Joseph O'Connor


"Star of the Sea"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAY 15, 2003)

"It is…imperative that America exert whatever influence she may wield upon the London Government at this terrible time. Otherwise the Famine will poison relations between the decent and moderate peoples of [England and Ireland] for a century to come. A million will surely die as a result of this Famine. If something is not urgently done to help the poor, thousands more will die in its hideous aftermath: by the blade, the bomb, the bayonet, and the bullet."

G. Grantley Dixon, the fictional New York Times reporter who wrote those lines, like the real reporters who reported to the American public about the "potato famine" in Ireland, was unaware that when the "potato famine" of 1847 was over, two million, not one million, residents of this small island would die agonizing deaths, most of them from starvation. The events which led to the famine, the people who were directly affected by it, and the steps taken to ameliorate or escape it are the subjects of Joseph O'Connor's intense and heartfelt novel, Star of the Sea, named for the British-owned "famine ship" which is the center of the action here. For O'Connor, the Star of the Sea serves as a microcosm through which he presents men and women of different social classes as they cope with the 27-day journey to America. As four main characters recall the pivotal experiences of their lives which led them to make this fateful journey, the reader becomes emotionally involved with their stories, acquiring a broad background in Irish social history -- and its tragedies -- in the process.

Thomas David Nelson Merridith, Lord Kingscourt, along with his wife Laura and two sons, is one of the fortunate passengers traveling first class, occupying several of the fifteen staterooms. He is the ninth generation of his Protestant family to live in Ireland, governing the extensive family holdings at Kingscourt and the hundreds of workers who are dependent upon him. Unfortunately, his father's mismanagement, their cruel estrangement, the failure of the potato crop, and the callous eviction of his tenants by someone to whom he sold some land have left his tenants starving and him bankrupt, with ruffians threatening his life and no alternatives except flight from debt. Though Merridith's accommodations are physically more comfortable than those of the steerage passengers, we discover through his story that his future in America is almost as bleak as those of his former tenants.

Accompanying Lord Kingscourt's children is their nanny, Mary Duane, a woman who has recently joined the family after having grown up on the estate as the child of hardworking tenants. Mary's stories of her past loves, her marriage, and her loss of her own children illuminate the bleak prospects available to this warm and intelligent, but desperately poor, woman, who must make choices between equally unpleasant alternatives in a frantic effort to stay alive.

G. Grantley Dixon, an American reporter, also traveling first class, is a caricature of the liberal American do-gooder whose reports about the plight of the Irish poor are influenced by his own socialism and by the reform-minded traditions of his family. Self-centered in his attitudes and limited in his social graces, he is detested by Merridith and resented by many others aboard the ship.

Pius Mulvey, missing part of a foot after an attack by a carnival lion, is the mysterious ex-convict whose presence on the ship is crucial to the action. Coming from the same town as Merridith and Mary Duane, he is directly connected to both of them. Physically tortured by a group of violent rebels in Ireland before his departure, he is assigned to kill Merridith while he is on the ship, or be killed himself. Mulvey haunts the ship's decks at night and sleeps all day as he tries to stay alive long enough to reach New York. One of over 400 passengers who have paid $8 per person for passage, he is crammed into the fetid and dangerous quarters known as "steerage," expected to stay alive on one quart of water a day and half a pound of hardtack.

O'Connor pulls out all the stops here in this big, broad melodrama, which is filled with the agony of the famine, the drama of the crossing to America, the social upheavals of the fledgling independence movement in Ireland, and the love stories and lost loves of the main characters. Were it not for the fact that the famine really was as devastating as O'Connor portrays it, the reader might be tempted to think that he is manipulating events for their dramatic value. But there is an honesty of emotion and a fidelity to the facts here, which save the novel from bathos and gives the reader cause for thought. O'Connor's ability to create genuine emotion and high drama keep the reader turning the pages furiously to find out what happens next.

Changing points of view allow the author to introduce each character's past and set up future actions and conflicts on the ship, as the relationships in the present are connected to the characters' pasts. Moments of ineffable sadness are presented, among them an illiterate lover receiving letters from her admirer which she is unable to read, a child seeking emotional refuge with the tenants on his farm rather than with his parents, and a father killing his own child to save her from a worse fate. O'Connor's imagery, especially his sense imagery, is arresting: Mulvey's dead foot was "dragging like a sack of screws," and his knuckles and fingertips "were smoulders of cold." The "strangled blaring of the uillean pipes," contrasts with the "endless chirrup of the chattering women" aboard the ship.

O'Connor is particularly perceptive in his descriptions of the creative process. At one point Mulvey tries to compose a ballad and finally gets an inspiration, "a butterfly of words that might escape." When he decides to improve the resulting song, he learns that it is more important to create a "singable song. The facts do not matter: that was the secret." When Charles Dickens hears him sing a ballad, he interviews Mulvey for information about the working man which he can use for background in his own books, and, in a wonderful touch of humor, Mulvey provides him with a description and the name of a man he dislikes. He is the priest who convinced his brother to join the priesthood -- Fagan.

O'Connor sometimes provides more information than the reader wants or needs. Details about Dixon's family and his Jewish background, along with their legacy of saving the slaves in Louisiana, has very little relevance to this story of the famine ship, and the inclusion of a character's battle with syphilis, complete with descriptions, seems gratuitous. His compression of time, for the sake of story, occasionally leads to anachronisms -- several mentions of evolution, with parallels between monkeys and men, do not ring true. Darwin's Evolution of the Species was not published until twelve years after this famine. Some of the starving Irish who came ashore in 1847 and had difficulty finding jobs are said to have formed Irish units to fight in the Civil War, almost twenty years later.

Still, O'Connor presents a compelling story with many details of Irish history that the reader will not soon forget. His characters, the social strata they represent, and the ineluctable destinies they face are vividly portrayed and poignant in the emotions they elicit. The ending involves some polemics -- Dixon, who writes the conclusion, is a dedicated socialist, after all -- and those statements were jarring (to me, at least) and out of character with the tone of the story. He does provide a follow-up to the characters after their arrival in America, however, so the reader knows what happens to them. The fact that at least one character becomes a politician (later accused of misappropriation of funds) will surprise no one.

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About the Author:

Joseph O'ConnorJoseph O'Connor was born in 1963 eldest of four children raised in Dublin; the musician Sinéad O'Connor is his sister. He earned a BA and MA in English and History at University College, Dublin, followed by postgraduate research at University College, Oxford and lived in London until 1996. He started writing full-time in 1989; for 10 years he wrote columns for Esquire and the Irish Tribune. His first novel, Cowboys and Indians, was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize and his latest novel, Star of the Sea was short-listed for Irish Novel of the Year. Besides fiction and nonfiction, he has written for stage and screen. Among his awards are The Sunday Tribune/Hennessy First Fiction and New Irish Writer of the Year Awards (1989), the Macauley Fellowship (1994), the Miramax Screenwriting Award (1995) and the In Dublin Magazine Award for Best New Irish Play (1995).

Joseph O'Connor lives in Dalkey, Ireland, with his English wife and young son. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014