This page is referenced by:
Political Figures in Star of the Sea
The Role of Historical Political Figures in Star of the Sea
The historical political figures featured by Joseph O’Connor in Star of the Sea serve several roles in the novel. Functioning as a postmodern questioning of objective reality, an allusion to the continuing Irish struggle long after the events in Star of the Sea conclude, or a reminder that many English and Protestants did, in fact, fight for the rights of deeply oppressed Irish Catholics, the political figures of the novel serve diverse but important roles throughout Star of the Sea.
Although this theme is more prominent among O’Connor’s artistic figures, a postmodernist questioning of objective reality through the use of historical people also exists among the political figures. Naomi Jacobs writes in The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction that “The presence of the historical figure signifies our questioning of the artificial boundaries between truth and lie, history and fiction, reality and imagination” (xxi). Perhaps the best example of this questioning occurs with women’s education reform advocate and suffragist Emily Davies, who in the world of Star of the Sea is good friends with David Merridith’s sister Natasha; Natasha is even said to have edited Davies’s real-life work The Higher Education of Women (O’Connor 103). This mixing of the historical and the fictional aids O’Connor in the questioning of any one objective history, which is a particularly important examination to make in the context of a postcolonial novel, due to the colonizing country’s suppression of the atrocities it has committed against the colonized.
Other political historical figures are used by O’Connor to remind readers that the Irish struggle for independence continued long after the end of the potato famine. John Mitchel and James Connolly are both quoted in epigraphs decrying Irish oppression, Mitchel in 1856 and Connolly in 1916; prefacing the novel with these quotations reminds or informs readers before the novel even begins that the struggle for Irish independence and horrors committed by the English continued long after the potato famine. The third historical figure serving as a reminder of the continuing struggle, Charles Parnell, who advocated for Ireland in Parliament during the 1870s and 80s, is alluded to in the novel’s epilogue as a final reminder of the post-novel fight for independence (O’Connor 366).
Finally, O’Connor works in Star of the Sea to paint a nuanced portrayal of the English by mentioning political figures who supported the Irish cause. Angela Burdett-Coutts, for example, along with Charles Dickens, runs a safehouse for prostitutes, many of whom were poverty-stricken, starving Irish women, as we see in the novel. Additionally, we are reminded that Theobald Wolfe Tone, Irish but not Catholic, nonetheless “fought and died for Ireland as captain of the revolutionaries in ’98” (O’Connor 67).
O’Connor’s use of historical political figures in Star of the Sea clearly serves a diverse set of purposes throughout the course of the novel. However, what these diverse purposes all have in common is that they demonstrate the complexity and deftness with which O’Connor weaves his tale.
Jacobs, Naomi. The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. Print.
O’Connor, Joseph. Star of the Sea. Orlando: Harcourt Books, 2002. Print.
Researcher/Writer: Audrey GunnBack to Historical Figures
Technical Designers: Lindsey Atchison and Sarah Liebig
Political Figure from Cowgate area of Edinburgh, Scotland
“Providence sent the potato blight but England made the Famine… We are sick of the canting talk of those who tell us that we must not blame the British people for the crimes of their rulers against Ireland. We do blame them.
-James Connolly, co-leader of the Easter Rising against British Rule, 1916” (qtd. in O’Connor IX)
James Connolly was born in 1868 to Irish Catholic parents in Edinburgh, Scotland, 21 years after the events of Star of the Sea. He joined the army at age fourteen, and deserted seven years later, while stationed in Dublin. He married Lille Reynolds, an Irish servant, in 1890, and the couple moved to Edinburgh (Wallace 147).
In 1896, Connolly earned the position of organizer in the Dublin Socialist Club. In short order, he founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party and began to publish a weekly magazine, Workers’ Republic, in which he marked the hundred-year anniversary of the 1798 Irish Rebellion by arguing “that the principles of Wolfe Tone could only be realized in a socialist republic” (Wallace 147). He spent a brief period in the U.S. during which he “helped to found the International Workers of the World in 1905” and the Irish Socialist Federation in 1907 (Wallace 147).
Upon his return to Ireland in 1910, Connolly joined the Socialist Party of Ireland and began to publish political tracts, including Labour in Irish History, which named the working class “the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland” (Wallace 147). Further political involvement in the Irish struggle resulted in Connolly leading the Dublin members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood during the 1916 uprising. His leadership in the rebellion resulted in his death; he was shot and killed by a British firing squad in a Dublin jail on May 12, 1916 (Wallace 148), so wounded from the rebellion that he had to be strapped to a chair before he was shot.
Within Star of the Sea, James Connolly doesn’t appear as an actual character in the novel, but a quote (reprinted above) is one of the novel’s four epigraphs. Connolly, along with John Mitchel, condemned England's role in the potato famine, and quotations from these men are contrasted with quotes from Charles Trevelyan and Punch magazine, which blame the Irish for the famine and compare the Irish to savage beasts, respectively. Connolly’s quotation dates from the 1916 Easter Rising, which he helped to lead, demonstrating that the famine and Ireland’s colonization continued to be issues far after Star of the Sea concludes.
Wallace, Martin. 100 Irish Lives. Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983. Print.
O’Connor, Joseph. Star of the Sea. Orlando: Harcourt, 2002. Print.
Researcher/Writer: Audrey Gunn
Technical Designers: Lindsey Atchison and Sarah Liebig