Charles Egan – The Killing Snows

In 1990 I came into possession of two documents which were fascinating, and in their own way, quite savage.

My father had been brought up on a small farm in County Mayo in the West of Ireland. Following the death of one of his brothers, he gave us a box of documents which, by their dates, had been stored for over a hundred years. They included a lease, a number of letters and two payrolls.

When we received the papers they were in a terrible condition; sodden, decaying and nearly illegible. After several weeks we dried them out, and slowly began to decipher them. It was only then that I realised what they really were -  the documentary evidence of the stories I had learnt as a child as to how my family survived the Famine. The fact that there were young men in the family, old enough to work as migrant labourers in England or literate enough to work as clerks or supervisors in Mayo, had meant the difference between survival or starvation.

The two payrolls were the most horrific. They detailed the wages for gangs of men, women and children working on two roads in east Mayo in the winter of 1846; one near Attymass and the other in the mountains running up to Lough Talt. The rates of pay, dropping as low as two pennies a day, confirmed what I already knew from the dates.

This was Famine Relief.

The Irish Famine had started with the partial failure of the potato crop in the autumn of 1845. In 1846 the potato failed again, and this time the failure was nearly total. The Workhouses could not cope, and so the enormous Famine Relief schemes were started, and kept running through the coldest and worst winter that anyone in Ireland had ever seen. Hundreds of thousands of people were employed on roadworks, building and repairing roads all across Ireland.

Hunger and fever killed thousands of them. The murderous blizzard of December 1846 (as in The Killing Snows) killed many thousands more, and brought the Works to a halt all across the country. But they opened again in January, and by the time the Soup Kitchens took over in March the Works were employing three quarters of a million survivors, mostly in the West, all trying desperately to feed their families on pitifully low wages.

The payrolls were part of all this and told their own pathetic story. They showed very clearly the drop in wages over this time, and the effect of the blizzard in mid-December can be seen as the work in the final week was abruptly cut off. Local research filled in more of the story, a brutal one of hunger, fever and death.

From other documents in the box we were able to identify the handwriting on the payrolls as that of my great-grand-uncle Michael Egan (on whom Luke Ryan is based in The Killing Snows). We already knew from family tradition that Michael had been working on building the ‘New Line’ road through Corohore (Carrigard in the book) during the Famine. It was also said that he had then gone to work in the mountains, and in 1985 my uncle was able to show us the roads where he had worked – the same roads mentioned in the two payrolls that we later found.

Michael was working as an overseer on the Relief Works. It was there that he met Winnie Durcan (Winnie Gallagher in the book). After some months they decided to marry, but because they were second cousins they had to get an episcopal dispensation. Research in church records in Bonnyconlon (Brockagh) showed that they were finally married on April 16th, during the worst months of Black ’47. This true story provides the key theme of The Killing Snows.

At this time his brother Pat was working close to Swinford Workhouse (Knockanure Workhouse), which was decimated by fever in 1847. He too seems to have been working in some kind of official role, though we have little information on this. Some years later another brother married Alicia O’Grady (Sarah Cronin), the daughter of the Master and Matron of the Workhouse. In the story, Pat illustrates the experiences of both of these brothers. The description of the horrific conditions of the Workhouse, and in particular of the death pit, are all documented in Swinford.

After their wedding Michael and Winnie returned to the farm at Corohore. Again, family tradition held that he emigrated to Pennsylvania during or after the Famine, and that Winnie followed some time later. Census records show that by 1870 they and their nine children were living in Wilkes Barre in the northern anthracite fields of Pennsylvania.

Their descendants still live there today.