Singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke could hardly have chosen a more difficult subject for his debut novel. The scene is Macroom in Co Cork in 1846. The Famine has begun.
O’Rourke holds absolutely nothing back, neither in the story itself, whose great length and weight of detail demand the closest attention, nor the unrelenting style in which it us told. The novel is uncompromisingly brutal in its depiction of suffering.
On the first page, a man is climbing a hill with the last of his strength, his heart “bursting”, his lungs “wheezing”, his tongue “like a spent horse panting”. Readers can hardly claim they don’t know what they are getting into.
It’s a theme that O’Rourke has, of course, explored before in song, not least on his celebrated album Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine.
That reportedly took him 15 years to assemble, and he admits himself he thought he was finished with the subject when it was released in 2017. But the true story behind the song Poor Boy’s Shoes, about a father whose children die in the workhouse and who then carries his wife home, where she also dies, drew him back. It is Pádraig and Cáit Ua Buacalla through whose eyes the Famine unfolds in all its inhumanity.
Pádraig is brilliantly realised. Through his innocence, the readers see Macroom as it must have looked at that time to a poor country dweller without a word of English — “a giant hive full of bustle and bother… a gaping eyesore of clamour and haste… he couldn’t understand the attraction”.
The other central character is Cornelius Creed, the pawnbroker of the title, who acts as a focal point in the town. The poor come to him when in need of money, and his own wealth allows him to move in more exalted social circles. Cornelius tries to do his best to help those who are suffering, but he has no power either. His perspective gives the novel added poignancy as he comes to realise that “any good I do outside of this place is undone by what I do here, in the shop… I feel like I’m up against thick old walls, sandwiched somewhere uselessly in the middle, between the rich and the poor, like a cog in the teeth of a wheel”.
The Pawnbroker’s Reward works both as a novel and as a testament to the documented cruelties of the day. Indeed, O’Rourke dedicates it to “those historians, archivists, researchers and sharers of lore, who gift to us the past,” without whom this book would not have been possible.
It’s a searing indictment of the cruelties of Poor Law relief which demanded that “inmates are to be worse fed, worse clothed and worse accommodated than that of the lowest peasant outside the walls of the workhouse”, even as they were literally dying.
Pádraig soon comes to know “the draining effort of walking upwards of 13 miles a day in cold weather and putting in a full shift of gruelling manual labour on top, all on the strength afforded him by a single daily meal”.
Two weeks in, and the men are finally paid for their work, only to receive less than they are owed. Their complaints are stilled by “the fear of being replaced for being troublesome or ungrateful”.
At a time when so many of those who are known in other fields seem to be opportunistically trying their hand at fiction, in the manner of dilettantes, it’s admirable to see someone who takes the craft of novel writing seriously.
It’s not an easy read by any means. Some of the more graphic depictions of the atrocities of the period are hard to bear. It’s no criticism to say this is a novel I doubt I’ll ever want to read again.
What makes it even more tragic is that the novel ends in December 1846. The worse horrors of ‘Black 47’ are, unimaginably, still ahead.
Fiction: The Pawnbroker’s Reward by Declan O’Rourke
Gill Books, 499 pages, hardcover €22