Interview: Fame and the Famine

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Star of the Sea, a great political novel set at the time of the Irish famine, has been a runaway bestseller. Author Joseph O'Connor spoke to Hazel Croft about its success and why he wrote the book.

Have you been surprised at the success of Star of the Sea? Why do you think it's been so popular?

I've been amazed at its success. I wouldn't have thought a book on such a subject would have been successful on a commercial level. I'd go so far as to say that I thought it would have been a book my career would have to recover from in sales terms. It was a book I wanted to write, but I didn't expect it to do well.

Obviously the Richard and Judy show has played a part in its success, but I think it's deeper than that. The book had a life of its own in book clubs and reading groups from last autumn onwards and people started writing to me, and it started getting out to a wider audience. The television promotion was a major stroke of luck, but at this stage the book is going beyond that. Richard and Judy went out on 19 January, and it's still number two in the bestseller lists this week.

Part of its success is what lies below the surface of society. I think there's a curiosity in England about Irish history and all its mythologies and sacred cows. Below the level of politics and what you hear on the news, there's an interest in the two intertwined histories of the English and the Irish and how such antagonisms developed. If you think about it, the reality for many people is the extent of the connections between us - through the arts, intermarriage, sport, culture, having a common language.

From the letters I have received from people in England I've realised that not a lot is taught about the famine. It's dealt with as a footnote in history, whereas in Ireland the famine is the central event of this period.

What motivated you to write about the famine and the death ships?

I've always been interested in the famine. My first interest comes from my childhood. I was brought up in Dublin, and during my childhood in the 1960s my parents would take us to the west of Ireland, to Connemara. They wanted to give us a sense of what the reality for people was, that people weren't all prosperous, that people in that part of the country still had to draw their water from wells.

I spent my summers in Connemara, and even in 1971 people would talk about the famine as though it happened last week. They would point out the scars on the landscape, the famine graves where 1,000 people were buried in just one day. In Ireland these events were recent history - 150 years wasn't so long ago. And the images and stories stayed with me.

Up as far as the 1970s, the famine was taught in schools in Ireland through the prism of Irish nationalism. It is dealt with in an Anglophobic and in a very nationalistic way. We were the victims. They, the English, were the enemies. We were all supposed to share this victimhood equally. It was a way of telling us boys and girls how we were supposed to view Ireland. But if you scratch beneath the surface the history is much more complicated. The people who died in the famine were the poor. The wealthy, the Irish landlords and the rich farmers, did nothing to help them. In fact if you look at most of the charitable work, it was often done by English people, such as the Quakers.

The famine was not a war by England against Ireland. If it was a war in any sense, it was a war of the wealthy and the powerful against the poor. But the way the famine has been viewed as one of the sacred cows of nationalism has hidden some of the terrible realities of what took place. Of course there was a national aspect. The Victorian idea of the Irish was racist and put the Irish at the bottom of the evolutionary pyramid. But had the famine happened in Yorkshire in England, for example, I don't think the British government would have done much more to help its victims. You just have to look at what sort of place England was in 1847. Nineteen out of 20 people did not even have the right to vote and their opinions didn't matter - they counted for nothing. It is wrong for poor Irish people to blame poor English people for famine.

The last catalyst for the book was living in London in the 1980s. I returned to Dublin in 1995, and it was like returning to a different place. Dublin had undergone a transformation. It was ironic, because having just left Thatcherite London behind, I returned to Dublin where we had imported Thatcherism wholesale. Everyone had to have a bigger car, a bigger house. Great things had happened, like full-employment - but there was also a new sense of greed.

And for the first time in history immigrants were coming here. There were small numbers at first, but for the first time you could walk down the street and see different races and different colours. Now if you'd asked me previously what our response would have been, given our history of the famine and of mass emigration, I would have assumed that immigrants would have been welcomed. But they weren't at all. But, while I'm not saying Ireland is a nation of racists, there were levels of xenophobia similar to that in Britain or in France. I wanted to know how that could happen.

You did a huge amount of research, and the novel quotes many contemporary writings. But I think also that one of the reasons for the book's success is because its themes of poverty, racism and people fleeing for a better life speak to people today.

Yes. I would hate Star of the Sea to be seen as a historical novel; rather it's a novel that happens to be set at a particular time. I did a huge amount of research. I must have read every single first-person account that exists. Of course this is a novel, I don't want people to think it's like a history textbook, but it's important to get the background accurate. This was a huge and traumatic event and it was real people who suffered and died. I didn't want to lose sight of that fact.

I did want to include the scenes about poverty and about refugees. I wanted to show that racism and injustice is not just in the history books. I wanted to put something into it that showed my feelings about the sort of world and society that we still live in today. It is still a world which is shaped like a pyramid where the wealthy and powerful are at the top and the further down the pyramid you go the poorer you are. It is still a world where the people who work the least have the most wealth, and those who work the most and the hardest get the least.

And of course it is a world where if you die tragically in the Twin Towers, you get an obituary in the New York Times, which is important and moving. But we still don't even know the numbers who died in Afghanistan. We know nothing about their histories and families. Geography and class still determine most of your life experiences, including how and when you are going to die.

Do you see yourself as a political writer?

Not in a narrow way. I think it's great that there are novels about Arsenal football club or about going on dates, but occasionally I think there should be novels that illuminate a little bit of how the world works. Writing a novel, just like writing an article, is always political, with certain biases and ideologies. But I certainly don't want to write like a propagandist. I like novels that tell you how to vote. But I like to see writing a novel as a secret way of writing about politics and the world.

What is your next project?

I'm currently doing research about the time after the American Civil War. Hopefully it will be a way I can smuggle in some politics about what the US is like today!

I am also looking forward to participating in giving a warm Irish welcome to president George Bush when he visits here in June in what could be the biggest political demonstration Ireland has yet seen.

Star of the Sea
Vintage £6.99

This book is truly gripping, but it is much more than that. O'Connor has woven a multi-layered tale which feels so authentically rooted in its historical period that sometimes you can't believe it's fiction. And much of it isn't. The story flows from the unnatural tragedy of the Irish famine. The Star of the Sea is one of many ships which brought refugees from Ireland to the US. The facts about the level of devastation seen across rural Ireland, the ruthless landlords, the workhouses, and the uninterrupted gilded life of the rich in Ireland and England are chillingly accurate.

But this is no dry diatribe against the iniquities of British rule in Ireland. There is no standard narrative - the plot unfolds in an almost cinematic way with flashbacks, letters, interviews by the 'author', and diary entries. Chapters are interspersed with genuine traditional songs, letters from Irish emigrants, and cartoons. There is even the contemporary enthusiastic use of capitals to signal a VERY DRAMATIC event.

The Anglo-Irish gentry in first class bemoan their now 'straitened' circumstances. One, Lord Merridith, whose Irish estate is now worthless as the starving tenants can no longer pay rent, writes, 'Laura will be seeing to the servants when we get there. I should think we shall probably restrict ourselves to a butler, a maid-of-all-work, a valet and of course a cook. No sense in going mad.' Below decks in steerage, passengers die every day and are buried at sea at night, so the cries of the bereaved don't upset the children in first class.

The Star of the Sea seethes with the tensions of the brutal and divided society the passengers hoped they'd left behind, which makes for a very dangerous voyage, particularly as there is one who has to MURDER another before they dock in New York...

Judith Orr