Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, I re-read two novels that I had purchased at Milwaukee’s Irish Fest in 2008. These stories depict the immigrant experience in all it’s joys and sorrows. An interview with the author follows.
“’A Cake! A Cake! There’s going to be a Cake!’ my sister and I sing together as we skip around our stone cottage on a hazy autumn afternoon. A patch of red poppies still blooms along the front, and as we pass by I notice their silky crepe petal skirts dancing in the wind.”
This bucolic scene opens the young adult novel, The Irish Dresser. Looking forward to that day’s celebration, little does Nora McCabe realize that soon her beautiful and secure world will be shattered by something as simple as a potato. But was their world really all that secure? In 1854 Ireland, the Irish were not allowed to own land or homes. Instead, Nora’s family are tenement farmers. They must pay rent to the landlord or be evicted. Their income is always precarious and missing a month’s rent can mean eviction, followed by the “tumbling” and burning of their cottage.
But on this day, Nora and her sister, Kate, are excited for a celebration they call, the “Cake” that will take place that day at a neighbor’s cottage. Her oldest sister, Meg, however, suggests that Maggie Hen will be given to the family hosting the party. Everyone must bring something to share and Meg thinks it will be their hen that will have to give up her head, so they have a decent donation. This upsets Nora and Kate and they devise a plan to hide Maggie Hen in a prized dresser the family owns. The dresser is their one luxury item and it is big enough for Nora to squeeze herself into. It is her favorite place to be. “Inside the dresser, I am more with myself than when I am with myself anywhere else…Sometimes I talk to God and the fairies when no one is in the cottage…Even though I am thirteen, I still fit in the dresser, being that I haven’t been growing that fast. Or maybe the dresser magically expands when I climb into it.”
Nora is full of hope, a belief in magic and in God. When the potato blight ruins their crop and her father announces they will go to America, Nora is saddened to leave her beautiful countryside, but she pictures America having streets paved in gold. When it becomes apparent that Da does not have enough money for five tickets, he makes a deal to give the dresser to the sister of the ticket agent who lives in America. Nora is heartbroken, but then further trouble is revealed. The dresser will only pay for one ticket and they still need one more. A plan is devised to hide Nora in the dresser when it is loaded onto the ship. With her family guarding the dresser at all times, Nora will be able to get out of the dresser once they are settled on the ship.
The Irish Dresser is a story of suffering caused not only by nature, but by the cruelty and greed of political leaders in power. But it is also a story of hope and joy, of music and faith.
Neale provides lesson plans in the back of the book as well as a glossary and bibliography. This is an excellent novel to start a discussion on immigration, both in the past and today. It can-and should-be used in social studies and literacy classes. In the lesson plans, Neale has suggestions for service projects to fight hunger today. Ages twelve and up.
“’Nora McCabe!’ my sister, Meg, angrily whispers. She closes the door to the tenement building and boldly places herself in front of me so I am unable to leave.
She spits her words into my face, ‘Why are you dressed like a boy?’”
In Hope in New York City, the sequel to The Irish Dresser, Nora McCabe has made it safely to New York, but America is not what she expected. There are no streets paved in gold.
“The fancy dresses, colorful ribbons, and luscious cream cakes I once dreamed of are not a part of my new life in America.” Poverty and squalor are everywhere. People try to make a living any way they can. Nora’s solution is to pose as a boy; she has become a “newsie,” a boy who sells newspapers. She sneaks out early in the morning, before any of her family is awake, proud of the small amount of money she contributes to the family. “There’s nothing like a bit of money in a girl’s boot to put a smile on her face.”
Running through the slums, Nora tries to avoid the sewage flowing in the streets. The air chokes her when she breathes and Nora longs for the clean air of Ireland: enchanted air on which Nora has always pictured fairy magic riding. She makes up her mind to save enough money to go back to Ireland. Nora figures if she returns, her family will eventually follow.
Hope in New York City describes the struggles of immigrants in nineteenth century America. Expecting a land of “milk and honey,” many found just as much poverty and hunger as they left behind in their native lands. They also found prejudice and violence in the streets; jobs that were closed to them, unsafe tenements overseen by landlords who, once again, did not care. This novel paints a dark picture of New York city, but it also presents a portrait of the people who, against all odds, worked hard, and eventually worked their way up the social/economic ladder: a resilient people, full of hope and faith, who survived a dangerous ocean crossing determined to survive in their new land and become contributing members of the American Dream.
Like The Irish Dresser, this novel has lesson plans, a glossary and a bibliography in the back. Neale suggests projects that involve interviewing immigrants today and sponsoring a multi-cultural celebration. Ages twelve and up.
Stephanie Lowden: Talk a little bit about how you conducted your research for these two books. I am particularly interested in the two diaries you mention in the bibliography.
Cynthia G. Neale: Writing historical fiction requires the arduous task of research. Digging up the bones of history to find consistent and surprising facts has been thrilling as well as heartbreaking. And then there are historical characters along the way who want to climb right into my novel. Primary sources are the best if one can find them and I was fortunate to find a dairy written by Gerald Keegan, Famine Diary, Journey to a New World. He was a schoolteacher who boarded a coffin ship from Ireland to Canada. My bibliography is long and I gleaned from every book and filled many legal pads with notes. Yes, sometimes research can be a form of procrastination, but it is paramount to immerse oneself in the times. I lived and breathed the history of the Famine and later, I did the same for the period from 1850s to 1870s New York for the rest of my novels. I also found it important to dig as far back as possible before the setting of my novels. It takes a lot of time and pondering, pulling out what serves the story and what doesn’t. And letting in a few of the people along the way I found traipsing through the streets of New York whom I had never heard of before. Did they belong in Norah’s life, I would ask myself. And most of the time, they did.
I declared I was going to be a writer when I was twelve, but never intended to write historical fiction. I’m cautious not to sound esoteric, but honestly, this time period and my character(s) sought me. When it comes to writing historical fiction, this seems to be the pattern for me.
SL: How did you get your original idea of using a dresser as a hiding place?
CN: While I was Irish dancing in a pub in Rochester, New York, I peered at a well-known poster of an Irish dresser (an old dresser and cupboard with a hen sitting by it and a few pieces of china on it). I had been reading about the Famine and was writing a play for the local Irish festival for the 150th commemoration of The Great Hunger. As I danced, I imagined a young girl hiding in the cupboard and dreaming of a better life. As a child, I had a hiding place in an old abandoned Ford in a field. I think every child should have a safe hiding place. Children are resilient and often in tragedy, they see through the lens of hope. Later, after the first and second books were published, I learned there was a real Norah McCabe who came to New York City during the height of the Famine. And when I was about to give up trying to find a publisher for The Irish Dresser, an order of books arrived from Ireland. One of them was titled, Surplus People by Jim Rees. It gives an account of the Fitzwilliam Clearances in County Wicklow from 1847 to 1856. 6,000 people were sent from this estate for passage to N. America. In the index of the book is a list of ships and names of families. There was a ship called The Star and there was a family with my last name, Neale, and a child the same age as my protagonist, Norah. I had chosen the name, The Star, after researching names of the ships and not wishing to choose one the same. I wrote the author of the book and he encouraged me to keep looking for a publisher, for my ancestors were whispering in my ears to tell their story.
SL: What is Potato Fog?
CN: Potato Fog was a term the Irish farmers used to describe what happened to their potato crop when it failed. They recalled the sky turning dark just before the blight struck and by evening, there being a thick blue fog. There had been potato crop failures in years past, but this one was the most devastating. They harvested in late August and in October. The crop in October was to carry them through the winter. They depended upon the potato as their staple and over six million ate potatoes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Other crops were grown, but mostly to pay the rent to their landlords. The good news was that the potato was fully nutritious, and they cooked them a variety of ways. But when it failed, the people starved. Scientists years later understood the blight was caused by a fungus called Phythophthora infestans that destroyed the potato fields. It was believed to have come from South America in cargoes of guano fertilizer.
SL: What is a Cake Party?
CN:I got the idea for a Cake party from a wonderful old book written by James Berry called Tales of the West of Ireland. In it, there is a description of ‘A Cake’ in West Mayo in 1846. It was a social gathering, somewhat like we know as raffles today, to raise money for a worthy family struggling. The mother of the family would get on credit some whiskey from the local publican and on credit go to a baker for a big ornamental cake. She would engage the services of the musician and spread the word all around that ‘A Cake’ would be held in a certain village. All the people from the surrounding villages would come wearing their best holiday attire and bringing items for a raffle.
SL: I wasn’t aware that Americans sent cornmeal to Ireland.
CN: The British ruled and reigned over Ireland for over eight hundred years and there was much bitterness between Ireland and England. As crop failure reports poured into the government, their initial response was that these reports were exaggerated, as the Irish, they believed had this tendency. They criticized the Irish saying they were lazy, married too young, had too many children, and perhaps the destruction of the potato would be a blessing, a god send! And there was an economic concept of laissez-faire whereby government should not interfere or control the free market of goods or trades. However, the Corn Laws (known as maize or sweet corn, but in Great Britain, corn referred to grain such as oats, wheat, etc.) was enacted to protect Britain’s own homegrown grain and any foreign imported grain crops had a very high tax imposed on it. So, Sir Robert Peel (ha, potato peel) urged Queen Victoria to repeal the Corn Laws. A lot of political maneuvering went on, but eventually Peel, knowing Indian corn was cheap and could keep people alive, (secretly) allowed importation of huge quantities of Indian corn from America. He wasn’t going to allow laissez-faire to get in the way. There was a lot of criticism. The corn didn’t get distributed properly and sat in depots. The hard kernels required special processing and even after being ground, the cornmeal was coarse, and it took a long time to cook it. For people who hadn’t had substantial food for months, they suffered terrible stomach pains, and some died after the hard kernels pierced their intestines.
SL: What did it mean to “bleed a cow?”
CN: Hungry farmers would sneak to a field where there was a cow to bleed for nourishment. A vein would be opened in the cow’s neck and a pint or so of blood drained out into a pail. The wound would then be sealed with a pin. The cow’s blood was mixed with wild mushrooms, corn meal, herbs, or anything there was to eat.
SL: What did it mean to be a tenement farmer? What happened to the farmers when they couldn’t pay their rent? What was the “tumbling?”
CN: Ireland was very populated, and some people had four acres of land, some had two, and some only had one. There were over three million farm laborers who lived in poverty. The land system consisted of three classes: powerful, wealthy landowners, farmers, and farm laborers. The landlords owned huge estates and many of them preferred to live in England. Absentee landlords hired agents to manage the estates and the estates were often in disrepair. There was subdivision of these estates that were rented out as parcels to farmers. Large, middling, and small farmers lived on the parcels. In addition to potatoes, laborers grew cash crops (grains) which they sold to pay the rent. Laborers lived in one or two room mud cabins, often along with the animals they had. They paid high rent twice a year and didn’t have rights or security and could be evicted at any time. And many were, but especially during the Famine. The tumbling came about when a family was evicted for not being able to pay their rent. Government officials torched their homes and burned them to the ground. If a neighbor took them in, they, too, would have their wee home tumbled. Just as severe a life it was for the small farmers and laborers, there was joy when the potato crop didn’t fail and there was meat and other vegetables at times. And what of the music, dancing, and storytelling! The Irish have taught the world how to make music and dance during hard times!
SL: What do you mean when you say the famine was a “political famine?”
CN: Simply put, it was a “political famine” because Ireland’s fields were burgeoning with grain crops that could have been made into flour for bread, etc. But the starving laborers could not eat the grain, for it belonged not to them. They had to watch the wagons loaded with grain driven to the market and sold to England and other countries. Ships filled with grain and livestock headed to England!
SL: In your second book, Hope in New York City, Your description of New York is gritty and portrays the disappointment immigrants must have felt when they thought they were going to a land where the streets were paved in gold. Instead they encountered prejudice and squalid living conditions. Tell our readers what sources you used to research those days in New York City.
CN: The gritty mire of immigrants, especially Irish immigrants, coalescing or rather, clashing, with established Anglo-Saxon Protestants in New York in the 19th-century is fascinating and for the rest of my novels I read fiction and non-fiction, but mostly non-fiction, for the settings. Five Points was the enclave for the immigrants and impoverished people and my story was to learn how one could leave their country and assimilate without losing themselves (or dying). Some of the books I gleaned from: New York, An Illustrated History by Rick Burns and James Sanders; American Notes by Charles Dickens; Ragged Dick, Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks by Horatio Alger, Jr.; Low Life by Luc Sante; The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury; Erin’s Daughters in America by Hasia R. Diner; The Shamrock and The Lily, The New York Irish and The Creation of a Transatlantic Identity, 1845-1921 by Mary C. Kelly.
By 1851, 5,000 ships carrying Irish immigrants had arrived in NYC, 300 ships each day during the Famine years. One of every four New Yorkers was Irish in the 1850s. The Irish were despised, hated, impoverished, desperate, but they were indomitable. Irish women were willing to work at jobs most native-born women refused to work at and weren’t all domestics named Brigit destroying the soup and talking back to their betters. They climbed the ladder of social and economic prosperity.
SL: You mention the tenements and how Nora’s collapses. Was this a common occurrence?
CN: The tenements were single-family, mostly wooden in Norah’s time, buildings that had been cheaply converted to tiny multi-family units, intended to house the maximum number of people possible. They collapsed easily because of being quickly and shoddily built. They also became sweatshops for immigrants to do piece work. No labor laws were enacted until later and the tenements were cramped, had little light, cold, and the dye from the clothing would make the workers ill.
SL: What was the Nativist Party? Do you see parallels with today’s anti-immigrant feelings? You discuss this in your blog.
CN: The Nativist Party, later renamed the American Party and also known as the Know Nothings, operated in the mid-19th-century. It was primarily anti-Catholic, xenophobic, and extremely hostile to immigration. This political party started secretly in the 1850s. Have we returned to this period of time? Are we repeating history? A well-known diarist in Norah’s time wrote in the Sun newspaper, “America would be a great nation if every Irishman killed a Negro and was hung for it.” Are there people today saying this now and perhaps replacing the ethnic groups with others?
SL: What are you working on now?
CN: Over the last three or so years, I’ve worked with a screenplay consultant and have written a screenplay based on my four novels and is titled, The Irish Dresser. I have one series with four episodes adapted from the first three books and I’m writing the second series that will be adapted from the last novel. I have been pitching to producers and have had some wonderful feedback, but…it seems an impossible dream and for the present, I’ve let it go. My logline and synopsis are online, and I wait and don’t wait. Impossible? Well, look at my Irish ancestors! In the meantime, for years I’ve been researching for another novel set in the 1700s New York and PA and is based on a Native-American woman with French blood who led her people to freedom when General John Sullivan (yes, an Irishman) came through New York to destroy all Iroquois villages. The working title is, Catharine, Queen of the Tumbling Waters. It’s half-written and I’m tired, but she, too, has been with me from the beginning and chose me. And for light hearted writing, I’ve been working on another cookbook (Pavlova in a Hat Box, Sweet Memories & Desserts is my first) with a Scottish friend and the working title is, Transatlantic Tarts, Sweet Tales & Recipes by Two Celtic Cake Queens.
SL: Thank you so much for talking with me.
Stephanie interviewed Cynthia by email.
Cynthia’s two adult novels continue the adventures of Nora McCabe:
The Irish Milliner, the Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th Century New York (The Continuing Story of Norah McCabe)
Norah, the Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th Century New York
You can learn more about what Cynthia is up to at her website and blog: