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With Hidden Dreams

Máire Malone Author Interview

Hungry Trails follows a spirited Irish girl as she leads her family through famine and disease on a perilous journey to the New World, where they must face challenges and redefine the bonds of kinship and resilience.  What was the inspiration for the setup of your story?

The first seed of Hungry Trails was sown when my poem called Great People of the Irish Famine was published in Vision On, an anthology of selected poetry judged by English poet, Katherine Pierpoint in 2005.

Later, I wrote a short story which was short listed in a couple of competitions. A further three years of research inspired my novel.  In my story, the Foley family are evicted from their humble mountain dwelling in the Mayo town of Attymass.

I wanted to write a story in which I could walk alongside the Foleys.  To observe Julie, if possible, become Julie, a member of that family, a young girl, aged sixteen, a girl who was bright and ambitious with hidden dreams of becoming a teacher.

Before the potato blight, before Julie and her family were given a lifesaving opportunity to emigrate to North America, I wanted to see, hear, taste and feel what she experienced when she woke on her bed of straw in a tiny cabin every morning to partake in a breakfast of buttermilk and oatcakes before walking to school. A hedgeschool that was situated two miles away in a dilapidated cowshed in a field hidden by hazel trees.  A school that opened her simple world to new possibilities.  Possibilities, once alive in Celtic Ireland, a country of myth and legend. A country of justice ruled by the Brehon Laws, high kings of Tara, Druids and chieftains.  Possibilities that were dashed centuries before, with the implementation of the Penal Laws.  I wanted to see Julie’s dormant dreams open like a tiny flower that can take root and thrive between concrete slabs.  I wanted that wee flower to blossom, for Julie to grow and become who she was born to be.  That was the inspiration for my story.

Julie is an intriguing character.  What were some driving ideals behind your character’s development?

Julie’s character was born out of the history and the politics I read about in my research.

I wondered why, if there was an abundance of food available, did Julie and the Foley family quake with fear when the potato crop failed? Because they relied so much on it for survival.  Huge quantities of other food supplies were being exported to Britain and other countries leaving the Irish peasants to starve to death.

The Government did import maize from America to feed the starving but this was difficult to cook with and many peasants died from typhus, scurvy and dysentery.  The British did set up soup-kitchens, a road works employment scheme and workhouses for the poor but they drastically underestimated the scale of the disaster and many people received no aid at all.  To add to the crisis, landlords evicted peasants who could not pay the rent because they had no potatoes to sell. 

So, in 1845 when a fungal disease called ‘phytophthora infestans’, or ‘potato blight’ struck and wiped out much of the potato crop, a million Irish peasants in rural areas faced disease, starvation and death.

Fortunately for the Foley family the hedgeschool master and his wife gifted them tickets which allowed them to board the ship to North America.

Also the Catholic Church generated a sense of community at that time that would likely have strengthened Julie’s faith and may have been the lynchpin for her family’s survival.

For Julie, the art of storytelling, poetry, history and Gaelic song provided food for the soul.   The practices of reciting the Rosary, sharing what few resources they had with friends and neighbours, provided Julie with decent values for the life that lay ahead on the Elizabeth and Sarah ship as she sailed from Killala to North America and later when she and her family settled in the working-class district of Griffintown in Montreal.

Julie is blessed with a sense of humour and she and her brothers exchange lighter moments when they share their mirth about Julie’s feisty behaviour the morning following the humiliation of their eviction. She is not afraid of the peelers and is prepared to challenge them even as they threaten  violence, burn their thatch and tumble their walls.

 Julie experiences vulnerability when she feels overwhelmed by appalling conditions in steerage on board the ship, when she is called ‘Bridget’ like so many other Irish immigrant women on arrival in Canada.   Julie’s blood boils when the wealthy Northern Irish widow who owns a mansion on Mount Royal makes rash assumptions about her character in the first minutes of their meeting.  But Julie’s gift of compassion wins through when she recognises that Mrs. McKinnon is vulnerable too.

 Julie is determined.  The parish priest of St. Ann’s in Griffintown becomes her champion and assists Julie in her quest to become a teacher.  What follows is a sinuous road.   Will Julie’s faith keep her dreams alive when time and again further obstacles threaten to extinguish them?

What were some themes that were important for you to explore in this book?

Hungry Trails is about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity.  Despite the hardships Julie experiences from family poverty, the death of her wee sister, the loss of her home through eviction, appalling steerage conditions on board the Elizabeth and Sarah ship and several other challenges, Julie manages to cling to her dreams.

The story is also a coming-of-age.  Julie experiences tragic loss of childhood innocence from the opening chapters.  When Peader, the hedgeschool master, announces the closure of his school due to the calamity of the potato failure, Julie recognises the loss;

‘…that young ones like us were bound to leave school to haul baskets of stones to build roads caused bile to rise from my belly.’

Another loss of innocence is forced upon Julie on the road to the ship when she witnesses corpses of men, women and children who lie strewn across the fields and ditches, having dropped like flies from fever, exhaustion and starvation.

Aside from family and neighbourly relationships, Julie awakens to her first love when she meets a young man, Fionn, on the ship who has his own dreams of life in The New World.  We see their tenderness and intimacy blossom in moments of their meeting in the shadows on the ship and later in a series of letters between them when they reach their destinations.

Time and again her dream of being a teacher is waylaid when she is forced to take care of her family.   But in the process, she grows up and through a friendship with an Algonquin Indian woman (who has converted to Catholicism) and her continued correspondence with Fionn, her dreams shine once more.

What is the next book that you are working on and when will it be available?

I am presently busy promoting Hungry Trails but my unconscious is working on a sequel to this novel.  I may need to travel to the US to research Julie’s story further.   Perhaps I will visit New York to follow Fionn’s story.  Julie’s brothers, Dermot and Cian are also possible follow up stories.  At present, I am content to read, research, make notes about plot and structure and reflect on organising my travel arrangements. 

Author Links: Facebook | Website

Julie Foley is sixteen when she and her family are evicted from their humble mountain dwelling in the Mayo town of Attymass. Their crime is rental arrears. It’s 1847 and the potato famine has impoverished Ireland. Corpses of men, women and children lie strewn across the ditches and fields, having dropped like flies from fever, exhaustion and starvation. Thanks to the generosity of the hedge schoolmaster and his wife, Julie and her family are given a lifesaving opportunity to emigrate to North America. But first they must survive the journey aboard one of the ‘coffin ships’ where thousands of their countrymen and women have perished before them.
Since childhood, Julie has yearned to become a teacher. Can Fionn McDonagh, the young Irish rebel and poet, persuade Julie to hold on to her dream despite the squalid conditions on board the ‘Elizabeth and Sarah’? Will Julie’s faith keep her dream alive when her family settle in the working-class district of Griffintown in Montreal, and the only chance of earning a shilling is working in domestic service? Can Julie’s dream of a teaching career survive as she toils under the cruel eyes of her employer, a wealthy Northern Irish widow who owns a mansion on Mount Royal?
As a tiny flower can take root and thrive between concrete slabs, ‘Hungry Trails’ celebrates the resilience of the human condition.

Hungry Trails

In Hungry Trails, author Maire Malone masterfully weaves an evocative tale of an Irish family’s desperate journey to escape the devastating effects of famine and disease. As they navigate the tumultuous waters of a world turned upside down, the Foley family is tested, their bonds of kinship and friendship strained to their limits. What awaits them across the ocean in the New World, however, remains uncertain—will the foreign shores offer them refuge, or will they merely exchange one set of hardships for another?

Narrated through the eyes of Julie Foley, the family’s spirited and inquisitive daughter, Hungry Trails presents a poignant coming-of-age story that explores themes of self-discovery, resilience, and familial sacrifice. Despite the relentless adversity that befalls her loved ones, Julie remains steadfast in her pursuit of knowledge and her quest to forge her own path in life. Her unwavering dedication to her family and her unyielding optimism drives the narrative forward as readers eagerly anticipate whether Julie will ultimately find the fulfillment she seeks.

Set against the sweeping backdrop of historical events, Hungry Trails is a must-read for those who appreciate intricately crafted stories that transport the reader to another time and place. Malone’s exquisite prose and rich descriptions paint vivid images of the characters and their surroundings, immersing readers in the trials and tribulations of the Foley family. Accessible and engaging, Hungry Trails is a highly recommended read for discerning readers of all ages who are seeking an unforgettable literary journey.

Pages: 280 | ASIN: B0BPDXV3FH

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