Ireland’s Great Hunger, 1845-1852, profoundly impacted the next generations, both through starvation and loss of property, and through mass emigration. Under British rule, most Irish land was owned by English landlords who raised crops through Irish tenant farmers. The famine didn’t affect the tenants’ other crops–wheat, oats, barley–but their own staple food, potatoes, were destroyed by blight. Weakened by hunger, over time they were unable to pay their rents and many were evicted without mercy. Over a million Irish died, both from starvation and from disease, and double that number–anyone who could scrape together the cost of a voyage–escaped to England, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. The overall impact was a loss of population of 20-29%, depending on the county, from over 8 million in 1841 to 6.5 million in 1851.
But the Irish diaspora continued. Many survivors of the famine were malnourished, landless, grief-stricken, and hopeless. By 1891, the year Frank Donnelly and his children Cally and Teddy emigrated in Horse Thief 1898, fewer than 5 million people lived in Ireland, close to half the population fifty years before.
History books and historical fiction (The Law of Dreams, Galway Bay, many others) detail the terrible suffering of the Irish people under British indifference and cruelty at the time of the famine, but few follow the story into the next generations. In Horse Thief 1898, I invented the Donnelly and McCarthy families as farmers dealing with the ongoing grief and challenges of losing most of their relatives to death or emigration. In 1870, only 3% of Irish farmers owned their own land; 97% were tenants. The enactment of the Irish Land Acts of the 1870s and 1880s is complex and messy, but they finally turned the tide toward Irish ownership of their own land.
In my imagination, Frank Donnelly is one of the 25,400 tenants who was able to buy his holding following the Purchase of Land Act in 1885. This Act allowed the purchaser to borrow the full value of his property, to be repaid at 4% interest over 49 years. The purchase price was equal to 17 ½ years rental. In 1891, when Frank emigrates to America, he sells this contract to his brother-in-law Dugan McCarthy. Frank and Dugan’s hard work and diversification of crops and animals makes the farm profitable, though Frank’s family still lives in a one-room cottage until Dugan builds a similar house to marry Aisling. County Cork suffered less overall than the west of Ireland, where the potato blight, the agricultural depression of 1873-1896, and the 1879 famine had more devastating impact.
Frank’s family cared for his cousin Micky when his parents emigrated to Australia after losing their adjoining farm. After many years in the navy, Micky settles as a fisherman in Youghal. In the course of the book, Micky marries the town librarian, Louise, a seanachie (storyteller) who teaches Cally to read and write. I was delighted to find through my research that Youghal had a library that early, years before libraries were widely established in the United States through the patronage of Andrew Carnegie.
Similarly, Frank and Maureen took in her young brother Dugan when their parents and siblings died from “black fever,” (typhus), a plague that decimated malnourished people. Cally and Teddy grew up with Uncle Dugan an essential figure in their lives. His beloved Aisling loves and nurtures the children as well. So why, when they find themselves alone on the streets of Albany, NY, does Cally refuse to return to Dugan and Aisling when they have the chance? I guess you’ll have to read the story . . .
Maureen’s cousin Roisin McCarthy and her husband Malachy Quinn are sinister figures in Cally and Teddy’s immigrant experience, and their attitude is supported by law in the New York of 1891. It’s a good reminder that though our system of caring for children is far from perfect, we have come a long way. And grace was operative back then, even as it’s available now.
I hope you’ll enjoy getting to know the Donnellys and McCarthys, and some of their challenges and pleasures. They are survivors, with some of the toughness and vulnerabilities of those resilient enough to creatively build their lives in the wake of the suffering of generations of their people.