Brendan Hoban: It’s great to see that books are back in vogue

It’s great to see that books are back in vogue

Western People  February 1st 2022

Now that we’ve turned the significant corner of escaping (we’re told permanently) a lockdown that has lasted almost two years, our minds will begin to adjust to the changed landscape of our lives. And we’re asking, as a result of COVID, what has changed? what will be different? what remains the same? The good, the bad and the indifferent.

One difference I notice is that people are now reading more books. It may be that the boredom of the long lockdown days or even the bland fare offered by television facilitated a new enthusiasm for the written word. I noticed it particularly because in the last two years I published two books, A Priest’s Diary and Ocras, The Great Famine in Killala Diocese, 1845-1852, both of which I discovered sold way beyond my expectations – and both had to be reprinted.

So I wasn’t surprised to read that last year, 2021, €165.9 million was spent on books in Ireland. In 2021, a total of 13.3 million books were sold, a two per cent rise on 2020. The bestselling book in Ireland last year, was Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse  which sold 56,000 copies. In second place was Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You  and in third was Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen’s Aisling and the City. Nielsen, a global leader in audience research, data and analytics concluded, ‘Consumers are turning to books in record numbers.’

It’s great news not just for people who write and sell books but because reading is good for us. And not just because books make us forget our troubles or teach us a lot or change our perspective or always there (especially on holidays) or help us escape into different worlds but because once a reader, books are friends for life.

Books can also introduce us to new places, new experiences and new insights, and help us to discover parts of ourselves that we didn’t really know existed. I began to research the Great Irish Famine (1845-1852) because I felt that as the most traumatic event in Irish history, I wanted (and needed) to know more about it, particularly what actually happened in my own place, to my own people.

I spent much of the last ten years researching it and I was so gripped by what it revealed that, at a certain point, I had to revisit my original intention to write a short account as the data expanded to necessitate a second volume. Research included: trawling through local newspapers (and getting an authoritative contemporary perspective); examining manuscripts; reading local and detailed accounts of Famine times; listening to local historians; devouring the analyses and interpretations of an ever-burgeoning cohort of impressive professional historians of the Great Famine; exploring the National Folklore Collection and the rich, sometimes startling gems I have found among its very valuable, varied (and sometimes exotic) contributions to oral history; reading journals, reports, theses and pamphlets; and, not least, finding echoes of my own place and possibly of my own relatives at the coal-face of poverty, starvation and death.

I was startled to find a news report in the Mayo Constitution of November 3, 1846, on an inquest on a woman named Bridget Tomas, who collapsed and died on the road near Heathfield, outside my native Ballycastle. After the examination of Dr Neilson, he concluded that all she had in her stomach was ‘about two spoonfuls of flour and a small quantity of meal’. The jury returned the following verdict: ‘That the death of Bridget Tomas was hastened by the want of sufficient food for a length of time’.

My mother’s name was Ellen Tomas. Her father’s name was Michael Tomas, who built the house near the Bridge in Ballyglass, outside Ballycastle, where my mother was born. I find it strange, as I write these words 175 or so years later, that such a span of time accounts for the two generations between my grandfather (who was born in 1851) and me. It could mean that Bridget Tomas was a close relative of my grandfather, and by extension of myself, and that she died of starvation on the road outside Ballycastle, a few years before my grandfather was born.

Later, in reading the Ballina Chronicle of May 14, 1851, the name ‘Patrick Hoban’ jumped out at me and I was startled to read that, at an inquest on his body at Kincon in Kilfian, the jury returned a verdict of death ‘through an insufficiency of food and exposure to wet and cold’. In other words, a man who shared a name with my father (Patrick Hoban) and who was born where my grandfather came from (Kilfian) died of starvation.

This is of course conjecture but it’s what a local history of the Great Famine continually surfaces, names and places that resonate with associations, experiences, affinities and bonds that remind us that history isn’t a list of dates and battles to be memorised and recited but a real connection to be made with kith and kin. It isn’t about just knowing that, in the years of the Great Famine, around 1,100,000 died of starvation and the fever and around another 1,000,000 emigrated.

It’s about Bridget Tomases and Patrick Hobans – where and how they lived and what they must have felt – and trying to enter that strangest of strange worlds when human beings were reduced to killing each other for a bag of meal. It happened in our country, to our people less than 200 years ago.

  • Delighted to say that my last book, Ocras The Great Famine in Killala Diocese has been reprinted in paperback is now available again in all the local bookshops and usual outlets. It can also be got online from

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