Charles Egan – The Killing Snows

 The Killing Snows

 In 1846, on his father’s orders, Luke Ryan returns to Ireland from working on English Railways to take over the tiny family farm in Mayo. During the next months he meets with Kitty Brennan and starts an affair with her. But she is married, and when his father finds out, the affair is over and Luke finds he has lost many of his friends.

In September 1846, the potato crop fails completely. This is the start of the real Irish Famine. Luke thinks of returning to England so as to earn money for the family. But before he leaves, Famine Relief schemes are started in Mayo. Because he is literate, he is appointed as a clerk on the Works. He becomes more alienated from his own people.

He is transferred to a mountainous part of Mayo, where he meets Winnie. Together with Winnie’s father and a local priest, he commences Relief Works, and works as a supervisor, eventually employing four hundred starving people. In December, a brutal blizzard kills many people on the Works and he is forced to close them. They re-open afterwards, but the wages are very little and the people keep dying of hunger, fever and cold. At this stage, unbelievably, Luke and Winnie are married.

The Works are replaced by the Soup Kitchens and Luke is dismissed. Luke and Winnie return to his home to farm, but within a few days he is employed as a clerk again, administering the Soup Kitchens in the area. They witness a major eviction. Luke and his father travel to Westport to collect a consignment of food for the Kitchens. The convoy is attacked and Luke, in defending his father, kills a starving man.

Luke sees no future in Mayo. When he hears from a friend working on the railways in Pennsylvania, he decides that they must emigrate. Winnie is pregnant though, and it is decided that she will stay with Luke’s parents until after the baby is born. At the end of the book, Luke leaves for America without Winnie.

There are three lesser stories running in parallel.

Pat is Luke’s brother.  He works on the English harvest and then returns to Mayo. He works as a clerk at Knockanure Workhouse, where he witnesses the full horror of the Famine. He falls in love with Sarah, the Workhouse Master’s daughter.

Danny is Luke’s cousin. He stays with the railways in England, and becomes a ruthless railway contractor, exploiting starving Irish emigrants. He meets Irene, who is just as ruthless. At the height of the Famine he brings his father and family to England.

Eleanor is Luke’s mother. She and the other women rear Brigid, an orphaned baby. As the Famine worsens, they decide that there is only one way to break the cycle of hunger and poverty. Against all the odds, Brigid will be educated and become a teacher.

The Killing Snows is based on a true story. Read more >>