Tommy Marren: In 1990, A Famine Relief Payroll was discovered in a farm building in County Mayo. Now it covered four weeks in November and December in 1846 in the Ox Mountains in east Mayo and it clearly showed the evidence of the reduction in wages, week after week. Most horrific of all I suppose is that this payroll ended abruptly in the final week as the heaviest snowstorm hit Ireland. That was on the 12th December, 1846 and the people in the mountains were cut off and effectively starved and froze to death. And finding this particular piece and documents in an old farm building in County Mayo, inspired my next guest to write a book.
Now it is fiction, I have to say. It is called The Killing Snows and I suppose the preface of it very briefly is that in 1846, during the worst days of the Irish Famine, a young man and a young woman met in County Mayo. And this book, The Killing Snows, is a way to imagine what lead to their meeting and what followed from it. And I’m joined on the line by the writer of this book called Charles Egan. Charles, good morning to you.
Charles Egan: Good morning Tommy, how are you?
TM: Very well. Thanks for talking to us. Now, as I say, the book is fiction, but, nevertheless, when you were cleaning out, or helping to clean out an old outhouse in a relative’s property over near Kiltimagh, you or was it you or your dad that …
CE: My father.
TM: Your father came across these documents.
CE: Yes, and he gave them to us. They covered a period of probably 40 years from the early ‘40s to the late 1880s, but they were all stuck together so we left them for a while and in fact it was only about a year or two later that I started thinking about the two payrolls we had. They just described, as you said, people working on the road, and it hadn’t struck me before what they actually were. So just one evening it hit me between the eyes, and I thought ‘oh my God, what exactly were the payrolls?’ So I just went out, looked at the date on the one your referred, and saw November and December 1846, and I knew immediately that was Famine Relief.
TM: Now, when we speak about Famine Relief and the payroll, was this money that was been given to people suffering starvation.
TM: And it was given by the Government, was it?
CE: It was given by the Government, but the reason was that the Workhouses couldn’t possible cope. To give you an idea, in our own area, Gallen & Costello, which Kiltimagh was in, the Workhouse took about 600, but my reckoning was there were probably something like 10, 20 or 30,000 people starving at that stage. But the Government didn’t want to give money for nothing, otherwise they reckoned everyone would be looking for it, so they started people working on road construction which of course, at first seemed a very good idea, but unfortunately people were not able to work very effectively.
TM: So in other words, rather than just hand out money for them to go and buy food, they said well ‘look, if you build roads or you do something for your country, we’ll give you money’.
CE: They would give them money. Initially, as I say, sevenpence and eightpence was the normal rate. Sevenpence for a man down to probably something like fivepence for a child, but by the middle of December the rates had dropped to tuppence and tuppence halfpenny, and incidentally there were children working as well. So on top of that, there was also some degree of piecework. But I felt that that was very cruel because the objective was not really to build roads but to give people money and of course the winter of 1846-47 was the worst, probably, in the past 300 years. It started in the beginning of November and the snow didn’t really finish until February and on top of that, as you say, the Famine Documents we have, abruptly ended on 12th December. Now at that stage, the Connaught Telegraph, or the forerunner of it, mentioned that in Castlebar the snow was between eight and ten feet deep. And the particular payroll we have was actually on a road being built from Bonnyconlon up to Lough Talt, effectively in the Ox Mountains.
TM: The Ox Mountains. So all of this pieced together, and there you were with this damp payroll and the idea struck you, because you like books, about putting together a story about maybe what happened to any young couple or any individual who may have found themselves marooned.
CE: Well, yes, we knew the documents were written out by my great granduncle who was some kind of supervisor on the Works, and in fact we always knew a lot about him from family tradition, if you like. One of the traditions which I found fascinating was the fact that, when he was working in the mountains on the Famine Relief Works, he met a girl, and what followed to my mind one of the most impossible love stories of all time. For quite a number of reasons. One, I couldn’t imagine how people would react during a famine. They decided to get married, but the first problem that arose was that they were second cousins, and were not allowed to get married. So, almost incredibly, in March or so of 1847, during the very worst months of Black ’47, he applied to the Bishop to have a dispensation and the Bishop, who you would have felt would have more on his mind at the time, actually granted it. And so the two of them were married in the middle of April 1847, which was also in the middle of probably the worse Typhus epidemic of all, which was killing
people at a hell of a rate. And when I say at a hell of a rate, for example in Swinford, the nearest Workhouse to Kiltimagh, people were dying at the rate of 300 a month and the capacity as I say was 600. So you can work that one out yourself.
TM: It’s almost incomprehensible the destruction and the loss during our Famine Times that we never really can comprehend.
CE: It is. Well at the same time, I must stress that this book is not really history in that sense. It is about people, real people.
TM: And the people involved are a man who meets a woman, or does the woman meet the man? Does it make any difference? A woman meets a young man …
CE: A man meets a woman because he goes off working in the Ox Mountains on the Relief Works, and they decide to get married. Now how you decide to do that in the middle of a Famine, to me, is almost incomprehensible, but we know it happened. The record is in the church in Bonnyconlon incidentally.
TM: Now these are all fictitious characters?
CE: Yes. It is important to say that. This is not about my family but, it is inspired by certain episodes we know of, and that is very very important. So what I’m trying to do is to say – OK, for example, the hero was working on the, on the harvest in Castle Bromwich in 1845. We have letters from him. Now how do you get from that suddenly into the payrolls and the horror of what was going on in the Ox Mountains. The answer is – I don’t know. So we just simply take those episodes, and see how we can get from A to B and that begins to bring you into certain considerations you would never think of. For example, we know that the very first Relief Works that my great granduncle was working on were exactly outside his own house. And if you think of this, he then has to decide who is going to be on the Relief Works and who is not, because there are not enough places. Now you might say that’s great for the people who were on Relief, who were put on it, but the ones he has to refuse are effectively being condemned to starvation. And that means, in his own area, he is being alienated by the fact that he is seen as being responsible for starvation. And as a result, in my view, that was the reason – we’ll call him Luke incidentally, which wasn’t my great granduncle’s name – but that was the effective reason that Luke had to emigrate. He could not stay in Mayo.
TM: Are you happy with the final product. Now I haven’t gone through the book yet, but it sounds to me that this is a book you should be very proud of.
CE: Well indeed. I mean, if wasn’t such a humble fellow, I would say it’s the greatest novel ever written on the Great Hunger.
TM: You may say that.
CE: But obviously I am, and I won’t. (Laughter). But if anyone wants to read it …
CE: … they can find out for themselves. And in fact, anybody who has read it, women particularly find it un-put-downable. Or as an English friend of mine said, ‘totally contagious’, because in the first twenty pages they get into the characters, and they always want to know what happens next. Now of course, at the early stage we’re only at the first hints of what is going to happen, and gradually as you get into the book it becomes more and more horrifying.
TM: Ye. OK. Well listen, it’s on general release at the moment. It available in the West here, is it?
CE: It’s available in Castle Books in Castlebar and also Kennys in Galway and, for the record, Hodges Figgis in Dublin. It’s also I know at the moment in the Mayo library system and indeed in Dublin. But if anyone has any problem, it is totally available in the UK. It was published by a UK – a small UK – publisher for which I am very grateful. So if anyone finds it difficult to get, if you get onto the UK version of Amazon, which is Amazon.co.uk, you can most certainly buy it there.
TM: The book, listeners, is called The Killing Snows, a story of the Irish Famine, and it’s written by Charles Egan. Charles, thank you very much indeed, and I love the cover. Who actually did the illustration for it?
CE: It was actually a designer here in London, and the publisher paid for it. I believe he paid a total of £90 for it which is very little for something like this. It basically shows, number one the horror of The Killing Snows, and secondly the two people, Luke and Winnie,
TM: Yes, Luke and Winnie are there on the front of it. Well, the best of luck with it Charles, and thanks for talking about it.
CE: Thanks indeed Tommy, all the best.
TM: That’s Charles Egan there. The Killing Snows. A great great book. Fiction. But it really is a story inspired from documents that his father unearthed in a farm building in Kiltimagh back in 1990. The Famine Relief Payrolls. And it was from that I think the idea ignited to actually write this book. So as well as it being a lot of fiction, there’s a lot of stuff in it that is probably quite true to the reality of what went on in those awful times during the Famine in Ireland.
This is Mid West, we’ll be back in a moment.