When people talk about literary merit, I wander away to the pub to have a pint. Since the pubs are closed, and I get smashed by a snifter of poitin, or indeed three pints, perhaps slightly more (when I’m watching Celtic) I’ll hang about. Literary merit is just a fancy way of asking if you liked the book. I don’t finish books I don’t like. Cold Is the Dawn is 427 pages. So you do the maths of how much I liked it.
If like me, you have a manuscript (or indeed manuscripts) lying about in various stages of distress then you note who publishes them. Cold Is The Dawn is published by SilverWood Books. I had a look at their business model. They help self-publishing authors publish. Something I’ve been thinking about. I know it’s not meant to be funny, but point 11 of Frequently Asked Questions: I’m publishing my book to make a profit—is that a good idea?
You know when Oliver Hardy pokes Stan Laurel in the eye (you need to be a certain age to remember Laurel and Hardy) and stamps on his toe, then they accidentally bump heads with a knocking sound. And then they sing The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, by the trail of the lonesome pine, because it makes more sense than I’m publishing my book to make a profit—is that a good idea?
I guess a book deal with SilverWood Books costs an author around £10 000. An Unbound Book costs much the same. That’s the market rate if you’ve got that kind of dosh. So Charles Egan invested his cash, put his money down as an investment in literary merit. What did he get for his money?
The cover of a group of miners (if that’s what they are) staring at the camera, with the superimposed image of an older man in a flat bunnet looking on—passable. The white font of white on black for the author’s name and the title of the novel stands out. The reader is told it’s ‘A novel of Irish Exile and the Great Irish Famine’.
The Irish Holocaust interests me, because I’m part Irish and I’m thinking of writing about it. The current population of Ireland is almost five million, with more citizens living in Dublin, than all of the other areas combined. https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/ireland-population/ If we go back to the 1960s the Irish population dipped under three million.
Ian Gibson writes in the foreword The Great Famine, Ireland’s Potato Famine 1845-51, that out of a population of around eight million people, about a million people died, and around another one-and-a-half million emigrated, but there were no exact figures, and this is likely to be an underestimate. Many of the poorest weren’t registered and included in official data. They did not live in Dublin and were wholly dependent on the potato crops.
Charles Egan’s way into carrying the weight of such history is by concentrating on Luke Ryan’s extended family and their fortune in the aftermath of the potato blight. County Mayo, where Michael and Eleanor, Luke’s mum and dad, have a farm and quarry was one of the hardest hit regions in Ireland.
This is home territory, for Luke’s wife Winnie and their son, Liam, before they sail across the Atlantic to join Luke in New York and later Pennsylvania, where the couple starve in the new world.
Luke’s younger brother, Pat, is the bridge to England. Irish farmworkers often made the journey across the water to help harvest crops in England and send money home to pay the rent to rapacious landowners. But Pat returns to Mayo to work compiling reports on the effects of the famine. This allows the reader to travel with him as he charts the impact of ‘The Exterminator’, Mayo’s largest landlord, Lord Lucan as he cleared the land he owned of tenants.
In the Preface, Egan tells the reader of the Railway’s boom and bust.
‘Of the estimated two hundred thousand navvies working on the railway construction in 1847, one hundred thousand were without work by the middle of 1848. For labour contractors on the railways, many of them Irish, this was an excellent opportunity to exploit hungry Irish workers.’
Egan places his characters in the middle of this moral quagmire. Luke’s aged Uncle Murty Ryan (he’s around my age) works on the construction of the English railroads. But to begin with he works as a clerk. Murty Ryan’s eldest son Danny is a contractor, hiring and firing Irish labour, shipped in directly from the workhouse in Mayo. And shipped back home by Bradford and Liverpool workhouses when they were no longer needed. They regarded Irish people as a pestilence and a plagued nation. But relief efforts were a fraction of the sum spent on The Crimean War.
Egan makes use of news reports to add ballast to his fiction. London, Morning Chronicle in November 1848, for example, reported, as an opinion piece that might have been written by a Nigel Farage of yesteryear. ‘We say therefore that we grudge the immense sums which we appear likely that we have to pay this year to Irish Unions very much indeed, because we know that it will be thrown into a bottomless pit, and because we feel that money, thus wasted, would be better in removing them than feeding in idleness the people of Mayo—in getting rid of the burden, than in perpetuating it.’
Murty Ryan’s eldest son, Danny had established a foothold in the railway construction business, before he committed suicide. An Irish man he was an exploiter of his fellow man. Something Murty abhorred. When his youngest son steps into his elder brother’s shoes he proves even more ruthless. He pays them even less than Danny and charges them rent for shacks. He pays them in script that can only be exchanged in company shops. In other words, Murtybeg is a good businessman that exploits needy labour. In modern parlance, he creates jobs for his fellow countrymen.
A subplot involves Murtybeg being played off by Irene, who claimed to be his elder brother’s common-law wife, and therefore in control of the company they created. Murtybeg, being merely a paid employee. He gets an immediate rise in pay of three shillings a week, but his workload increases accordingly. Irish navvies working for the company make do with a shilling a week. Murtybeg is both exploiter and exploited by Irene, but he’s far above the Irish navvy class. He’s almost gentry. Facing off against Irene to take control of the company Murtybeg seeks legal advice. It’s not Charles Dickens Jarndyce and Jarndyce, (a book I haven’t read) but the way in which it was resolved had me thinking of another novelist. Emile Zola’s La Terre had a woman raped and falling in love with her rapist, which in a different era tied up plot points.
Exploitation takes many forms. Egan’s novel runs on rails and touches on the horrific and short lives that many lived, with children under ten, for example, working in Bradford mills, or pushing coal trucks in the fictional town of Lackan in Pennsylvania, where Luke holes up with Winnie and their child. His novel spans the old world and the new industrial order. It touches on the historical events such as cholera epidemics, fever epidemics, typhus epidemics, repeal of The Corn Laws, the rise in trade union activity, and the search for universal suffrage. The Molly Maguires get a walk on part, as does the less secretive Hibernian associations that tried to the poor Irish, especially those landing in New York harbour and fresh off the boat for exploitation.
Much of the novel relies on conversations between characters to carry the narrative. And like many modern novels can read more like a screenplay. Egan’s problem is characterisation. Luke Ryan, for example, has two lives. One in New York and in Pennsylvania. His backstory about being a gaffer and hated, because he had the power of life and death during an earlier famine, and the rate-funded road-building programme is relevant and stands out. But I couldn’t pick Luke Ryan out in a police line-up. I don’t know what he looks like. His friends and companions, say six in each region are interchangeable doodles. Different clothes, same person. Similarly, major characters such as Pat, Murtybeg, or Murty also carry the weight of another six, sometimes more, minor characters that are also doodles. Egan in going for greater breadth of worlds has given his characters less depth.
Pat, for example, slaps the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle’s eugenic views were on par with ‘The Great Protector’ Oliver Cromwell, who was sure it pleased God that his troops had massacred 3000 men, women and children at Drogheda, with only a handful escaping. Carlyle may have been in Mayo. Few would argue he needed slapped (add the moron’s moron Donald Trump and Nigel Farage to my list, fling in anyone that identifies as One-NationTory) but Carlyle seems smoke and air, and little of substance. Where I overwrite my characters, Egan underwrites.
Charles Egan has tapped into the Irish holocaust and the cultural heritage of The Great Famine at home and abroad. It did change the new worlds. Around 40 million Americans with Irish roots and the current President Joe Biden brings that message home. Capitalism in its rawest form and xenophobia combined. Somehow it seems a familiar tale of rich men and poor men, only one group dying of hunger, labour fodder for the new industrial age. I’m sure with global warming, the worst is yet to come.