters of these two.

Having said all that, I must add that I was inclined to review this book as a fine page-turning entertainment, which it is, with lots of action and finely-drawn characters. The main town near the estate is Clifden, where I found people named Lowry, the name of my great-grandmother Sabina, one of my ancestors out of Galway and Mayo (others were Eliots and of course O'Malleys). This one is good enough that I'm going to send a copy to Leslie Lee, a family friend who researches Irish history.

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