Well known singer- songwriter Declan O’Rourke told David Hennessy about his new book A Whisper from Oblivion, the second book in his famine trilogy, ahead of the book’s UK launch at The Irish Cultural Centre this Friday.
Declan O’Rourke came to prominence as a singer- songwriter with his debut album Since Kyabram being released in 2004. He has now released eight studio albums.
Eddi Reader, Christy Moore and Josh Groban are among those who have covered his material while Paul Weller, who produced his most recent album Arrivals in 2021, has said that O’Rourke’s Galileo (Someone Like You) is the song he wishes he had written.
This Friday he will be at The Irish Cultural Centre but not to perform in concert. He will be there for the UK launch of his second novel, A Whisper from Oblivion.
A Whisper from Oblivion follows The Pawnbroker’s Reward and is the second of his trilogy of novels set in the Irish famine.
The Irish famine has long been an area of interest for O’Rourke. It was in 2017 that he released his Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine album. This was a music project years in the making and would feature Mike McGoldrick, Dermot Byrne and John Sheahan of The Dubliners among others.
Declan thought he was finished with the famine after that but, as he says himself, the famine was not finished with him.
The Pawnbroker’s Reward and A Whisper from Oblivion both tell the story of Pádraig and Cáit Ua Buachalla from the Macroom area of Cork, and their family.
Their story has been one that has long moved Declan who first wrote about it in the song Poor Boy’s Shoes.
I always like to ask first where the idea came from. This book and its predecessor goes all the way back to Poor Boy’s Shoes and further, doesn’t it?
“Exactly. You know the history of the music project and the album that I made, and you know how long it took to write that, spent 17 years in the making and to be honest, probably the last time we talked (in 2021), I would have pretty much been sure that I was finished with that subject.
“With the help of those incredible array of musicians- Michael Goldrick, and John Sheahan- some of the best musicians in the world, I felt I had achieved what I set out to as best I could, and I’d done something to be proud of.
“I was happy to move on at that point, but we were touring that record and literally on the last date of the tour, a man approached me.
“He introduced himself and says that is his father came from about a mile away from where the family came from in the song Poor Boy’s Shoes.
“That story has been the genesis of everything.
“It has been the spark that lit this project, the story of the man who carried his wife home from the workhouse and was found the next morning with his wife’s feet held to his chest as if he’d been trying to warm them.
“It was such a profound story so to actually, after all that time right at the end of the project be faced for the first time with some kind of tangible evidence of their existence was a bit of a revelation and made my ears prick up.
“So this man ends up bringing me to stand and look at the remains of their cottage.
“It was just very profound to stand there and say, ‘God, I wasn’t dreaming this up, this is not fiction’.
“After all the time talking about it, singing about it, it really was real.
“Where we were standing was up on this desolate hill.
“It looked like for 100 miles, there was nothing to impede the wind and I got much more of a visceral sense of how harsh their existence must have been at that time.
“I remember the owner of the land said to me that, ‘If you stood up there in the wind, it would skin ya’.
“It was very moving.
“They got me to play the song up there and I walked away kind of just feeling that there was more to be done.
“Maybe even though I thought I was finished, the story wasn’t finished with me.
“Because around the exact same time, I was contacted by a publisher who invited me to expand my work into book form in some way or another.
“I started to experiment with a few short stories that were tangentially tied to the songs, but I got pulled right down back to the source of what inspired me to do this at all based on that experience.
“That was the inspiration.
“When I read the Ua Buachalla story, I discovered for the first time for myself how empathy works.
“It’s only at the moment when you place yourself in those people’s shoes and imagine that that’s your family or your children or your parents, that’s when it actually strikes you.
“Other than that, we don’t really relate and it’s easy to kind of brush it away and go, ‘Oh, that’s terrible, that’s sad’ and you brush over it and you forget about it.
“But empathy is when you put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and that emotion or feeling that teaches us how to deal with terrible things in the world and how to become involved in trying to lessen them, stop them, how to care for each other.
“For that reason, I think it’s so important to keep these stories alive.
“They actually teach us and they teach us about ourselves, they teach us about where we’ve come from, what we’ve overcome, they teach us about what happens in history and what can happen again if people don’t pay attention so there’s plenty of validation for why to remember it.
“But besides all that, I think there is beauty in it and colour and the beauty of the gesture of that man carrying his wife home for six miles on his back when their children had just died in the workhouse.
“His wife was obviously gravely ill because she couldn’t walk anymore.
“She was going to die.
“He obviously, by virtue of the fact that he was dead by the end of the night, means he was close to death too.
“They could have stayed in the workhouse.
“They could have stayed and died there but instead, he decided to carry her for six miles to die somewhere with more dignity.
“And that, I think, is absolute heroism and love at its greatest and I think it becomes bigger than the tragedy and the horror, it’s a triumph over horror and tragedy on a colossal scale.
“And, to me, it’s got all the power of a Shakespearean tragedy or Greek tragedy or something, I still think it’s the most powerful thing I’ve ever read and something to aspire to in our own lives: To be that strong for your family and your relatives. That’s what it makes me feel.
“I often get asked by people, ‘Why are you so interested in the famine?’
“My answer is sometimes, ‘Why is anybody interested in World War Two?’ which is a colossal series of events and horror.
“People literally cannot get enough of watching films about World War Two and the Holocaust and the camps, and the reason we are so fascinated with it is because we see people facing the worst possible conditions, and (want to know) how did they deal with that and how does it happen? How did people allow that to happen? How do people become that evil?
“I think that fascination is endless.
“Inside the subject of World War Two or the famine, there are a million stories of heroism and all kinds of situations that are fascinating on their own.
“I think we just haven’t accepted on our own doorstep that we have that below the surface.
“Sorry, I shouldn’t say that we haven’t accepted, I think we are accepting it now.
“I think it’s becoming much more accessible in recent decades and people are much more interested in it because we have been liberated from our own past with the peace process and all of this kind of thing.”
A Whisper from Oblivion, and The Pawnbroker’s Reward before it, are not fictional novels or even fictionalised historical stories.
Cornelius Creed, the titular pawnbroker form the first book, is another character very much based in fact. Are there any fictional characters?
“There are a couple but by and large, 95% of them are real people with their real names and doing what they did and saying what they said.
“Where there’s some kind of irretrievable gap in information in the story, you allow your imagination to fill that in but essentially the framework of it is fact.”
Something that stuck with me was the mantra that was seen on the wall of the dying workhouse master, ‘The lot of the able-bodied inmate should be less tolerable than that of the lowest labourer. They are to be worse fed, worse clothed and worse lodged than the poorest outside.’
“That was the ethos of the workhouse system.
“That basically the conditions inside the building, when they were designing them they said, ‘The conditions inside are going to have to be worse than the lot of the lowest labourer outside in order to not encourage dependency’.
“I mean the conditions outside were as low as they could possibly be so to try and devise something even lower, the architects kind of said that they had great trouble doing that so it was very horrific conditions.
“And I have read numerous instances that it (that mantra) was painted to the wall of the master’s quarters.”
Another one was the engineer who said, ‘Men can’t starve while fat dogs and digestible paving stones are in the country’. Again it’s so heartless..
“It was absolutely heartless, it’s beyond belief really.
“Actually you couldn’t dream up some of these ‘bad guys’ if you like.
“If you tried to write somebody as callous as that, people would probably think that you were making it up. In a way they didn’t need any exaggeration but really, I guess my aim and what motivated me to do this was to show the resilience of the people in spite of that, in spite of that horror and tragedy, and ultimately how beautiful they were to each other and the human spirit of family and care and looking after each other which is a triumph over that.”
Has any of the horror taken you aback in your research?
“It’s an interesting question, I would almost say no.
“After 17 years or however long I’ve been reading about it before I started working on this- this brings me up to 23 years now- I don’t think there is much left that would shock me.
“That’s not to say that it is not shocking in any way, I just was kind of almost used to it.
“I wouldn’t say desensitised because I was certainly moved.
“What I was more shocked by to be honest was really how normal life was compared to our perception of that time.
“We’ve come to look back on this era as this kind of grey time when there was just poor people everywhere and that’s it. And they were dying in their droves because of a potato.
“We almost think that there was no infrastructure, no industry, no living standards, no real sophistication in society but what I found in this one area alone was that life was quite sophisticated and there was plenty of colour in terms of the town where the pawnbroker was.
“You have all of this going on and all of this trade and industry and people had wealth and there were layers of society, there was complex politics.
“What shocked me most of all was that it wasn’t as black and white as we expect somewhere so deep in the past to be.
“That’s a revelation to me.”
You’ve spoken about going to the Ua Buachalla house, do you feel a sense of responsibility towards them and their story?
“Yeah, I’ve always felt a sense of responsibility but not in such a way that I have to be careful to respect them or anything like that, because that’s intrinsic, I couldn’t respect them and the story anymore.
“It’s more of feeling of responsibility to give it everything I have and to kind of help other people to hear their story.
“Because there’s no doubt in my mind that it is that strong a story that everybody should hear it.
“I just think it’s so powerful. So moving.
“It doesn’t matter where in the world you’re from.
“Anybody who hears that story is going to be moved by it.”
Will you be finished with the famine or will the famine be finished with you after the third book? By the sounds of it, perhaps not..
“You’re probably correct.
“I’ve kind of become part of a community of people who are deeply involved and interested in this subject.
“And I think, in a way, once you’re in, it will probably always touch your life in some way.
“I think I probably will always be involved in it to some degree.
“It won’t always be the main focus of my work, of course but it’s something that I’m very proud to have worked on.
“I’m very proud of what I have achieved on it so far.
“I think it’s a very, very worthwhile subject to give your time to, especially given terribly tragic things that are happening in the world right now and at anytime.
“It’s something, it’s a cause and it’s a subject that greatly matters.”
We last chatted in 2021 when you came out with your last album Arrivals. Have you been working on new music? “I am actually, yeah.
“After two books, I decided I had to allow myself to work on some music for a while in case I start to resemble some of the poor figures in my book too much. I needed to get back to playing a few songs.
“But really that’s me just being light hearted. I kind of worried, to be honest, for a while that I had broken the connection with music.
“It’s become much harder to sustain making a good living and keeping your production standards as high as you want them to be due to the way artists’ dividends have been decimated by streaming so it’s a much more precarious landscape.
“Also my wife and I have a young family.
“Just in 2018 we had a little boy and that made me reevaluate everything.
“That made me say, ‘I need to be much more precise and efficient about this, not just be throwing myself around the world happy to play at any little gig for giggles and smiles and sometimes the beautiful word exposure which people can die of. I just have to be smarter’.
“So I’ve come out the other end with a different approach to everything and I’m feeling really, really good about it.
“I just finished my first tour in two years and I have a lot of new material and feeling really great about that so it’s just bringing the whole thing to a different level now, keeping this different model going, the way I’m approaching it.
“I plan to make a new record probably in the spring or something.
“That’s the plan.”
Declan O’Rourke was on his way to Shane MacGowan’s funeral when we caught up with him last week. During the service he sang with Imelda May and Liam Ó Maonlaí .
“He wrote some brilliant songs,” Declan says of Shane. “Really did.
“He’s made his mark absolutely.”
On the honour of taking part in the service, he added: “It’s a beautiful honour, feels like a great honour to sing on this occasion and we’re going to be singing a song that’s really beautiful and prophetic for the occasion that’s in it.
“It will be a lovely thing to be a part of, a community of Irish music sending off one of the greats.”
The UK launch of Declan O’Rourke’s book A Whisper from Oblivion is at The Irish Cultural Centre this Friday 15 December.
For more info and to book, click here.
For more information about Declan O’ Rourke, click here.