The 30-year journey of a novel

It began in 1988. I was reviewing books for the Calgary Herald. One was a two-volume anthology of Irish writings, The Untold Story: The Irish in Canada. It included a journal kept by an immigrant who came to Canada in 1847, the most devastating year of the Irish potato famines. Titled “Black ’47: A Summer of Sorrow,” the journal offered a harrowing account of life in rural County Sligo, where poverty and hunger drove many inhabitants into inefficiently managed workhouses and forced others to leave the country with the hope of finding a better life across the ocean. Their incentives for leaving included offers of paid trans-Atlantic passage from the British landlords and the promise of 100 acres and ten shillings upon landing in Canada.

The credited writer of the journal, Gerald Keegan, was a schoolteacher and tenant farmer who could see no future for himself in Ireland. He embarked for Canada without knowing beforehand that the sailing ships used for transporting immigrants were repurposed commercial vessels poorly equipped for the transportation of human cargo. But he soon learned why in later years they would come to be known as coffin ships. His detailed account of the six weeks he spent aboard this overcrowded vessel was the most heartbreaking section of the journal. 

I can’t remember now what I wrote in my Herald review but I do remember that the journal, which later turned out to be a fake, had a profound impact on me. My Cork ancestors were famine survivors. Many lost their farms and homes, but escaped the hunger and avoided the workhouses. Some emigrated to the United States and prospered. Among those who stayed at home was my maternal grandmother’s great-grandmother, Máire Bhuí Ní Laoire (Yellow Mary O’Leary), who left a legacy of folk poetry that inspired me to write her biography.

After reading my Herald review, a Calgary theatre director suggested I use the Keegan journal as the basis for a play about immigration. I worked on the play for two years. When finished, I sent it to another director who said it might have some production potential if rewritten. But even then it would be a tough sell because it would require a large cast and that would restrict its viability as a professional stage project. At that point, I rewrote it as a radio play where the famine immigrant was reading passages from his journal. That concept didn’t work because the journal entries sat flat on the page like piss on a plate. Turning the journal entries into an exchange of letters between the famine immigrant and his mother didn’t make things any better. I put the radio play away in a drawer and didn’t think about it for a couple of years.

In 1992, I came across an article in the Montreal Gazette that drew me back to the play. Headlined “Fact and Fiction Blur in Tale of Irish Famine,” it said the authenticity of the Keegan journal was being called into question. Some scholars believed the journal was the fictional work of two or more authors, including the Quebec newspaper editor who first published the journal in 1895. Despite this, an Edmonton film company, Great North Productions, had secured the screen rights and was all set to chronicle the immigrant’s voyage in a documentary. At that point, I decided the best way to deal with the source material was to turn it into a novel. After more than two decades of writing nonfiction articles for newspapers and magazines, this would be my first stab at writing long-form fiction.

I showed my play to a writer friend who specializes in fiction. She agreed that a novel would be the best vehicle for the subject. She also suggested that when I turned it into a novel, I should add a contemporary dimension so it would be something more than a 19th century period piece. I did this by introducing a new character, also an immigrant and a descendant of the famine immigrant. I had him coming to Canada in 1966, partly to escape from a soul-destroying job in the Irish civil service and partly to find out what happened to his immigrant ancestor after he arrived in Canada in 1847. If some of this sounds familiar, it could be because I immigrated to Canada in 1966 and wrote about it in my autobiography, Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada

I had never written fiction so I had to learn some new tricks. In my naïveté, I had always thought that writing fiction was much the same as writing nonfiction except that you made things up. Not so, I discovered. After taking a series of masterclasses and workshops on fiction writing I became familiar for the first time with such terms as three-part dialogue, leitmotif and archetypal patterns. These were strategies and artistic choices that I might have been aware of subliminally but had never identified them as such because I had never studied fiction as a craft. 

I worked on the novel intermittently over a 25-year period. The famine immigrant evolved into an agrarian insurgent inspired by the ethno-nationalistic ideals of his mother, a celebrated folk poet. The contemporary immigrant also harboured republican sympathies. While writing the book, I earned a living with my pen, until 1999 as a staff columnist with the Calgary Herald and after that as a freelance journalist and author of books of biography and social history.

At the beginning of 2018, I finally felt ready to share my novel with the world. I gave it the title The Love of One’s Country because it deals with the way immigrants can become conflicted when they leave one country for another.

I felt the book should be published simultaneously in Ireland and Canada because the Irish would get the Irish bits and the Canadians would get the Canadian bits, and the novelistic fusing of the two cultures would resonate with both. So I began by trying to find a literary agency in Canada that would represent the book domestically and internationally. No luck there. One agent told me she has great difficulty placing literary fiction with major publishers because they are interested primarily in diverse voices and commercial sales hooks. The Love of One’s Country clearly doesn’t have either.

The next step, therefore, was to find a literary press that would be willing to take it on. There were a few mild expressions of interest there but eventually, I opted for independent publication because this way I would have more control over the editing, design, distribution and marketing of the book. It also meant that the book would never go out of print. As long as there’s an internet, The Love of One’s Country will always be available.