Joe O'Connor's Star of the Sea

A Novel of the Famine

Dublin is a hard place to write in. It’s too friendly,” laughs Joe O’Connor. “Coming to London, where nobody cared whether I lived or died, was a great thing for a writer. You need a certain amount of isolation.” From his London outpost, Joseph O’Connor became the laddish chronicler of the contemporary Irish emigrant experience. There was Eddie Virago, the punk hero of his first novel, Cowboys and Indians. There were the clever, sweaty pop-cultural observations of his wisecracking The Irish Male at Home and Abroad essays, and the Esquire columns: all smart, edgy stuff. And, yes, there was the long shadow of being Sinéad O’Connor’s big brother to sidestep.

But a few years ago, O’Connor returned to Ireland, and there he developed another, more resonant voice. He currently lives by the sea in Dalkey, just south of Dublin, and his study window looks out over the Martello Tower in Sandycove, where James Joyce stayed and set the opening chapter of Ulysses.

“It’s a very intimidating thing, I can tell you, on a Monday morning, when you get up and say, ‘I’m going to write a novel today,’ then you throw open the curtains and there’s the tower,” says O’Connor. “You think, ‘There’s no point, the novel has been written, no one could ever better it—get a useful job and stop all this nonsense.’ ”

Star of the Sea (Harcourt Brace & Co.), his magnificent new novel, is the first book he has written wholly in Ireland, and is a bravura performance. It’s set in 1847, on a rickety passenger ship from Cork to New York, across the stormy November waters of the Atlantic. On board are 15 first-class travelers, and 402 impoverished Irish emigrants crammed into the disease-ridden steerage.  Among the characters are Pius Mulvey, a murderous con man and balladeer; Lord Merridith, a bankrupt landowner and amateur artist; and G. Grantley Dixon, an American journalist and aspiring novelist. Haunting them all is the specter of the Irish Famine. “I wanted it to be one of those big, noisy books you can get lost in,” says O’Connor. “I wanted the same events told from different points of view, because a book about how history gets written depends who’s telling the story.

“Everything about the Famine is more complicated than it seems, except for the suffering of the victims, which was simple and stark and appalling,” he adds. It’s a bold move to take on a subject of such enormity and tease a page-turning story from national catastrophe. Reading it, I was struck by how few significant novels have emerged about the Famine. O’Connor would direct you toward just two: William Carleton’s 1847 novel The Black Prophet and Liam O’Flaherty’s Famine of 1937. Even more bizarrely, considering 2 million people emigrated from Ireland during the Hunger, Star of the Sea seems to be the very first novel set on a Famine ship.

“There’s been a certain silence hanging around it. A lot of well-meaning Victorian journalists went to Ireland to write about the Famine, and when you read those contemporary accounts, you’re struck by the language of wordlessness—time and time again, people saying, ‘Words fail me. I can’t describe this.’ Since then, it’s also been a very convenient silence,” he notes.

One of Star of the Sea’s intentions is to reassess the culpability and redistribute the blame. “In my own childhood, the Famine was all the fault of the English. As recently as 1997, Tony Blair issued an official apology to the people of Ireland,” says O’Connor. “When you look at it closely, you see how little the wealthy and powerful Irish did to protect the poor. The people who benefited most, economically, were the merchant class and slightly wealthier farmers. Vast fortunes were made out of the Irish Famine, almost invariably by Irish people who shut up and joined the chorus of Anglophobia.”

As he plowed through nearly 10 years of research, the major shift in O’Connor’s understanding was a recognition of how little seemed to have changed. When a stowaway couple is found in the novel, their decomposing bodies hidden in the ship’s sewerage culvert, it’s hard not to think of the poor Pakistani boys frozen to ice last year under a jumbo jet’s wheel carriage.

“We like to tell ourselves we’re terribly different and morally superior to the Victorians, but in fact we’re very similar,” says O’Connor. “Round the time of Sept. 11, when the novel was beginning to take shape, it struck me very powerfully that the world is still organized into a pyramid of the people who matter, and the people who don’t. The New York Times has been running obituaries on every single person who died in the Twin Towers—quite properly and movingly—so that they will all be named and remembered. But we still have no idea of the numbers who died in Afghanistan, and we’ll never know their names or anything else about them. More than 35,000 children die every day of famine-related conditions, and we say we care, but we’re not prepared to change our own standards of living. We’re not prepared to accept that people are poor because a small number of people have so much.

“The interesting thing in Ireland now is that we’ve started to have immigrants to the country, which is a huge change,” says O’Connor. “You’d think because of our history we’d be incredibly welcoming and nice to them, but we have the same levels of racism and xenophobia as any other country in Europe—it’s as if our history means measurably nothing. Ireland is going to become a multiculture very quickly, and I think it’s going to enrich the country enormously, but a small number are resistant. They don’t seem to realize people from Africa and Eastern Europe are pretty much in the same position their ancestors were in the 1850s.”

Addressing the slipperiness of “the authentic” in O’Connor’s novel is Pius Mulvey, the wily charmer and vicious chancer. Seduced by his countrymen’s reverence for singers and storytellers, and realizing that in Connemara a starving man will give his last farthing for a rousing song, Mulvey sets out to write a ballad. For years he lives off the proceeds of his verses about a recruiting sergeant as he learns to re-jig the words to suit his audience: Catholic or Protestant, Galwayman or Londoner. On his travels, he even passes it off as an ancient Cockney ballad to Mr. Charles Dickens, scavenging the East End for stories.

In return for a jug of ale and a chophouse dinner, Mulvey gets carried away with his creativity, and weaves a yarn out to explain its provenance: learned from an old Jew who ran a school for pickpockets. As an act of inspired revenge, he names his villain after an anti-Semitic priest of his acquaintance—Father Fagan.

“The Irish ballad is a very cunning form,” explains O’Connor, who penned Mulvey’s own song after the 1840s ballad “Arthur McBride.” “There’s no room for grayness, or subtlety. It starts telling the story in the first line, and the rhythm and the meter and the simplicity of the characters draw you in. All this would be fine, except there are historians who examined these ballads as authentic social documents, when of course they’re works of art designed with a specific purpose—they’re very effective weapons in a cultural war.”

Star of the Sea has purportedly been assembled by the novel’s own journalist,
G.G. Dixon, and compiled from his observations and other testimonies, including the captain’s log. It is sprinkled with genuine engravings and accounts from real emigrants. There is much fun to be had puzzling over the authentic and fabricated footnotes, including a case of misattributed authorship of the pseudonymous Wuthering Heights (included, in part, as homage to recent theories that place Heathcliff as a refugee from the Famine).

A self-confessed anal-retentive Virgo (and historian by training), O’Connor is a meticulous researcher, with all his notes filed and alphabetized, and with passages neatly highlighted. The last chapter was written first to control any loose ends. Atlantic wave heights, sea temperatures, and wind speeds were relayed from the online data of a meteorological buoy.  The longitudes and latitudes were worked out on a sea chart for November 1847, laid out on his living-room floor: “It has to be absolutely right. It has to be real.

“Readers are all looking for reasons to put a book down,” he insists. “It’s like being in a taxi. From the first page, the meter’s ticking. Everyone’s got plenty
of other things they should be doing. It’s up to the writer to find ways of stopping them.”