*Post written to the sound of The Pogues singing Thousands Are Sailing*

At pub quiz one night they asked the decade of the Irish Great Famine. In my infinite ignorance I thought it was early 20th century, but fortunately an English team member knew better. He also said “It was in the 1840s, but the Irish talk about it like it was only yesterday”.

Discussing this book with my Irish trainee I notice the same and Wikipedia summarized why: “Modern historians regard it as a dividing line in the Irish historical narrative, referring to the preceding period of Irish history as “pre-Famine”.”

After reading The Star of the Sea I can better understand why.

In the winter of 1847 the fictional ship Star of the Sea starts a 26-day journey from Ireland to New York. Aboard are the Famine refugees, from the bankrupt aristocrats who eat multi-course meals, to the desperate peasants at death’s door. The division between first class and steerage might seem wide, but past connections will influence the crossing’s astonishing events.

Also on board is Dixon, an American reporter who many years later decides to publish a book about that voyage – his book is the one you’re reading now. Sometimes he speaks in the first person and sometimes he’s an invisible narrator. He also includes clippings from fictional articles, testimonials he collected from passengers, pieces of the Captain’s log and snippets of real letters exchanged between emigrants and the families they left behind. Dixon’s narrative also intertwines life aboard the Star of the Sea with the passengers’ past lives.

This gimmick could’ve easily become too contrived but it actually helps create the realistic feel of the story.

My favorite part was probably one character’s life in the London slums. He’s fascinated by petty crime and the words that can describe it:

The lexicon of crime became his favourite contemplation. The English possessed as many words for stealing as the Irish had for seaweed or guilt. With rigour, with precision, and most of all with poetry, they had categorised  the language of thievery into sub-species, like fossilised  old deacons  baptising butterflies. Every kind of robbery had a verb of its own.

There’s also a great moment where we find out how Charles Dickens really got the information that inspired Oliver Twist.

It’s an obviously well researched book and I appreciated O’Connor’s candor about the causes of the Famine. He doesn’t spare the Irish land owners and is also not kind on the US authorities. The last chapters are extremely powerful as we get a vivid account of the origins of Ellis Island, which remains one of my favorite museums.

Not directly connected to the book, but that a look at these two amazing episodes I took from Wikipedia:

Ottoman aid

In 1845, Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid declared his intention to send £10,000 to Irish farmers but Queen Victoria requested that the Sultan send only £1,000, because she herself had sent only £2,000. The Sultan sent the £1,000 sterling but also secretly sent three ships full of food. The English courts tried to block the ships, but the food arrived at Drogheda harbour and was left there by Ottoman sailors.

From Native Americans

In 1847, midway through the Great Irish Famine (1845–1849), a group of Native American Choctaws collected $710 (although many articles say the original amount was $170 after a misprint in Angie Debo‘s The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic) and sent it to help starving Irish men, women and children. “It had been just 16 years since the Choctaw people had experienced the Trail of Tears, and they had faced starvation… It was an amazing gesture.” according to Judy Allen, editor of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma’s newspaper, Bishinik, based at the Oklahoma Choctaw tribal headquarters in Durant, Oklahoma. To mark the 150th anniversary, eight Irish people retraced the Trail of Tears, and the donation was publicly commemorated by President Mary Robinson.


Other thoughts: Fingers & Prose (and yours?)