The earth yielded nothing. The British gave no quarter. There was no work to be had from which wages might come. Luck was diminishing as sure as candlelight that flickered, flared, and then died. Lives passed. Bad men prospered. Tyrants ruled.
Author: Scott D. Pomfret
Release Date: June 6th, 2016
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy
At the outset of the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845-50, a family of Irish revolutionaries attacks a British food convoy and kidnaps a young English officer named Julian Hawke. This first act of overt rebellion unleashes a series of events that both inextricably ties the O’Rahilly clan to Hawke and to the gay seanachie (storyteller) Ciaran Leath, but also seals their fates.
The only daughter, Muireann O’Rahilly, an aspiring physician, fails to resist the strong mutual attraction between her and Hawke. Hawke tries to balance his love for Muireann and his growing love for Ireland with his duty to suppress the budding rebellion. Ciaran Leath, who falls in love with both Julian Hawke as well as an angelic young tinker man, foresees both the coming famine and the disintegration of his adopted O’Rahilly clan, but finds himself unheard and powerless to protect them—or himself. Encountering spirits of the dead and other bad portents, Ciaran Leath invokes his old benefactor, the ancient Faerie Fin Bheara, but in doing so learns something devastating about himself and of what he is capable. When the O’Rahilly clan sets its sights on assassinating Queen Victoria, whom Hawke is sworn to protect, during her 1848 state visit to Cork, the stakes loom large for all involved, and the story turns inexorably toward a tragic end.
Against the backdrop of the terrible beauty and exquisite misery of southwestern Ireland during the famine years, this part-comic, part-romantic struggle against starvation, oppression, and one’s own worst impulses plots an epic arc from London and Dublin to Cork and New York City. Magic, Faeries, haunts, spirits, legends, ancient kings, monsters, and lovers richly populate this clash between the British Crown and the Irish people, and there can only be one survivor.
In a beautiful and lyrical way, The Hunger Man brings us tragic-comic, profound, passionate and layered pages, narrated in three different point of views – the Irish, the English, and the magical one, as to witness that there’s never just one side to a story – and mingling the historical facts of the terrible Great Potatoe Famine which resulted in death and emigration, with a sprinkle of fairydust fantasy/mythology that one associates with Irish tales and myths and legends in general.
Not only does the author explore the theme of hunger, he also introduces us to social, political, and religious issues, casualy providing readers with more insight, knowledge, and understanding of the Irish cause, without trasforming this great historical fiction into political propaganda, thus taking it to a level that vaguely reminded me of Edward Rutherfurd‘s The Princes of Ireland, yet another epic fictional representation of Irish History that enthralled me.
And that’s, indeed, one of the greatest compliments I can think of, since Rutherfurd’s has been hailed for his works.
Yes, you read it right: this book enthralled me. Which can only mean that I’ll highly recommend it to everyone who’ll cross paths with me.
WANT A TASTE TEST?
HERE’S AN EXCERPT OF
THE HUNGER MAN!
They call me Seanachie. I have the gift of the honeyed words.
In English, the closest translation of seanachie is storyteller. Maybe soothsayer. But English has no exact and proper word for it. English is but a threadbare tongue, which hasn’t names enough for the multiple ways things are, or idiom to express the heights of grief or madness or joy or cunning.
So, like the others, call me Seanachie: I speak the truth of objects that seem mute to most. Yes, for the average lout, things merely are what they are, and the world is a silent place, a grave monastery, where the scribbling and copying goes on apace.
My world is riot. It’s studded with signposts and echoes and flashes of tomorrow. Everything is personal and has insistent meaning, and a bowl of praties is never exactly or only a bowl of praties, as it also has other surprising and delightful contents, if only you attend closely enough to the shift of its shape. Yes, my world is a boiling pot; I can show you the scald marks on the soles of my feet after the fire’s high stoked beneath. To we who perceive the anam, human skin seems most coarse.
In Irish, the words for curse and gift are very close. I am blessed and cursed. On the island of Inishcarn (a name meaning “heap of stones” in English), I was born apart from the rest, where my Faerie mother fled under solas gealaí to hide her shame, for even the Faeries have rules and conventions, and among theSidhe there was never a disgrace worse than getting knapped by a mortal.
A mere bone chip of a baby, I entered the world on Candlemas Day with a head of golden curls that turned black as blindness after just seven days and then again flame-red seven days later. Left for dead, I was named by boys who found and knew me well: Ciaran Leath, they called me, because ciaran means “dark” and leath is Irish for “half.” I am the dark half: I’m twilight, half day and half night, half this and half that, half woman and half man, half Catholic and half pagan, half here and half one foot in the OtherWorld, half human and half Faerie, a cross—the Dochtuir likes to say—between the Good People and the rest of us.
And if indeed there is Faerie blood running in my veins, as I was told (legend mixes everything together in her cauldron), no doubt the Faeries made my human father pay for the tryst with my mother, but God’s grace, I guess the old man had a devil of a good time getting after the Faerie girl’s privates and no regrets. I shall never have children in the normal way, but the ripples in the world after me shall testify I was indeed here, though I stand but—yes—half a man tall.
* * * * *
Once, I was a stunning beauty of a lad: red in the cheeks like the berry of the mountain ash, hands like gentry, flawless fair skin, teeth as white as a winter drift, eyes flashing blue, muscles like yarn knots pulled tight, a white owl feather in my cap. Every scrawl and lecher sought me out for sport.
Made headstrong and defiant by the attention, and against every counsel, I recklessly took my rest on the rath on Midsummer Eve of my thirteenth year, precisely where red-hatted riders were known to wait for the gealach and shrill voices choked the dorcha with a sound like fierce whistling. In one part, I went to show myself courageous to the youths I fancied, and in second part, because I wanted the Faeries to confirm I was handsome. In third part, I craved dearly the Faerie skill in music of which I’d none, and in fourth part, because I didn’t quite believe the Faeries existed.
But sure enough, Fin Bheara himself came in the night and whisked me off and glamoured me. A joyous existence I had. Faerieland was halfway to the OtherWorld and in it was an abundance of things, more than this world could ever hope to provide—more love, more dancing, more treasure, more howling, and more song.
Fin Bheara was a wonderful and caustic host: a fallen angel, moody and insolent, neither good enough for heaven nor bad enough for hell, son of The Dagda and Boann, related to Lugh and Niamh and Crobh Dearg and Mananan mac Lir, and a lost older brother of Jesus himself. Fin could talk a blue streak, and the yarns he told of Heaven before the Fall were the best I’d ever heard. He never wanted energy for dancing or bedroom games, and his laugh always sent a shiver through me and put a uaill and scréach upon my lips that could be heard by every diabhal. Slender, salacious, and magnetic, Fin Bheara glowed through all his skin, adorned himself with hammered gold and bangles of a dozen treasure chests, and wore an emerald suit and red cap, and his handsomeness was three-quarters danger.
Never of my own choosing would I have returned to this world or the companionship of mortals, but the Faeries turn a man out when he’s no longer young and beautiful. Though it was a rarity, Fin provided my compensation for the expulsion: he gave me the gifts of healing and herbs and swimming and the Farsight. Even now, Fin’s song played in my ears and could not be unheard, and the music of man was but an empty husk.
Despite the gifts, having lost a finger in Faerieland and danced off my toes entirely, I was but half back in this world and bewildered and hardly more than ataibhseach, when Mother Ruadh, God bless her, saved me. She brought me under the roof of The O’Rahilly and never blamed me for the three other youths Fin left behind on the rath and lost to death when I was first taken a dozen years earlier, though she knew the families well. A grand lady she was then, and her clothes everyday were the same as Sunday, she had such neatness.
“Is he yours?” she was asked.
“He is not,” she had stoutly replied.
And the rest of the clan had eyed me narrowly, The O’Rahilly (whom I call Atlas because he holds up the world) worst of all, until I’d told a story that had earned a laugh and paid my rent.
God bless Atlas also for his generosity in taking me in and neither qualm nor question about missing digits. And bless the Dochtuir for making a brother of me. And bless Cilian for his handsome open face (indeed, a man already as a boy, with scruff on his face early and two great knobs for a chin and a voice like a bullfrog on the lough). Blessings even on Father Quickfeet and Auncle Fergus for the blessings they in turn said over me.
Indeed, of all the O’Rahillys, only brother Aengus loved me not. Dry wraith, matchstick thin and as likely to be set afire with a little friction, a riven bloom on a restless branch, a changeling for sure, and a gnáthóg to boot, Aengus had no patience for the women or the weak, or the half or fraction of a man. Laugh like a grackle on him, and none in the eyes, Aengus couldn’t be starved or shot or hanged or pushed off a cliff, nor even hunger stopped his heart. They hadn’t made the bullet that could pierce his heart or the knife to draw a red line at his throat. There was no use in opposing him to his face. All opposition must be subterfuge and trickery and such takes an evil heart, which I don’t have, nor the stomach for it either.
Not that Aengus had no heart or that it was small, but it was full of anvils. He loved to be unreasonable. It was no secret he was the second of Atlas’s children to bear the name; the first had died in childbirth, and somewhere was a cloch chinn with “Aengus O’Rahilly” already written on it.
Many have been the names I applied to Aengus since coming under the roof of The O’Rahilly: Hardfellow, Hangman, Cuchcullain, Finn MacCool. None quite suited. They slipped off him like loose covers. I avoided the man at all cost and quaked when his gaze was drawn to me and shivered like beaded mercury when he spoke. My kind disgusted him. He called me Molleen and Bender and Finocchio and Flamer and Flit and Flower, and sometimes worse when ladies weren’t present.
“Fin Bheara,” I asked, for I often still call on my old friend for answers, “how is it the man hates me so? What have I ever done to him or his?”
“It’s in his nature,” said Fin Bheara.
“But to every man, there’s a key, whether ’tis a flint or a wick or a word or a snort of drink. Any could be a key in the right circumstance, if you fit it in the lock.”
“Some men are more easily unlocked than others. Like you, for example. I always found you most easy, Ciaran Leath.”
“Be serious, Fin!” I knew that, if so disposed, Fin Bheara could help me with but a snap of fingers or a wink. “Is it a root that unlocks him?”
“A dance, then.”
“A pilgrimage or a spell?”
“Neither of those.”
“It’s a charm, then?”
“It is not.”
“Perhaps a Protestant church I can run around backward counterclockwise three times and invoke the Diabhal?”
“Not at all. No.”
“Is it a pilgrimage under the full moon to the crossing of three Faerie paths on Cnoc Dubh, and standing with a pratee in one hand and in the other a pitcher of fresh milk straight from the udder and turning three times with eyes closed, potato held high, and at each of the four directions of the wind splashing the milk on the soil and invoking yourself three times and burying the potato at exactly the point Faerie bands might cross to the rath? That’s what I told the Dochtuir works against hunger.”
“You’re a mean one, Ciaran, to toy with a pulse so. You know well it is not that either. No, your fate, Seanachie, is ever to endure Aengus’s wrath, regardless of what service you do him. Still, under Atlas’s roof, you are well-needed, though they know it not.”
Here was a truth. The O’Rahilly clan was a loud and elbow-y people, every one of them would-be royalty. Like Fin himself, the O’Rahillys knew grudges and held them like gold and had only passing familiarity with forgiveness. From hot to cold, fury to kindness, they passed in but a heartbeat. That’s why Mother Ruadh brought me here to the Rath O’Rahilly: my geis was to pacify and slow the rant with a quick story and smooth the hurt feelings before they festered.
It’s a perilous role, requiring the shifting of shapes, and to each O’Rahilly I must needs show a different face, so he might be content and look on the others with love. This was a clan who a thousand years ago might have been high kings of a province or even all Ireland and reigned wisely at Teamhair under the advice of Brehons and druids. Even now, in modern times, there were flashes of a future most favourable for the clan, in which once again the keys to the kingdom of Erin were the O’Rahillys’. I swore I’d heard wail under Atlas’s foot a famous cloch that cried out only when a king strode upon it, and I foretold that the O’Rahillys would overthrow foreign forces with overwhelming and sustained and principled opposition, though whether on battlefield or in a court or in a debating house, I couldn’t quite say, for the visions vouchsafed a seanachie were rarely so precise. When you had the gift of the Farsight, there’s always a difficulty in picking among the shadows those that were significant, which was like picking from a crowd of thousands you’d never met the face most likely to have some impact on your fate.
To stoke the better future, I lit the fags under the fire. I warned the O’Rahillys the shadows and flashes I saw ahead were terror and portent and opportunity. All gathered to pick stories out of me, but I was suddenly empty as a bonecage on the heath. The visions of the Farsight were never stable. They didn’t always abide with me, for anything not stuffed into my crane-skin bag was good as lost. What I saw yesterday often was no longer available today. There was, too, the off chance they would not come true or were actively averted or wrongly read.
I consulted the best charms in the crane-skin bag I carried always over my shoulder, but had no firm answer, so it was to a different story I resorted, telling the O’Rahillys that I had met the watchman over a warehouse so vast a man could ride a horse to its death before reaching the end of it.
“‘What’s stored here?’ I asked the watchman.
“‘All the food any man begrudged another in all of Ireland,’ he replied. ‘If the famine continues, we’ll have to build a second within the year’.”
Aengus and Atlas and the Dochtuir and handsome Cilian (who I called NoseLed because he’s always seeking after someone to follow) and the priests looked at one another and then at me and began to guess and name and debate the meanings of my tale and ultimately concluded I had as much sense as a sod.
But with the Farsight, I did see what’s hidden, no lie, even if I could not always say it plainly. I could pick from the shadows the dun-coloured birds and detect among the crann caorthann animals that take colour from bark or see the hare crouching in the fields or eye the fish in a flicker under a green bank or know the taibhseach taibhsiúil from the mortal men among whom he hides. I saw the shadows the future cast backward at us. For example, when all had first remarked on the health of the young plants, I saw already the roots were rotten beneath.
The secret made me sick with keeping it inside, so I ran and told a tree, the oldest and foremost of a stand of crann caorthann on Cnoc Dubh, just three paces from the Faerie rath, and the tree took the news more easily than any O’Rahilly.
It was a hard place we were in. November Eve loomed and winter fast approached. Anam were abroad with their uaill and scréach. Time was short to do what must be done before the shadows thickened and took shape and hope bleakly surrendered. Now was when to act to avoid what must otherwise come.
“You all need to draw together, Clan O’Rahilly,” I advised. “There are forces opposed to you you don’t begin to understand. Days approach when our summers will be flowerless and the cows without milk. The men will prove weak, and the women will be shameless. The rivers will be without fish and the trees without fruit. Old men will make false judgments, judges will render unjust verdicts, and honour will count for nothing. Warriors will betray each other and resort to petty theft. The pews will be empty. The reilig will eject the dead. There’ll be very little virtue left in the world.”
Intent on their plots, the O’Rahillys never once heeded me.
They call me Seanachie. I shout. None but a tree wants to hear the truth.