The Cottier Girl's Story is the first in a new drama series inspired by the real people who lived through the Famine. Author Anna Carey reveals how you can find out more about the true events that inspired it.

I spent much of last year working as an editor on The Great Irish Famine project, and reading so much about the Famine both broke my heart and opened my eyes to the sheer scale of the horrors experienced by those who lived through it.

I thought I knew how bad the Famine was, but every piece managed to horrify and deeply move me. This is the first time in twenty years of working as a writer and editor that I've cried when working on an article - more than one article. When you look at a photo of a toddler's skeleton unearthed in a mass Famine grave, the past seems both very shocking and very close.

In the six monologues in the Famine Monologues series, I tried to channel the voices of five very different people living through the Famine. The first is Catherine, played by Caitriona Ennis, a young woman from a cottier family in the west of Ireland. These were the people who suffered most from the Famine, but when we first meet Catherine, in the late summer of 1845, she has no idea of the horrors to come. Her life already is tough enough, and she heads to the local graveyard to pour her heart out to a friend who is buried there.

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As a writer of historical fiction, I'm aware that a fictional story can help to bring the past to live, but unlike the brilliant contributors to the Great Irish Famine Project, I'm not a historian, and the Cottier Girl's story, like all the Famine Monologues, is a work of fiction. Catherine and her family are products of my imagination. So if you want to know the facts that inspired the drama, there are plenty of excellent, accessible and fascinating pieces here on RTE History.

The bothan at UCC
A reconstruction of a bothán, the sort of dwelling where most cottiers lived, which stands in the grounds of UCC.

In 1841, before an Gorta Mór changed everything forever, Ireland was the second most densely populated country in Europe. The 1841 census gives a detailed picture of what Ireland was like before the Famine, and you can read about it here in this piece by Helene O'Keeffe.

Charles MacIver Grierson, Potato Diggers in the West, 1903, pastel on paper, 51 x 66 cm. Collection Crawford Art Gallery, Cork

Catherine comes from a family of "cottiers" - the poor tenant farmers who were at the bottom of the social pyramid in 1840s Ireland. They were obliterated by the Famine, but we know some of their names. You can read about the world of the cottiers here, in this piece by Ciarán Reilly - which quotes a cottier woman from County Cavan called Catherine Brady, whose name I gave to my fictional heroine.

This 1846 illustration from the Pictorial Times shows a family distressed by the failure of the potato crop (Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
This 1846 illustration from the Pictorial Times shows a family distressed by the failure of the potato crop (Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The cottiers were almost entirely dependent on potatoes for their food. You can find out more about the importance of the potato in pre-Famine Ireland here, in this piece by Helene O'Keeffe. And if you'd like to see how the blight quickly spread across America, then Europe and into Ireland, you can trace its progress in this interactive map.

The Famine Monologues was produced by Eithne Hand with Sound Design by Jon Jon Meghian. I hope Catherine's story inspires you to read more about the realities of Ireland at the dawn of the Famine. And I hope it reminds you that behind all appalling statistics, then and now, are real people whose suffering can never be forgotten.

Listen to all six episodes of the Famine Monologues on RTÉ.ie/podcasts. You can also follow the series on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.