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Macroom Famine saga is rising in bestseller charts

The story of the Ua Buachalla family and the Castle Street Pawnbroker couled be a movie - Declan O’Rourke


Declan O'Rourke's first novel, The Bawnbroker's Reward, is centred on the town of Macroom during the Famine.

Declan O'Rourke's first novel, The Bawnbroker's Reward, is centred on the town of Macroom during the Famine.

The Pawnbroker's Reward by Declan O'Rourke

The Pawnbroker's Reward by Declan O'Rourke


Declan O'Rourke's first novel, The Bawnbroker's Reward, is centred on the town of Macroom during the Famine.


IT’S a well worn cliché that Irish singers are really story-tellers who can carry a tune and songwriter and performer Declan O’Rourke surely fits that bill.

Now the Galway based writer has taken it a step further by writing a novel about a story he heard twenty years ago and which has remained with him ever since until he finally put pen to paper in 2018 and finished the novel during the long months of lock-down.

It’s apt that the book, which is focused on the Great Famine in Macroom and around its ‘barren outskirts’, was completed during the COVID pandemic, another pivotal time in Irish history.

The Pawnbroker’s Reward was published in the past fortnight by Gill and is now at Number 4 in the hardback fiction charts and appears to be heading for the top, given the public reaction and media coverage its been getting.

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The story centres on the Ua Buachalla family, Pádraig, a farm labourer, and his wife Cáit, and their children, who live in a cottage in Doire Liath, a lonely townland between Clondrohid and Ballymakeera. The other prominent character in the book is Cornelius Creed, a pawnbroker in Macroom who also happens to be the correspondent for the then Cork Examiner. He’s also on the board of the Poor Law Guardians who administer the local workhouse.

Speaking to The Corkman, Declan said that he had never felt a need to write a novel until he first heard the story after a concert he gave in Skibbereen around twenty years ago.

“I didn’t foresee it coming at all to be honest but I stumbled on the story of the Ua Buachalla family when I was delving into a bit of family history of my own when I found out my grand-dad was born in a workhouse.

“I didn’t know what that meant and I picked up a copy of a book called ‘The Workhouses of Ireland’.

“It almost found me - the story of the Ua Buachalla family was on the first page.

“I just never recovered from the power of it.

“I wrote a song about it and it led to a collection of songs on the subject.

“It was the beginning of my exposure to the Famine really.”

He found the story ‘bigger than the Famine’ as he felt it was something we could all relate to, all the more so at present, though this was never intended, because we’re in the middle of another existential crisis, the Covid pandemic.

“Even the machinery of it is comparable, the likes of the bureaucracy, the way it unfolds.”

The book has been described by various reviewers as having been meticulously researched and this is evident in a number of places where, for instance, the author is trying to describe the impact of the Poor Laws on people in a way which is more than a dry regurgitation of the facts, more like an incisive and understanding account of the powerlessness felt by poor and desperate people in such a situation.

Although the subject matter is difficult, the writing makes it easy to get engrossed in the story and the characters are well drawn. When I impart this opinion to Declan, he is appreciative, an indication of how much he invested in writing this book.

One of the aspects of the book which people in mid Cork will find most interesting is how it features local townlands prominently.

The litany of townlands which Pádraig recites to his daughter, Síle, as a bit of fun between the two.

“WGurranenagappul, Doire Liath, Currabeg, Corra Liath, Dangansillagh, Carraganima, Lissacresig, Coolavokig, Barrantanaknock, Farranavirigane, Ballinagree, Lisscarrigane and Lackanackanawa....”

As musical as the names are, their true meaning is revealed when you look at the original Irish. It’s fitting then that their favourite townland, Lackanahawkana in the original Irish is Leacht na hAchaini, the altar or platform of the appeal. An appeal is at the centre of this story.

Declan says that the litany of townlands reproduced in the story comes from all around the ancient barony of Muskerry, from Aghinagh in the east to Ballyvourney and Ballymakeera to the west and Carriganima to the north.

“It reflects their connections and where Pádraig might have worked and the like.”

He doesn’t feel the story of the Ua Buachalla family is finished with him yet and hasn’t ruled out that it could become a movie.

A book launch event has been scheduled to take place in Macroom’s Castle Hotel on December 16, subject to the current restrictions, and all will be welcome.