In Between Worlds: Journey of the Famine Girls
‘When there is nothing to eat, it affects everything; that is how important food is’, reflects Maggie who, as a child of a Skibbereen farming family, witnesses first-hand the devastating consequences of the Irish famine in the 1840s.
Nicola Pierce’s novel illustrates the fracturing of family and community dynamics as certainties such as religious faith and consolation, parental responsibility, and neighbourly support crumble in response to starvation and poverty. Subsisting in an overcrowded workhouse where she is separated from her only remaining family member, Maggie’s indecision about travelling to Australia with almost two hundred other young Irish girls for a new life is sensitively portrayed. The focus of the novel is not what awaits her in this unknown land, but the three-month journey by sea, during which Maggie must negotiate relationships with her peers and exert what limited options for agency are within her grasp.
Female friendship, betrayal, and forgiveness are portrayed, and how vital the former and latter is implicit in the realisation that, without family protection, these young women are now commodities: their servitude and reproductive capabilities will be harnessed for colonial expansion in Australia. The hardships of the workhouse and the long voyage are perhaps too much glossed over, but one of the novel’s strengths is its feminist subtext. The device of bookending the story with a celebration of Maggie’s hundredth birthday in 1935 helps to amplify the themes of female solidarity, vulnerability, and resilience.
A thought-provoking spotlight on an under-explored aspect of Irish emigration history.