Reporter David Medcalf called to my Greystones home in April ’17.
Charles’s literary reminder of Famine heritage
Charles Egan is back in County Wicklow and living in Greystones at the age of 64, along with his wife Carmel. The author, businessman and historian spent much of his working life in London – not to mention a stint in New York. Though his Irish accent is unmistakable, Charles was actually born in the UK while the father worked there as a psychiatrist.
When the family came home to the Republic in the late 1950s, their first port of call was County Tipperary, living in St Luke’s mental hospital in Clonmel. The phrase is now frowned at, but Charles takes a mischievous delight in telling people that he grew up in a ‘mental hospital’. Wicklow only came into his life when his dad took up an appointment at Newcastle, setting up the new psychiatric hospital there, with the family settling in a house on the hospital grounds.
So it was that the county provided the backdrop to his teenage and young adult years, besides giving him a wife, as Carmel (née Hayes) is a native of Greystones. The returned couple are now comfortably at home here in their new top-floor apartment above the Charlesland complex. With its views out over the Irish Sea, the place is a most pleasant residence. Largely retired from business, Charles is at leisure there these days to relax and devote himself to writing and research.
He certainly proved to be a star turn recently at a meeting of the Kilmacanogue history society with a full turnout at the Glenview Hotel for his lecture. The topic for the evening was the famine of the 1840s when Ireland was brought to its knees by the failure of the potato crop. Despite all the time spent abroad, Charles has a formidable knowledge of Mayo, as his late father came from the Kiltimagh area.
The impact of Great Hunger was felt most catastrophically in the west and the Egan clan was not spared. Family documents show how they endured Mayo suffering social and economic melt-down created by starvation and disease. The papers came to light in a clear-out of an old granary at the Egan farm in the early nineties, following the death of an uncle.
The horrors created by the collapse of the potato crop reached down to him through one and a half centuries through the spidery script. The payrolls showed starving people working for pennies through a desperate winter which ultimately killed thousands of them. The paper was on the verge of disintegrating but it was possible to rescue them and they are now safely preserved in electronic form on his computer.
Charles has drawn inspiration from those precious documents to write two novels about the famine times, with a third on the way, putting a human perspective on grim times. The author backs up his story-telling with a strong grasp of the statistics behind the trauma of the 1840s.
While in London, he and Carmel spent many hours in the British Library, which holds a treasure trove of Irish newspapers – Saturday was their research day. The press reports circulated by the printed media of the day such as the ‘Connaught Telegraph’ and ‘Ballina Chronicle’ provided most of the eye-witness accounts which breathe life into his book the ‘The Killing Snows’.
The novel is rich with language spoken in the rhythms used by his relatives and learned on visits to the west. Though Charles is credited as the author, Carmel’s role in typing up the drafts was considerable as the book took shape over ten years up to 2010. He credits her with the initial suggestion that a work of fiction would be the best way to make use of all the historical material at their disposal.
Now the author happily quotes reviews suggesting that his debut work is ‘by far the best novel about the famine’. The title was drawn from the great freeze which followed the crop failure to create a perfect storm of misery for country dwellers who found themselves with no food and no warmth.
The initial literary effort was followed by ‘The Exile Breed’, which took just five years to complete. Both titles sell well through Amazon in the United States, where many of those fleeing from the collapse of the potato economy found refuge.
Famine Ireland was a place in which more than 40 per cent of houses were mud-walled cabins, long since disappeared. It is no longer possible to say with certainty where most of these wretched hovels stood but Charles is convinced that Wicklow had its share of these long gone dwellings. While the Great Hunger statistics for Mayo are beyond grim, life was no picnic for the have-nots elsewhere.
Wicklow lost a fifth of its population through lack of food or migration in the decade between 1841 and 1851. The bald statistic represents a major dislocation of the social fabric and it indicates that the potato was a critical part of the diet here too with a significant programme of poverty relief required.
‘Wicklow did have a famine,’ concludes Charles. ‘Loughlinstown and Rathdrum were the big workhouses. The Famine hit Wicklow and it hit it very badly.’ A programme of road construction, offering employment in exchange for food, was instigated, just as it was in Connaught. He believes that the Wicklow to Brittas Bay route was probably a famine road, along with some of the county’s mountain roads.
Soup kitchens catered for 48 per cent of those living in the Rathdrum district at the height of the distress and 47 per cent in the now affluent Delgany district -surely indicating famine on a grotesque scale.
The advent of blight in potatoes triggered a decline in population which continued as a slow and constant haemorrhage until relatively recently. The Greystones in which Carmel grew up during the sixties, for instance, had just 3,000 residents where now it has boomed to accommodate 20,000.
Many of the Egans emigrated to the United States, Mayo people who may have noticed a surprisingly strong Wicklow influence in the New World. One family member worked for a time close to the Avoca anthracite mines in Pennsylvania where the lads from Wicklow were the foremen. He later moved close to the Avondale colliery, remembered to this day as scene of a disastrous fire which claimed 120 lives…
Charles Egan’s late father Tom was very well known for his trail-blazing work in the mental health service. Following his stint in Tipperary, he was handed the job of creating a new psychiatric hospital for Wicklow and North Wexford at Newcastle in the redundant former tuberculosis sanatorium. Doctor Egan adopted the then radical approach that it was not always necessary to lock up patients with troubled minds.
‘Dad maintained that many patients should not be institutionalised,’ recalls his son.
The result was that Newcastle had around 100 patients, tiny compared with the 800 or so who were confined within the walls at St Luke’s in Clonmel. With people being treated at clinics in Bray and Tinahely, or allowed to stay at home, the young Charles benefitted. He learned to drive as the chauffeur bringing his father on his rounds, reaching all parts of Wicklow in the process.
He studied commerce at UCD, a choice which led on to a job with the IDA at their headquarters in Lansdowne Road which lasted no more than five years. Then he broke out to plough his own furrow, arranging mergers and acquisitions for major companies around the world.
Throughout his time in business, his number one colleague was always his wife, just as they now collaborate on the writing and publication of the novels.
The pair first met when he was a young IDA executive and she was employed as a secretary in the Dublin office of a Japanese firm. On their first date, they discussed crossing the Sahara together, an ambition since fulfilled as they enjoy a shared love of travel.
They married in 1978 and set up home in Roundwood but soon found themselves living instead at Hammersmith in London, close to the Irish Cultural Centre. It was at the centre that ‘The Killing Snows’ was launched as they felt at home there, where they had enjoyed many historical lectures and film nights.
‘I read history constantly,’ muses Charles, who reckons that there are at least a thousand history books on the shelves of the apartment in Charlesland. His exploration of the famine has given him an appreciation of just how fortunate we are to be alive in the 21st century, inhabiting an Ireland where vaccination, antibiotics and clean water mean unprecedented life expectancy. Contrast this comfortable well-fed existence with that of our ancestors whose children had no better than a one in three chance of reaching adulthood.