Star of the Sea: A Novel

Star of the Sea: A Novel

by Joseph O'Connor

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A New York Times Notable Book and “thoroughly gripping” historical mystery: On a ship packed with Irish immigrants, one passenger is a killer (People).
In the bitter winter of 1847, leaving an Ireland torn by famine and injustice, the Star of the Sea sets sail for New York. On board are hundreds of refugees, some of them optimistic, many more of them desperate. Among them are a maid with a devastating secret, the bankrupt Lord Merridith accompanied by his wife and children—and a killer stalking the decks, hungry for the vengeance that will bring absolution.
This journey will see many lives end, while others begin anew. Passionate loves are tenderly recalled, shirked responsibilities regretted too late, and profound relationships shockingly revealed. In this spellbinding tale of tragedy and mercy, love and healing, the farther the ship sails toward the Promised Land, the more her passengers seem moored to a past that will never let them go.
“O’Connor’s luscious book brews the suspense of a thriller with the scope and passion of a Victorian novel—seasoned in authentic historical detail and served up in language that is equal parts lyrical and gritty.” —Booklist
“Engrossing . . . will hold historical fiction fans rapt.” —Publishers Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547545271
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 03/08/2004
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 34,458
File size: 1 MB
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Joseph O'Connor is the author of several widely acclaimed novels, including Cowboys & Indians, Desperadoes, and The Salesman. He has also written criticism, plays, and screenplays, and edited Yeats Is Dead! He lives in Dublin.


Dublin, Ireland

Date of Birth:

September 20, 1963

Place of Birth:

Dublin, Ireland


B.A., University College, Dublin, 1984; M.A., 1986; University College, Oxford, 1987; M.A., University of Leeds, 1991

Read an Excerpt


The Leave-Taking

The FIRST of our TWENTY-SIX days at Sea:
in which Our Protector records some essential Particulars,
and the Circumstances attending our setting-out.


The following is the only register of Josias Tuke Lockwood, Master of Vessel, signed and written in his own hand; and I attest it on my solemn honour a compleat and true account of the voyage, and neither has any matter pertinent been omitted.

LONG: 10°16.7'W. LAT: 51°35.5'N. ACTUAL GREENWICH STANDARD TIME: 8.17 P.M. WIND DIR. & SPEED: S.S.W. Force 4. BUFFETING SEAS: rough. HEADING: W.N.W. 282.7°. PRECIPITATION. & REMARKS: Mild mist all the day but very cold and clear night. Upper riggings encrusted with ice. Dursey Island to starboard. Tearagh Isld visible at 52°4.5'N, 10°39.7'W, most westerly point of Ireland and therefore of the United Kingdom. (Property of the Earl of Cork.)

NAME OF VESSEL: The Star of the Sea (formerly the Golden Lady).

BUILDER: John Wood, Port Glasgow (prop. engines by M. Brunel).

OWNER: Silver Star Shipping Line & Co.

PREVIOUS VOYAGE: Dublin Port (South Docks) - Liverpool - Dublin Kingstown.

PORT OF EMBARKATION: Queenstown (or The Cove). 51°51'N; 008°18'W.

PORT OF DESTINATION: New York. 40°.42'N; 74°.02'W.

DISTANCE: 2,768 nautical miles direct: to be factorised for tacking into westerlies.

FIRST MATE: Thos. Leeson.

ROYAL MAIL AGENT: George Wellesley Esq. (accompnd. by a servant, Briggs).

WEIGHT OF VESSEL: 1,154 gross tons.

LENGTH OF VESSEL: 207 ft ¥ beam 34 ft.

GENERAL: clipper bows, one funnel, three square-rig masts (rigged for sail), oaken hull (copperfastened), three decks, a poop and topgallant forecastle, side-paddle wheel propulsion, full speed 9 knots. All seaworthy though substantial repairs required; also damage to interior fittings & cetera. Bad leaking through overhead and bulkheads of steerage. Hull to be audited in dry dock at New York and caulked if required.

CARGO: 5,000 lbs of mercury for Alabama Mining Co. The Royal Mail (forty bags). Sunderland coal for fuel. (Poor quality the supply, dirty and slaggy.) Luggage of passengers. Spare slop in stores. One grand piano for John J. Astor Esq. at New York.

PROVISIONS: sufficient of freshwater, ale, brandy, claret, rum, pork, cocks, mutton, biscuit, preserved milk & cetera. Also oatmeal, cutlings, molasses, potatoes, salt or hung beef, pork, bacon and hams, salted veal, fowl in pickle, coffee, tea, cyder, spices, pepper, ginger, flour, eggs, good port wine and porter-beer, pickled colewort, split peas for soup; and lastly, vinegar, butter, and potted herrings. Live beasts (caged) to be butchered on board: pigs, chickens, lambs and geese.

One passenger, a certain Meadowes, is lodged in the lock-up for drunkenness and fighting. (A hopeless out-and-outer: he shall have to be watched.) Suspected case of Typhus Fever moved to the hold for isolation.

Be it recorded that this day three passengers of the steerage class died, the cause in each case being the infirmity consequent on prolonged starvation. Margaret Farrell, fifty-two yrs, a married woman of Rathfylane, Enniscorthy, County Wexford; Joseph English, seventeen yrs (formerly, it is said, apprenticed to a wheelwright) of no fixed place but born near Cootehill, County Cavan; and James Michael Nolan of Skibbereen, County Cork, aged one month and two days (bastard child).

Their mortal remains were committed to the sea. May Almighty God have mercy upon their souls: 'For here have we no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.'

We have thirty-seven crew, 4021/2 ordinary steerage passengers (a child being reckoned in the usual way as one half of one adult passenger) and fifteen in the First-Class quarters or superior staterooms. Among the latter: Earl David Merridith of Kingscourt and his wife the Countess, their children and an Irish maidservant. Mr G.G. Dixon of the New York Tribune: a noted columnist and man of letters. Surgeon Wm. Mangan, M.D. of the Theatre of Anatomy, Peter Street, Dublin, accompanied by his sister, Mrs Derrington, relict; His Imperial Highness, the potentate Maharajah Ranjitsinji, a princely personage of India; Reverend Henry Deedes, D.D., a Methodist Minister from Lyme Regis in England (upgraded); and various others.

As we sailed this day came heavy news of the wreck of the Exmouth out of Liverpool on the 4th ult. with the loss of all 2391/2 emigrants on board and all but three of the crew. May Almighty God have mercy upon their souls: and may He bestow greater clemency upon our own voyage; or at least observe it with benign indifference.


The Victim

The SECOND evening of the Voyage: in which a certain
important Passenger is introduced to the Reader.


12°49'W; 51°11'N.
8.15 P.M.

The Right Honourable Thomas David Nelson Merridith, the noble Lord Kingscourt, the Viscount of Roundstone, the ninth Earl of Cashel, Kilkerrin and Carna, entered the Dining Saloon to an explosion of smashing glass.

A steward, a Negro, had stumbled near the doorway, bucked by a sudden roll of the vessel, letting slip an overloaded salver of charged champagne flutes. Someone was performing an ironic slow-handclap at the fallen man's expense. An inebriated mocking cheer came from the farthest corner: 'Huazzah! Bravo! Well done, that fellow!' Another voice called: 'They'll have to put up the fares!'

The steward was on his knees now, trying to clear the debris. Blood was rivuleting down his slender left wrist, staining the cuff of his brocaded jacket. In his anxiety to collect the shards of shattered crystal he had sliced open his thumb from ball to tip.

'Mind your hand,' Lord Kingscourt said. 'Here.' He offered the steward a clean linen handkerchief. The man looked up with an expression of dread. His mouth began to work but no sound came. The Chief Steward had bustled over and was barking at his subordinate in a language Merridith did not understand. Was it German, perhaps? Portuguese? Saliva flew from his mouth as he hissed and cursed the man, who was now cowering on the carpet like a beaten child, his uniform besmirched with blood and champagne, a grotesque parody of commodore's whites.

'David?' called Merridith's wife. He turned to look. She had half risen from her banquette at the Captain's table and was gaily beckoning him over with a bread-knife, her knotted eyebrows and pinched lips set in a burlesque of impatience. The people around her were laughing madly, all except the Maharajah, who never laughed. When Merridith glanced back towards the steward again, he was being chivvied from the saloon by his furious superior, the latter still bawling in the guttural language, the transgressor cradling his hand to his breast like a wounded bird.

Lord Kingscourt's palate tasted acridly of salt. His head hurt and his vision was cloudy. For several weeks he had been suffering some kind of urinary infection and since boarding the ship at Kingstown, it had worsened significantly. This morning it had pained him to pass water; a scalding burn that had made him cry out. He wished he'd seen a doctor before embarking on the voyage. Nothing for it now but to wait for New York. Couldn't be frank with that drunken idiot Mangan. Maybe four weeks. Hope and pray.

Surgeon Mangan, a morose old bore by day, was already pink in the face from drinking, his greasy hair gleaming like a polished strap. His sister, who looked like a caricature of a cardinal, was systematically breaking the petals off a pale yellow rose. For a moment Lord Kingscourt wondered if she was going to eat them; but instead she dropped them one by one into her tumbler of water. Watching them with a sullen undergraduate expression sat the Louisiana columnist, Grantley Dixon, in a dinner jacket he had clearly borrowed from someone larger and which gave his shoulders a boxy look. Merridith disliked him and always had, since being forced to endure his socialistic prattle at one of Laura's infernal literary evenings in London. The novelists and poets were tolerable in their way, but the aspiring novelists and poets were simply insufferable. A clown, Grantley Dixon, a perfervid parrot, with his militant slogans and second-hand attitudes: like all coffee-house radicals a screaming snob at heart. As for his imperious guff about the novel he was writing, Merridith knew a dilettante when he saw one, and he was looking at one now. When he'd heard Grantley Dixon was going to be on the same ship, he had almost wanted to postpone the journey. But Laura had told him he was being ridiculous. He could always count on Laura to tell him that.

What a collection to have to abide over dinner. A favourite expression of his father's came into Merridith's mind. Too much for the white man to be asked to bear.

'Are you quite all right, dear?' Laura asked. She enjoyed the role of the concerned wife, particularly when she had an audience to appreciate her concern. He didn't mind. It made her happy. Sometimes it even made him happy too.

'You look as if you're in pain. Or discomfort of some kind.'

'I'm fine,' he said, easing into his seat. 'Just famished.'

'Amen to that,' said Surgeon Mangan.

'Excuse my lateness,' Lord Kingscourt said. 'There are two little chaps I know who insist on being told bedtime stories.'

The Mail Agent, a father, gave a strange, baleful smile. Merridith's wife rolled her eyes like a doll.

'Our girl Mary is ill again,' she said.

Mary Duane was their nanny, a native from Carna in County Galway. David Merridith had known her all his life.

'I don't know what's come over that girl,' Lady Kingscourt continued. 'She's barely left her cabin since the moment we boarded. When usually she's hale as a Connemara pony. And quite as bloody-minded as one too.' She held up her fork and gazed at it closely, for some reason gently pricking her fingertips with the ends of the tines.

'Perhaps she is homesick,' Lord Kingscourt said.

His wife laughed briefly. 'I hardly think so.'

'I notice some of the sailorboys giving her the glad eye,' said the Surgeon affably. 'Pretty little thing if she didn't wear so much black.'

'She was bereaved of her husband not too long ago,' said Merridith. 'So she probably shan't notice the sailorboys I should think.'

'Oh dear, oh dear. Hard thing at her age.'


Wine was poured. Bread was offered. A steward brought a tureen and began to serve the vichyssoise.

Lord Kingscourt was finding it difficult to concentrate. A worm of pain corkscrewed slowly through his groin: a stone-blind maggot of piercing venom. He could feel his shirt sticking to his shoulders and abdomen. The Dining Saloon had an ashy, stagnant atmosphere, as though pumped dry of air and filled up with pulverised lead. Against the cloying odour of meat and over-bloomed lilies another more evil stench was trying to gain. What in the name of Christ was that filthy smell?

The Surgeon had clearly been in the middle of one of his interminable stories when Merridith had arrived. He resumed telling it now, chuckling expansively, enfeebled by duckish clucks of self-amusement as he gaped around at the dutifully simpering company. Something about a pig who could talk. Or dance? Or stand on its hind legs and sing Tom Moore. It was an Irish peasant story anyway: all of the Surgeon's were. Gintilmin. Sorr. Jayzus be savin' Yer Worship. He tugged his invisible forelock and puffed out his cheeks, so juicily proud of his facility for imitation. It was something Merridith found hard to stomach, the way the prosperous Irish were never done lampooning their rural countrymen: a sign, they often claimed, of their own maturity on matters national, but in truth just another form of cringing obsequiousness.

'Will you tell me now,' the Surgeon chortled, his bright eyes streaming with excess of mirth, 'where else could that happen but darlin' auld Oirland?'

He spoke the last three words as though in inverted commas.

'Wonderful people,' agreed the heavily perspiring Mail Agent. 'A marvellous logic all their own.'

The Maharajah said nothing for a few long moments, grim-faced and bored in his stiff robes. Then he muttered a few gloomy syllables and snapped his fingers to his personal butler who was standing like a Guardian Angel a few feet behind him. The butler brought over a small silver box, which the Maharajah reverently opened. Out of it he took a pair of spectacles. He looked at them for a moment, as though surprised to have found them there. Cleaned them with a napkin and put them on.

'You'll remain at New York for some time, Lord Kingscourt?'

It took a moment for Merridith to realise whom the Captain was addressing.

'Indeed,' he said. 'I mean to go into business, Lockwood.'

Inevitably Dixon gave him a look. 'Since when did the gentry stoop to working for a living?'

'There's a famine in progress in Ireland, Dixon. I assume you stumbled across it on your visit there, did you?'

The Captain gave an apprehensive laugh. 'I'm sure our American friend meant no offence, Lord Kingscourt. He only thought - '

'I'm quite aware of what he thought. How can an Earl be fallen low as a tradesman? In a way my dear wife often thinks the same thing.' He looked across the table at her. 'Don't you, Laura?'

Lady Kingscourt said nothing. Her husband went back to his soup. He wanted to eat it before it coagulated.

'Yes. So you see my predicament, Dixon. Not a man on my estate has paid rent for four years. My father's death leaves me with half of all the bogland in southern Connemara, a great deal of stones and bad turf, a greater deal of overdue accounts and unpaid wages. Not to mention the considerable duties owing to the government.' He broke a piece of bread and took a sip of wine. 'Dying is rather expensive,' he smiled darkly at the Captain. 'Unlike this claret. Which is muck.'

Lockwood glanced uneasily around the table. He wasn't accustomed to dealing with the aristocracy.

A young woman had begun to pluck the ornate harp that was sitting near the dessert table in the middle of the saloon, beside the dripping ice sculpture of Neptune Triumphant. The melody sounded tinny and just slightly out of tune, as harp music habitually sounded to Merridith, but she played with a seriousness he found affecting. He wished the Dining Saloon were empty except for himself and the young woman. He would have liked to sit there and drink for a while: drinking and listening to the out-of-tune music. Drinking until he felt nothing.

Connors? Mulligan? Lenihan? Moran?

Earlier in the day, through the cast-iron bars that fenced off the people of steerage from their betters, he had noticed a man he had often seen in the streets of Clifden. The fellow was in chains, and either drunk or half mad, but Merridith still recognised him, he wasn't mistaken. He was a tenant of Tommy Martin's at Ballynahinch. Apparently - so the Methodist minister from Lyme Regis had said - he had been flung in the lock-up for being drunk and violent. Merridith had been quite astounded to hear it. That wasn't at all how he remembered him.

Corrigan? Joyce? Mahony? Black?

He would come in to Clifden on a Monday morning to sell turnips and kale with father, a smallholder: a pugnacious little jockey of a typical Galwayman, full of spit and strength and snap. What the hell was his name? Fields? Shields? A widower, anyway. Wife died in '36. He'd scraped a living for himself and seven children out of a perch of quartzite shale on the slopes of Bencollaghduff. Ridiculous to say, Merridith had often envied them.

He knew himself how ridiculous that was. And yet the father was clearly so proud of his son. There was a tenderness between them, an embarrassed affection, even though they were never done goading each other. The farmer would accuse his son of idleness; the son would retort that his father was a drunken gawm. The man would clip his son across the head; the son would fling a half-rotten turnip at him. The women of Clifden would congregate around their rickety stall as much to watch them trade imprecations as to buy what meagre goods they offered. Abusing each other had become a kind of pantomime. But Merridith knew that was all it was.


Very early one December morning, driving the phaeton to meet his sister off the mail-coach at Maam Cross, he had seen them kicking a ragged football in the middle of the empty marketplace. The morning was still: a little misty. Their stall had been set up near the gates of the church, the turnips polished like gleaming orbs. The whole town was asleep except for the father and son. Leaves were drifting in the deserted streets; the fields in the distance were silvered with dew. He remembered it all now, as he sat in the Dining Saloon, plunging through the rolling darkness of the sea. The strange beauty of everything in the Connemara morning. Their shadowed forms gliding through the mist like celestial beings. The thuk as one of them would hoof into the ball. The muffled shouts. The impish obscenities. The extraordinary music of their unrestrained laughter echoing against the high black walls of the church.

In all his childhood Lord David Merridith had never kicked a football with his own father. He wasn't sure his father would have recognised a football. He remembered saying as much to his sister when he met her off the Bianconi that morning, weighed down with Christmas parcels and boxes of candied fruits; brimming with news and gossip from London. The way she had laughed and agreed with his remark. Probably, Emily said, if Papa had ever seen a football, he would have rammed it into a cannon and tried to shoot it at a Frenchman.

He wondered where his father was now. His body was buried in the churchyard at Clifden; but where was he? Was there any shred of truth to it, after all, the pietistical absurdity of life after death? Could the story be metaphor for some other, more scientific reality? Would the sages of the coming times be able to decode the allegory? And if such a truth existed, how did it work? Where was Heaven? And where was Hell?

Am I all my fathers? Are they all me?

Three weeks before embarking on the Star of the Sea, Merridith had locked up the house in which he and his father and grandfather had been born, shuttered up its shattered windows, closed it and locked it for the last time. He had handed the keys to the valuer from Galway and walked around the empty stables for a while. Not a single former tenant had turned up to see him off. He had waited until dusk but nobody had come.

Accompanied by his bodyguard - the man had insisted - he had ridden out from Kingscourt to visit his father's grave at Clifden, only to find that it had been desecrated again. The granite sea-angel had been smashed in two, the words ROTTIN BASTARD whitewashed across the tombstone, along with the emblem of those who had put them there. His grandfather's grave and those of the ancestors had all been marked with the splattered badge of their loathing. Merridith's own name appeared on several of the stones, and those ones, too, had been defaced. His mother's tomb alone had not been touched, a pardoning which had merely made the despoliation around it seem starker. But looking at the scene, he had been able to feel nothing. Only the misspelled words had truly taken his attention. Did they mean that his father was rotten or rotting?

He wondered about that now: the awful inadequacy of his response. And what precisely had they meant to say, these men who had ruined his father's grave? Their symbol was an H enclosed in a heart, but what heart was it that could violate the dead? 'Hibernian Defenders', his bodyguard had explained; the name the local troublemakers gave to themselves. Another name they went by was 'the Liable Men', primarily because they dealt out liability; also they were gruesomely reliable in doing so. And Merridith had quietly pretended not to know these etymologies already, had feigned his usual interest in the customs of the indigenous, as though the constable had been enlightening him about jig steps or fairytales. Had they truly hated his father quite so much? What had he done to deserve their repugnance? Yes, he had been an inflexible landlord, in the latter years especially; that was undeniable. But so had most other landlords in Ireland, and in England too, and everywhere else: some far worse and many more cruel. Didn't they know, these night-stalking mutilators, how much his father had tried to do for them? Couldn't they understand he was a man of his time, a conservative by instinct as well as politics? That politics and instinct were often the same thing, in the pebbled fields of Galway, in the statued halls of Westminster. Probably in every other place, too. 'Politics' the polite word for antediluvian prejudices, the rags put on by enmity and tribal resentment.

For some reason Merridith found himself thinking about his children: a memory of his younger son as a baby, sobbing in the night with the pain of teething. The puppet-stuffed nursery in the London house. Stroking the child's head. Holding his hand. A blackbird hopping on the rain-spattered windowsill. The tiny fingers tendrilling around his own, as though mutely to plead, 'stay with me'. Like Christ in the garden. Watch with me one hour. The heart-rending smallnesses we finally want. Strange thought that Merridith's father had been a baby once. And in the minutes before he died he had seemed so again; that vast, indignant, iron-hearted seaman whose portrait hung in galleries all over the empire. He had reached out his frail, white hand to David Merridith and squeezed his thumb as though trying to break it. There was fear in his eyes; gleaming terror. And David Merridith had wanted to say, It's all right. I'll stay with you. Don't be afraid. But he had not been able to say anything.

As though waking from a sleep that has lasted too long, he realised the people around him were talking about the Famine.

The Mail Agent was loudly contending with Dixon. 'The landlords aren't all bad, you know, dear boy. Many of them subsidise their tenants to emigrate.'

The American scoffed. 'To rid their estates of the weakest and keep the best.'

'I suppose they must run their lands as a proper business,' attempted the Captain. 'It's a hard thing for everyone, but there it is.'

The thrown-back glower was wholly predictable. 'And is it proper business to accommodate the steerage passengers as you have on this vessel?'

'The passengers are treated as well as my men can hope to treat them. I must work within the constraints laid down by my owners.'

'Your "owners", Captain? And who might those be?'

'I mean the owners of the ship. The Silver Star company.'

Dixon nodded grimly, as though having expected the answer. He was the kind of radical, so Merridith assumed, who is secretly relieved that injustices exist; morality being so easily attainable by saying you found them outrageous.

'He has a point, Lockwood,' the Surgeon said. 'Those people down in steerage aren't Africans, after all.'

'Nig-nogs are cleaner,' the Mail Agent chuckled.

The Surgeon's sister emitted a hiccup of tipsy laughter. Her brother gave her an admonishing glance. Quickly she arranged her features into an expression of sorrow.

'Treat a man like a savage and he'll behave like one,' Merridith said. His voice had a tremble that frightened him a little. 'Anyone acquainted with Ireland should know that fact. Or Calcutta or Africa or anywhere else.'

At the mention of Calcutta some of the company surreptitiously glanced at the Maharajah. But he was busy blowing on a spoonful of soup. A surprising thing to do, perhaps, given that the soup was already chilled.

Grantley Dixon was staring at Lord Kingscourt now. 'That's rich, Merridith, coming from you. I don't know how a member of your class can sleep at night.'

'I sleep very well, I assure you, old thing. But then I always peruse your latest article immediately before retiring.'

'I am aware that your Lordship has learned how to read. Since you wrote to my editor to complain about my work.'

Merridith gave a low-lidded, disdainful grin. 'Sometimes I even snore a little and keep my wife awake in bed.'

'David, for heaven's sake.' Lady Kingscourt was blushing. 'Such talk at the dining table.'

'Quite a sight, the periodic eruption of Mount Dixon the Lesser. As for when your long-awaited novel finally delights us all by appearing, no doubt I shall find it as conducive to tranquillity as the rest of your effusions. I dare say I shall sleep like Endymion, then.'

Dixon didn't join in the round of uneasy laughter. 'You keep your people in abject penury, or near it. Break their backs with work to pay for your position, then put them off the land with no compensation when it suits you.'

'No tenant of mine has been put off the land without compensation.'

'Because there's hardly anyone left to put off it, since your father evicted half of his tenants. Consigned them to the workhouse or death on the roads.'

'Dixon, please,' said the Captain quietly.

'How many of them are in Clifden Workhouse tonight, Lord Kingscourt? Spouses kept apart as a condition of entry. Children younger than your own torn from their parents to slave.' He reached into the pocket of his tuxedo and pulled out a notebook. 'Did you know they have names? Would you like me to list them? Ever once visited to read a bedtime story to them?'

Merridith's face felt as though it were sun-scorched. 'Do not dare to impugn my father in my presence, sir. Never again. Do you understand me?'

'David, calm down,' his wife said quietly.

'My father loved Ireland and fought for her freedom against the vicious scourge of Bonapartism. And I have used what you term "my position", Mr Dixon, to make strenuous argument for reform of the workhouses. Which would not be there at all to offer what help they do were it not for the likes of my father.'

Dixon gave a barely audible scoff. Merridith's tone was becoming more strident.

'I have spoken about the matter frequently, in the House of Lords and other places. But I shouldn't suppose your readers would be interested in that. Rather tittle-tattle and muck-raking and simplistic caricatures.'

'I represent the free press of America, Lord Kingscourt. I write as I find and I always will.'

'Don't delude yourself, sir. You represent nothing.'

'Gentlemen, gentlemen,' the Captain sighed. 'I implore you. We have a long voyage ahead, so let us leave aside our differences and remain good friends and companions together.'

Silence settled over the discomfited company. It was as though an uninvited guest had sat down at the table but everyone was too embarrassed to mention the fact. A dribble of unenthusiastic applause sounded through the saloon as the harpist finished a sentimental Celtic melody. Dixon pushed his plate away desultorily and downed a glass of water in three quick gulps.

'Perhaps we shall postpone the political discussion until later in the evening when the ladies have retired,' the Captain said, forcing a laugh. 'Now. More wine, anyone?'

'I have done all I can to improve the situation of those in the workhouses,' Merridith said, trying to keep his tone steady. 'I have lobbied, for example, to relax the conditions for admission. But this is a very difficult question.' He allowed himself to meet Dixon's now unmeasurable gaze. 'Perhaps you and I can have a talk about it on another occasion.' He added once more: 'it's a difficult question.'

'It certainly is,' Merridith's wife said suddenly. 'Unless strict conditions are imposed they take advantage of the help offered them, David. The conditions should be a great deal stricter, if anything.'

'That is not the case, dear, as I have told you previously.'

'I believe it is,' she calmly continued.

'No, it isn't,' said Merridith. 'And I have corrected you on this question before.'

'Otherwise we merely encourage that same idleness and dependency which have only led to their present misfortune.'

Merridith found his anger rising again. 'I'll be damned if I'll be given lectures on idleness by your good self, Laura. Damned, I say. Do you hear me now?'

The Captain put down his cutlery and gazed bleakly at his plate. At the next table the Methodist minister turned to give an owlish stare. Dixon and the Mail Agent sat very still. The Surgeon and his sister bowed their heads. The Maharajah continued quietly eating his soup, a soft whistle through his teeth as he blew on it.

'Permit me to apologise,' Lady Kingscourt said hoarsely. 'I am feeling a little unwell this evening. I believe I shall go to take some air.'

Laura Merridith rose stiffly from the table, dabbing her lips and hands with a napkin. The men half-stood and bowed as she went, all except her husband and Maharajah Ranjitsinji. The Maharajah never bowed.

He removed his spectacles, breathed carefully on to the lenses and began wiping them scrupulously on the hem of his golden scarf.

The Captain waved over one of the stewards. 'Go after the Countess,' he quickly muttered. 'Make sure she stays behind the First-Class gates.'

The man nodded his understanding and left the saloon.

'Natives restless, are they?' the Mail Agent smirked.

Josias Lockwood made no reply.

'Tell me something, Captain,' said the Maharajah with a perplexed frown. Everyone at the table gaped at him now. It was as though they had forgotten he was capable of speech.

'That pretty young lady who is at present playing the harp?'

The Captain gave an embarrassed look.

'You shall enlighten me, I know, if I am speaking in error.'

'Your Highness?'

'But isn't she actually...the Second Engineer?'

Everyone turned or stretched to stare. The harpist's hands were sweeping across the loom of strings, weaving a climax of ardent arpeggios.

'By the holy powers,' said the Mail Agent uneasily.

The Surgeon's sister made an attempt at laughter. But when nobody joined in, she suddenly stopped.

'It didn't seem right to have a man,' the Captain murmured. 'We do like to keep up appearances on the Star.'

Copyright © Joseph O'Connor 2002
First published in Great Britain by Secker & Warburg

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What People are Saying About This

Colum McCann

...O'Connor's most inventive novel: brave, comic, ambitious and still, at its coore, uniquely contemporary.

Reading Group Guide

Star of the Sea begins with four introductory quotations, or epigraphs. Comment on how each of the epigraphs relates to this novel.

Who is telling this story (or, more aptly, these stories)? What do we know of the narrator at the outset, and what do we come to learn about him? Also, discuss whether and where the book-within-a-book structure enhances the novel's key themes and ideas.

David Merridith and Mary Duane are perhaps the only two characters whom we encounter as both children and adults. (Can you think of any others?) How do David and Mary change over the course of the book? How do their identities as adults reflect or refract their younger selves? More generally, what comments or concepts about childhood did Star of the Sea suggest to you?

One reviewer of this novel has claimed, "Pius Mulvey deserves a place among the classic villains of literature." Do you agree?

Describe the mystery that informs this novel-especially its last few chapters. Who is the murder victim? Who is/are the murderer(s)? Who are the suspects? What are the clues? What are the red herrings?

Discuss how the novel explores the phenomenon of creativity, especially as it relates to language, names, lyrics, stories, poems, etc. Does the novel suggest that the writing of history is also a creative act? Is a truly objective version of history either possible or desirable?

Star of the Sea has much to say on the subject of love (and, for that matter, sex). What kinds of love do we find in this novel? And what kinds-if any-are downplayed here, if not entirely lacking?

Investigate the role played by Charles Dickens in this novel-as a minor character and, perhaps, as a literary influence on both Grantley Dixon and Joseph O'Connor. What other Victorian authors, in your view, might fit logically and convincingly into these pages a la Dickens?

Look again at the incantatory poem that comprises Chapter XXVII. What do you make of this puzzling litany? What does it mean? Who composed it? (And can you translate the Latin "Ora pro nobis" phrase?)

The last sentence of this book reads: "All the way back to Cain." Which characters in this novel might be seen as representations of the Cain and Abel paradigm? Identify specific scenes or dialogue to make your points.

Look again at the date that appears below Dixon's signature at the end of Star of the Sea. What is the significance of this date, both in terms of history and in the context of O'Connor's narrative?

The sea voyage that defines this novel is a journey to America, which in the nineteenth century was not only the land of opportunity but also the world's great melting pot. But the eponymous ship itself is likewise a melting pot. Compare the different cultures, ethnicities, and social classes presented in these pages.

Compare how America is depicted in Star of the Sea-and how it is diversely understood by the main characters-with how you think America is perceived today, both at home and abroad.

James Kincaid in the New York Times commented, "This is a brave and artful novel disguised to appear safe and conventional." Is this true? In what ways, and for what purposes, does the author disguise his novel?

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Star of the Sea 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 52 reviews.
Morning-Star More than 1 year ago
I love the historic detail O'Connor blended into the open yet secretly dark plot of Star of the Sea. His words and sentences enhances the human imagination which lures you more and more into each page turn. Highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
One of the most remarkable books I've read. I learned so much about the Irish famine, but beyond that, I learned how a human can become a monster, and how very human monsters can be. It's a story of tragedy, certainly, of a defilement of an entire people as well as the corruption of a select few. The story is well-written, with beautiful prose and remarkable imagery that sometimes just broke my heart. Read it!
Martha_J More than 1 year ago
I read a lot of Historical Fiction, and also enjoy Mystery/Thrillers, and Star of the Sea has it all. The backdrop is the mid-1800's when Ireland struggled with the great famine, the indifference of landowners and the government, and many Irish emigrated to America. The story is told through several different characters POV--snippets from the ship captain's log, news articles, etc. It is made clear immediately that the story is a murder mystery but the author takes his time unfolding the story. Beautiful prose, poignant social commentary, great storytelling. I look forward to a second reading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Im so sorry to see that someone thought this was 'predictable'. I LOVED this book. I loved the history, I loved the characters, and how they intertwined. Why this book is not on the best seller list, Ill not understand. I've told my boyfriend that if he reads it, and loves it too, then I'll know I should marry him!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This novel was not at all what I had expected - in a good way. I had the impression that this was going to be a depressing novel about  the famine and to be fair, it is, but it is so much more than that - and that's testament to O'Connor's skills as a storyteller. From the first chapter I was gripped by the characters and engaged by the murder mystery that keeps up the suspense till the very end. By following the stories of the privileged landowners and the poor tenants, O'Connor challenges some of our long-held, polarised views  of the famine in Ireland and shows things in a different light, which is the mark of great historical fiction. I really felt transported into another time whilst reading this book and engaged by the strong characters such as Pius Mulvey and Mary Duane. The journey of the Star of the Sea is a harrowing one and with every passing day there is an ominous feeling aboard the ship as they inevitably reach their destination. Stories of the famine can make for difficult reading, (and to be honest I would have been more inclined to read a non-fiction book on the subject) but I'm so glad I picked up this book. I would highly recommend this novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Star of the Sea By Joseph O¿Connor Once in a while we read a book, which is so gripping and interesting, that we are anxious to read it once again. After a trip to Ireland this year and visiting the many places of historical interest, I found it necessary to read more about the history of that enchanting country. My first step was to visit a good bookstore in Dublin, where I asked for more about the sad and alarming history of Ireland. The book most recommended was Star of the Sea by Joseph O¿ Connor. This book was written as a novel; however, it gives the reader of participating in the actual happenings. During and after reading the book, I spent a lot of time on the Internet, checking the facts. Mr. O¿Conner was meticulous about his writing. The story covers the 26-day sailing of the Star of the Sea ¿ an elderly ship, not in very safe conditioning, taking a large group of emigrants who escaped the cruel potato famine in the 1840¿s. There was the Monster (or murderer) Mulvey, who was on a mission to kill Lord Kingscourt, better known as David Merridith, who was on his way to a new life in New York. Mr. Dixon, who is having an affair with David Merridith¿s wife, Laura. Captain Lockwood was the very sympathetic captain of the Star of the Sea. We read quotes and chapters of his ship¿s log, bringing the story even more to life. Intertwined was the story of Mary Duane, a very sad and unlucky girl, whose life touched several of the characters. Each character is described so that after a while, the reader begins to recognize and feel with him or her. Star of the Sea is written so that the reader is taking the same frightening trip, leaving behind loved ones and their beloved land, in hopes of beginning a new life. Many of the emigrants did not survive the journey. There were outbreaks of illnesses, starvation, cold and unbelievable suffering. This is another story of the survival of the lucky and the fittest. Mr. O¿Connor wrote the story so that its author was actually Mr. G. Grantley Dixon. There are footnotes, which should be followed, throughout the book. The feeling is that Mr. Joseph O¿Connor took on the guise of Grantley Dixon. It is a must to read the Introduction and the Epilogue, so that we are not left hanging in the air, wondering what happened to the main characters. This is a page-turning read. Don¿t miss it! The pages will turn slowly, because we are always made to ponder what we have just read. Don¿t miss this fantastic piece of literature.
Guest More than 1 year ago
gritty, compelling story with great cast of characters. Historic and memorable!! I highly recommend it.
PennyAnne on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although this book was written in 2002 it uses the style and language of a book written in Victorian times. It tells the story of the "Star of the Sea" - a ship travelling from Ireland to America full of people escaping the Irish famine. It is the historical details which I enjoyed the most - details about the famine and the workhouses, the class distinctions, the view of the English toward the Irish at this time etc. I was also most interested to read of medical treatments of the time and fascinated to discover that doctors recommended that opium be injected as it was impossible to develop an addiction in that way. Fascinating book - not all of the characters are sympathetic and there are loose ends which I would have preferred to see tied off (although in life there are always loose ends) - definitely a book for historical fiction fans.
thewindowseatreader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It is 1847. There is a devastating famine in Ireland. People are dying at an insanely high rate. The rich delight in their social affluence, while the poor suffer deplorable conditions of disease, hunger, and filth. With hopes of reaching America, the fortunate (or not so fortunate) board the Star of the Sea for a journey across the Atlantic that only a percentage of the passengers will even survive.The depth of writing employed by Joseph O'Connor in Star of the Sea is not something to which I am accustomed, but I am left spellbound nonetheless. It was published in 2002, but it read more like a classic. The language was lovely, and if I was a more competent book reviewer I would be able to present you with several lovely quotes to exemplify this language of which I speak... but you will have to simply discover it for youself! :)In the first chapter, the reader is informed of the murder that will take place on board the Star, but divulging this seemingly large detail in the opening pages gives absolutely nothing away. The ending was still surprising, and I venture to say there are still several plotlines and complexities that I do not fully understand (I need a book club for discussion!). What I most loved was O'Connor's ability to illuminate the atrocities of famine and poverty while maintaining a moving, engaging plot.Final thoughts: If you prefer quick plot twists and lots of action, this one might be a bit drawn out for you. Otherwise, I highly recommend Star of the Sea.
Glorybe1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was not sure about this book to begin with, it took me a while to get into it and work out who was who! I found it confusing when the author kept calling Lord Kingscourt, David Merridith sometimes and Kingscourt at others, it was a while before I realised that they were one and the same! But when I had worked out who was who and what part they played in the story I did started to understand it better!!The Star of the Sea is a ship sailing to America from Ireland at the time of the famine. The Steerage passangers had pawned, stolen and done all manor of things to get the fare together and leave the hideous privations that had taken hold in Ireland when the potato crops failed, three or four years in a row. They had NOTHING and dreamed of finding a paradise across the Atlantic in America.In steerage we hear the story of a murderer, and why he had to commit this terrible crime. In first class were Lord Kingscourt and his wife and two young sons who were also fleeing Ireland,(Kingscourt was perceived as one of the despicable landlords, evicting the poor, starving, sick tenants who could not pay their rents) along with their maid Mary Duane, who features quite significantly in the story. And there was also a newspaper reporter who happened to be Laura Kingscourt's lover. And is a very uncomfortable character.The story jumps back and forth from the ship taking this volitile mixture of passengers to America, and Connemara in Ireland highlighting the terrible living conditions for the people there.I thought the book thought provoking but entirely predictable. Uncomfortable at times for the unfairness of it all, and the misery that the English caused these people. It wasn't for me entirely enjoyable, but was compelling nonetheless
1Owlette on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fascinating, powerful depiction of a journey from famine-struck Ireland to America. The multiple viewpoints and guest appearance of Charles Dickens can be distractingly whimsical at times, but also reflect the writer's fresh and adventurous approach to this work.
bezoar44 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A wonderful Irish tale of woe and pastiche of late Romantic/ early Victorian literary tropes. The story begins with most of the main characters on board a ship from Britain to America, then drops back periodically to explain their lives up to that point. Their stories mostly start painfully, are complicated by misery, and then go completely over the top. It's not a comedy - there's a righteous anger that underlies the entire fiction - but parts are bleakly funny, even as the characters suffer (or cause) appalling experiences. Woven throughout the story are literary jokes that cast an ironic light on the main narrator and add to the enjoyable complexity. The ending is both satisfying and disturbing, and left me rethinking earlier parts of the story in a new light.
baswood on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Some books transport you into another world that becomes very convincing. This book did that for me. It portrays a time when life was cheap for Irish folk escaping the potato famines by emmigrating to America. The apalling conditions on the boats lends a claustrophobic atmosphere to this murder mystery.
tibobi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It took me a little while to get into this story but once I did, I found it to be an enjoyable read. A murder mystery of sorts that takes place on a ship heading to America. Lots of interesting characters. Overall, a good read.
julie10reads on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It¿s 1847 and the ship Star of the Sea is making its last voyage from Ireland to the United States. The reader is soon alerted that there will be a murder on board. This mystery acts as background for Irish author Joseph O¿Connor to narrate through various points of view the Potato Famine that caused over a million deaths and a million more Irish to emigrate.The book mimics a late Victorian style with contents of each chapter posted underneath their title. Presumably Mr. O¿Connor intended irony but I found it coy. Through stylistically anachronistic flashbacks, the reader gets to know the various passengers of this tired old vessel. There¿s plenty of ¿local colour¿ in their language and attitudes. Still, I wasn¿t able to connect to any of the characters.Star of the Sea has received almost unanimously favourable reviews and I can understand why. I don¿t know why I found it so flat and wordy¿.but I did.7.5 out of 10 Recommended to readers who enjoy literary fiction and Irish history.
tbrennan1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this book lately while on vacation in the countryside. A boat leaves Ireland in 1847 during the Great Famine bound for America with a diverse set of passengers all with different reasons for undertaking the voyage. Joseph O'Connor presents the reader with a murder mystery against the background of famine ,land evictions and vengeance. A superb story which enlightens the reader of the horrific conditions pertaining in Ireland that Famine year while setting up the background for the murder at sea and then leading us to a startling denouement. Very highly recommended.
karensaville on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
2nd book of book club 2004. I enjoyed learning about the potato famine etc. of Ireland and the terrible journey and hard ship the passengers had to endure. However, I found the style of writing to be irritating as there were footnote references throughout the book as in more classical novels and log references at the beginning of every chapter from the ships captain. Also very small print. A clever book but not my cup of tea.
edwardsgt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Written as a contemporary, more or less, record of the Star of the Sea ship carrying a mixture of people, mainly Irish to a new life in America in 1847, at the height of the potato famine. Also records the background of a number of the Irish characters and provides an interesting insight into the lives and privations they experienced.
eleanor_eader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This novel has made it onto my rather slim list of favourite reads this year; it has certainly raised the bar of my expectations of historical fiction. The quality of writing, the rich soup of firmly believable characters all intertwined and seemingly doomed by their connections, the choice of narrative styles, the feeling of low tragedy told as high adventure, the ravaging journey which is somehow preferable to the shuffling starvation that has overwhelmed Ireland, the murder mystery told almost backwards, building a quite astonishing tension¿ I am firmly smitten with O¿Connor¿s style, which grants a rapport between the reader and the meanest, lowest character within the pages ¿ whoever you might deem that person to be. The Star of the Sea sets sail for America bearing its handful of first-class passengers and its steerage section crowded with destitute, starving Irish men and women; some bearing a murderous resentment for Lord Meredith, fleeing bankruptcy with his wife and their two sons, for his perceived role of evicting landlord. The family¿s maid, Mary Duane sails with them, her cargo a personal history that embroils Meredith (no saint, but a strangely sympathetic sinner) with Pius Mulvey, a prison escapee who, despite his back-story of abhorrent misdeeds, is also more compelling to the reader than repellent; such is O¿Connor¿s gift for character. Also aboard is the book¿s `author¿, American journalist (and aspiring novelist), Grantley Dixon, lover of Laura Meredith, whose presence torments Lord Meredith equally for the man¿s relentlessly touted social conscience, and relationship with the Earl¿s wife.Entwined with the unfolding drama, like another character, is the atmosphere of a famished Ireland and her people, and the conditions those lucky enough to be fleeing to a new life must survive or perish more miserably, perhaps, than if they had remained on shore, and the way the one tragedy colours the story, motives, and drama of the other is O¿Connor¿s primary accomplishment here.
edwinbcn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had once before started reading Star of the Sea. Farewell to Old Ireland by the Irish author Joseph O'Connor, but abandoned it, and this summer resolved to give it a final try. Not regretted.The reason I abandoned the book the first time, was its peculiar density and postmodern styling, including mock engravings and text printed in columns, etc which turned me off, thinking I would have to struggle through another tedious postmodern novel. Upon second reading, however, I found that the book is obviously very well-researched, perhaps a bit too much, as the five pages of dense printed "sources & acknowledgements" at the end of the book testify. The book itself consisted of 400+ pages of dense, and somewhat small print, and there were times I felt the book could have gained from terseness.The novel presents the adventures, or rather life, death and agony, on board the vessel Star of the Sea of a cross section of Irish society fleeing famine-stricken Ireland for hope of a better future in the New World. The book chronicles their 31-days voyage. However, the 34 chapters plus an epilogue describe much more than the events on board the ship. The novel portrays the lives of a few main characters into detail, their interactions and their socio-economic, and cultural family backgrounds at the time. The authors gaily winks at history, making one of the villainous characters claim to have told Charles Dickens all about thievery and pick-pocketing, serving him an entirely fictional account, and taking revenge on an associate by slipping Dickens the name of "Fagin" as a particularly vicious character.As the characters carry their past, and present feuds aboard ship, the "Farewell to Old Ireland" does not come about until after disembarkation, and we lose sight of them. Interesting, but demanding a lot of attention.
s_mcinally on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Good story, found the captains log boring. Found parts went on and on. Easy reading.
gercmbyrne on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A great read, this is O'Connors best book, better than the Salesman and a far cry from his Secret Diary days. Star of the Sea boasts much less evidence of the humour of the latter than of the uncompromising writing of the former, but it has a cynical wry undertone that prevents the book descending into didacticism or moralizing. It's a wonderful intelligent look at an aspect of the Famine and its aftermath but manages to be universal in its themes at the same time.
literature-geek on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book concealed such an amazing cast of characters. I instantly fell in love with Pius Mulvey as a man of enigma and endless misery. This book is realistic and gains momentum before its tragic end.
SmithSJ01 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very unusual literary tale about refugess fleeing from Ireland to New York in 1847. The journey takes 26 days and during these the reader gets to know the story of 3 of those fleeing the bitter winter, famine and their lives. Lord Merridith, thrown out of his home by his father and now bankrupt; the maidservant with devastating secrets and the story of Pius Mulvey, the aspiring novelist. It took me a while to get into the Dickensiann style of writing but once I did, O'Connor had me captivated. Not only is the style Dickensian but Dickens himself appears as a character. I really felt like I was reading one of the 'classics' to be honest and possibly have a dictionary at hand for some of the more challenging vocabulary! The narrative is fabulous and O'Connor's characters are completley rounded due to his vocabulary and description. If this had not been recommended to me I would not have bought it. It took me about 80 pages to get into before I felt I was on board, so persevere if you think it's not for you. Enjoy the journey through the characters' lives through some wonderful writing as they make the journey to the promised land. But as the old saying goes - is the grass always greener on the other side?
eekthecat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Joseph O¿Connor¿s Star of the Sea tells the story of the tortuous voyage from famine stricken Ireland to the Promised Land of the U.S. The refugees undertake the perilous journey in an effort to escape the horrors and deprivations of their pasts. The further they travel from home, the more they are burdened by the weight of past events. The rotting decks of the rickety old ship represent an intricate game of `Snakes and Ladders¿ where character¿s stars ascend though chance events only to ride back down the serpents tail again.A murderer is on board the `Star of the Sea¿, a killer whose identity is unclear. The masks are gradually lifted in this psychological study of transgression and desperation, an analysis that also includes accounts of great compassion and humanity. A difficult text to classify Star of the Sea is at once a `whodunnit¿, a thriller, a love story and a historical fiction novel.Passengers are segregated throughout the voyage, primarily thought the class barriers that exist between the First Class and steerage passenger, though issues such as nationality, religion and gender also play a part. As the novel progresses these borders are breached to reveal that it is what these characters share that results in the deepest rifts and most shocking consequences. In this meticulously researched piece O¿Connor interrogates the notion of English Imperialism as being the sole cause of Ireland¿s misfortune. Other contributing factors, particularly the abject failure of Irish landlords to aid their starving tenants, are examined. A complex text, made up of personal recollections, letters, diaries, illustrations, newspaper articles and ballads. The density of form heightens the sense of verisimilitude achieved through insistent attention to detail and a compelling writing style.