Today Meg O’Connor Quinn is visiting Ascroft, eh? to tell us about Erin’s Children, the sequel to Kelegeen.
Welcome, Meg. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about the novel that you live inside. Is it part of a series? If so, please tell us about the series too.
I am Meg O’Connor Quinn, a main character in the novel, Erin’s Children, the sequel to Eileen O’Finlan’s debut novel Kelegeen. Besides being the name of the book, Kelegeen was also the name of the village in Ireland where I lived. I left Ireland and came to America to escape the Great Hunger, or as most non-Irish folks call it, the Potato Famine. I didn’t want to leave my home and family, but we were all dying of disease and starvation. I did it so that I could find work and send back money to save what was left of my family.
Erin’s Children tells of my life in America where I found work as a domestic servant with a family in Worcester, Massachusetts. It is hard work – all that cooking and cleaning – but it pays well enough for me to help my family, buy a passage ticket to bring over my sister, Kathleen, and save some for myself.
The biggest problem for me is that I got married immediately before leaving Ireland only to find out that I have to keep my marriage a secret in America. Even though I work hard, my life here is far better than my life in Ireland even before the starving, except that I miss my family something awful, of course. I’m conflicted because I know that when my husband, Rory, is finally able to join me, it will bring my new life of relative ease to an end and plunge me back into poverty. You see, the employment opportunities are good for single Irish women with so many middle class Yankees wanting a servant, but too many places won’t hire Irish men. They even put up signs that say, ‘No Irish Need Apply.’ The few places that will hire Irish men pay poorly. I can’t keep a live-in job if I’m married, but it’s the only job that will pay enough to keep me out of poverty. Besides, once an Irish woman marries, she’s expected not to work outside the home anymore. After all, the wee ones will be coming and a woman can’t very well take them to work with her. So, I’m in a terrible conundrum. If Rory joins me here I’ll be with the man I love, but I’ll go back to being poor, living in a slum. If he doesn’t come, I can go on with my life of free room and board and a decent salary, but without the man I love and miss with all my heart.
Does the writer control what happens in the story or do you get a say too?
I suppose Eileen O’Finlan thinks she’s in control. We’re in her head, after all. She thinks she’s making up the story, but to tell the truth, it’s us who decide what will happen. I can’t tell you how many times she’s had something in mind, but we changed it. We just blocked the path she thought to take the story and moved it in a totally different direction. She’s a good sport about it, though. She even seems to like it when we take control.
How did you evolve as the main character?
I was one of the main characters in Kelegeen and since I’m the one who came to America first, it’s only natural that I should continue on as one of the main characters in Erin’s Children. However, like in Kelegeen, where I shared main character status with Father Brian O’Malley, in Erin’s Children I share it with my sister, Kathleen O’Connor.
Do you have any other characters you like sharing the story with? If so, why are you partial to them?
My sister, Kathleen, was an important, though not main, character in Kelegeen. In Erin’s Children she about steals the show. Truly, I don’t mind. I had my turn, now it’s hers. Kathleen’s the one with the wildest adventures. She, too, is a domestic servant, but the family she works for are awful. They’re bigoted, arrogant, and in the case of the eldest son, predatory. The young daughter, Clara, is the one bright spot in the family and it’s mainly for her that Kathleen stays with them as long as she does. Eventually, she’s forced to leave, though,and where she goes from there – well I’ll not give it away, but I’ll just say it involves some ladies of questionable reputations, a maze of secret underground tunnels, some nuns, and, eventually the opportunity of a lifetime.
Another of my favorite characters is a young woman named Nuala O’Flaherty. I met her when I first came to America. She’s also a domestic servant. She helped me become accustomed to Yankee ways. She’s even the one who told me to keep my marriage a secret. Nuala and I are alike is some ways. We’re both stubborn, determined, and quick-tempered. Whereas I’m tall, she’s a tiny thing, though you’d not want to cross her. She’s a real spitfire. Nuala is my best friend in America. I don’t know what I’d do without her.
My employer, Emily Claprood, is also a favorite. She’s a kind, fair-minded woman. Over the years of working for the Claproods, I come to be accepted as almost one of the family. That’s mainly due to Mrs. Claprood who sets the tone for the Claprood family. They’re good people, the Claproods. I’m fortunate to have them as my employers.
What’s the place like where you find yourself in this story?
In Erin’s Children I live in the ever-growing city of Worcester in Massachusetts. My story takes the reader through the decade of the 1850s. It’s nothing like life in my little village of Kelegeen back in Ireland. Sometimes, I think I’m dreaming and I’ll wake up back in the one-room, thatched roof cottage, on a dirt floor, sick from hunger. But no, ’tis real! I live with and work for the Claprood family. They’ve got a lovely home with rooms – aye rooms – more than one. Lots more. And I clean them all! But I get to eat three times a day. I have a little room of my own in the attic. It’s cramped and stuffy, but it’s all mine.
I work from before the sun rises until after the family has gone to bed for the night. I do the cooking (which I hate – I call the stove ‘The Beast’), the cleaning, and the laundry. The best days are Thursday afternoons. Almost all domestic servants have Thursday afternoons off. That’s when I get together with Kathleen and Nuala and we find all sorts of merry things to do. We also have Sunday morning off so we can attend Mass at Saint John’s Church. Other than that, we work.
My employer, Mrs. Claprood is an ardent abolitionist, her husband, Chester is the co-owner of the Claprood – Pratt Iron Foundry. (Arthur Pratt is the other co-owner. It is his family for whom Kathleen works.) The Claproods have three nearly grown children, Oliver who is preparing to go into business with his father, and Pamela and Deborah, both of whom are devoted to botany to the point that they’ve turned one of the house’s parlors into a conservatory. They are very taken with the language of flowers. Apparently, it’s all the rage, though I think it’s silly. If you’ve got something to say, just say it. Why waste time with hidden messages. Who ever heard of letting flowers do your talking for you?
This city, in fact this whole country, is alien to me and to Kathleen. One of the hardest things for us is the realization that we are unwanted. There is a terrible political party called the Know Nothings that have gained power and they are determined to send all Irish Catholic immigrants back to Ireland. They’re convinced that we’re all part of a plot for the pope to take over America, though I don’t know where they got such a foolish idea. In any case, they hate us and want us out of their country. So along with working our fingers to the bone and learning the ways of a new and very different culture, we must deal with the constant threat of being shipped back to the deadly starvation and disease that assails Ireland.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers about you and the book?
One thing of which you can be sure, we Irish are a resilient people. We’ll fight like banshees to make our way in this country. And we’ll do it on our terms by keeping our faith and our culture. At the same time, we’ll forge strong bonds with Yankees who are kind people of real integrity, like Mrs. Claprood, Clara Pratt, and a darlin’ of a gentleman named Hiram Archer.
In Erin’s Children you’ll see what life was like for us Irish immigrants who came to escape the Great Hunger. You’ll experience our joys, sorrows, fears, and accomplishments. You’ll find out what was happening in America politically what with the Know Nothings and their nativist shenanigans and the bitter fight over slavery that many fear is going to lead to war.
Let the characters of Erin’s Children draw you into our world, our thoughts, our dilemmas, our triumphs. It will be an experience to remember!
Thank you for answering my questions, Meg, and good luck to you and your author, Eileen O’Finlan, with Erin’s Children, the sequel to Kelegeen.
The novel is available at the following online retailers:
About Eileen O’Finlan: Eileen writes historical fiction, telling the stories on history’s margins, the things rarely taught in the classroom. For her, that’s where history really gets fun. Her promise to her readers is to craft stories that will thoroughly immerse them in another time and place.
Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, her family moved to Worcester when she was two. Four years later they moved to Holden where Eileen grew up and where she now resides.
Eileen holds a Bachelor’s degree in history and a Master’s Degree in Pastoral Ministry. She works full time for the Diocese of Worcester and teaches online courses in Catholic studies for the University of Dayton, Ohio. Erin’s Children is her second novel and the sequel to her debut novel, Kelegeen.