Published by Transworld Ireland
I don’t think there are many people of my generation in Ireland, who were once bookish children, who haven’t read Under the Hawthorne Tree. Strangely enough, I’m not one of those who read it at the height of its craze – maybe at the time my interest in it was piqued it was perennially checked out from both the town library and our little classroom one – but it in any case it just happened to pass me by, until a few years later. Considering the phenomenon that it was, it’s surprising; especially when I was partial to other historical fiction written by Irish writers, of which there was a huge trend for at the time.
Learning history through fiction is such a great way to inform children, and Marita Conlon-McKenna taught thousands about the horrors of the Great Irish Famine. She has now turned her hand at writing about the Great Hunger for adults in an ambitious saga set in West Cork, that spans the years of the famine and its terrible toll on the most vulnerable people in society.
The story follows closely a fictionalised account of a real life hero of West Cork, Dr. Daniel Donovan and Mary Sullivan, the matriarch of a family, who is a composite of a great many women from farming families who struggled through, doing what they could for their family to survive. There are also passages from the point of view of the local priest, and Henrietta, Dr. Dan’s wife.
The story opens to the hope and excitement that Daniel O’Connell, the Great Liberator, brought with him on a rally to Skibereen in 1843, and from there charts the devastating potato crop failure, paired with the dire socio-economic climate of farmers and labourers that combined to create one of the most, if not the most, tragic eras in Irish history.
The language used is plain and simple, but that doesn’t distract from the terrible story being told; moreover, the lack of frills and flowery accents drive home the very real, desperate and un-sugar-coated devastation with no embellishments or sensationalisation necessary to put forward the horrific realities of the time. The initial description of the first crop failure, overnight after an apocalyptic-seeming rain shower is heart-stopping.
Mary was a seamstress before she married, and is resourceful and unashamed of providing for her family. When her husband falls ill from ‘road fever’, while toiling with other men in his situation on a government initiated scheme to provide work for farmers whose crops have failed, she steps up and takes his place without a whimper of self-pity. The road scheme is deplorable; badly paid if the workers are paid on time at all and back-breaking work with nothing much to show for it. The supervisors are largely painted as being uncompassionate to their charges, driving them to illness with an excuse of just doing their jobs.
Dr. Dan is saintly; physician for the workhouse, his calling is to provide for those in need, no questions asked. As well as pulling strings to get newly-homeless, starving families in to the workhouse he is instrumental in setting up a free soup kitchen for those in need of nutrition. Thousands avail. A point that particularly struck me was the fear and stigma of burying the dead without coffins; a young widow takes money from Dan intended to feed her two remaining children and instead uses it to purchase a coffin for her son.
Fiction is a worthy gateway to history. As before with her children’s books, Conlon-McKenna writes an honest, stark reflection of a time that needs to be remembered and learned from, focusing on details like familial and community duties and views of the famine from different angles; those subject to the very worse, those well-meaning and eager to help but looking on from a position of privilege, and from time to time perspectives from shocked visitors to the area, aghast at what they are witnessing, as unbelieving as they were of the nightmare unfolding around their fellow citizens.
Interestingly, the tale even goes so far as to shed some light on the mythologizing Irish-Americans whose ancestors go back to arriving on the coffin ships do to the Ireland of old, and the fierce conservative patriotism some of them possess over their American citizenry. At the time America really was the land of opportunity, especially in contrast to the appalling situation at home. It’s understandable that such descendants would have such fierce loyalty and learned nostalgia, considering the circumstances. The Hungry Road isn’t an easy read. The horror is laid bare and the anger is perceptible. The hopeful beginning, a chapter that is set two years before the famine began, is very sad considering the knowledge of what comes next. But it’s a story that needed to be told.
- Review first published in The Tuam Herald on 12th February, 2020.