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Characters in the Novel
When it comes to the elements of postmodern literature, the characters play a strong role. Star of the Sea tells the stories of three main characters: David Merridith, Pius Mulvey, and Mary Duane. All three lives intertwine in intriguing ways; each character impacting one another and having to deal with the consequences of their own choices. The experiences of these postmodern characters highlights the novel’s purpose in order to question the grand narrative at hand. Postmodernism facilitates the retelling of historical experiences, which is why “Postmodern texts often revel in uncertainty since there is no one ‘right’ way of looking at the events that are being narrated. They may make use of multiple narratives to reinforce an awareness of subjectivity, or they may simply be left open to several interpretations” (Sibley). O’Connor’s Star of the Sea recounts the Irish Famine at the height of its devastation through Dixon’s voice, who is telling the story of those who are affected by the famine.
“For as truly as the night comes down on every day, if the world were somehow turned downside-up; if Ireland were a richer land and other nations now mighty were distressed; as certain as I know that the dawn must come, the people of Ireland would welcome the frightened stranger with that gentleness and friendship which so ennobles their characters” (O’Connor 275)
In order to see how the grand narrative is questioned, the characters need to be analyzed. Merridith, Mulvey, and Mary Duane all struggle with their identity, being alienated, and against a system larger than themselves. Merridith feels comfortable with the Irish tenant class because his nanny was Mary Duane's mother, who was also an Irish tenant servant. As a boy, Merridith would come home, sickly and pale, to Ireland during breaks from his school in England and “He would take off his neatly pressed worsted trousers, his Winchester college blazer and schoolboy’s cap, and don the rough clothes he wore at home in Connemara…He seemed to think they concealed his status but for some reason they tended only to underline it” (O’Connor 62). Merridith will never be accepted by the Irish tenant class, those with whom he identifies with; and he will never identify with the Irish ruling landlords, those by whom he is accepted as a member. He belongs to the English system that oppresses the Irish people, but he recognizes himself to be among those who view him as an oppressor. Merridith questions this and wonders “Am I my fathers? Are they all me?” (O’Connor 10). Merridith’s story reveals a man torn between two identities; filled with anguish and guilt, he never finds his sense of belonging. Merridith’s character uncovers the gray in what seems to be a black-and-white world. Struggling against society and divided between two lands, his experience forces readers to reexamine the different ways in which the famine impacted people.
Pius Mulvey and Mary Duane are two Irish peasants whose identity struggles come from the oppression that they must endure. Mary suffers from being a woman, which is highlighted by her being abandoned by both Merridith and Mulvey. She eventually comes to work for the Merridith family as their nanny, and becomes a victim of abuse by Merridith. After losing her own family and now having to raise someone else's “Mary Duane wondered if she should tell her mistress that almost every night for the last seven months the lady’s husband had come to her quarters at midnight to sit on her bed and watch her undress. That might soften her cough for her” (O’Connor 44). But Mary is aware that this confession would only aid in her own demise, and not that of Merridith’s. Although Mary chooses to become the lover of both Merridith and Mulvey, the misfortunes in her life have been caused by these two men, the famine, and being a peasant woman. Mary, the ultimate victim in the novel, strives to survive in a world that has had no mercy on her.
Mulvey, on the other hand, has more blame on his hands for his own ordeals. How does the famine affect an Irish man? Dealing with the same hardships as any Irish peasant, Mulvey finds that his talent lies with his cunning, and he attempts to use this to persevere and progress in a society that thwarts him. Feeling alienated as a peasant farmer, he takes up being a singer because “Often it felt to Mulvey as if the songs were a secret language: a means of saying things that could otherwise not be said in a frightened an occupied country” (O’Connor 92). Not only does Mulvey enjoy utilizing his talents and being a person whom others admire, but he finds pleasure in using scenarios of all kinds to his advantage. Furthering his talents and traveling all over the United Kingdom, Mulvey finds himself in London. Working as a conman but feeling accepted by the inhabitants of the city, he remarks that “What helped was that most of them were outsiders too; many living with the knowledge that they might be again” (O’Connor 181). Mulvey is alienated in society, seen as an outsider, and constantly attempts to use situations to his advantage in order to improve his life.
The different experiences of these characters depict the Irish Famine as a diversified experience. But, the stories are all being told by Dixon. This illustrates that “There are no absolutes in postmodernism, everything is subjective, and individuals shape their own reality through their perceptions.” (Sibley). Questioning Dixon as a narrator also means questioning the characters’ stories. The novel uses postmodern elements to demonstrate the Irish Famine, showing that there is more than one story to any historical experience, and all stories have the ability to be questioned.
Sibley, Rochelle. "Postmodernism." In Maunder, Andrew. Facts On File Companion to the British Short Story. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2007. Bloom's Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.
Researcher/Writer: Sarah Swansen
Technical Designers: Sara Juntunen, Elizabeth Pilon
The Emigration Decision
There are multiple reasons why massive emigration can happen in countries all over the world. According to Arup Maharatna, “large-scale food scarcity and associated mass hunger and starvation have historically acted as major forces […] toward a region or country with better food availability and greater prospects for food production” (Maharatna 277). The reason why people emigrate is to find better options for food and survival, therefore they are attracted to more prosperous places if their area is affected by a famine. Because of the utter lack of survival and food in Ireland, the Irish population was looking for another place to settle down with enough food to eat. Food scarcity hit the entire European continent at the same time; therefore, emigration led people back and forth across the continents.
People from any parts of society would be able to emigrate, as long as they had enough money for the fare. If they could not afford it themselves, at least they needed to have someone paying for them. The majority of the Irish population that either died or emigrated “were tenants […] with fewer than ten acres, cottiers, or landless laborers, many of whom (perhaps as many as one million!) had been evicted from their holdings” (Miller, “Emigration” 215). These were the people that were in the part of society that would get little to no help from government officials or direct famine relief. Therefore, they had to find ways to survive on their own.
Altogether 5,000 ships sailed across the Atlantic with Irish emigrants during the famine. With a large portion of the Irish population journeying on these ships to greener pastures, it is evident that the British government was happy that the problem was solving itself. According to James S. Donnelly, “Almost 1.5 million sailed to the United States; another 340,000 embarked for British North America; 200,000-300,000 settled permanently in Great Britain; and several thousand more went to Australia and elsewhere” (Donnelly 178). These high numbers show that emigration was the final solution for these people as they deliberately chose the country they wanted to resettle in.
Some areas of Ireland were in better shape than the more distressed unions; therefore, the rate of emigration would also differ accordingly. According to James S. Donnelly, “three areas stand out as having experienced high or very high rates of emigration: south Ulster, north Connacht, and much of the Leinster midlands” (Donnelly 182). There might be several reasons as to why these three districts had a higher number of emigrants, but it might have been due to its worse-off situation than others. The high statistics were usually blamed either on frequent rate of evictions or rising rates, which caused the Irish to emigrate quicker than in other unions.
Donnelly, James S. The Great Irish Potato Famine. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 2001. Print.
Maharatna, Arup. “Food Scarcity and Migration: An Overview.” Social Research: An International Quarterly 81.2 (2014): 277-298. Web.
Miller, Kerby A. “Emigration to North American in the Era of the Great Famine, 1845-55.” Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Ed. John Crowley, William J. Smyth, and Mike Murphy. New York: New York University Press, 2012. Print.
Smyth, William J. “Exodus from Ireland—Patterns of Emigration.” Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Ed. John Crowley, William J. Smyth, and Mike Murphy. New York: New York University Press, 2012. Print.
Researcher/Writer: Ellen-Marie Pedersen
Technical Designers: Derek Rachel and Amanda Lundeen
Decent Ships of the Irish Famine
Over the famine years, countless ships carried the Irish away to a hopefully brighter future. The state of these ships varied greatly, yet very few ships actually had decent conditions. In those few cases, the success of the ships depended either on the help of the captain, the crew, or simply plain luck in dangerous storms. Conditions on the ships greatly affected the comfort of the emigrants, and created the view that all of them were disease-ridden and despicable. While most of the coffin ships were horrible, there were a few exceptions.
Australia was not the most common destination for the ships, and most of the ones that did journey there contained convicts, orphans, or young women. Earl Grey made several trips to Australia, though mostly with orphans or young women seeking employment in the new nation. On all journeys there was a superintendent and surgeon “of good character and evangelical stripe” in charge of keeping the women under control (Keneally, “Australia” 555). According to Christine Kinealy, “the  voyage was reported to have been healthy with only two emigrants dying en route” (This Great Calamity 321). This low death toll can largely be connected to better treatment of the passengers, and the availability of a surgeon on board. Many of the emigrants headed to Australia were selected because of their skills, and their fares paid for, therefore there was a higher wish to keep the women healthy.
Another ship that lost few passengers was the Marchioness of Abercorn, which was “one of the principal transport ships for Irish emigrants who were escaping from the potato famine” (Dobson 2015). She made many trips before she was eventually damaged in a storm in December 1847. Before this, she would transport “up to 500 passengers from the Irish ports of Cork and Londonderry to Quebec and […] New Orleans” (Dobson 2015). The St. Lawrence in Canada would frequently freeze over, therefore forcing the ships to travel further south in North America. Marchioness of Abercorn had stable statistics, and on the last journey she brought a total of 400 passengers to Grosse Ile in Canada, with only six deaths.
Cushlamachree, which is Irish for Joy of My Heart, was a renowned ship that arrived in New York on March 1st 1849 with all passengers safe and sound. However, the ship had been “hampered by bad weather” and it took a total of 57 seven long days and nights before they finally reached their destination (Laxton 121). It was rare that a ship managed to keep all of their passengers alive on the journey across the ocean, but Cushlamachree managed to do exactly this. Another ship keeping all its passengers alive was Creole, which was headed for Philadelphia from Londonderry with a crew and 221 emigrants in December 1848 under the command of Captain James Clarke. On December 7th, Creole “lost two-thirds of her sails, her main and mizzen masts, but under one remaining mast she limped back into Cork” after three weeks of travel (Laxton 111). Even though this ship did not make it to its original destination, it managed to save everyone through skilled sailing and loyalty to its passengers.
However, one of the most famous ships of the famine years was the Jeanie Johnston. Under the control of ship captain James Attridge from Castletownshend and the skilled surgeon Dr. Richard Blennerhasset, “the ship made 16 voyages to North America carrying over 2,500 emigrants safely to the New World” (“History of the Jeanie Johnston”). Through all these journeys they never lost a passenger at sea, which is an accomplishment not seen on any other ships during the famine years. The harsh conditions of ships would usually harm the passengers, but the actions of the captain and the surgeon improved the journey greatly. According to Edward Laxton, Jeanie Johnston “concentrated on the Canadian emigrant runs, making voyages to America only after the famine years” (153). There were many reasons why they would focus on Canada, but one of these might have been the lower ship fares and reluctance of the United States to let the emigrants in. The Jeanie Johnston managed to become what the ships were designed to do: bring the Irish to safety.
No ships could ever be categorized as great, simply because even if the they managed to keep all their passengers alive, the health conditions were horrible. But ships such as the ones mentioned above made a thorough attempt to provide as decent of a travel as they could for the emigrants. Some of them were successful because of plain luck and skilled crew during shipwrecks. However, others such as Jeanie Johnston and Cushlamacree managed to provide a decent journey for their passengers through a skilled captain, superintendent, or a proper surgeon. Conditions on ships were far from fortunate, and these ships were the only ones that were the exception.
Dobson, Ian. “The Marchioness of Abercorn.” Cornish Story, 2015. Web.
“History of the Jeanie Johnston.” Jeanie Johnston Tall Ship. Custom Quay House, Dublin. Web.
Keneally, Thomas. “The Great Famine and Australia.” Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Ed. John Crowley, William J. Smyth, and Mike Murphy. New York: New York University Press, 2012. Print.
Kinealy, Christine. This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-1852. Ireland: Gill & MacMillian, 2011. Print.
Laxton, Edward. The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996. Print.
Researcher/Writer: Ellen-Marie Pedersen
Technical Designers: Derek Rachel and Amanda Lundeen