Franklin Delano Roosevelt said during his second presidential inaugural address, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
Sometimes we need to look to the past to see how far we’ve come — and how much we’ve yet to accomplish.
“The Girl from Ballymor,” by Kathleen McGurl, is the story of Kitty McCarthy during the 1840s Irish Potato Famine. The McCarthy family rents a one-room cottage, where Kitty has six children before the age of 30. Her husband dies in a mining accident and she loses five of her children to famine and disease. It is a heartbreaking story of a woman — and her sole surviving son, Michael — whose potato crops have the blight for three years in a row, whose goat is taken for rent and their chicken, itself starving, was butchered for food when it stopped laying eggs. It is also the story of a woman determined to see her last son survive, managing to get him on a ship to America, the land of opportunity.
The fictional Ballymor is a famine village abandoned during the potato blight. McGurl was inspired by Skibbereen in County Cork, one of the real famine villages she visited while researching the book. McGurl is English, lives by the sea in Bournemouth and is married to an Irishman. On one of her first trips to the west of Ireland, she visited famine graveyards where names of whole families were listed on one gravestone, and the abandoned village of Slievemore on Achill Island, County Mayo. Those images, along with Skibbereen, fed into this novel.
McGurl always knew she would be a writer. She devoured books as a child, and whenever homework included writing, she’d cheer inwardly. As an adult, she tried waiting until she “found the time” before realizing if she wanted to write, she’d best just do it. That was in 2003, and she has not stopped since. She wrote short fiction for women’s magazines for several years and in 2012 began writing dual timeline novels.
Her journey to publication was a fortuitous one, as she found a publisher that took unagented submissions and at an industry party was introduced to the editor who had read her submission earlier that very day. She was offered a two-book deal, and when the publisher merged with HarperCollins, she found herself moving up the ladder without actually moving.
She is drawn to writing about the mid-1800s or 1930s, both pivotal eras in Western Europe. In “The Girl from Ballymor,” we learn there were no social services then, even if it meant the starved had to break rocks for a new road until they literally lay down and died, as one man did in the book.
By the 1930s, there was the looming specter of the war to come, the rise of Adolf Hitler and Mussolini and Winston Churchill’s determination that the Nazis would not conquer England. Almost half a million people in the UK perished during World War II, with an additional 376,000 wounded. The United States lost more than 419,000 with 671,000 wounded fighting against the Nazis, Japan and Italy’s Fascists.
Before World War II, healthcare in Europe was available only to the wealthy, unless a charity or teaching institution agreed to assist the poor. After the war, the UK began universal healthcare, as did most of Europe. In 2014, the UK’s healthcare ranked the best in the world for quality of care, access to healthcare, efficiency and equity.
McGurl is currently writing a book set during the time of the Irish war of independence when Ireland broke free of Great Britain. Also, this September “The Drowned Village” will be released. It is set in Lake District in northwest England, an area of outstanding natural beauty. The book tells of a village’s last days before it’s demolished to make way for a reservoir. In the contemporary story, a drought has revealed the remains of the village, and secrets long since buried are being once more exposed. The book was inspired by the real life reservoir of Haweswater, which dried out this summer, exposing the remains of a village.
For more information on Kathleen McGurl and her books, visit https://kathleenmcgurl.com/. She hears regularly from her American fans, many of whom are descended from the Irish.