By Jody Moylan
In my own little village of Tulsk, there once lived a lady named Anna Sophia Drought. I call her a lady because that’s what she was. At least that’s what she was titled, as one of the Protestant Ascendancy, living as she did in one of the estate houses of the parish.
By the 1911 census, she was a widow of 81. Her house was hidden behind trees, as it is today, at the bottom of an avenue that still exists. That’s her story, and it existed for me in words on a computer screen, the page I’d printed out, until I read a piece of fiction that suddenly brought her to life. It was William Trevor’s novella Matilda’s England, where the first line reads: ‘Old Mrs Ashburton used to drive about the lanes in a governess cart drawn by a donkey she called Trot.’ Like Lady Drought, ‘old Mrs Ashburton’ was the lady of a fading estate who was similarly, and oddly, ‘eighty-one’.
I suddenly saw Lady Drought as Mrs Ashburton, ‘excessively thin, rather tall and frail looking’ and just maybe driving her own cart — her ‘coachman’ of the 1901 census had gone by 1911. These details, that my imagination added, are not important. What is, is the fact that William Trevor was allowing me — as the reader of historical fiction — to flesh out the reality of life in that time, and to see that world afresh and with new eyes.
Maybe, dare I say it, every history student should add good historical fiction to their reading list. Without it, just maybe, I might never have returned to study history at all. This idea probably began when I read Joseph O’Connor’s brilliant Irish Famine novel Star of the Sea.
The Great Famine, and specifically the statistics, can be overwhelming, with straight up history books having the capacity to reduce the whole event to a study of numbers and bare facts, leaving the reader to sift elsewhere for the real human stories at the heart of it.
Even when anecdotes and incidents are added, the chronicler remains a historian, unable to describe the finer poetic detail for the obvious threat to academic integrity. Star of the Sea stands out because it is a story about people, rather than people who are dying. The hunger is happening in the background, but the story we’re following is about fully rounded characters carrying around all the emotion and weight that traumatic times have forced upon them.
There’s hatred and vengeance and jealousy and love, with no sentiment, which made the whole tale as real to me as a story of fact that I knew had happened. There are the simple details too, like night on an emigrant ship at sea. ‘Wind pounded down in an outrage of screams … and the breakers thrashed and battered our shelter’, while below them lay ‘the gorges and canyons of that unfathomed continent’. We all know, of course, that this was the meteorological and geographic reality of every emigrant ship at sea over a lengthy period but, personally, reading O’Connor’s masterpiece was the first time I’d seen that detail in my own mind. And it was the first time I’d truly began to understand that this was a ‘way in’ to the whole and fully formed reality of history. It’s worth noting that while Star of the Sea was an international bestseller, it is not just an Irish novel, but a Galway one too. I did begin to wonder, such was their convincing portrayal, if ‘the Ghost’ of Pius Mulvey and the heroine of Mary Duane had not in fact once roamed those westerly recesses of Rinvyle, Ardnagreevagh, and Recess itself.
O’Connor wasn’t the only one who wrote brilliantly about Connemara. In the summer of 1912, while visiting Galway, James Joyce cycled out to the cemetery at Oughterard to visit the grave of Michael Bodkin; the onetime lover of his wife Nora Barnacle. Bodkin would later become Michael Furey in Joyce’s short story The Dead. He’s mentioned in the final paragraph of that great work of the imagination:
‘snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.’
No statistics, or numbers, or the words of a census, can ever truly bring your mind back like the words of fiction can. Lady Drought was still alive when Joyce wrote those words. And I imagine her struggling along, on a cart in the snow, being pulled by a donkey called Trot.