Remembering Censored Histories

The Irish Potato Famine in Evelyn Conlon’s Not The Same Sky

PRASANTHI RAM

May 4, 2018 | News

Ireland is a country situated off the coast of England and Wales with a small population of less than five million. One of the key events in its tumultuous history was the Great Famine, otherwise known as the Irish Potato Famine. From 1845 to 1852, a strain of P. infestans brought about widespread blight that destroyed the potato crops in Ireland, culminating in the death of over a million people. This event takes centre stage in Irish writer Evelyn Conlon’s novel Not The Same Sky (2013). The overarching narrative borrows from the harrowing real-life journeys of some 4,400 young Irish girls who were orphaned during the famine and brought from workhouses in Ireland to Australia on 21 sailing ships between 1848 and 1850 as domestic servants and a means of populating the new colony.

Picture credits: Evelyn Conlon

During her reading at the School of Humanities, NTU, Conlon refers to this period of Irish history as one that caused “extraordinary trauma to the nation” and states that this was not a novel she had initially imagined herself writing. After all, discussion of the famine was heavily censored for decades, which was arguably a kind of defense mechanism to allow the nation to grieve and begin to look to the future. For this reason, the subject has only re-emerged in Irish society in recent years. Black 47 was released in 2018 and stands as the first film made about the famine.

So what inspired Conlon to write a novel about the famine?

Conlon notes: “Sometimes, a thing lodges in your head as a writer. It stays with you and you can’t escape it.”

This particular ‘thing’ emerged during her stay in Australia in the 1970’s when she heard about the Irish famine girls, whom she had never heard about before. Having come to Australia by ship herself as a nineteen-year-old, a journey which took a whole month, Conlon found herself instantly fascinated by these stories. However, she discovered that there was little official documentation on these displaced women, despite the fact that they were integral to the formation of the settler nation. Hence, some decades on, Conlon decided to tackle this difficult subject matter and use fiction as a medium to fill in the gaps. The result is a book that is not only about remembering, but also about forgetting, and the ways in which people teach themselves to overcome trauma.

Our next question was how can an author write about such a sensitive subject without turning the horrors of famine into entertainment.

Conlon convincingly argues that the story of the famine “is horrific enough” that there is no need to go into “absolute detail of how horrific it is”. Instead, she strongly believes that the story should be told as simply as possible, without embellishment. However, especially in the case of historical fiction, a significant amount of research is required to ensure the story is not only convincing but factually accurate as well. Conlon discovered Sergeant Superintendent Charles Strutt’s logbook in a library in Melbourne, alongside other secondary material in this gave her narrative the factual scaffolding to ground the creation of her four main characters Honora, Julia, Bridget and Anne.

Writing historical fiction means striking a delicate balance between the facts and exercising one’s creative license in order to reconstruct the subjective life experience of others in the past. However, daunting this task might seem, it should not deter authors from writing about historical events because these narratives are important to resurrect: they memorialise particular pasts and the faceless people contained within; they coax modern audiences to imaginatively engage with events that have faded from memory; they encourage the birth of new, inspiring narratives that stay true to the heterogeneity of our experience of the world; and they teach us not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

For her next project, Conlon is working on a short story about an Irish woman named Violet Gibson who attempted to assassinate Mussolini in 1926.