Famine fiction and a surfeit of facts
Michael Collins confronts a literary failure, how his ambition to write the great Irish Famine novel was thwarted by the godawful accumulation of a welter of research
As a fiction writer newly coming to historical research, what strikes me most is how shifting contemporary views on a subject can deeply affect how one tackles historical material. This is especially true if the subject continues to have a resonance. The material has its own life, its own dialectic with the world in a way which I never confronted in negotiating my own fictional creations. Specifically, I’m referring to the confounding sociopolitical realities of the Famine, the Great Hunger, An Gorta Mór, Genocide, or whatever name proves least unsettling in so describing those fateful years.
In the summer of 2016, in belatedly coming to the tumultuous history of our collective past during a month-long marathon-a-day awareness run retracing the land passage of some 100,000 immigrants arriving in Canada during 1847’s sailing season, in approaching that defining historical wound, I uncovered that the historical record itself is anything but facts.
Rather, much of Famine history (or history in general) is bound up in interpretative accounts, in primary sources – contemporaneous voices covering the years of potato blight – overlaid with subsequent historical reinterpretation by generations of new historians. I’ve experienced few instances when the accumulation of knowledge creates not understanding, but a vertigo of troubling indecisiveness, where the more one reads the less one knows. I felt this only one other time in my writing life – the last time I tried to aggregate research and move forward with a historical novel concerning the blighted years of 1845-49.
In the early eighties, as a then recent émigré to America, I’d felt duty-bound to bring a sober perspective to a history that had continued to influence our destiny a century and a half on in the mass exodus of young Irish. In those years, one could not help but orient life around the immediacy of the Troubles. Collectively, we came of age in the heady days of intense IRA activity. No matter that most of the violence happened up North, its influence was felt. It reoriented our destiny in subtle, but irrevocable ways, economically marooning us as an afterthought on a windswept island in the North Atlantic.
I remember, for instance, the IRA’s 1975 kidnapping of Dutch industrialist Dr. Tiede Herrema. It was a daring, international headline-grabbing spectacle that ended in the protracted siege on a Monasterevin housing estate. The kidnapping all but put Ireland on economic life support, given Dr Herrema had been sent to the country to mediate the tumultuous strike-ridden Ferenka steel plant at Annacotty, Co Limerick, which then employed more than 1,200 workers.
Throughout the siege, I used to glimpse the house on the Limerick-bound train in a shuttle to and fro during my grandfather’s long illness. I knew the captors by name, Eddie Gallagher and Marion Coyle – and Eddie’s love story with his IRA colleague, ex-debutante English socialite Rose Dugdale, who had given it all up for the cause and participated in a spectacular attack on a RUC station, using a hijacked helicopter, that landed her in a Limerick prison where she gave birth to Eddie’s son.
We used to put on Northern accents, playing Eddie, making the convent girls assume the heroine roles of Rose and Marion, whilst chucking Rose’s baby back and forth. It was how it went, the reconstituted history of the era re-enacted on playgrounds, the IRA waging a wretched endgame of loyalties, so that just when you conceded to the cause, the IRA blew someone to bits and left you realigning what you would and would not support in the name of freedom.
I remember the oddments, the sensationalism beyond the ordinary killings, if murder is ever ordinary; specifically, the steaming bloody horse carcasses in the aftermath of the attack on the Changing of the Guards in Hyde Park – the senseless carnage and the dead riders of the guard toppled like so many toy soldiers. You were left defending the indefensible. And then time passed, and you reoriented your heart again in the sidling sophistication of nationalist propaganda.
My leavetaking for America fell in the wake of the hunger strike protests within Long Kesh, in the dirty protests of the men on the blanket, those evocative Christ-like figures sanctifying so much bloodshed. To be sure, the strikes were politically orchestrated, but Thatcher, in the mordant parade toward martyrdom, in maintaining imperial 19th-century contempt, in her obstinate refusal to recognise the political rights of those who languished and died, ceded the moral high ground.
It was a political triumph, an IRA victory, though I was cognisant of the shifting political tectonics of an emergent economic reform that better explained Thatcher’s policy toward the IRA hunger strikers, not as recalcitrant colonial dismissiveness, but as part of a broader socio-economic theory applied to overturning collectivism, be it in a prison or down a coal mine.
What I understood in my leavetaking was that we were in the end-stages of a collective nationalism, that the Troubles were, lamentably, nothing other than a protracted sectarian sideshow. What was at stake in the greater context of the time was not, dare I say it, our insufferable nationalism. For the longest time, I didn’t want to commit such sacrilege, to discount our national history, to callously shelve what were undoubtedly the genuine nationalist interests of those who had fallen victim to sectarianism – but at what societal cost?
I felt it upon arrival in New York, how we had been hostages to the bombastic rhetoric of Paisley, with his vitriolic, antiquated anti-popery that left one to quietly conjecture: how in the name of God had he been allowed to survive? The answer, of course, was that as the IRA’s greatest nemesis he was, de facto, their greatest ally. Could one ever untangle an issue of human rights from the way of the gun in Irish politics? The answer, regrettably, was no!
As I said, I was then looking elsewhere to the realities of a greater societal upheaval, keyed to the advance of neo-conservative trickledown economics that indexed individual responsibility and personal accountability as the new metrics in a winner-take-all, transglobal economy. I saw the consequences of the new economics in our emigration spike, in the near collapse of the Irish economy, still committed to the life raft of a semi-state largesse supporting a middle class on non-competitive, pensionable jobs.
In our New York herding, we were an aggregate of some 60,000, such anomalous white illegals that the United States government eventually passed immigration reform in large part to legalise us, though not for lofty pretentions of receiving the flotsam of the dispossessed. Rather, we were a convenient trope, a lost generation who played the maudlin part in a Deirdre of the Sorrows at any number of Irish pubs that galvanised the ranks of the Irish-American democratic political machines all along the eastern seaboard.
In reflecting on the time, I recall the grotesque caricature of it all – the Spitting Image puppets of Reagan and Thatcher presiding over the freefall of the middle class, each the architect behind the unravelling of what had come before, Reagan dismantling FDR’s New Deal and Thatcher undoing a post-World War II socialist-leaning Dad’s Army of civil service jobs and union-sympathising government. Even now, it confounds proper explanation, or our popular culture disallows such a sobering treatment of the historical facts so what we are left with is a toe-tapping Billy Elliott or the bare-all hijinks of The Full Monty.
Soon after the process of American naturalisation, I would spend a year researching the historical record of the blight years, because I still thought it a rite of passage. In the end, I slouched from the burden of inhabiting the psyche of the Irish peasantry or the landed aristocracy with any measure of nuance beyond a gross and exaggerated differentiation of polemical speeches.
It was such a liberating experience, to be unburdened from the garrote of history, to rely on instinct and not the transmutation of words and events that were not mine
I never found the point of departure or arrival in which all books must find their genesis. In the wake of literary failure, in the godawful accumulation of a welter of research that neither worked as scholarly dissertation nor provided the rudimentary stuff for an historical work, I retreated from the ambitious intent to write the great Irish novel. What I learned in the intervening years was that the point of entry is significant in establishing and probing a psychic wound. One may know something in the deliberation of facts, in the outward indictment of assessing political motivations, but is it ever enough, really? I’ve a thousand pages of notes that says it’s not.
I remember instinctively turning to the short story form, how advancing on a more immediate and personal loss registered as the more authentic story. Sequestered in America as a scholarship athlete in a small mid-western town, I went revisiting my home. It was such a liberating experience, to be unburdened from the garrote of history, to rely on instinct and not the transmutation of words and events that were not mine and never would be.
I was then twice displaced – from country and an immediate past. Yet, it was my past, my story. Maybe it takes that sense of personal loss to quarry the soul, to seek a register of understanding that demands you reconvene the principal and unwitting characters of one’s life into the court of the heart and head.
My first instinct in recollecting my early life was to write a memoir, but I have always struggled with facts, with measuring the breadth and scope of what I think and believe against the index of absolute dates and sequencing of events. The mind works in an entanglement of moments, in a disclosure of meaning that doesn’t necessarily follow a sequential timeline.
I learned this early on, how the tripwire of dates can kill a story – rob it of an essence – observed it in how my father and aunt, two fastidious gatekeepers of simple facts, assembled their sentences around the clarity of dates. To me, theirs was a hamstrung history cobbled around a torturous attention to dates. When I think of them, I envision them as cardboard cutouts negotiating a one-dimensional timeline, discussing where they had tea and ham sandwiches in the summer of ’52, or was it ’53, and was it at Kilkee or Lahinch, and was it raining, or not raining, and was Uncle Tom home from England that year, and was Patsy dead or not by then? I’ll grant theirs is a momentous act of forensic remembrance – the clothesline of facts pegged and ordered as though their life depended on it.
Fiction, for me, uncoupled factuality, or freed me from the anxiety of interrogation. It’s a pity, this retreat into a private world when there are stories of import that, properly researched and processed, might encapsulate a more encompassing telling of our collective experience. My struggle has always been co-opting a central protagonist who is not in large part me, or aligned with my overall worldview. I would argue all successful writers eventually alight on a fundamental guiding principle advanced by Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […]until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
I will admit it again, the shortcomings of history in achieving that wholeness, in ever fully communicating the corporeal sense of being there, or perhaps it is I who has misunderstood what history is and what it should elicit in the heart and in the head.
When I lecture, or give workshops about writing, I describe my first collection of short stories, The Meat Eaters, as a reorienting exercise, a way of accessing the self. I envisioned that old Limerick life in its totality as a compendium of Bleak House snapshots that reached to a remembrance of my grandparents – my grandfather a stoic IRA man, and my grandmother a loquacious religious zealot who conveniently made up her own miracles. I pinned them like moths on the velvet backing of a plot.
I grasped my grandparents in their historical immediacy, in a reach to things I had never experienced, but which I felt through the agency of their presence. They were a family recently caught up in the sway of what had been a de Valera theocracy, a family bound to Enlightenment ideals and an arrested Catholic servility, a family encamped in two worlds and yet guardedly undecided which was the better course with their Bleeding Hearts of Jesus statuettes and the pragmatism of open textbooks on the living-room table.
It was all hedged bets, this Limerick that had cut its teeth on psychological repression, on the wholesomeness of Legion of Mary dances against the darker cast of sexual complexities hidden behind the Kafkaesque walled-off compound of the Magdalene Laundry across the street from my grandparents’ house. It was all deeply suggestive, deeply suspicious, and I’d arrived with a nascent sense that this needed to be witnessed, and so I made myself available in an intuitive sense of simply being there, which perhaps best defines what it is to be a writer.
When I close my eyes, I still see the children of the Laundry. I didn’t then know their collective circumstance. They were housed in a communal home attached to the convent. I remember innocently watching the original Poldark with them in the lurid undertow of a historical romance that must have been titillating, ironic, and scandalous for the authoritarian nuns who never missed Poldark and who arrived in the surplice swish of vestments from their ever-vigilant eye on their lily-white charges, those improbable beauties, those incarcerated innocents who appeared nightly in my dreams in the small alcove laundry foyer that looked for all the world like a grim confessional, which I suppose it was.
I knew Limerick, or felt the tremor of emotional register. In so reconstituting the past, I veered from the absolute factuality of chronology. Moments arrived and assembled themselves according to the logic of a narrative. I wasn’t after facts or dates, but an essence or temperament, the authentic marrow of lived experience. To be honest, in the telling of it, in some of the specifics regarding my grandfather, I lied. He was dead by the time I was 11, long before I became a runner or writer, and yet I have stories of us out in the Limerick mountain, me following the pulse of his dynamo light into the darkness, shadowing his bent figure as he led me to certain Famine places where an older life existed in unsettled events and actions long past that continued to haunt the living and the dead.
My mother contends I have it wrong on certain accounts, not least that I saw my grandfather lashed to a chair with belts, constrained in the waning days of his senility. I believe I did, but no matter. What I recall is the essence of a soldier’s guilt, a true story that was communed and internalised, the nightmare of actions he undertook in the commission of gaining our independence. I see him as a great Cu Chulainn figure in the fearful death throes of a heroic life.
I have lived this life in my head, but in so conceiving these false memories, am I to admit to a series of lies, or can I claim a distilled understanding of a life reconstituted through fiction in a way that best serves believability, making the argument that what I achieved was a sleight of hand, connecting the psychic life of grandfather and grandson? The tragedy is that I came of age after my grandfather’s death, that factually all I could cling to was the memory of his pinning his IRA medals to my coat and making me march around the back garden. The rest is backfill.
In retrospect, in the divergent path a writer takes, I had intuitively run up against the limitation of history, or subconsciously confronted my own inability to invest the collective historical reality of factual documents with any modicum of lived experience. Outside the locus of a personal history, one that I have immediately confronted, I am lost. History finds its limits in statements of fact. I will know a history, but not know it in the way I know the more immediate circumstances of my own life, my own journey. How then to proceed?
What I did was rob from the living in the quiet observance of those lives I’ve infiltrated. It has caused all sorts of legitimate fears. There is, for instance, that persistent and pathological fear my family harbours that I have already taken too many creative liberties with recognisable characters (they see themselves), and that as sole witness, sole arbitrator, I have mercilessly used my relatives self-servingly, deciding how to present and introduce them in the service of my own agenda.
My persistent defence is that I consider it an exalted exercise, this Art of Writing. I fully admit to liberally using the lives of others, but I do it with the sense that this is our collective experience made incarnate. Maybe the charge I can level against those around me is that they were so damn interesting that they influenced how I came to see the world.
Of course, I went seeking them. I left cosmopolitan Dublin for Limerick, orphaning myself at my grandparents’ doorstep. Intuitively, I felt this was where life reoriented itself in a complexity of absolute containment. My grandparents’ home became a playhouse of one acts. A writer needs this containment of place and time, and intimate proximity with all that might be accessed and used in the commission of a scene. For me, it was all sepia shots.
I remember the evocative electric meter in the hallway, improbably high up, and the distinct scuff of the chair I dutifully pushed across the cold tile floor, and then the strained reach for the meter – the experiential wonder of it, the windup of domestic existence come to life in the coiled turn of a key and the insertion and drop of ten penny pieces – all of it suggesting the apportioned rationing of electricity and light before the rise of easy credit, this black box vicariously connecting me with the war years of rationing, lights-out and so much more.
I remember, too, each cup of tea brought into a room as an overture toward an emotional stirring, the slow turtle-like movement of my grandmother emerging from sleep. In her hands, always, were the fragrant withered petals of a rose in her life-long adoration of The Little Flower, her patron, Thérèse de Lisieux, and so, too, a dribble of rosary beads signifying the calcified tears from so many losses.
The most tragic was the death of her infant daughter in the depths of the second World War up in Monaghan. My grandfather was then a journeyman foreman slaughterer at an abattoir. I can only imagine it, an isolation so devastatingly heartbreaking that my mother, more than a half century on, knew exactly where to find the unmarked grave in the divining miracle of what a young girl carries throughout her life, recalling, too, the small apple crate of a makeshift casket. There’s a ghost story for you, a solitary and brief life that called out across the span of so many other dead, the Holocaust and an atomic bomb, because each life is sacred and so we go digging in the dirt.
I see it yet, that family manacled together in the cast-iron lock of Catholic matrimony – the hardship borne by both my grandparents in having so many children in the unenlightened ways Catholics then proceeded, because there was no alternative, no other way – a marriage that left in its wake the ossified remains of what once suggested a family, and was then a boneyard of dreams by the time I came along.
Nothing is ever simple. As Dickens put it, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” which is probably the truest account of what it takes to survive, of how best to process life. I can conjure it still, that Limerick life, the pathology of conflicting ambitions and dashed hopes in the clotted, malodorous socks that captured a certain fatal psychological anxiety in the desperate forage that so defined a previous generation.
How does one pit the complexities of a broader historical understanding of the time against the day-to-day existence of those who suffered, endured and died?
I thank God for the instance of familial insanity, for the quiet contemplation of the insensible confluence of genes, the cold impartiality of the universe, no matter the rose petal petitions and appeal to saints.
And so now, where to scavenge, what history to unearth? In the run of years since The Meat Eaters and The Feminists Go Swimming, I landed upon the political fallout of the American Midwest. In a literary second act, I made the break from an early 20th-century Irish fiction, remaking myself laureate of the Rust Belt, morphing a nascent political sense into the perfect storm of having arrived at the nadir of American’s industrial might, shoehorning anathema gritty, social realism with a then in-vogue, plot-driven crime genre. I adjusted and survived, though in the span of a 30-year career as a writer, I have come to believe that we are often moved more by what we have not achieved than what we have achieved.
While in Quebec during the autumn of 2015, serendipity struck, reviving that old stirring of our Famine history. My daughter was learning French, while I was plotting the last sequence of my then novel-in-progress, charting the outer limits of an encompassing American narrative of the 2008 financial crash, which included a central character who had settled as a draft dodger in the northern reaches of Canada during the Vietnam War.
It was a novel that ultimately connected me with a more distant history of migration and passage – the founding of a North American naturalism that had its origins with the legendary Coureur des Bois, a consortium of trappers, Runners of the Woods – loners who went on to explore the deep North American interior in a solitary vigil that lasted upwards of a year. It was a novel that took me to the reaches of the Brendan Voyage and the secret whaling grounds of the Portuguese, to a convergence of first encounters between natives and Europeans.
It was perhaps the sole time that what I read in the historical record was communed with an immediate personal resonance. To be sure, it was my own running history, that fated Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner that connected me to the Coureur des Bois, and yet in the hitch of a new story, a new dendrite of a historical connection was further forged, the discovery or recovery of a Catholicism that had so once inspired me that, as a young altar boy and choir boy, I had talked of becoming a priest.
And then it happened again, that overburden of facts, the welter of informational overload, the quiet accumulation of reams of documents that registered an academic-oriented, socio-economic theory of what had then unfolded – a food scarcity that had been exacerbated by a doubling of the population from four million to just over eight million between 1800 and 1847. By all accounts, catastrophe was inevitable.
I was again faced with the confounding dilemma of knowing more and feeling less in a leeching of a human connectedness to a subject. And yet, confoundedly, I was more an expert historian than when I began. I understood the greater historical context of a 19th-century Malthusian economics that, in identifying unchecked population growth as the central crisis facing industrialism, sought not to ameliorate the squalor of the poor, but rather prompted Malthus to sardonically advocate that:
“We should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases.”
The question emerged, as it had before for me – how does one pit the complexities of a broader historical understanding of the time against the day-to-day existence of those who suffered, endured and died? Didn’t one mode of understanding obfuscate the other?
My sympathy has always lain with those who died, with those who were starved. And yet, I am forced to concede that the fated providentialism the English parliament applied to the Irish situation was also executed in the tightening of the English Poor Laws, which condemned untold thousands to the miasma of the English poor houses. Just as Thatcher condemned both the hunger strikers and coal miners in a great socio-economic context, so, too, Charles Trevelyan, as government overseer of famine relief in addressing the Irish case, equally echoed a darker, more encompassing 19th-century Malthusian politics in declaring:
“I think I see a bright light shining in the distance to the dark cloud which at present hangs over Ireland. A remedy has been already applied… and I hope I am not guilty of irreverence in thinking that this being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure has been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence… God grant that we may rightly perform our part and not turn into a curse what was intended as a blessing.”
If one searches the historical record, if one pays due diligence to the facts, if one alights on the political realities of the time, can one retain the human context, can one capture the individual fallout of how it affected the lives of each who suffered?
It is not simply an abstract question, but one that has dogged novelists. In the trawl of the literature of the time, I came upon Jonathan Swift, who faced this same burden, a heightened political sense of the times that distanced him from the plight of those who suffered. His 1729 A Modest Proposal is a prophetic, grotesque and satirical pamphlet that purports to solve the population crisis through cannibalism, Swift assuring his English readership that:
“a young healthy child, well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food; whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled...”
One detects a perverse providentialism and unnerving psychopathology that nothing could be done, that the history of the poor was already decided. And yet for its satirical genius, A Modest Proposal is a one-dimensional telling, a political exegesis that grants nothing to the victims, that denies them the right to life.
What I discerned in further reading Swift was his eventual unburdening of the straitjacket of political realities, how he alighted upon an alternative way of knowing through an act of dislocation, in borrowing from the emergent castaway genre of Robinson Crusoe. Gulliver’s Travels achieves a rarified allegorical dimension, Swift transforming the castaway genre into a philosophical point of dislocation that thus enlarged and contracted the narrative aperture by which he could best eviscerate the ideological context of contemporary politics as Gulliver visited the remote nations of Lilliput and Brobdingnag.
That Swift was Irish, that he worked so hard to find that register of emotional intensity and sympathy in explaining the Irish situation, speaks to the inherent conundrum of Irish history. It is a burden Irish writers share, where we must contend simultaneously with persecution perpetrated upon us and the reality that much of our subjugation has emerged not from a pathological hatred of us, but from the greater sway of historical forces. We have only to look at the recent housing crash and the fallout of our involvement in the global economy to understand there is a national and a transnational dimension to all that befalls us.
I might have left Quebec in 2015 with that faltering sense of knowing too much, of having fallen upon too much factuality and history, but in the waning days of my stay I uncovered the lost story of the Grey Nuns in a cache of diaries written by a religious order of young novitiates, who, amid the infamous eviction and deportation of more than 100,000 Irish to Canada during the Famine year of 1847, had rushed to minister to those sick and dying of typhus along the shores of the Saint Lawrence at Point-Saint-Charles.
For the remainder of the autumn of 2015, in reading through the diaries, encased in snow in an antiquated 17th-century library of Laval University, I felt the enlivened sense of seeing our own history through the dislocation of story told elsewhere. I remember it thus so, twice removed from my home, this time from my American home, and further displaced from my native English in French-speaking Quebec.
In the mediating voice of these sisters of charity, a human story emerged. Theirs was an order decimated in their succour to so many Irish immigrants. I envisioned them, an army of virgins running toward Christ and eternity. It was conveyed in the essence of their own words, in the recovered diaries of the Order. I can describe it only as a rapture of an absolute sentience, this history.
In reading through the journals, I saw these novitiates as not mere flock. Most were of means, would-be suffragettes, self-possessed sisters of charity, who, under the charge of an indomitable Mother Superior, Forbes-McMullen, had sought the “fields of martyrdom”. The sheer emotional complexity of the diaries intrigued me. Throughout their call to martyrdom, I intuited a sublimated proto-feminism that had found its calling in the sanctioned serviceability of Catholicism, prompting me to consider how their lives might have otherwise unfolded in the welter of silk and satin, those pinioned birds of paradise caged in the emerging wealth of Montreal.
It is so recorded that in the first instance of viewing the moribund and cadavers crowded along Montreal’s wharf quays, Forbes-McMullen exalted in the duty owed to this wretched community, conceiving “a bright desire to rush to the relief of this misery with her girls… convincing them to combat in a new field of sacrifice”.
In the jaundiced appraisal of a modern psychoanalysis, one could view their sacrifice as a measure of the extensive boredom that must have been so endured that pestilence and death offered the most obvious redemptive end to such a life. I might make this claim, but I was otherwise persuaded in the celestial tone of the diaries, in the manifest way worth is wrest from the most stagnant and restrictive of circumstances.
I saw these nuns as life-givers, sustaining the lives of others through the agency of their devotion in the quiet renunciation of their own birthright as women to create life. What is so difficult to reckon with is their humility, their faith, their inurement to injury, when, even in their wilful advancement toward offering succour and their lives, they had to be first vetted by a commissioner who had to vouch that:
“the sisters are intelligent enough to not do anything contrary to the general good of the hospital, and conscious enough to not cost the government useless expenditure… [that] it is judged not appropriate to give them this liberty…”
Maybe it is why I find women the more complicated of the sexes. These recovered diaries reveal an order of intimacy that speaks of an alternate sentiment, an alternate way of understanding, not the measure of statistics enumerating the dead, as is the case in the history of Grosse Île where the indictment is always infused with a tally of dead as though the figures, the numbers alone, can move the heart. They can, but not fully.
The nuns' collective deaths are threaded with the unlikely existentialism of Camus. I see the nuns in their Sisyphean resolve, pushing the boulder of human souls heavenward
The intimacy of the diaries allowed me access to a deeper, more penetrating story, the novitiates’ isolated retreat under dark at day’s end from the fever shed, those pariahs of martyrdom who were forced to:
“venture to only the least inhabited areas, and there ridding themselves of their habits and of the vermin attached to them, and communicating only minimally with the other sisters hurried themselves to the altar to receive the Eucharist that gave them their strength and consolation”.
Throughout the diaries, there’s a feeling that connected with a sublime feminine power that registered in almost every Irish family, and which convinces me that in the early execution of religious life, it was the brightest and most voluminous of heart and spirit who were called. I can see it no other way, because I believe in the communion of words.
The stories of sacrifice in the diaries are legion, among them that of 20-year-old novice Sister Limoges, who, clothed in her holy habit and representing a life more angelic than human, faltered and died in the attendance of Fr Patrick Morgan, who also succumbed between two moribund patients while hearing their confession.
In so reading the pitiful collapse of all life – of an attendant nun, a priest and patients – I was all but convinced of the absurdity of our faith, and yet their collective deaths are threaded with the unlikely existentialism of Camus, who argued in the Myth of Sisyphus that it is better to continue than to cede to absurdity. I see the nuns in their Sisyphean resolve, pushing the boulder of human souls heavenward.
In the daily travails of existence, it seems all arrive at this resolute belief in the sanctity of life. In assessing the fated near demise of the Order, Mother Superior Forbes-McMullen quotes the Apostle Paul: “Christians have the right to find glory in their tribulations, because patience is proof of fidelity, proof in the form of hope, and this hope can never be confounded”.
What I think the diaries encompass is what literature strives to achieve, an absolute immersion into the psyche of lives revealed, so what one experiences in looking up from the page in the aftershock of the descriptions is a broader political register, an indictment that springs within the heart of the reader who then seeks a great understanding of the time. Perhaps this is the intellectual inversion of how a writer best approaches history, not through the assuredness of the facts, but through the shuffling sequence of scenes that tell a greater truth and reveal a grander understanding.
In the intervening two years since coming across the diaries of the Grey Nuns, I have contemplated, in moving toward a point of literary departure, a futurist novel that prefigures our leaving Earth, and then there are times when I think that it would be premature, that the essence of our humanity can be still resurrected, that we are a compassionate and caring people.
I pick up the dairies from time to time. I read about the sisters, Olier, Blondin, Caron, Cinq-Mars, who, in perpetual delirium, breathed “sacrifice and immolation” and yet somehow endured longer than was ever thought humanly possible, ministering in soft-lit attic dormitories to row after row of cots of Irish orphans – wretches who were eventually adopted in unprecedented numbers by a rural community of peasant Québécois, because it was the most noble and humanist act, bestowing life on another human being.
I see them yet, those spectral nuns, those ghosts in their maternal solitude high above the city, sisters of mercy caught between heaven and earth, “novices who returned in turns with the sword of sacrifice which eventually consumed them in glorious martyrdom”.
I was home recently with the resurrected hope that we are a better people than we might otherwise be credited, that there is a story contained in the lives of the Grey Nuns that salvages our cynicism, but then it all went to hell in my reading of the tragedy of Tuam’s dead babies, and suddenly all was undone in the Bon Secours septic tank and the creak of a lone swing set on the wet pave of tarmac.
It makes me wonder what life might be like on Mars!
Michael Collins is the author of 10 works of fiction. One, The Keepers of Truth, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Impac Prize. His latest, The Death of all Things Seen, is just out in paperback from Head of Zeus