by Gill Kenny
The critically acclaimed Irish singer/songwriter Declan O’Rourke is well-loved for his deep and meaningful lyrics – especially those contained in his album Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine which was released in late 2017. In 2018, one of its songs, ‘The Great Saint Lawrence River’, was nominated in the Best Original Song category for a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award. Another album track, ‘Along the Western Seaboard’, won Declan the Best Original Folk Song at RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards.
Declan is an Australian citizen, having spent part of his formative years growing up in the suburbs of Melbourne with his family who had emigrated from Dublin. He named his first album Kyabram after a town in Victoria where he spent time in his youth. He now lives in Kinvara, Co. Galway.
Following Declan’s singing and songwriting successes, he has released his debut novel, an historical fiction of the Famine. Since its launch in early November, The Pawnbroker’s Reward has risen to second place in the hardback fiction bestseller list in Ireland.
As soon as I read the first page of this work of historical fiction, I was immediately transported to a period in our history that is not often discussed. The Famine is perhaps too painful for many, and mostly kept locked up in the dark closets of the past. But when you meet the two protagonists of this beautifully crafted novel, Cornelius Creed and Pádraig Ua Buacalla, you are drawn into their worlds and immersed in the lives of the people who inhabit the small Irish community of Macroom, Co. Cork in 1846. I loved both of them dearly. One was poor and the other wasn’t, but they were each deeply caring men with great minds and big hearts. Their only flaw was perhaps that they were somewhat misguided.
Pádraig is an Irish speaker from the Muskerry Gaeltacht who has little experience of speaking English. During a conversation with his fellow labourers while breaking rocks for a pittance pay, he is asked if he would consider leaving the country to join an overseas regiment. It was, after all, a way to avoid starving to death. Pádraig’s response was to quote from a poem by Eoghan Ó Súilleabháin:
Nuair a thiocfaidh an chaint don bhfiach dubh.
Nuair a thiocfaidh an míol mór ar an Moing.
Nuair a thiocfaidh an Fhrainc go Sliabh Mis.
Nuair a chaillfidh an sagart an tsaint.
Is ea a thiocfaidh an chaint don bhfiach dubh.
His friend, Denis, translates for those in the group who don’t understand, and they gaze at Pádraig in awe as they begin to understand the powerful message:
When speech comes to the raven.
When the whale will come up the Maine River.
When France will come to Sliabh Mis.
When the priest will abandon his greed.
Then, speech will come to the raven.
Cornelius Creed is a local pawnbroker who struggles with the contradictions he witnesses at the meetings of the Relief Committee. He expresses his outrage in the regular letters he writes to The Cork Examiner.
But Creed turns this abhorrence inwards when he later battles to reconcile his own profiting from his customers’ misfortune. It is at this point we see the cracks appearing in Creed’s mental well-being. A man of his word and of strong conscience, he is struggling to contend with the attitudes and greed of the rich while trying to reconcile his own role as a pawnbroker.
I found a fire burning in my belly the more I learnt about the conditions of those harrowing times. It did, however, fill me with a renewed sense of appreciation for the abundant times we now live in and serves as a good reminder of the atrocities our ancestors had to endure. If anything, this book will awaken us all to the fact that profit should never be considered more important than our shared humanity.
The Pawnbroker’s Reward is available from Ireland’s Gill Books.
Gill Kenny is a writer and mother-of-two from County Cork who has been living in Perth, Western Australia for the past decade. She volunteers on the committee of the Australian Irish Heritage Association because she believes that our Irish culture is precious and worthy of celebration, and even more so during these times of COVID when travel restrictions prevent us from travelling back to the homeland.