This week’s Book on One on RTÉ Radio 1 features excerpts from a novel imagined by its author Evelyn Conlon from the real lives of Irish girls and women. The novel’s characters travel from Ireland to Australia aboard the Thomas Arbuthnot and make new lives there. Not the Same Sky tells the story of Honora, Julia, Bridget and Anne.
Listen to an extract from the RTÉ Book on One: Not The Same Sky:
The tone of telling further captured in the author’s reading of her novel shows empathy for the characters, as well as a desire to celebrate their wit and guile as they straddle between going forward into new lives and holding onto memories of their earlier lives in Ireland.
Éilis Ní Dhuibhne here describes the book in The Irish Times: ‘They had been recruited from poorhouses all over Ireland by Charles Strutt, a surgeon who supervised their voyage. During a few years following the Famine, 4,000 Irish girls, orphans, were shipped to Australia in this way. Refugees? Or slave girls?’ Read more here.
The excerpts broadcast on Book on One include the official thought process behind the girls journeying to Australia, notions of what it is to be starving, the coming to terms by the girls and women with new surroundings aboard ship, the changing weathers and seasons as well as the new environment that confronts them as their lives take shape in their new world. The final excerpt considers the complexity of remembering and forgetting, ideas that are explored using as their source what the first of the girls to die in their new country was discovered to have written down on the subject.
Read an excerpt from Not the Same Sky by Evelyn Conlon
If Matt Dwyer thought about himself at all it was not in terms of being either a good or a bad man – he simply tried to be just and fair in the dealings he had to negotiate as an Irish servant of an English Crown. This was not always easy. He went to his cabinet and took out the sheets of paper that had arrived yesterday. Lists. He peered at them. It would be nice to be able to afford spectacles. Still, the handwriting was distinct enough and clear enough in its orders. The potato failure of 1848, following on from 1846, flowing on from 1845, with the nervousness of 1847 in between, would be known to every school child eventually. Matt thought about these things in the future tense, it made the present more bearable. Facts, dates, numbers dead, numbers emigrated. There would be children who would want to be boat builders when they heard the news, who would know they could make better ships than those that were at this minute struggling out at sea. There would also be children who would want to be statisticians, politicians, revisionists, farmers, or rebels. Or perhaps singers, as if making music out of the facts could undo some of the damage.
In other places 1847 was much as expected – crops grew quickly, people were fed, commerce continued apace, astronomers found new galaxies, and operas were performed. In America a newspaper rolled off a rotary press, but what had that to do with the price of bread? In Edinburgh a baby boy was born and named Alexander Graham Bell, and if Matt had known that, he would have wondered what that had to do with the price of bread. And a man called Charles Strutt translated a book, but what had that to do with the price of bread, and who was he?
The potato famine caused hunger before it caused starvation. Hunger: a desire for, or lack of food. Any strong desire. But this hunger was not a desire for, let’s say Pernod with ice, olives, lobster bisque soup for starters, a taste of dry wine, duck à la plum for main course, a good strong purple burgundy, glazed custard, a plate of three cheeses, a port, a brandy, a liqueur, or a coffee. This was a slow gnawing feeling, one that centred first in the stomach, stayed there for days, weeks even, and then grew bigger, even when appeased with a little food.
It radiated to the senses. All one could hear was the clanging of saucepans, the washing of pans, the kicking over of buckets in haste to get the cooking started. All one could see was field upon field of profuse food and tables buckling in the middle with the weight of all that was cooked. All one could touch, especially at night in dreams, was food on a plate – touch it to make sure it was there, touch the potato so it mushroomed out into dry, sweet, beautiful froth. All one could smell, everywhere, outside, inside, was the overwhelming odour of food cooking, the odour of raw food about to be cooked, the odour of neighbours’ food, the odour of food on the road, the odour of food eaten. And finally taste. A little flick of the taste spots on the tongue, salt, sweet, hot, cold, savoury; a mouthful, a mouth full, and all taste blossoming into one satisfied swallow, a rainbow in the mouth, disappearing slowly down to the stomach, where the whole dream had started.
When hunger had filled all the senses and dried them brittle, the imagination left – it could not bear itself and was now as good as dead without nourishment. Nourishment: the giving of food so that hunger does not assault the stomach and senses, thus killing imagination with a final hammer blow.
After hunger comes starvation, being in continuous want, the suffering greatly from hunger.And after starvation comes death, which precedes being dead by a few seconds.
Hunger and starvation might be a solitary matter, a thing known to one person, not a disaster. But when hunger is happening all over a place, when people look at each other and know that the other person is also hungry, then it’s a state of famine. What we do not want to know is that while famine infers extreme scarcity of food, this may not always be the truth. Famine could be extreme scarcity of food getting into mouths, not extreme scarcity of food in fields; in other words, food being taken away, stolen, used to pay debt, in the middle of the night, used to feed faraway armies, causing extreme scarcity of food going into mouths and leading to a person being able to read his neighbours’ eyes.
The resulting slow chaos grew worse until this hunger could no longer be ignored. In London many people spent time thinking about what to do. This may have included deciding to do nothing, or deciding what not to do, or deciding to put these thoughts to the back of minds, where they could not interfere with London life. It may have included the promise to re-visit the facts a year on, to check the progress of death and hunger, checking also the strain on public funds. It may have included a continuous desire that when the facts were re-visited, all would have sorted itself out. It may have included a lot of worry. Or it may not. The response did include the making of these lists, which were now in Matt’s hands. He would have to think about the journey he was to make and how best to deliver these papers.
Outside the House of Commons two members of parliament debated the ideas that were being bandied about. They spoke quietly. One of them approached the topic with an academic gesture, smiling slightly, as a boy might who was playing with a ball where he shouldn’t. The second showed signs of agitation, further aggravated by the waving hand and the smile.
‘But if they are sitting idle in workhouses and we are paying for that, surely it behoves us to think of a better solution than their continued useless sitting there. Even you must see that.’
‘Is it not a dangerous precedent to pick up orphan girls in their vulnerable state, unable to put up a fight, and ship them to our colony simply because we need domestic servants?’
‘Females to bear children, don’t forget that. And wouldn’t it be a better place for them to do that, better than where they are now, where the likelihood of a happy outcome is limited. At this present time I mean of course,’ he added hastily, as he saw the frowns gathering before him.
‘But I am concerned about the moral implications of such a plan.’
‘And what would you have us do, my good fellow. Do you have a better solution in that worried mind of yours? We are, after all, assisting them to stay alive.’
‘We could try feeding them in their own homes.’ ‘Balderdash. The crop has failed, again. Haven’t you heard the news? Failed repeatedly.’
‘But there is other food being grown there, shipped out to pay rents and such like.’
‘What do you suggest we do about that? Allow an entire region to renege on its rent? Do you suggest that we no longer feed our armies in India and other places?’
‘For the time being perhaps. Yes. About the rent I mean.
Surely we can get food for the army elsewhere.’
‘But if you allow one or more who have not paid their rent to stay in their houses what would you say to the person who has paid? Should you tell him that he must continue while his neighbour doesn’t bother?’
‘I think that most people will want to pay their rents, for their own security and peace of mind, if not from good will.’ ‘Enough. This discussion is for the history books, waste of time having it today. It will solve nothing. No more than your knotted brows will. I believe my man is waiting for me. Good day.’
There was work to be done. A plan had to be agreed. An argument had to be made foolproof, so that the doubters, the downright against and the lazy or unconcerned, could all be brought into line. Ships had to be made available, perhaps pulled off more lucrative routes, but it would pay in the end. Ships had to made seaworthy, new ones might have to be built, but they could later be diverted to more immediately profitable use. Public servants had to get excited, go to their clubs and then home, not telling their wives in case the spilling of the half-made plan might scupper the whole. Wives would have to feed their husbands, so that each day the imaginations of these men could stretch a little more to allow the plan to grow. Non-scrupulous men had to be contacted, and scrupulous men had to be talked to. And surgeon-superintendents had to be found so that the cargo would arrive alive.
And so the plan was made. God made the world and the public servants made the plan and it was agreed upon down to the last nut and bolt, so the lives of girls in workhouses made a leap forward into what they would be.
The plan was put into action. It looked well thought out, neatly written on the papers that were passed around. These contained the ships and their dates, with four of the embarkation dates not yet agreed. This was a pity because it gave the sheet a lack of symmetry, but surely that would not destroy the appeal of this worthy scheme. Even the numbers were already meticulously decided.
In total there would be over 4000 girls aged between fourteen and twenty – seventy-two per cent aged between sixteen and eighteen – dispatched within two years. There would be a Government Dispatch Reel number for each ship. There was no more time for debate. There had been debates on what to do about this problem before, and these had an infuriating habit of coming up repeatedly in the London News. There were two strongly opposing views as to what should be done – that which said we cannot interfere with the market, and that which said we must.
People on both sides aired their positions loudly because they meant them, while others gave spirited addresses because they loved the polish and history of this oratory, this fine form of speaking practised in Ancient Greece.
‘Surely you don’t believe that?’
‘Perhaps not in its entirety, but how did I put it forward do you think?’
There were others in between these opposing views who looked to the proponents of either to convince them. Debates also took place closer to the actual disaster. In halls in Ireland, men turned up to shout their anger while they still had it, to whisper their despair when that was all they had left, and later to stay silent and merely observe.
But now there was an actual plan worked out on paper.
That was how Matt was reading this list, with the beautifully slanted hand. Some of the ships had already gone, but more girls were still needed, and it was his job to find the cargo for the Thomas Arbuthnot. It was suggested that he make his first visit to County Clare – there were plenty of girls there.
RTÉ Book on One: Not the Same Sky by Evelyn Conlon, RTÉ Radio 1 Monday 18 - Friday 22 Sept. Not the Same Sky is published by Wakefield Press. You can listen back to the recordiing on the RTÉ Radio Player. This edition of The Book on One on RTÉ Radio 1 is produced by Clíodhna Ní Anluain.