Thomas D. Kersting travels often with his wife to her native Ireland, where he has published articles on local history and culture over the years. These include several pieces in the Leitrim Guardian annual and a feature in CARA, the former in-flight magazine of Aer Lingus, on the history of his wife’s village. This article was the inspiration for the setting in TOBAR IN THE GLOAMING, his historical novel of the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s. Tom has also written some human interest pieces for local publications in NY. He is working on a memoir about growing up in The Bronx in the 1950s and ’60s, as well as some short fiction. A complete list of publications is on his blog, thomasdkersting.com, along with some blog posts he recorded as a commentator on Pawling Public Radio, formerly WPWLFM, in Pawling, NY.
Tom lives with his wife in the lower Hudson Valley of New York. They also spend time in Falmouth on Cape Cod, MA. He is a retired English teacher and coordinates a writing group at Arts on the Lake in Kent Lakes, NY.
Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?
From my earliest years in school I was captivated by the sound and rhythm of words. I recall a teacher in grammar school who mesmerized me by reciting the magical words of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Land of Counterpane to the class. It brought language and imagery to life for me and lit a flame that I have been rekindling ever since.
What inspired you to start writing this book?
The book began for me in 1981, when my mother-in-law took me up a mountain near her home in Ireland to meet an old man who lived alone beside an open hearth in a cottage without electricity. He recounted for us the history and folklore of the region as passed down to him in the oral tradition of rural Ireland. (Among the tales he told was the legend of a local rebel who bedeviled the English invaders in the late 18th century. I have imagined the protagonist in my novel as that rebel’s grandson.) Ever since that visit, in fields, at firesides, and in records, I have explored what that history and lore have to say. TOBAR IN THE GLOAMING is the story of resilience in the darkest times in that place.
Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?
Finding the title was for me an ordeal. I wrestled for many months to capture a title that would reflect the essence of what I was most trying to say. A sense of place pervades the novel, so much so that the landscape is, perhaps, something of a character itself. I had in mind Hardy’s depiction of Egdon Heath from THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE when writing the opening chapters, especially, and that informs many of the characters’ close association with the land throughout the story. The book attempts to capture the fading light—the gloaming—of a time and place that are no more. I tried to convey this in the local dialect of Tobar, as well as in its customs and beliefs. It seems to me that the old storyteller living alone on the mountain was more a figure from the nineteenth than the twentieth century.
If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?
Some of the songs my book or characters reference come to mind: “The Parting Glass,” “The Minstrel Boy,” etc.
Describe your dream book cover.
I have taken many photographs of northwest County Cavan over the years, often of rural sites long abandoned or otherwise forgotten. I’d be happy to see one of them on the cover of my book. A map I’ve sketched of Tobar Village in 1846 as I imagine it could, perhaps, appear inside the front cover.
What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?
I taught high school English for forty years, starting in the Bronx, but mostly in suburban Westchester County, NY. I guess it never comes across in my writing that I drove a yellow cab through the streets of NYC for a while one summer.
What books did you read (for research or comfort) throughout your writing process?
Among the principal sources on the Irish Famine of 1845-1852 that informed my research are Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger, Christine Kinealy’s This Great Calamity , Thomas Gallagher’s Paddy’s Lament, Tim Pat Coogan’s The Famine Plot, and John Kelly’s The Graves Are Walking and The Atlas Of The Great Irish Famine, edited by John Crowley, William J. Smyth, and Mike Murphy.
I also found helpful John O’Connor’s The Workhouses Of Ireland, Tim Pat Coogan’s The Famine Plot, Gerard Macatasney’s The Dead Buried By The Dying, Dymphna Mayne Headen’s The Potato Was Not The Problem. In addition, Annals of The Famine In Ireland, by Asenath Nicholson, John Killen’s The Famine Decade, and Cathal Póirtéir’s Famine Echoes offered invaluable contemporary accounts, as did Colm Tóbin and Diarmaid Ferriter’s THE IRISH FAMINE: A Documentary. The Great Irish Famine, edited by Cathal Póirtéir; Black ’47 And Beyond, by Cormac Ó Gráda; Irish Customs And Beliefs , by Kevin Danaher; and Ireland Before The Famine: 1798-1848, by Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh were also informative.
I am further indebted to the series of Famine Folios published by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, formerly at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, particularly the following: Angela Bourke’s Voices Underfoot: Memory, Forgetting, and Oral Verbal Art; L. Perry Curtis Jr.’s Notice To Quit: The Great Irish Famine Evictions; Christine Kinealy’s Apparitions of Death and Disease: The Great Hunger In Ireland; and Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh’s I mBéal An Bháis: The Great Famine Shift In Nineteenth-Century Ireland.
Among the verse or fictional works that inspired my writing are Liam O’Flaherty’s novel Famine; Patrick Kavanagh: The Complete Poems; Cavan playwright Tom Mac Intyre’s The Great Hunger, a dramatic rendering of Kavanagh’s long poem of the same title; Tom Murphy’s play Famine, and from the old Irish keening tradition The Lament For Art O’Leary, by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, all of which invoked the tenor of the times. Most recently I am indebted to Declan O’Rourke’s magnificent novel The Pawn Broker’s Reward for its rich and lyrical depiction of a famine community. Paul Lynch’s Grace, Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea, and Charles Egan’s The Killing Snows all offered authentic, richly textured fictional accounts of the impact of An Gorta Mor, The Great Hunger, as the Great Irish Famine is known in Ireland.
Patrick Weston Joyce’s English as We Speak It In Ireland, E. Estyn Evans’ Irish Folk Ways, and Henry Glassie’s Passing the Time In Ballymenone offered invaluable insights to local culture and folklore. Eileen Clancy and Patrick J. Forde’s Ballinaglera Parish, County Leitrim recorded the history, traditions, place names, and folkways of a nearby community with customs and culture shared by Tobar and the village of Dowra. Maura Clancy, with John Forde, C.F.C., reissued that work along with research on another nearby parish as Ballinaglera and Inishmagrath. The Dowra Resource Centre Committee and the County Leitrim Partnership published the booklet Dowra: A Changing Scene, recounting a brief history of the town. Most recently, the students of Saint Hugh’s National School, Dowra, published Fire On The Mountain, a highly informative compilation of historical accounts largely taken from contemporary newspapers, archives, and personal correspondence. Another regional publication, Proinnsíos Duigneáin’s North Leitrim in Famine Times 1840-1850, was also helpful.
What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?
I would hope that readers would come to appreciate that all places have a “then” and a “now,” and that in just a short while, the “now” becomes the “then.” Much about the “then” of a place is often worth preserving, or at least honoring. In attempting to capture the dialect words and phrases along with the customs and folklore of a time and place now gone, TOBAR IN THE GLOAMING attempts to do so.
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