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Nineteenth Century History – a new project (or two) for me?

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The story began a few years ago when a certain gentleman (I’ll call him Paddy) joined our local writers’ group. Some years previously he had suffered serious injuries in a road accident and had subsequently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. From being a successful professional, keen golfer and member of Toastmasters, he was facing the frustrations of a debilitating condition that makes communication difficult. Nevertheless, he was determined to produce a collection of anecdotes and stories from his family history, humorous incidents from his long career, and adaptations of Irish folk tales. With help from members of the group he succeeded in producing a small volume which sold well among friends and acquaintances.

I hadn’t seen him for a long while until he contacted me towards the end of last year seeking help with the compilation of a history of the organisation for which he had worked for more that two decades. I completed that task in January.

Family History

Meanwhile, he came to me with the idea for a book based on the life of one of his aunts. He hoped we could, together, create another ‘Brooklyn’. I produced about 8500 words for the beginning of this novel but got stuck because of the gap in Paddy’s story, between the courtship and marriage in 1931 and events some 40 years later. I could have invented material to fill the gap but feel I don’t know enough about life in Ireland in those years. Not that such lack of knowledge prevented me writing about Ireland in the 12th and 13th centuries, but there are too many people still living who know the recent period intimately.

More recently, Paddy began studying the Irish Famine of 1845-51. I helped him transcribe notes he’d made based on a couple of books he had read. I also began doing my own research. Paddy’s intention was to produce, with my assistance, his own book about this terrible period in British/Irish history. For my part, I could see the possibility of another historical novel, this one set in that period and featuring a young woman who experiences the horrors of starvation and forced migration first hand. I already have the first couple of chapters drafted for the novel and am continuing to gather material for the non-fiction book and as background to the novel.

Lessons for today

Discussing the latter with Paddy earlier this week, we were unable to come up with a unique “angle” that will make our book different from those already written. After all, most of those have been written by professional historians and academics. Paddy told me a librarian had conducted a search for him and found no fewer than 130 books on the subject.

I think I have the answer, and the germ of it is in my earlier post about the famine, in which I pointed out how easy it is to move from scapegoating a particular group to genocide. From what I have discovered so far, it seems to me that there are many parallels to be drawn between the events of 1845-51 in Ireland and Britain and things happening today. They include forced migration and attitudes to migrants in the destination countries; the division of resources between rich and poor with great wealth existing alongside terrible poverty; the dominant economic, social and political ideologies, and conflicting religious beliefs.

Illustration found at historyplace.com

African migrants off the Tunisian coast, June 2011. Photo from AFP found at Mail and Guardian Africa.

Expect more posts from me on this subject in future. Meanwhile, if you have anything you would like to contribute to help me and Paddy to understand these terrible events, books you’d like to recommend, for example, or individual stories passed down to you through your own family history, please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

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