Another wretched woman died in Staball (Castlebar) last week and, for want of a coffin, she lay on the damp floor of a hut for some days. A plate was laid on her face to keep the soot drops from it. In Gallows Hill (Castlebar) another poor woman died from want. She remained from Sunday morning to Wednesday evening unburied for want of a coffin which was at length procured by the subscriptions of a few individuals. Last week, a female mendicant died at Coarsepark (Castlebar) in a house where she got shelter for the night. All efforts to procure a coffin for her proved fruitless and a few days after decease, far gone in decomposition, the body was tied on some wattles, tied with hay ropes and in this horrible state she was borne through the streets of our town to the old churchyard for interment.’
The article (above) first appeared in the Connaught Telegraph in February 1847. Charles Egan came across it in the paper’s microfilms at Mayo County Library while researching for a novel he was planning The Killing Snows, a story of famine times in Ireland.
The author prefaces chapter 22 of his novel with the above extract, one of a number that he culled from back issues of papers such as the Telegraph and Connaught Ranger, the Mayo Constitution and the Tyrawley Herald.
Reaction to the novel has been mostly positive. One reviewer, Sive Haughey, described it as ‘a powerful narrative’.
She added that the ‘relentless narrative of hope and despair, of hardship and courage, of desperation and humanity’ reminded her of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.
Charles Egan, a former IDA executive, who now works privately with his wife, Carmel, identifying companies with potential in Europe that U.S. firms might want to buy, has high hopes for his first novel.
He is particularly conscious of the potential market in the United States where millions of citizens of Irish ancestry live.
Egan, whose father was brought up on a small farm in the townland of Corohore on the Kiltimagh/Swinford road, would never have written his book at all but for a box of documents found on the family farm 19 years ago.
The discovery was made by the author’s father in 1990 following the death of one of his brothers. Some of the documents – a lease, two payrolls and three letters – covered the years of the famine. Egan Snr. handed the cache of papers over to Charles.
The documents painted a grim picture of life in Mayo in the mid-19th century as successive potato crops failed. In Charles Egan’s own words they “told an incredible story of suffering, of love and courage”.
The main character in the book, Luke Ryan, is based loosely on the experiences of one of the author’s great granduncles, James, the son of a small tenant farmer who becomes a supervisor on a famine relief scheme.
This meant he could decide on who got work on the famine relief road scheme where he was a supervisor. In Charles Egan’s words he was given the power to ‘decide who could live or die’.
Luke, or James in real life, had some terrible decisions to make and gradually becomes alienated from his own people. Eventually he is forced to emigrate not because he is starving but because he has no choice. He has become totally isolated because of the decisions he has to make.
The book owes its title to the savage snowstorms of December 1846 which, according to Charles Egan, were much worse than the blizzards which hit the Mayo region in 1947, 101 years later.
As part of their famine relief efforts, the British authorities began a road building scheme in the midst of the worst winter weather in more than a century.
To add to the starvation, there was the accompanying trauma of gangrene and fever, further compounded by the freak snowstorm that brought all efforts at relief to a standstill.
The snow and biting wind just added to the misery, the filth, the squalor, the fever being experienced by many of Mayo’s estimated 400,000 inhabitants at the time.
During the famine years, the Mayo Constitution was perceived as the landlord’s paper so it’s no surprise that it toned down or failed to report at all on the worst consequences of the famine such as the appalling death rate from hunger and typhus.
But the Connaught Telegraph was constantly highlighting the plight of the starving peasantry as evidenced by the following extract from the paper dated May 1847. “While the poor of Westport are fed and cared for those in an around Castlebar are left to die, and after death buried without coffins. What a curse hangs over our town and its poor mendicants?”
As Charles Egan points out, the contemporary newspaper articles at the time were ‘sometimes too painful to read’.
But, just as they did for Castlebar born author Michael Mullen in his book, “The Hungry Land”, contemporary reports of what was happening during famine times in Mayo also proved essential to Egan in the compilation of his acclaimed work.
Main Photo: Ciarán Byrne, Cultural Attaché, the Irish Embassy, London, and Charles Egan launch ‘The Killing Snows’ in London.
The Connaught Telegraph, Tuesday August 11 2009.
By Tom Shiel. e: email@example.com www.con-telegraph.ie t: 094 9021711