Stories of suffering and strength still echo through the centuries
Joseph O'Connor relives the horrors of the Great Famine in the 1840s and asks why similar world tragedies and injustice still occur today
Visitors to Connemara, that wilderness of stony beauty in the west of Ireland, sometimes stop at the village of Letterfrack. It's a charming little hamlet, with thatched cottages and cosy pubs. Not far from the town is the manor where Yeats honeymooned. Nearby you can stroll on a shingled beach. Sea wrack, gull call, Atlantic breezes - the strange loveliness of coastal places. There's a sense of continuities unchanged for generations. But that is illusory, the wishful thinking of the outsider. Modernity has indeed touched Letterfrack. U2 might be playing on the stereo in the bar. The guesthouses offer en suite bathrooms, as well as turf fires.
We tourists take pleasure in the emptiness of Connemara. There are reasons why such a silence exists. You would not think, as you amble the sleepy lanes, as you are stilled by the twilight descending on the mountain, that you are walking through a space that was once a disaster zone: the Ground Zero of Victorian Europe. These meadows, those pebbled fields, saw astonishing suffering. These wine-dark boglands and rutted boreens witnessed tragedy so immense that those who observed it, like Grantley Dixon in my novel, would never forget the sight.
All this happened in the 1840s, that decade in which a million of the Irish underclass died as a consequence of famine. Residents of the richest kingdom on earth, they lived only a few hundred miles from the empire's capital, London. But that did not save them; nothing saved them. Abandoned by the dominant of Ireland and Britain, perhaps two million of the desperate became refugees. We might call them 'asylum seekers' or 'economic migrants'. They fled their homeland by any means possible, often on ships like the Star of the Sea. Their language, Gaelic, among the oldest vernaculars in Europe, already in decline, virtually disappeared. "Mharbh an gorta achan rud," one Gaelic speaker remembered: ''The Famine killed everything.''