The Flight of the Wren ~ ‘Explores the impact of the Irish famine of 1845-1849 on the women of Ireland. Acts of desperation, betrayal, courage and love illuminate this dark chapter of Ireland’s history in a complex and beautiful novel.’
Inspired by true events, The Flight of the Wren is a novel by Orla McAlinden and is just published by Red Stag (Mentor Books Ltd). Telling the tale of real Irish women and girls, their stories weave throughout this poignant blend of fact and fiction.
The Flight of the Wren was Winner of the Cecil Day Lewis award 2016 and joint winner of the Greenbean Novel Fair 2016 at the Irish Writers Centre.
I have my thoughts for you all today on this historical novel that, for me, was an education into the hardships and challenges faced with courage by an incredible bunch of women.
About The Book:
Orphaned Sally Mahon has a choice to make. Lie down and die on the graves of her parents, or join the throngs of the dispossessed on the highways of Ireland. She turns her steps to the nearby town of Newbridge in Kildare, where she will carve a future for herself or die trying.
Spanish Flu sweeps through Hobart, travelling across the oceans with the soldiers returning from the war in Europe. Saoirse Gordon sits by her Grandmother’s sickbed. As the old woman cries out in her delirium, will the secrets Saoirse learns bring her peace, or destroy her forever? Have her Grandmother, her great-aunt and her mother been lying to her all her life? Saoirse races against time, and her grandmother’s illness, to unravel the secrets of her family.
I am Irish. The stories of the terrible Famine that darkened our beautiful country from 1845-1849 were part of my childhood education. I have strong memories from my history class of a sketched image of a woman, huddled and bent over, wearing a threadbare shawl, with a look of pure anguish on her face. We were told the horror stories but they always felt a little distant, tales from another time. Orla McAlinden has taken the stories of some of the women of this god-forsaken time and brought the past right into our present with her fascinating book The Flight of the Wren.
The story takes place seamlessly between two timelines and two continents. 1848 and Sally Mahon is orphaned, abandoned and left to die on her parents grave, without a single soul to care for her left. With nothing to eat but a few nettles and the grass on the side of the ditch, Sally heads in the direction of Newbridge, Co. Kildare., where there is an English army Barracks and where she might source a little work and food. At only fourteen years of age Sally knows that the workhouse is an option but Sally always remembers her father saying that ‘he’d rather die than go to the workhouse’. Sally has greater hopes for herself than dying abandoned and starved in the over-populated buildings of these institutions, but after arriving in Newbridge, she realises that all is not as she had hoped.
There is plenty of work for women/girls in Newbridge but just not the type of work that Sally wishes to do. Prostitution is rife and soon Sally discovers, the soldiers treat these women with disrespect and shocking levels of violence.
Outside Newbridge, Sally becomes acquainted with the wrens ‘a class of wild woman, who lived close by on the broad expanse of the Curragh plain. They lived in groups and they sheltered under the roofs of the broad-glowing furze bushes, like the little birds from whom they took their name.’ One in particular, who went by the name of Nellie Gordon, literally took Sally under her wing, for better or worse, taking Sally on a journey across the seas that changed the course of her life forever.
1919 and a grandchild sits with her grandmother, keeping her company as her days come to an end. The Spanish Flu rages through Hobart on the the island of Tasmania, formerly Van Diemen’s Land. Saoirse Gordon watches on as her grandmother slips in and out of consciousness but Saoirse also listens to her grandmother’s words as secrets from her past are revealed. Saoirse is frightened and horrified by the stories her grandmother tells, making Saoirse question everything she has known to be the truth. As her grandmother’s story unfolds, the reader is transported onto the ships that sailed from Ireland to Van Diemen’s land, taking the native Irish to a new land, to work in servitude for a number of years before being granted their freedom.
Orla McAlinden describes, in quite graphic detail, the panic, the fear, the sickness, the hardship and the bravery of a bunch of women who’s story is almost incredible to read. Not for the faint-hearted, the stomach-churning scenes that Orla McAlinden writes about are portrayed so vividly that I was appalled and horrified, yet compelled to continue reading.
The Flight of the Wren is history brought to life. It is a time in Ireland’s history when our population was torn asunder and forced emigration on penal ships was an acceptable practice. With the country in the midst of starvation, many folk deliberately carried out a crime to board these ships, seeing it as a way out, the only way to survive. What would drive someone to this? How, as a society, did we (and still do) allow a populace to be forced out of it’s homeland?
The Flight of the Wren, though a fictional account, is a very thought-provoking read, at times challenging, yet also very moving. The plight of Sally Mahon was not unique but Orla McAlinden makes her story so vivid and so absorbing, one would almost think it an actual account of true events.
In reading Orla McAlinden’s previous work, The Accidental Wife, I said that Orla wrote with passion, truth and honesty and the same words apply to this book. There is an earthy and raw candor to the narrative that inspires confidence in the writing. Orla McAlinden is an intriguing writer with a very original and unique style. A recommendation for all with an interest in history, in particular in the history of Ireland.
Compelling. Challenging. Impassioned.
Purchase Link ~ The Flight of the Wren