Considering it plays such a vast role in the history of this island, the Famine feels somewhat under-represented in contemporary literature. In the 1930s, Liam O’Flaherty’s Famine set the benchmark for novels about the potato blight. Sixty years later, Marita Conlon-McKenna published her classic children’s book Under the Hawthorn Tree. And, in more recent years, Joseph O’Connor and Paul Lynch have produced powerful works in Star of the Sea and Grace respectively. But it still feels like an underexploited period, which makes Declan O’Rourke’s debut novel a welcome addition to the canon.
Set in 1846, a year into the great hunger, the novel opens with an authentic sense of tension. The year before, a “strange blight” had affected the harvest and now, in February, the new crop has been bedded. But it will be July before it will be known whether the people’s fears for the October yield will be realised.
The anxiety builds when Cornelius Creed, the pawnbroker at the heart of the story, muses that “failures rarely occurred twice in succession, but the fates of millions hung in the balance”.
The story moves back and forth between Creed, local farmer Pádraig Ua Buacalla and a wide range of townspeople, but it’s a clever move on O’Rourke’s part to make the pawnbroker so central to his story: the success of his business depends in part upon the failure of his neighbours’ farms, a conflict that stalks him with as much ruthlessness as the rot that feasts its way across the soil.
When the worst inevitably happens, the fear that descends over Pádraig and his wife Cáit is palpable. “All in a flicker, Pádraig had the sudden and profound impression that nothing would ever be the same again. Of utter disaster.”
It can be difficult from a historical distance of more than 170 years to understand just how traumatic it must have been to reach into the ground and pull out potato after potato, each one rotten to the core, but O’Rourke’s writing is strong enough to remind us that this is not just a matter of financial difficulty or hard work wasted. It represents the very real prospect of death, particularly in a country where, thanks to the church’s intransigence on the subject of birth control, every house is overrun with small children.
There is no denying O'Rourke's storytelling ability or his skill at balancing the novel between a battle that wages profit against humanity
The novel is well researched, and O’Rourke displays great subtlety in merging his story with factual information. When Creed attends a meeting of the Baronial Presentment Sessions in Macroom, for example, the author is careful to relay the details of the Poor Laws and the Labour Rate Act in a way that becomes immensely personal to the characters, rather than a mere historical summary.
For all its strengths, however, The Pawnbroker’s Reward feels as if it might have benefitted from some judicious cuts. A chapter titled The Business of God is devoted to a fire and brimstone sermon by one Father Foley, transcribed in its entirety, and with no Sunday lunch to rush home to the man is not given to brevity. Similarly there are many town meetings, each one effectively discussing the same issues. One longs for the appearance of Handforth parish council’s (now known as Handforth town council) Jackie Weaver, who would have had the authority to evict the more loquacious members of the quorum and return the meeting to the business at hand.
These quibbles aside, there is no denying O’Rourke’s storytelling ability and skill at balancing the novel between a battle that wages profit against humanity. The reader never doubts the terror that lies at the heart of each family member, waking every day and scrabbling for food like animals, or the arrogance of the moneyed classes who blame the victims for their misfortune.
“The people of this barony are poor?” asks one privileged, ignorant fellow over Christmas lunch. Informed that they are, he questions whether “their degradation [is] more pronounced than in other years? Admittedly, yes. But what do they ever do to change their situation? Not much, I say. How poor do they have to be before they decide to do something about it? No need to answer, dear. It’s a futile conundrum.”
If one ever needed to understand why it would take a mere 70 years after this for the Irish people to take up arms at the GPO and Boland’s Mill, many of the reasons can be found in that speech alone.
John Boyne’s latest novel is The Echo Chamber (Doubleday).