In Ireland, 1846 is a time of the workhouse and the thatched roof. The nib and the ink. Newspapers advertise miracle ointments and the curing effects of spring water. Vast swathes of the population are tied to small plots on landowners’ estates. We see a neglected country in the shadow of an empire.
It is also the second year in which blight will hit the potato crop in Ireland. Declan O’Rourke’s The Pawnbroker’s Reward begins in the brief juncture before the second crop failure is fully realised. The all-too-slow ripple of news is spreading like disease through Europe, but for the labourers on Irish soil there is still the naive belief things may turn around.
We follow the townsfolk of Macroom in Cork and their struggle to survive the outset of the most harrowing years of the Great Hunger. Through the viewpoint of various characters, we see how in-house politics and greed also play their parts in the tragedy, and how the national response is shaped by a dismissive attitude toward the poor, particularly people in small rural towns and those from the Gaeltacht areas in the west of Ireland, people like Pádraig and Cáit Ua Buachalla.
Living in a one-room stone dwelling atop a hill with a “jagged-toothed ridge”, Pádraig, Cáit and their two children depend on the meagre wage he receives from labouring on the land. They have spent years moving from place to place in search of work. They have lost a child in the process, and have already been evicted from a smallholding, as landowners shuffled and cleared tenants to avoid paying land rates they could easily afford. Eventually they settle on half an acre of land, only for disease to hit the potato.
Peppered with the everyday, their story gives a real sense of the suffering of the masses. The physical decline of the children. The embarrassment of receiving charity. The walk for miles to get one paltry meal a day. At one point Pádraig contemplates their future. “Who can you beg from when everyone is failing?”
Bodies wasting and children fading, they refuse to give in. In times of desperation, hope is almost as important as that single meal. It is something the family work to hold onto. They have little choice.
So many families in a similar position as the Ua Buachallas are prepared to work their way out of despair. A commitment from the government to provide employment for the needy is quickly abused by those better off. Not only are people starving, they are now being worked to death for the promise of a wage and meagre food rations. At one stage 300,000 labourers are on the books. Most would not receive pay at the end of each week.
Cornelius Creed is the pawnbroker in Macroom. He deals in the meagre possessions of those same poor. Small credit exchanged for the likes of blankets or shoes passed down through the family.
Creed is also a journalist with the_ Cork Examiner_. It is in newspaper articles, read or written by Cornelius, where we get a broad sense of the impending terror. By the time these periodicals report that “the plague has come” Creed is well aware the famine has taken hold.
Disturbed by a lack of compassion from certain factions in Macroom, Creed attempts to become a voice for the poor at town meetings. An article appears in an edition of the Examiner that falsely claims he attended a lavish soiree in the People’s Hall. The idea that Creed is happy to attend lavish parties while people on the street are starving undermines his stance for the poor, and he quickly realises some figures in the town are working to create a narrative around the catastrophe to suit their own agenda. He sets out to expose the fraud, and spread word of those affected most by the famine.
Creed soon realises that one of the biggest problems is that “those with such an enormous financial interest at stake should be the ones to formulate and implement policies to alleviate the growing catastrophe”. The same privileged few even have influence on the workhouses, overseeing a demeaning trial for each individual wishing to gain entry.
These places are squalid at the best of times. The ethos of the workhouse is that inmates are to be “worse fed, worse clothed and worse accommodated than that of the lowest peasant outside the walls of the workhouse”. The standard outside is so low at this time, it is virtually impossible to make life any lower inside.
In one standout scene, Creed is present as, in desperation, a large crowd of starving people descend on the town. Referred to as “insectile beings” at one point, they move and gather in near silence. It says so much about the state of a people, mentally as much as physically. It speaks of years of oppression. The image is chilling.
The Pawnbroker’s Reward does not move like a thriller. It slowly unfurls as a tragedy, with each brutality driven home, in much the same way as each rock is cracked under hammer by the starving labourers who work new roads during this crisis.
In 2017, O’Rourke released his sixth album, Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine. The work for this was done over 17 years. And this shows throughout the book. Declan O’Rourke is a natural storyteller and his skill of storytelling within song seamlessly transfers to this first novel.
He adeptly shades in a world around newspaper articles, clippings and historical accounts. Full of heart and heartbreak, he resurrects the time of the famine with care and honesty. An original take on the darkest period in Irish history, it is well worth a read.