Charles Egan – The Killing Snows

Target publication: Sunday Times

Total word count: 1,516


Charles Egan Profile

When we met at the Irish Centre in Hammersmith on a sunny Saturday morning in early March, Charles Egan was formally attired, in a dark suit, striped shirt and tie.  Not quite the dress code I expected from an author promoting his first novel.  He didn’t strike me as the type to roll out of bed, and finding nothing clean and bohemian in the cupboard, shrugs on a suit and tie because he just can’t be asked.   I suspect that for him book promotion is a serious business, and when a man whose day job is running a mergers and acquisitions company is in business mode, only a suit and tie will do. 

Egan is here to promote his book “The Killing Snows”, which chronicles the lives of the Ryan family, in County Mayo, from April 1846 to July 1847.  This was at the beginning of the Irish Potato Famine, which continued for another 4 years.  It was a pivotal period in Irish history, reducing the population by nearly 25%.  One million people died of disease or starvation.  Another million emigrated.  It lives in Irish folk memory as vividly as the Holocaust does for Jewish people and, not surprisingly, has been a rallying point for Irish nationalists ever since.

Egan’s story, while a novel, is almost reportage, cataloguing the steadily increasing misery and death, as a disempowered and penniless population tried desperately to stay alive.  For a lapsed Irish woman like myself, it was a surprisingly gripping read.  I suppose I spent too much of my youth reading and listening to the polemical versions of Irish history.  I was unprepared for what Egan himself describes as “not a bash the Brits bonanza”.  He shows that previous famines, disease, extreme weather conditions and lack of planning played as a part in the human catastrophe as well as exploitative landlords and a distant British Government. 

The direct origin of the book was the discovery of some documents in the family farm in County Mayo, after the death of Egan’s paternal uncle in 1990.  They included two payrolls for road gangs, dated November and December 1845.  Their  full significance didn’t strike him at first.  However, when he noticed that the daily pay for each worker dropped from 7d a day to 2d within a matter of weeks, he realised that it related to famine relief work instigated by the Government so that the Irish peasantry could earn the right not to starve.  The reduction in wages related to a switch in payment from a daily rate for each worker, to piece work with members of work gangs receiving payment per square yard of road completed.   This was particularly cruel for a workforce already weakened by hunger, and it was only after the severe snows of late 1845 and early 1846 that the Government relented and set up soup kitchens.

The main characters in the novel are based on some of Egan’s ancestors.  The principle characters, Luke and Winnie, are based on his great, great uncle and his wife, who met and married, to Egan’s great incredulity, at the height of the famine.  Egan’s family were unusual in 1840s Ireland because they could read and write.  One ancestor, who inspired another character in the book, ran a small school. Their oldest children were young men in their early 20s and capable of work.  Their age and literacy meant that they were able to get better paid work. 

The family were also tenant farmers, in an area where, even in more prosperous times, many people lived a hand to mouth existence outside of the cash economy.  I got the impression that some residual part of the survivors guilt and anger which his family must have felt, lives on in Egan, and it was this, as much as a desire to tell a family story, that inspired him to spend 7 years writing the book in his spare time.  

Egan himself was born in Nottingham but the family returned to Ireland within a few years, settling first in Tipperary and later to Wicklow.  Summer holidays each year were spent in his father’s home place near Killeaden in County Mayo, the birthplace of Rafftery, the last great Irish bard.  He was educated at James Joyce’s alma mater, Clongowes Wood College, and later studied at University College Dublin.  He and his wife Carmel moved to London 20 years ago.  They don’t have children, and one gets the impression that they are a very tight team both in work and in life. 

Women seem to have a hallowed place in Egan’s psyche and there is a strong romantic streak lurking beneath the more pragmatic persona that he presents to the world.  In one of the few flowery passages in the book, he describes the first meeting between the hero and heroine, when struck by love at first sight, Luke contemplates the qualities of all the other significant women in his life.  Egan says that one of the early readers of his book described it as: “pure poetry”.  .

He jokingly remarks that he spent his first 20 years in a mental institution.  His father was a resident psychiatrist in mental hospitals in both Ireland and England, and set up the first mental hospital in County Wicklow in the 1950s.  This medical background may explain the unflinching, almost forensic descriptions of the physical effects of starvation and typhus in the book.

His background in business also comes out strongly.  Both the hero, Luke, and his more mercenary cousin Danny have business brains.  Luke is the moral centre of the book.  He tries to do the right thing, staying in Ireland to support his family and safeguard the family farm rather than emigrate to England, where he could make more money building railway lines.  Egan sees him as a good man, who continually has to make moral compromises, and is ultimately unable to help many of the starving people around him.

Danny, on the other hand, is a blatant capitalist on the make.  He refuses to return from England, although he sends his family enough money to keep them fed.  Through hard work, saving and shrewd calculation, he sets up as a subcontractor providing work gangs for building the railways.  He recruits Irish labour directly off the boats in Liverpool, and is able to undercut other contractors by paying them less than English labourers would expect.  Yet, as one of the character comments at the end of the novel, Danny, the ruthless exploiter, probably saved more Irish lives than Luke.  One senses that some of these contradictions co-exist within Charles Egan, but that ultimately he scores more at Luke’s end of the spectrum.

While Egan claims that the novel is based primarily on family stories and a few historical documents, the book is stuffed with historical detail.  But, I suspect that he is one of those Irishmen who down plays erudition, in case of appearing boastful.  He includes extracts from newspapers of the time to open each chapter.  He also admits to consulting the meteorological records for the period.  The information about previous famines in 1840 and 1751, as well as the information on the weather are important factors. They help to place the Famine in a wider context than the usual reading of exploitation and indifference.   One of his characters is a veteran of Waterloo, which for indolent readers such as me, is important in entering his reconstruction of the era.

With such careful research and such a fascinating family story, I wondered why he hadn’t chosen to write a straightforward history.  But Egan was adamant that given the distance in time and that he hadn’t known these people personally, he could only imagine their lives.  His question to his wife was: “How many people would be interested in a family history?  About a dozen and all of them my relations.” 

He is also wary of received histories of the Famine.  He says: “What I was trying to do with the Famine was just to simply imagine it through the views of  people who were living through it, rather than through the accepted narrative of later people who, shall we say, wanted to put a political point of view across. I didn’t try to make political judgements.”  He was also influenced by books such as Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and Thomas Flanagan’s “The Year of the French”, where great sweeps of history are told through the micro view of a few characters.

As we finished talking, I asked if he was intending to write another book.  Others had already asked him the same question, eager to know what had happened to the people who survived “The Killing Snows”.  Egan was noncommittal, saying: “Lets see how this one does first, and then we’ll see”.  Oh yes, there was a reason for his taking on the literary world in a suit.