Because I felt I had told only part of the story when I published Songs of an Irish Poet: The Mary O’Leary Story, a nonfiction biography of my ancestor, a renowned Irish folk poet of the 19th century.
Yes, I had written about the financial difficulties my ancestor faced during the years leading up to the potato famines of the 1840s, when the cattle and dairy farming business she ran with husband James went into a steady decline.
But no, I hadn’t written much about the devastating impact of the famines themselves, aside from a few paragraphs about evictions by greedy landlords.
I had written nothing about the workhouses, those Dickensian institutions built to house the most destitute of the rural inhabitants. And I hadn’t written anything about the inadequate famine relief efforts, or the fake incentives the landlords offered their “surplus” tenants to get them off their lands and onto coffin ships bound for North America.
One reason for this omission was that the main source of information for my biography – a priest who interviewed Mary O’Leary’s grandchildren and published an Irish-language book of her songs in 1931 – had offered only sketchy details of her life in his book. His main goal, it seems, was to preserve her poems. They had never been written down during her lifetime, but passed orally from generation to generation, and had only survived as artefacts of an ancient Irish literary tradition because the priest and two fellow folklore collectors asked the grandchildren to sing them for transcription purposes.
After publishing my Mary O’Leary biography, which was little more than an expanded version of the priest’s book but now translated into English and rewritten extensively with added historical context, I felt the need revisit her story and fill in the gaps. My ancestor, after all, was a famine survivor. She had avoided the workhouse and didn’t die of starvation. She lived to be 75, which back then would have been considered a ripe old age. And she left a legacy of songs still performed today at major traditional music festivals throughout Ireland.
How did the survivors get through those dreadful times when successive years of blights destroyed their potato crops? How did they deal with the abuses they suffered aboard ship, aside from the unsanitary conditions and the rampant cases of typhus and dysentery? These are what I wanted to write about, and fiction gave me the best vehicle for telling that story after I had completed the necessary research.
I also wanted to give the narrative a contemporary dimension by blending the famine history with the story of a more recent immigrant, like myself, who found Canada to be as welcoming in the 1960s as it continues to be today for immigrants seeking refuge. My autobiography, Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada, became the point of departure for that part of the fictional story in my novel.
I’m thrilled now 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 trade one country for another. For further details and purchase information, consult my books page.