Charles Egan – The Killing Snows

INTERVIEW WITH OnFM Radio on Sunday 22nd February, 2009

Storm: Here we have Charles Egan who is going to talk about his book which launches on Tuesday, isn’t it?

Charles: Launches on Tuesday at the Irish Centre in Hammersmith.

Storm: And it’s The Killing Snows.

Charles: The Killing Snows, a story of the Irish Famine.

Storm: And how did this all come about?

Charles: Well, how it came about originally – my father came from a small farm in County Mayo and about 20 years ago, when he was sorting out some things there, he discovered some old documents from the 19th Century, and some of them, we discovered afterwards, related to the Irish Famine.

Storm: Now you’ve brought something in with you.

Charles: Yes indeed.

Storm: This is a document you found?

Charles: You see, one of the things that they did during the Irish Famine was that, rather than giving out cash or food directly, they preferred to have people work for it. So this is what is known as Famine Relief. They had people working on the roads. So one of the things here is a Famine Document, which obviously your listeners can’t see.

Storm: No, but it does looks very impressive and looks as if it should be framed and put up on a wall.

Charles: It should. It is in pretty bad condition I’m afraid. They were disintegrating when we found them. Now just going through it, we discovered just how horrifying it was because here there were people who were starving and being paid wages going down from 3 pennies a day down as far as tuppence a day. These included women and children incidentally.

Storm: So, you found these documents, where did you find them again?

Charles: We found them in the outhouses of a small farm in County Mayo.

Storm: Right. And then you looked at them when you found that they contained lists of peoples names and then how much they were earning for working on the roads.

Charles: Working on the roads, which was Famine Relief. It was a system to get money to them to buy corn which by that time had approximately quadrupled in price. The potato crop had entirely failed in 1846, so there was total famine across most of the country, specifically across the West and probably worst of all in County Mayo.

Storm: And they made them work on the roads to earn their keep.

Charles: To earn their keep – precisely. Now what then happened was that according as the Famine progressed and they got weaker and weaker, Ireland was then hit by the worst snowstorm, the worst winter in recent history, certainly for the past 300 years. Hence the title of the book – The Killing Snows.

Storm: Yes, it has beautiful artwork on the front cover, doesn’t it.

Charles: Yes indeed, it was designed by a gentleman who works for Bookforce, he is a real good artist, I rather liked it. You know, he’s English, but he really got the feeling of the whole thing.

Storm: Yes.

Charles: But the thing about this particular one and the reason I brought this particular sheet along is that it operated through November into December. In November, it was already snowing – this is in the mountains in East Mayo. It had been snowing for 2 weeks and you can see the effect of this, the people were, as I say, starving, they were getting weaker and weaker, and finally in the last week – the last of the 4 weeks – which was in the middle of December, suddenly the whole thing is cut short. The people only worked 2 days in the final week. And the reason for that was that on the 14th December the biggest blizzard of all came in, and in the lowlands it was reckoned after a few days that the snow was 10 feet deep. God only knows what it was in the mountains. By this stage the houses, the mud cabins that the poorest people lived in, were completely covered and the people couldn’t get out to earn money or to buy food or anything, and they simply had to stay in their cabins to freeze or starve to death. And that is what this illustrates.

Now the other point about this worksheet was we were able to identify the handwriting, and it is that of my great-granduncle. We knew a lot about him already, we knew that he was literate, that he worked on the Famine Relief, and so we researched a lot about him and began to realise that it would make a good story.

Storm: Well, you’re a historian by trade, aren’t you?

Charles: Oh no, not at all. Nothing like that.

Storm: You are sounding like you are.

Charles: No, no, as I say, you just research a lot of this.

Storm: So what way did you think of ‘this would make a great story’. Had you written before?

Charles: No. As a matter of fact, the one thing that made it the greatest story of all I thought was this – we knew from family stories that while my Great Granduncle was on these Works, was working in the mountains, he met a girl.

Storm: Oh!

Charles: And what followed that was what I had always thought was a completely impossible love story. Once we discovered this about these documents and discovered about the horror of the Famine in the mountains, we thought we would have to research the love story, and we managed to get various documents which proved that the impossible love story was really true. And it was at that point that my wife said ‘you know, this makes too good a story, you should write a novel on it’. And that was where the whole thing started.

Storm: Absolutely, well we will take a break there but we will definitely be back to talk more about The Killing Snows which launches on Tuesday.

Charles: On Tuesday, at the Irish Centre in Hammersmith at 7.30.

4 MINUTE BREAK.

Storm: Welcome back to 101.4 ON FM. Now, we are still here with Charles talking about The Killing Snows. Now you just touched on the impossible love story. Can you tell us a bit more about this. Why was it so impossible, without telling the ending? Keep that secret.

Charles: One reason it was totally impossible because of the fact that they were second cousins and as you know, under Canon Law, under the Law of the Church, they could not possibly be married and this was a cause of extreme tension. But my great-granduncle, or Luke in the story, he was already under extreme pressure because of the increased alienation he felt from his own people. This was because he was working as a supervisor and he was becoming more and more distant from his own people. Also, of course, he was seeing more and more of the horror of the Famine, and this combined with the fact that he had fallen in love with a girl who he could never ever marry, or so he thought.

Storm: And did he know it was his cousin or did he find that out?

Charles: He found out.

Storm: Oh….

Charles: And that was the problem. Now as I say, our own family stories, my father’s family I should say, they had always said what happened after that and I found it very hard to believe. I also found it very hard to believe that something like this could happen in the middle of something like the Famine. Things were so horrifying, how could people even think of starting a relationship like this. Now, my wife’s point was that at a time like that, if people give up, the whole country is finished. And, as you probably know, during wars for example, you have many many relationships that develop very rapidly, but during the Famine when people were extremely weak, it is very hard to imagine it.

Storm: Absolutely. So you said he was feeling isolated. That he was a supervisor, that is a supervisor  on the Roads.

Charles: On the Roads. And hence he felt he was forcing people to work and if they didn’t work, they starved to death. Also, he would have to select people to work, and the ones who were not selected could not earn money, and hence he was allowing them to die. So he was becoming more and more isolated from his own people.

Storm: What a horrible burden to be faced with.

Charles: Exactly. Well this was it. So he was being pushed closer to breakdown if you like, and that is the story of the book. And the question of course is – how these various conflicts were resolved.

Storm: Right, so how long – I mean is this your first book?

Charles: Oh, it is, and it might be my last.

Storm: How long did it take to write?

Charles: I would say, it took place over a period of 7 years. After all, I am not an author and it was done totally in my spare time, and many many times I felt it was a bit too much. Not because of the time involved but more because of the subject. It is a very difficult subject to write about. At times it could get very depressing. But at times with the people involved it could get very inspiring. Particularly the courage the people had. Basically the love story, but also apart from that, the fact that it was a coming-of-age story about a young man, in a very difficult situation. It was also a family story, and it was a story of the women and the real power of the women, the power of the relationships between the women and the complex relationships of extended families in Mayo at the time. The problem was, it was very difficult to imagine myself into the minds of women at that time.

Storm: Yes. So, I mean, it’s your family though you are talking about, all the turmoil of the family. When you think of that, it that not quite hard to detach yourself from the sort of emotions?

Charles: Well, that is the reason that I began to realise after a while that this could not be a book directly about my own family. This book is fiction. It is based on various experiences from my own family, but it is totally fiction. Because I think to write about someone specific you have to know them, and these people died 50, 70, 100 years before I was even born, so I cannot write about them. So all the people in the book, Luke and his entire family, are fictitious and the place names – the villages, mountains, settlements in East Mayo – are fictitious as well.

Storm: Oh, OK.

Charles: Again, you could probably identify them, because a lot of people in Mayo would recognise the Workhouse, but I would say it is fictitious just in case anybody said this detail is not correct.

Storm: Did you every envisage yourself writing a book?

Charles: Oh no.

Storm: Is this something completely off the plan?

Charles: And again, it was my wife’s idea. As a matter of fact, I thought initially when she said why don’t you write a few pages, so I wrote a few pages and I found it was very easy to do, very fast and ‘in fact’ I thought ‘this is quite good’. So, at first I thought – ‘My God, I could do this in a few months in my spare time’. Five years later, I was cursing the day I ever started.

Storm: Maybe that’s the perfectionist in you?

Charles: Not so much that, but I began to discover just how difficult it is to write a book about a subject like this. It is not that easy and it takes a hell of a lot of research.

Storm: Yes, I am sure, because you are trying to turn the truth into a fictitious story.

Charles: Yes.

Storm: But what, were publishers just jumping at the chance to get this?

Charles: No, oh no. As you probably know, a first novel is virtually impossible to publish. I mean it is very difficult. If you send a manuscript to a publisher, it isn’t even looked at. It is simply dumped. Everyone says, get an agent. Agents are even worse. They get hundreds of manuscripts and they are not even opened. They are sent back unopened or they are simply dumped.

Storm: And so how did you manage to get it published?

Charles: Initially through a very good contact of ours in Ireland who read it, and thought it was fantastic, for which I should say – ‘Thank you Helen’. And she knew someone in London and he knew somebody else and that was a publisher and because of the fact that he introduced it they started reading it, and they agreed to publish it.

Storm: Right.

Charles: So it’s a matter of contacts of contacts of contacts.

Storm: A lot of hard work went into this book, so if you want to give is a shameless plug about it being launched on Tuesday.

Charles: Oh absolutely. The Irish Centre is doing a reception for it on Tuesday at 7.30 and we would love anybody to come who is interested in things Irish, or even I would say, anybody who can read. I think you might find it interesting. I find too English people, or should I say anybody is not Irish, also finds it interesting. I find people generally know about the Famine, but they do not know about the detail of the Famine and they should find it interesting.

Storm: Also you find that everybody has a great-uncle, or a great-aunt or granny that was Irish or lived in Ireland at some point. I find it really like being Scottish. Everyone has a Scottish relative, so everybody would have a sort of connection with this story, I presume.

Charles: Absolutely. And incidentally, in America that is even more so. I would love to get into the American market. Would you believe it, 40 million Americans claim to be Irish, which is a figure I find hard to believe. I don’t know if they really are, but if they think they are Irish, hell, they are Irish.

Storm: They are probably more patriotic than the Irish themselves?

Charles: Oh, they are. And you see, that is very much a Roots market. They are trying to find their roots, but we Irish, we know our roots. We don’t have to find them. And while the Irish are obviously interested in something like this, Americans looking for their roots are even more interested.

Storm: Well there you go. You never know, that might be your next step. Thank you very much for coming in. Thank you.