In 1990, Marita Conlon-McKenna’s first novel for children Under the Hawthorn Tree was an immediate success. Set during the devastation of the Great Famine, it is the deeply moving story of three young siblings who, desperate to avoid the workhouse when tragedy strikes the family, make their way across Ireland in search of unknown relatives.
It went on to be a multi-award winner and the first in a ‘Children of the Famine’ series. With her new adult novel The Hungry Road, Conlon-McKenna returns to the subject of the famine, its impact on individuals and families, and the devastating toll it took on communities. A tragedy that took an estimated one million lives and saw the emigration of over a million, it is a pivotal point in Ireland’s past, and one which she has researched meticulously from contemporary accounts at home and abroad.
While the worst years of the Famine (1845-1849) are its primary focus, The Hungry Road sensibly opens and closes with a wider lens, giving valuable context to the powerful human stories. Conlon-McKenna begins in Skibbereen in September 1843, on the day of Daniel O’Connell’s Monster Repeal Meeting: “From every field and farm, lane and street, village and townland in West Cork, the people came.” There is a sense of energy, an expectation that freedom is merely a hands-grasp away, as, “O’Connell’s voice carried loud and clear across the field, filling the spectators’ parched hearts with the hope of change”. Yet what comes instead is the blight, stealthily destroying crops and livelihoods overnight. In a time when information travelled person to person, fear and confusion are soon rampant. Skibbereen (which hosted the State’s first public national Famine commemoration event in 2009) was one of the worst affected areas in Ireland. By December 1846, its voluntary soup kitchen was feeding up to 1,500 people daily. From an estimated population of 105,000 in the 1840s, at least 28,000 died, and a further 8,000 emigrated. Inspired by real people, Conlon-McKenna focuses on a number of individuals: Mary Sullivan, a talented seamstress who lives with her tenant farmer husband and young family; Dr Dan Donovan, the hard-working medical officer to the Skibbereen Union whose heroic efforts must have saved hundreds of men, women and children; and compassionate local priest, Fr John Fitzpatrick. It is perhaps the complication of using real lives to create fiction, that in seeking to be true to the facts of their actions, one can be hesitant to speculate on their complex thoughts, their secret hearts.
Conlon-McKenna has assembled an excellent cast of characters, who act and react to each other and their situations, though we get very little of their internal unspoken lives, their desires and dreams and confusions: her characters’ speech generally mirrors their thinking.
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The agony of the departing emigrant is clear: “She ran her eyes over the broken and battered cottage… Soon they would be gone from it and rain and wind, weeds and wildlife would claim it. She was heartbroken at the thought of the children never playing in the surrounding fields again.” Her vivid depictions of the landscape and its relationship with the people who make a living from it, allow the land to become another character. It is the provider that becomes the enemy: “The hunger had stalked and starved the land.” Myriad small, moving details help to illustrate the enormity of the tragedy: starving animals digging up putrid bodies from shallow graves; bereaved parents spending their last shilling on a coffin for a dead child rather than food for their surviving children; once-friendly neighbours reduced to stealing from each other.
The ‘hungry road’ of the title is that leading to the soup kitchen. However, in tracing her characters’ lives, Conlon-McKenna illustrates many different paths. For some, the road led to starvation and death. For others it became the way to a life in Liverpool or New York; a search for brave new beginnings and fresh hopes.
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