In the 1840s, the potato famine ravaged Ireland. Crop failures, starvation, and emigration to America reduced the population of the country up to 25%, but Ireland was troubled before then. Until 1828, Irish Catholics had been barred from owning land. When the blight struck, most of them were still renting tiny farms from English landlords. If the starving families couldn’t pay their rent, they were evicted.
Jeremiah’s Hunger, a 2011 historical novel by Elizabeth Osta, explores the aftermath of the Great Famine. Jeremiah Buckley came into manhood during this bitter time and watches family and friends die or cross the ocean forever. His physical hunger is eased through hard work and wise farming, but his soul craves the day that his beloved Ireland is freed from oppressive English laws. When Jeremiah flirts with Irish nationalism, the violent tactics of the Fenians repel him, but the brutal suppression of rebellion brings even greater horror. He finally finds peace in a quest to own his farm.
Osta taps family history for Jeremiah’s Hunger, for Jeremiah is her great-grandfather. She weaves a moving tale of her family’s struggles, and Osta’s vivid descriptions of Ireland and its people are often breathtaking. However, interweaving the Buckleys’ story with that of Jeremiah’s in-laws who immigrated to America, with its large cast of characters and frequent changes of venue, is sometimes distracting. But Jeremiah’s Hunger comes to a lovely close when Osta’s grandmother comes to the fore as she prepares to leave home for America. I hope Osta continues to write about Maggie Buckley, because that girl came alive for me.