I am a first generation Irish American and have since childhood cultivated an avid interest in my heritage. This interest has manifested itself in a variety of ways, including a decades’ long involvement in the AOH and a lifelong study of Irish culture and history. I am especially interested in how this heritage has shaped me and my fellow Irish-Americans and the way we live and think. I have often pondered, however, what practical purpose this contemplation and knowledge serves. In a possible answer to that question I occasionally experience an “ah-hah!” moment, usually involving the recognition that some aspect of our anthropological inheritance has created or shaped some aspect of how modern Irish people, especially of the American Catholic variety, view modern events. One such event took place this past August as I read for the first time about a rather colorful individual who was vying for his parties’ nomination as its candidate for governor of one of our most populous states. I had a visceral reaction against a policy proposal floated by that candidate. He took the position that recipients of public assistance should be required to leave their homes and families and reside at institutions, including converted prisons. The institutions would be designed to assure that residents were prepared and available to work in return for receiving public assistance. The proposal seemed to be backed by the barely unstated assumption that such recipients needed to do reparation for the sin of allowing themselves to fall into the position of needing assistance. I’ve never been convinced of the existence of such a thing as a “racial memory”. I wondered, however, whether someone who did not share my ethnic background would be able to understand my horror at the idea of the return to “workhouses”. The concept is one burnt into the Irish psyche. Imposed under the terms of the Irish “Poor Laws” promulgated in the 1800’s they were despised by the Irish as prisons where the impoverished were locked away from society and their families for the crime of being impoverished, all under the guise of supposed charity.
By chance, I received a call soon after from Charles Egan, and Irish émigré resident in London. Mr. Egan had been given my name by a mutual friend as someone who might be interested in his recently published book, “The Killing Snows”. Egan’s father had hailed from the small village of Corohore, just outside of Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo. My own mother was born in the nearby village of Garyroe and I had fond memories from my teenage years of helping a granduncle “save the hay” in fields within sight of land I knew as “Egan’s”. Charles relayed the story of how his father, while cleaning out a building on the family farm after his brother’s death, had come across a cache of documents which Charles later came to recognize as payroll records from a Famine-era relief scheme involving roadworks in the area. Poor Law “Unions” (administrative districts set up under the Poor Laws) in Mayo and elsewhere were charged with collecting taxes from landowners which were to be used towards the alleviation of the increasing suffering caused by the Great Hunger. Egan’s great granduncles, had been given positions as supervisors because they could read and write and because of the existence of a stone quarry on their leasehold. Upon realizing the value of his father’s unusual find, Charles first envisioned using the information in an historical study of the subject. He took instead, his wife’s good advice to employ it instead as the basis for an historical novel describing how his ancestors had survived the “Famine”. As Charles relayed this tale to me, I experienced a strong sense of déjà vu. My mother had often relayed the fact that she had been told as a child about a member of another local family, just down the road from her home and the Egans’, who had penned a narrative of their first-hand experience of the Famine in Garyroe. She often wondered what had ever become of that manuscript; whether it had ever been, or could be, published, or if it had been lost when the family died out or emigrated from the village. I shared her impossibly forlorn hope that it would someday come to light and pry open a rare window to a past which had been closed tightly by the survivors of that sad period. The Egan find was not of that storied manuscript but the similarities of the stories had me insisting that Charles send me his book from England and then saw me devouring it upon its arrival in New York. Charles’ magnificent work is everything that I had dreamt the lost narrative in my mother’s tale might have been, and more.
Other reviewers have correctly labeled it a “page-turner”, and it is, indeed, beyond fascinating. It is a book which should be read by anyone with an interest in the period or in how the Irish got to be as we are. Along with its retelling of the horrors of the famine, it includes a moving love story being woven through the narrative as well as a peerless description of a time and two places (Mayo during the Famine and northern England, where gangs of Mayomen went to work on the railways or to follow the crops). The main character is Luke Ryan, based on Egan’s great granduncle, who because he is literate and had extensive experience working on the railways in England finds himself, after being ordered home by his father to run the family farm, thrust into the position of being a low level supervisor on the relief “works”. The moral and social dilemmas he faces being a reluctant “government man” charged with the thankless job of choosing who is to be given the limited employment positions which will provide a few pennies for corn bought at inflated prices from rapacious merchants to stave off death. Luke’s standing in local society is indelibly tarnished by having to be zealously fair in allocating positions on the Works despite being surrounded by desperate relatives, neighbors and friends expecting his favor as of right. His predicament is worsened by the monumentally cruel Malthusian calculus employed by the Poor Law Unions requiring that the work be given only to the most destitute, despite the fact that they are too weak from hunger and debilitated by Typhoid fever to work. The number of deaths is increased exponentially by forcing people in such condition to work and by increasing the occasion for contagion by forcing them into close proximity with others suffering from “fever”. Matters are made worse, if that is possible, when the initially meager payments to the workers are cut by functionaries of the Union who cannot see any other explanation for the predicament of the starving Irish than their inherent laziness. All this from employees of a system overseen by the very same landlords who are exporting untold tons of food out of Ireland in the face of mass starvation and demanding the payment of rent above any other consideration. None of this is news to most Irish or to students of the period, but the gripping historical fiction style with which Egan puts the human face of his ancestors on the tragic story makes “The Killing Snows” stand out from any other book on the subject they are likely to have read and the intimate understanding of lives as they were actually lived, or lost, at the time, will remain with the reader in all future contemplation of the period.
The Killing Snows was published by Callio Press www.calliopress.com and can be ordered online from Amazon at www.amazon.com or at www.charlesegan.ie.
Robert P. Lynch – Hibernian Digest