Charles Egan – The Killing Snows

Interview on East Coast FM, September 14th 2009.

Declan Meehan. Hello, how are you.

Charles Egan. Good morning Declan, how are you. Not bad?

D. What’s with the Wicklow connection?

C. Well, it goes back many years both in Newcastle and Roundwood. We still have a house in Roundwood, in fact.

D. Oh, very good. Congratulations on the book. Lying in bed last night, making my way through …

C. Trying to catch up on it all.

D. Yes. Well yes, thank you. Did you have good reaction from it?

C. Oh, an extremely good reaction. We’ve had great reaction for example in newspapers. The Irish Post in London, The Connaught Telegraph you know already, and even on Mid West Radio.

D. Well, you hopefully would have on Mid West, playing to the home team a little bit.

C. Anyhow, do you want me to explain about it.

D. Yes, absolutely. The premise of it all, and how the story and the documents started you to write, you know.

 

ON AIR

D. But Charles Egan is here with us. He has a book called The Killing Snows, and there is snow in the book, and there certainly is killing, and the snow was killing them and the work was killing them, and the hunger was killing them. It is a story of the Irish Famine. Charles, thank you for coming in. It’s a harrowing book I must say. But a warm book I would say. People probably didn’t know what happened then. Tell us the premise of it.

C. First of all, about 20 years ago my father, who was from Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo – he went down to clear out the old house because one of his brothers had died, and as he was doing so, he found a box of documents and he just simply gave them to me. The documents ran from about early 1842 until about 1888, so they had been stored for over 100 years. The ones that fascinated me were 6 documents which ran across the period of the Famine. That was one lease, 2 payrolls and 3 lettters.

D. OK, now what exactly are they.

C. The payrolls – obviously your listeners can’t see this …

D. OK

C. It took me a year or two to realise what they were. The second one, which is really what I call the heart of darkness, is actually a payroll relating to people working on the roads in the Ox Mountains during the Famine. Now it took me a year or so to realise what it was, because it was only when I saw the date I began to understand that this related to the Famine.

D. People listed on the left hand side, what days they are working, and how much money they get per day.

C. And how much money they are paid. The amount of money also indicates incidentally the that these are Relief Roadworks, and the people working at the very start of that document were earning six pence, seven pence, eight pence a day. The lowest amounts incidentally were for children who were working on the road works.

D. Age?

C. Anything from 8 up. Totally devastating. What also happened at the start of this 4 weeks is that it started to snow. That was in early November, and what followed was the worst winter that Ireland has had in at least the last 300 years. Now according as this went on, the wages being paid dropped, and as they did the numbers of people dropped. You have to imagine first of all what was actually going on. People on Famine Relief, according as the wages dropped were being asked to work on a piece rate system which, to be honest with you, was extremely cruel.

D. You mean they don’t get paid unless they worked.

C. Well, a basic wage down to tuppence a day, and then there was a certain amount more depending on the amount of work actually done.

D. Now if you could just take us back to that time, your understanding of that time now, looking at the document and the further research you’ve done. I mean there was a Famine in Ireland. 80% of the diet of Irish people at the time was potatoes

C. Precisely

D. As you said, no potatoes. People were starving, and as part of Famine Relief you say in the book that the British Government decided, or our Government who were the British Government at the time, decided – ‘hey, we’ll give them some work’.

C. Give them some work. It was the principle of the Workhouse. As you say, in 1846 the potato had failed totally and the Workhouses, which were set up to deal with this kind of situation, simply could not cope. To give you a very rough idea, the local Workhouse, near where our farm was, took in about 600 people and that was its capacity. At that stage the number of people in the Barony starving, by my estimate, was 10, 20 or 30 thousand. So what they decided to do was to use the principle of the Workhouse outdoors. In other words, no pay for no work. And these roads were built right across the County and in fact right across Ireland. But as I say, this particular document shows the roads being built in November when it was already snowing. On the fourth week of this document, very interesting, the work suddenly stopped half way through the week. Now the reason for that was the worst blizzard of all hit Ireland on the the 12th December. The Connaught Telegraph, a few days later, indicated that the snow in Castlebar was 10 feet deep. Now if you can imagine that in Castlebar, can you imagine what it was like in the mountains. In fact what happened in the mountains was that the cabins completely disappeared, and people were totally cut off, and couldn’t even get outside their door, and left literally to freeze or starve to death over the next few weeks. Now just going back a moment. We know that these documents were written out by my great granduncle who was some sort of supervisor on the Works. There was something else we knew about my great granduncle which again was family tradition over the years – the fact that he had met a girl when he was working on Famine Relief in the mountains, and what followed, to me, was a totally impossibly love story. And I thought that was absolutely charming, except I never ever believed it, so we started doing a lot of research around that, and we discovered it was actually true.

D. True, this is Luke and …

C. This is Luke as described

D. Luke in the book. You just say in the beginning where he used to supervise these people and there was really no inter-activity between him and his workers as such.

C. Well precisely. He was in a position that he was supervising them, and eventually having to force them to work because of the piece work system. There was another aspect of this incidentally, we also know that the very first time he worked on these roadworks was directly outside the farm near Kiltimagh, not in the Ox Mountains, though we don’t have any paper record of that. Now this ended up being a rather brutal situation if you think of it. If you are working as a supervisor, you have to decide who is going to be allowed to work and who is not. Now deciding that someone is not allowed to work is virtually a sentence of death, because their families have no money and can’t afford to buy corn, and the potatoes are gone. As a result of that, I maintain that a person in that position becomes more and more alienated from his own people. Now we know at the very end that Luke – in fact my great granduncle – left Mayo. In my opinion he left Mayo, not because he was starving – we know for certain that he was not starving. But he left because he could not stay in Co. Mayo. He was a total outsider to his own people and that’s the real tragedy of it all. So basically, putting all that together, that tragedy combined with the horror of the Famine and also combined with an impossible love story, we thought there was a fantastic book in that. Initially my wife Carmel suggested it to me, and I decided simply to write it – I was going to write it factually. But it struck me then that there were only about a dozen people who would be interested in it, and they were all my own family. So Carmel suggested, why not write it as a novel, which to me was a totally new idea. For a while we didn’t do anything about it. Then I decided to try to write something about it. And I found initially that it was quite easy. It was only later I found out just how hard it was going to be, for quite a number of reasons. One for example – I never met any of these people. So eventually I decided it could not possibly be a family story of our family. It could be a story of another family, but it would have to be totally fiction without any pretence. But we could use the documents we had to give background to it. And then the question was – how do you get from one document to the next. It’s not that terribly easy. You have to imagine what leads from one to the next, and sometimes I thought that what we were looking at was almost totally impossible. Which brings me onto another aspect of the whole thing. We’ve all learnt about history and the history of the Famine at school but I found that that was quite misleading in a lot of ways, and eventually I decided to forget about it completely and use other sources of information. And through various newspapers –  there were 3 excellent newspapers in County Mayo at the time – we were able to find out what was happening through eye-witness evidence. The eye-witness evidence was vital. We got eye-witness evidence of what was happening in County Mayo month by month and it was this we kept using as background. Almost as a way of saying – if you don’t believe me about what was happening, the newspapers give the eye-witness accounts. Almost person by person.

D. The quotations from those …

C. Yes, at the start of every chapter is a quotation, a brief quotation perhaps, about eye-witnesses of people dying; of the effects of starvation; and the effects of epidemic typhus which in the end killed far more people than starvation ever did.

D. The response of the authorities was absolutely appalling.

C. Well it was, because as I say in 1846 they were demanding that people keep on working through as a dreadful snow storm, but in 1847 they suddenly closed the roadworks, and that meant that people were cut off, and again had no income whatsoever. Now what they tried to do then was to again to start and continue with the Workhouses, but as I said they couldn’t take enough in. They were vastly over-crowded, and as a result of that, people came in with typhus, and once they came in with typhus it started to spread throughout the Workhouses at a hell of a rate. Now the result of that was, for example in Swinford Workhouse – on which the Workhouse in the book is based incidentally – the death rate was 50% per month. And you have got to remember the people were not necessarily starving, they were people who were catching typhus, and being killed by it, and typhus is an awful way to die. It is certainly a hell of a lot worse than starvation.

D. What you are doing is putting flesh on what I suppose we took glibly at school, which was that over a million died in the famine and a million emigrated. And you’re writing the real story, and you can identify, even though you don’t know them, real people.

C. Real people. And as I say they are based on, but they are not, real people. They are based on real people and real stories. Incidentally to just give you a figure it is estimated that 1 million people died in the famine but I always quote a quotation from Joseph Stalin, of all people, where he said ‘one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic’. And so I decided there was no point in talking about history, there’s no point giving statistics. You have to tell what these people actually experienced, and again as I said, use eye-witness material. Not only, incidentally, in newspapers, there were other people who described what was happening in County Mayo in 1846 and 1847, and I used this eye-witness material to show what was happening to real people. And that was the way it was done. That’s the reason for the book.

D. But just to say as well that it’s not a historical sort of publication documentary – you have an overlay of a love story there too.

C. There’s an overlay of a love story which I maintained was totally impossible. Now not to give it away too much to any potential readers, but the whole point of the love story was that when they decided to get married they discovered they were second cousins, and as second cousins the church forbade them to marry. The way they got around that was by appealing for a dispensation to the Bishop, and the Bishop granted it. And they were married in the middle of April 1847. We know that which was arguably one of the very worst months of the Irish Famine as the typhus epidemic was really taking a grip throughout the county, and starvation was definitely continuing at a very high level. In the middle of all that, they got married. Now I always found that unbelievable for two reasons. Who would get married at a time like that, and secondly, they appealed to the Bishop. You would imagine the Bishop, at a time like that, would have far more on his mind than the concerns of a single couple. But we know it happened and, as I say, we have the records in the church to prove it.

D. Well, it is very well written as your first book, first novel …

C. First novel indeed.

D. You might have Carmel with you?

C. Yes, Carmel in fact.

D. And you have had good reaction so far?

C. We’ve had extremely good reaction. People who read it constantly talk of it as a page-turner, which incidentally, for such a complex book, I find quite a compliment. One English person said it was totally contagious. One of our readers said she started reading it idly on Saturday morning, and finished it at 3 a.m. on Sunday morning, and that’s a story we constantly get. And, as I say, the response from the newspapers has been excellent. In fact, of all things, The Connaught Telegraph compared it to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I felt was probably going a bit over the top but you have to accept compliments like that.

D. Indeed. Well done. And you have a Wicklow connection.

C. Well, as I said, I lived in Wicklow from the time when I was about 12. My father moved up to County Wicklow, and I lived there until I was about 20. And then, after we got married, we moved to Roundwood and built a house just outside Roundwood, and we lived there until about 20 years ago when we moved to London. But the connection is still there. We still have the house in Roundwood, and probably spend 3 or 4 months a year on average in Roundwood because, I suppose, it’s our roots. Mind you, having said that, there’s nothing wrong with London. We seem to know a awful lot of Irish people in London. There’s no difference in living over there than here.

D. And the people, who are descendents of similar situations, did not stay in Ireland.

C. Well, yes. Because there was this dreadful emigration in the 1950s in which 800,000 people left Ireland, as my friend Bernard Canavan incidentally quoted on this radio station about a week ago. So Bernard at the moment is running …

D. … an exhibition?

C. … an art exhibition tonight, and I am doing a reading at it. We are doing it jointly. And his concentration always in his paintings is the migration of the 1950s, which literally decimated what was left of County Mayo. But having said that, to give him a quick plug, there is a wine reception tonight, and for anyone who wants to come in it’s in the Library in Pearse Street. Anyone who wants to come along and see the paintings and perhaps also buy a book or two of mine, is very very welcome.

D. All right. Charles, thank you for coming in. Charles Egan has written this book The Killing Snows about the time of the Famine 1846 and the excerpts from real documents add to the writing of this book, and it’s a love story as well. Charles Egan, thank you very much.

C. Thank you indeed.