"Kathleen" drew my hand. The letters were tall and blue on a white background. Though my name is hardly unusual, it was startling, like being beckoned by someone at once familiar and strange. Several other books in the same row were also titled with girls' names: Amanda, Caroline, Marilee, Susannah, Emily.
I was eleven years old. This was in the Waldenbooks at the Kings Plaza Mall on Flatbush Avenue, just blocks away from the Flatlands branch of the Brooklyn Public Library from which I was a fugitive, hounded by late notices, fines climbing, dime upon dime. The books were never lost. I had trouble surrendering them.
The girl-books were, I’d learn, the Sunfire series, romance novels for young adults. Each story took a resourceful, young woman and put her in the middle of a historical event where she met a handsome man who did not compromise her independence or resent her brain. Offhand, I can’t place each girl in time by name, but I would read about the California Gold Rush, the Salem Witch Trials, Colonial Virginia, The Great Depression.
In 1847, Kathleen O’Connor leaves Ireland and sails to Boston.
It’s all there, I know now.
The potatoes rotting in the fields. The stench. The siblings who starve to death. The boyfriend, Rory, who dies of fever. The landlord paying to send Kathleen and her parents to America to clear the land. The roiling, reeking coffin ship. The dead buried in the sea. Kathleen arriving in Boston alone. No Irish Need Apply. First a thief, and then a maid to a wealthy Protestant family.
I was stunned. No one had told me. Famine in Ireland? This was 1986. Famine meant Ethiopia. Starvation in Ireland meant Bobby Sands and the nine other hunger strikers whose faces were imprinted on banners and carried up Fifth Avenue in New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. British-Irish antipathy I certainly knew of, but ‘Troubles’ in America? Inconceivable.
"Kathleen" is not graphic. Of course, it’s not meant to be, given the intended audience. Kathleen’s brother and sisters are already dead when the book begins, and they were buried. A graveside funeral is mentioned. Kathleen not only speaks English, but reads and writes it, a fact that’s met with great disbelief. As it would have been. To excuse her literacy, the author made Kathleen’s mother a Protestant (very unlikely). In Boston, the son of the wealthy, Protestant family Kathleen works for falls in love with her, and she with him. Also quite unlikely.
As an undergrad at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, I would take classes called Irish Literature, The Diaspora and The Political History of Ireland. There, I learned the Famine officially, in great depth and violent detail. Should it even be called famine? The Famine? Is the capital letter enough? The Great Hunger? An Gorta Mór?
But "Kathleen" came first.
I’ve since read many other novels that deal with An Gorta Mór. In Leon Uris’s "Trinity", it’s the background for rebellion. Nuala O’Faolain’s "My Dream of You" moves back and forth between the end of the Famine and modern Ireland, mending the two as her protagonist Kathleen attempts to reconcile them both. From Peter Behrens’ "Law of Dreams", I mostly recall the workhouses and the gang of orphaned children living wild in the Irish countryside. Peter Quinn’s Banished Children of Eve brings the story to America, as does his nonfiction "Looking for Jimmy", "A Search for Irish America." Kevin Baker's "Paradise Alley" deals with the Draft Riots of 1863 in which the Irish rioted for three days, protesting the draft. These books explore the legacy of mass death and immigration, for the Irish and their American descendants. "Ship Fever" is a short story by Andrea Barrett about the influx of coffin ships at Grosse Isle in Quebec and a medical staff overwhelmed by the tide of sick and dying Irish.
There are many I have not read yet. Liam O’Flaherty’s "Famine", William Trevor’s story "The News from Ireland", Joseph O’Connor’s "Star of the Sea" are the ones that come to mind.
I have no idea what happened to my original copy of "Kathleen", but several years ago, I went online and bought a one for $25. I expected to read it, but I never have. I hold it sometimes though, a ghost turned substantive in my hands.
Epilogue or Prologue
My grandfather once said that the farm where he was born was not the original family home. The Donohues (later Donohoes) were from Killarney. After the Famine, they wandered north. And they found abandoned land in Tuam, Co. Galway. I don’t know what year it was by then, if there was an actual house, or the barest remains of one, if they knew the fates of those who’d lived there before, if they even cared. They knew--I know they knew--that nobody was coming back.