Saturday, January 09, 2010

The coldest winter

As I try to fictionalize the story of my real ancestors, just to fill in the gaps, I keep finding that real life is more dramatic than I could ever imagine.

A great frost and famine plagued Ireland in 1740-1741. As if that weren't enough drama, I thought maybe my MC (main character) Joshua might fall through some ice and survive a bout of pneumonia, which would bring him and his wife closer. The first problem with that idea is that there are no loughs (lakes) in Moate, where the English family lived. I could, however, have them go to one of the fairs in Athlone or Mullingar, which have rivers and lakes. But a fair, during the worst of winter? Hmm.

I went back to Jonathan Bardon's A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes (highly recommend it) to read about the great frost. The stories are sobering; about one in five people in Ireland died during the "Year of the Slaughter." (The 19th-century famines were nothing to this, percentage wise.) Even the great ports, like Dublin, were frozen over so that boats couldn't come in. Then I saw, staring back at me on page 249, that the drought brought horrible fires with it, including 20 houses burned "in the village of Moate, Co. Westmeath." What?!!! Moate is not even in the index of this 531-page tome.

Twenty houses gone, in this small village, during two arctic years. How many houses were there? Could Joshua's house have been one of them? I thought that the Quaker records from Moate must mention something, so I checked. Drat! The second book of minutes, which I am indexing, starts in 1743! I looked over my notes from the first minute book, but I was just skimming for the English name during my trip.

I'm not sure where to go with this, yet. I'll have to figure out how many people lived in Moate that year. I do know that in my own 21st-century town of almost 10,000, losing 20 homes would be devastating.

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