TRAGEDY AND ROMANCE
Using Both to Write Stories
“1847 … that’s when it began,” my elderly Irish-born pastor replied, when I told him that my ancestors immigrated to America from Eire because of the potato famine. After Palm Sunday mass, Monsignor had come into the parish hall and sat down where I was having coffee and doughnuts. Somehow, the conversation led to the greatest tragedy in the history of his homeland.
“Genocide,” he then quietly commented. “That year—1847—saw the most abundant wheat harvest ever. But the English exported it—to feed the British army, and they deliberately left the Irish field workers to either starve or emigrate. The only crop the workers had been allowed to grow in their little gardens was potatoes. But that year, the potatoes turned black and the vines died. Our island’s population went from eight million to one million. … Genocide. … Tragedy.”
“But Father, good came from it,” I told him. “… at least for my family. … Romance: My famine-exiled great-grandparents met on the boat to New York, fell in love and married as soon as they landed. … So for me, tragedy and romance go together. … I’m writing a novel about it.”
“I’m glad for you,” Monsignor smiled. But his face turned sad and a far-away look came into his eyes. “On our farm in Ireland where I grew up, there’s an abandoned village. Everybody had died or left. In one of the fields near it, we discovered a mass grave—a sand pit where they had dumped dozens of bodies. … I have refugee-relatives around the world—Argentina, Australia, this country. … My grandparents used to tell stories about struggling to survive and stay.”
“Father,” I then told him. “The first Irishman of my family who got here was my great-grandfather McDade. He’s the one who married my great-grandmother off the boat in New York in 1860. My novel, Colleen and the Statue, begins with a fictionalized version of what happened to him not long after he arrived.
“Father, I’ve seen a tin-type photo of my great-grandfather McDade in his Union Army uniform. My mother’s old aunt, who showed me the photo, said that he was at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. He must have felt like the thousands of Irish immigrants who joined the Yankee Army. For them, the Rebel Army represented the hated English, who had forced them to emigrate or starve. They knew the South was supported by England, where Southerners sold the cotton that made white slave-owners rich. So for Irish immigrants in the Union Army, killing a Rebel soldier was the same as killing an Englishman, and revenge for what happened in Ireland.”
Monsignor was captivated by the American Civil War history I then recounted—about the two Irish regiments that were at Gettysburg: the New York 69th and the Pennsylvania 69th.
“Father, I don’t know for sure, but I think my great-grandfather ended up in the PA 69th—the regiment of 250 Irishmen who are credited with stopping Pickett’s Charge up Missionary Ridge. As the Confederates came up the hill, whooping their Rebel Yell and carrying their Stars-and-Bars flag, they were confronted by the sight of the Green Flag of Ireland and they heard battle-cries in Gaelic. The 69th held its ground, fought hand-to-hand at the stone wall from where they were shooting on Pickett’s men, and sent what was left of the Rebs staggering back down the hill.
“Father, that Gettysburg battle story is true. And in my novel, that’s where I put one of the characters—in the PA 69th. After the war, both my McDade great-grandfather and the grandfather of my novel’s invented young-man protagonist went to Texas—to Fort Worth.
“I don’t know a lot about my real great-grandfather, apart from the fact that the tragedy of the potato famine put him onto the boat where he fell in love with my great-grandmother. … As a child, my mother actually knew her and said she “talked funny”—with an Irish brogue. … In my novel, I invented a series of tragedies and romances, with Gettysburg as the starting point.
“As I wrote, I was thinking of Scarlett and Rhett in Gone with the Wind, where in the midst of the tragedy of the American Civil War, we follow one of the most famous romances in all of American movies. In my book, which is set in Texas in the mid-1950s, Colleen and Patrick are the main characters. They’re young folks who are coming of age and falling in love. They haven’t yet experienced tragedy themselves, but they’re surrounded by people who have.
“Colleen has just come from Ireland, where her relatives had fought in the Irish War for Independence as guerilla soldiers in the IRA—the Irish Republican Army. But in the midst of the tragedy of that long war, her grandmother had a romance with an English Army officer and married him. In my invented city of Mackenzie, Texas, Colleen and her boyfriend Patrick learn the tragic story of Sgt. Nicholas Ruff, whose Confederate statue stands in the city’s Central Park. The sergeant died at Gettysburg in the Rebel Army. As a young man on his father’s slave-plantation in East Texas, he had fallen in love with a slave girl and wanted to marry her when she became pregnant. An impossible romance, which resulted in tragedy, both for him and for his beloved—part of the reason why he joined the Rebel Army in 1861 and went off to war … to die in battle.”
Monsignor and I then had a long conversation about the relationship between tragedy and romance—he, giving examples from Irish literature; me, examples from American literature.