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Then.. as now

Author Emma Donoghue. Picture: Mark Raynes Roberts

Author Emma Donoghue told David Hennessy about her latest novel The Pull of the Stars which, although written before the crisis, has unnerving echoes of today as it is set during the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918.  

Emma Donoghue could not have planned for her latest novel to seem so timely. Her new novel, The Pull of the Stars, is set in Dublin during the 1918-20 flu pandemic. The Spanish Flu pandemic is estimated to have killed between 17 and 50 million globally and is one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.
Unlike previous strains of flu that were more deadly to the very young and very old, the illness killed large numbers of young adults. Pregnant women and their babies who contracted the illness were also highly susceptible to complications both before and after labour.

The Pull of the Stars follows Julia Power through the toughest three days of her nursing life. With the virus taking hold and filling the wards in a city hospital low on staff and low on resources, Julia is left to take care of a ward of pregnant women with only an untrained young volunteer for support.

So many things in the book are reminiscent of the times we’re living in now that it is surprising that Emma completed the book just before the World Health Organisation declalred Covid-19 a pandemic.

Emma told The Irish World that while she was unsure about using a particular word in early drafts, she had no reservations after it truly became part of the vocabulary: “I didn’t add any comments based on today at all. The only thing I changed during the copy-editing was that I had avoided using the word pandemic in my draft because I thought it was too strange and exotic a word. It was a technically correct word for what happened in 1918 but I thought, ‘That sounds like a scientist talking so I better just say epidemic’. And then by the time I was doing the copy-editing of the novel in April everyone was saying the word. I thought, I can say pandemic because the word had become normal overnight.

“That’s all I remember changing. Everything else, all the echoes of today, just happened naturally because any plague is like this.”

A 2007 analysis of the Spanish Flu virus found it was no more deadly than previous strains but that malnourishment, overcrowding and poor hygiene after the war allowed bacterial superinfection.

“It was killing so many people and there was so little they could do about it. They didn’t know what this illness was. They thought it was an infection. In fact, it was a virus. They didn’t even know what viruses were.

“They had no IV fluids, they had no ventilators, the medicines were primitive. They were very good at dealing with some things but they were no good at dealing with this appalling flu which targeted adults in their prime and above all it targeted pregnant women.”

The crisis has seen front-line workers held in a new esteem and this could have been the same for the nurses of 1918.

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“Doctors were kind of helpless and it was said afterwards that in a way it was an amazing season for nurses because their skills kind of came to the fore. It was their careful nursing that got people through.

“We might think, ‘What a hideous job’ but a lot of nurses looked back on it with a kind of nostalgic glow like, ‘Wow, that was an amazing time. We were so important, we helped people so much’. A bit like soldiers getting nostalgic for their days in the trenches.”

International acclaim came towards the Dublin author when her 2010 novel, Room received countless literary awards and nominations. The story about a mother and child held captive by a sexual predator and their escape was turned into an Oscar-winning film in 2015.

Emma’s previous works Slammerkin and Frog Music are concerned with prostitutes while, following The Wonder, The Pull of the Stars is her second novel to be told through the eyes of a nun.

Emma explains why she is drawn to these type of characters: “I’ve written two novels about prostitutes and two novels about nurses. They’re just great jobs to write about because they’re the classic women’s jobs and being a nurse is a classic Irish woman’s job, isn’t it?

“Irish nurses are known worldwide. It’s a funny job because they’re very important obviously and they’re valued but they have rarely been paid very much or taken very seriously.

“Often in hospitals in the past the nurse has had no authority, the doctor had to decide everything. They’re a mixture of powerful and powerless so it’s a great job for writing about healthcare because it’s not at the top of the pyramid, it’s right in the middle. It’s sometimes terribly hands on, sometimes it needs all the knowledge and smarts you might have.

“I absolutely loved writing a nurse’s story and a midwife as well. Birth is such an interesting storyline. By contrast with the flu, it’s not an illness. It’s this thing that can be absolutely lovely, no bother or it can go horribly wrong. Or it can start horribly wrong but then go wonderfully right.”

Julia’s story may be set over a century ago but the advice is the same: Wash your hands, avoid crowds etc: “The vague, vague government reassurances and the subtle hint of victim-blaming. It’s on you to stay alert, David. It’s not that perhaps your government should protect you. No, it’s up to you.”

It becomes clear in the book that, like the current virus, the Spanish Flu killed those with a pre-existing condition. Unlike Covid-19, the pre-existing condition was often poverty as these people were too tired, ill-fed or weakened by war or previous sickness to ward that one off.

The lower classes were in no position to follow advice of, ‘Stay in bed for two weeks if you feel unwell’.
“‘Oh, I feel a weakness coming on, I’m going to lie down now and be looked after for two weeks..’ There’s not many of us whose lifestyles could allow for that.

“I think everything is harder on the poor. I think a key decision in writing the novel was to set it in an inner-city hospital because that meant the patients were coming in already weakened by poverty and those mothers in particular already shattered by the multiple births they had had. In a way it became a novel all about the politics of health which again, I hadn’t really intended. I was just fascinated by this pandemic in 1918. I hadn’t expected it to be such as hard hitting study of all the many things that are pre-existing conditions.

“If you’re living in a damp hovel, one room for your whole family in Dublin in 1918, you can’t seek out fresh air and sunshine. I got very, very interested in all the different elements of health. Some of them might seem random but a lot of them are highly political.”

The outbreak was misnamed ‘Spanish Flu’ not to affect morale for nations fighting in World War One. Arriving the year the conflict ended, the illness killed far more than the four years of fighting, coming in four devastating waves.

“I think governments could cover things up much more easily then. I mean they really kept it off the front pages and they tried calling it the Spanish flu so people would think it was far away and somebody else’s fault.

“It’s just like the way Trump calls it ‘the Wuhan virus’ to make it sound like somebody else’s problem. Nowadays there are many more ways for information to get out. Equally there’s a lot of false information then circulated on social media, they didn’t have the lies going around at top speed either.”

Julia’s story is also set in the period of Irish history between the Easter Rising of 1916 but with independence and the Civil War on the horizon. While her own brother has come back forever changed by the war in Europe and often getting abuse on the streets for fighting for the king, the rebels are derided for disrupting things and drawing the wrath of the empire.

“It was when things changed so quickly, I’ve never really understood that magic trick moment. If in 1916 people were like, ‘What are those messers up to?’ How come three years later everybody was voting for Sinn Féin?

“That’s a remarkable turnaround in an era before social media and it can’t have been all caused by some rush of sympathy for the poor rebels being executed in prison. We had had many small gallant rebellions before so it must have been just something about the times- probably about the war, perhaps about the flu as well- that made people really ready for a big change for the first time.

“It’s fascinating. I didn’t grow up on the rebel tradition at all. My family didn’t sing rebel songs, we never flew the Irish flag or anything.

“Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry got me very interested in the idea of it as the poor rising up in protest and demanding a better Ireland and also Ken Loach’s film The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Again I realised how many of those rebels were really utopians who were trying for a fairer world for workers and for women. There was lots of other elements to it, it wasn’t pure Nationalism. I got very interested in the different factors that might make somebody like Doctor Kathleen Lynn decide that she had to take up a gun which for a doctor is quite a big deal.”

Kathleen Lynn was a doctor and a revolutionary.

At a time when women were told they had no business fighting for Ireland or practising medicine, Kathleen Lynn did both. She was the first female doctor at the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital in Dublin and became close with Constance Markievicz and James Connolly while working in the soup kitchens during the 1913 lock-out.She joined the Irish Citizen Army and was chief medical officer during the 1916 Easter Rising. For her part in the Rising, Lynn was imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol. She appears in the book as a replacement doctor who puts faith in Julia and wants to find out more about the deadly illness while she evades the police.

“I wasn’t looking for a real person to put in because it always slightly ties your hand as a novelist if you’re writing about real people. I was looking for interesting background material on doctors in Ireland at the time and I came across her and I just thought, she’s absolutely unique. I tried putting her in with a fictional name but then I thought, there’s only one of her who is a revolutionary and a socialist and a doctor so I may as well say it’s her.

“I think wars cause such social upheaval, such massive social change so things like women getting the vote. These were huge changes. Maybe it’s just easier to contemplate a major shake-up at a time when everything is falling apart.

“Look how the Covid pandemic has clearly allowed the Black Lives Matter movement to flourish and get worldwide traction in a way it wasn’t through all the previous protests.  There was nothing new about the killing of George Floyd. People have been dying in the hands of police like him but this particular one caught the imagination and I think it was all about the timing. It was the psychology of living in a time of pandemic.

“I think the war and the flu probably all added to that sense of, ‘We could actually do things differently’.”

Although first puzzled by how her volunteer Bridie could not know her own age, Julia is then horrified to learn about the Mother and Baby home she has come from and the treatment she receives there.
While we know now how women unfortunate enough to end up there were treated in Magdalene Laundries, industrial schools or Mother and Baby homes, the general population would have had no idea.

“Nobody was doing exposes. We look back now, we can tell some people were aware. For instance, you got kids running away from orphanages to the local police station and saying, ‘the nuns beat me’ or ‘the priest raped me’. And the police would pretty much nod and bring them straight back.

“We know there were complaints and every now and then you might get a government inspector going into a building so there would be the odd report and then really nothing would be done so it never hit the papers in a big way.

“I think all people would know was that there were institutions and people who were desperate went to them.

“So I think people like Julia would probably think, ‘That’s a nice charity thing that there’s somewhere for you to go’. She would have had no way of knowing what went on in them. I think you could say at a government level there was certainly some knowledge but not among the people in general until about the late 1980s.”

Isn’t Julia’s lack of knowledge about the mother and baby homes ironic as it seems only good fortune kept her from an institution like that herself? “That’s right. That’s a good point. You’re the first to make it, David. As somebody whose mother died, she could easily have been sent off to the the nuns and most people would have been, ‘Aren’t they very good to take her in?’ That was the common narrative, that they should be grateful.

“When I was looking into the institutions that Bridie would have been though, I deliberately avoided the more horrendous cases. I was not looking to point out the sadists, the rapists and so on. I wanted to go for the subtler moments like she was told she shouldn’t have red hair or curly hair or being punished for sneezing in mass, the little details.

“In particular the thing that the survivors keep saying in their testimonies is, ‘I was made to feel useless, I was made to feel like a parasite really rather than being a valid human being’.

“Despite the work they were doing, they never had a sense they were actually contributing to the coffers of the nuns or monks so one thing I wanted to do with Bridie was to show the sheer thrill of someone like that getting an actual meaningful job for the first time in her life. It’s not even paid but by the end of the first day she can tell she’s actually saving lives. Instead of emphasising poor Bridie, I wanted to show her flourishing.

The mother and baby homes were cruel places but Emma finds this was to do with flawed institutions rather than evil individuals.

“The main thing I notice about these institutions when I look at them- In films they’re often shown as a sinister jail-type setting with lots of evil nuns going up and down the corridor whacking the leather strap in their palms. It’s more that they were horribly under-funded and under-staffed.

“Typically you might have two nuns who would oversee things by day and then go back to the convent at night and you would have high numbers of children being looked after 24 hours a day by lay teachers who were in no way trained for this and were overwhelmed.

“Just as we see sometimes with staff in institutions for the disabled now or police, they panic and get too confrontational. I think the problems we see in institutions nearly always came from leaving untrained adults alone with too many kids and no way for the kids to tell if they’re being mistreated so it’s not so much cruel individuals, it’s more like badly structured institutions  where tyranny will tend to happen.”
While these institutions are a dark stain on Ireland’s history, Emma points out it is not ancient history with the last Magdalene Laundry only closing in the 90s.

“When I was growing up in the southside of Dublin apparently there was an industrial school or teenage orphanage near me. I had no idea it was there so I was literally sharing the same part of the country with these kids and had no idea that they existed. I would have had no idea of their condition. I think it’s really important for Ireland to be honest about its history and spell out even the bad sides.

“There are living Magdalenes who were institutionalised and only got out in the 80s. I think there have been some very moving events where people actually turn up and pay homage to these survivors. It’s a deeply painful business.”

Emma draws a parallel between the system of Irish religious institutions and the Indian residential school system in Canada, where she now lives. These were a network of boarding schools created for the purpose of removing Indigenous children from the influence of their own culture.

“In Canada, we have a very similar examination of our history here in that there were lots of residential schools where native people were locked up, beaten, mistreated and so on. What’s really interesting is to see in Ireland we did something very similar but it wasn’t even based on racist hostility, it was just based on, ‘Those poor people are cluttering up the streets, we should tidy them away’.”

Emma was disappointed when a new Canadian stage production of her famous novel Room had to be cancelled due to the Covid-19 crisis.

“We reworked it completely over here, We got to opening night and then that afternoon it was all cancelled. Completely gutting. But I had to keep saying to myself, ‘At least nobody’s dying. Come on Emma, it’s just theatre’.

“Because I also knew theatre would be banjaxed for years to come because of this. it’s such a hard time for anyone in the performing arts. It’s hard to see how we’ll be able to do performances safely.”

A massive hit of the lockdown period was the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People where, much like he did with Room in 2015, Lenny Abrahamson took a cult novel to the screen with great success.

“I liked it a lot,” Emma says of Normal People.

“Lenny had such a huge hit with that, didn’t he? I think making Room was an unusually happy experience for us all, no fights and we all went a lot further with that film than we expected, getting all the way to the Oscars.

“I think what he has is really good taste and I mean that ethically as well. He chooses stories he can really care about. Watching the early episodes of Normal People, you’re just shaking with care and concern for these people. I think he’s a very ethical film-maker and that makes him tell deeply moving stories.

“He has a great artistic judgement as well. Here’s one example. I didn’t want the film script of Room to ever have an ‘I love you’ moment. In American films, there’s always an ‘I love you’ between mother and children and stuff and it’s usually at a moment where it does not need to be spelled out.

“Lenny wanted to put in one moment where Jack says ‘I love you’ to his grandmother showing for the first time he’s able to love someone other than his mother. I was a bit iffy about it. He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll shoot it long’. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, I’ll have the camera 20 feet back and that will cool the emotional tone of the moment’. Whereas if it was in close-up, it would have been all heart-warming and cute.

“He was like, ‘I’ll chill it by pulling the camera back’.

“I was like, ‘Woah, didn’t know that’s how it worked’.

“So he knows what he’s doing. He’s got impeccable taste. By the time we were actually shooting the film I had such trust in the whole team that I was just there to enjoy myself onset. I didn’t feel like I had to guard it at that point.”

The Pull of the Stars is out now on Picador. 

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