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Star of the Sea

Star of the Sea

3.8 30
by Joseph O'Connor

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Thrilling and full of suspense, this is a novel of Ireland set on a New York-bound ocean liner.

In the spring of 1847, from an Ireland torn by disaster and injustice, the Star of the Sea sets sail for New York. On board are hundreds of hopeful emigrants, some brimming with optimism, many more desperate to get away and start afresh in the New World. Among them


Thrilling and full of suspense, this is a novel of Ireland set on a New York-bound ocean liner.

In the spring of 1847, from an Ireland torn by disaster and injustice, the Star of the Sea sets sail for New York. On board are hundreds of hopeful emigrants, some brimming with optimism, many more desperate to get away and start afresh in the New World. Among them are a maidservant nursing a devastating secret; the bankrupt Lord Merridith and his family; an aspiring novelist; a writer of revolutionary ballads -- all braving the Atlantic in search of a new beginning. Each is connected more deeply than they can possibly know. Also stalking the decks is a killer, hungry for the vengeance that alone will bring absolution.

The voyage of almost four weeks will see some lives end and others begin anew, and so much time to reflect on the life left behind; passionate loves tenderly recalled, ducked responsibilities now regretted, the shocking realization of a deep relationship where once it seemed there was nothing. In this spellbinding story of tragedy and mercy, love and healing, the further the ship sails towards the Promised Land, the more her passengers seemed moored to a past which will not let them go. This is a novel that is both urgently contemporary in its preoccupations, and historically revealing. It is a gripping and compassionate tale, building with the pace of a thriller to an unforgettable conclusion.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Fans of Matthew Kneale's English Passengers and Sheri Holman's The Dress Lodger will find themselves enthralled with this tale of a sea journey from the Emerald Isle across the Atlantic. Brimming with exquisitely rendered characters and historical detail, this captivating tale of mystery and murder combines the elements of the literary novel, historical epic, and thriller to create a muscular work of fiction with a surprising sense of page-turning urgency. Making a wintry voyage from Ireland to New York in 1847, the Star of the Sea is a ship filled with passengers whose range from humble folk fleeing the ravages of the Irish Potato Famine to bankrupt aristocrats trying to outrun the secrets of their past. Beneath these class differences lies a web of connections marked by betrayal and hatred that spans generations and is about to turn murderous.

Narrated by a fictitious journalist for The New York Times, O'Connor's novel is adroitly studded with interviews and reportage of the 26-day journey. A literary star in Ireland, O'Connor splashes onto our shores with formidable proof of his literary gifts, an epic feast of a novel revealing impeccable language skills and an ear for dialogue, combined with a wonderful attention to detail and subtle nuances. (Summer 2003 Selection)

The New York Times
Joseph O'Connor, an Irish critic and playwright who is also the author of several previous novels, lures us into an easy read that, before we know it, becomes a chilling indictment not of a murderer but of us. As a London publisher says midway through the book, advising a writer unsuccessfully peddling his fiction, this is ''a good old thumping yarn,'' the sort of thing a reader can ''sink his tusks into.'' But Star of the Sea is also an agonizing inquiry into the nature of abandonment and the difficulty of finding anyone who will truly care about the fate of others. How large does suffering have to loom before we take notice? O'Connor suggests that we can tolerate mountains of misery, sipping our coffee and reading our newspapers as the corpses pile up beneath the headlines. — James R. Kincaid
Publishers Weekly
First published in the U.K. and shortlisted for Irish Novel of the Year, this brooding new historical fiction by novelist, playwright and critic O'Connor (Cowboys and Indians) chronicles the mayhem aboard Star of the Sea, a leaky old sailing ship crossing from Ireland to New York during the bitter winter of 1847, its steerage crammed to the bulkheads with diseased and starving refugees from the Irish potato famine. The novel takes the form of a personal account written by passenger G. Grantley Dixon, a New York Times reporter who intersperses his narrative with reportage and interviews as he describes the intrigue that unfolds during the 26-day journey. There's Pius Mulvey, "a sticklike limping man from Connemara" known to the passengers as "the monster" or "the ghost," who shuffles menacingly around the ship and is the subject of many a rumor. There's Earl David Merridith of Kingscourt, one of the few passengers in first class, who has evicted thousands of his tenants for nonpayment of rent, dooming them and their families to almost certain death by starvation. Also aboard is the young widow, Mary Duane, a nanny for the Kingscourt children who shares a history of intimacies with both Kingscourt and Mulvey. And there is, of course, Kingscourt's wife, with whom Dixon is having an ill-advised affair. One of these passengers is on a mission to commit murder, and another is the fated victim. Through flashbacks, the complicated narrative paints a vivid picture of the rigors of life in Ireland in the mid-19th century. The engrossing, well-structured tale will hold historical fiction fans rapt. 4-city author tour. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
The New York Times Book Review
"A brave and artful novel...[T]his is "a good old thumping yarn", the sort of thing a reader can "sink his tusks into." But Star of the Sea is also an agonizing enquiry into the nature of abandonment and the difficulty of finding anyone who will truly care about the fate of others...Few modern writers have exposed with so much passion and skill the protective measures...that we wrap around ourselves." —James Kincaid
Library Journal
Aboard the creaky Star of the Sea, a motley handful of first-class passengers and hundreds of evicted tenants fleeing the 1840s Irish famine endure a stormy voyage to America. The first-class passengers include a bankrupted Irish landlord, Lord David Merridith; his discontented wife, Laura; an aspiring American man of letters, G. Grantley Dixon; and a compassionate English doctor who cares for dying famine victims below deck. Completing this microcosm of Irish society are Merridith's servant, Mary Duane, a victim of sexual abuse by her employer, and a mysterious Irish balladeer in steerage named Pius Mulvey, who is gradually revealed to be a notorious murderer armed with a mandate to kill David Merridith before the ship's arrival in New York harbor. Oscillating between the life stories of the characters in Ireland and the deaths of dozens of weakened famine victims aboard the ship, O'Connor (Cowboys and Indians) brilliantly weaves together an intriguing plot, a cast of memorable characters, and some stunningly realistic dialog. Universal themes of love, loyalty, vengeance, and violence are explored in the context of a troubled class-ridden society convulsed by the catastrophic potato blight. This first-rate historical thriller will prove popular in all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/03.]-Joseph M. Eagan, Enoch Pratt Free Lib., Baltimore Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Along the way O'Connor even brings in a thoroughly gripping murder mystery that is all the more affecting for the depth he gives his characters. They add up to a powerfully symbolic microcosm of the time. Bottom Line: Shining Star
Kirkus Reviews
A bumptious epic about a New World-bound ship Star of the Sea, full of raging immigrants, conflicted aristocrats, and a flint-eyed murderer. It’s the tumultuous year of 1847 when O’Connor’s gallimaufry of characters board a "coffin ship" bound from Ireland to New York. Hundreds of famine refugees huddle in steerage, while just above them a handful of first-class passengers reside in splendor, though they’re rent with hidden intrigues—and all hear the thudding gait of the loner with the bad leg who wanders the ship at night. At center are two men in particular: the aristocrat David Merridith and the limping loner, Pius Mulvey. Merridith is a self-loathing scion of a British family that had long owned a large chunk of Ireland. When the estate’s fortunes crashed, at the height of the famine, most of the tenant families were put off the land—while corpses littered the countryside. Now on his way to New York with wife and children, Merridith has many secrets, most concerning their servant, Mary Duane. Pius is of a different stripe, though he hates himself just as much: having abandoned a pregnant girlfriend and his slightly mad brother in Ireland, Pius made himself into a high-living thief in London’s East End, one night even giving great inspiration to Charles Dickens, who was slumming for material. Later come to ruin, Pius has been embarked on a mission by some Hibernian thugs who won’t take no for an answer: kill the English scum David Merridith. Told mostly in flashbacks, and mostly through the highly arched voice of first-class passenger and journalist Grantley Dixon, this is the sort of gloriously overstuffed story that could be told in hushed breath over fifteen or so lengthyinstallments on late-night radio. Irish author O’Connor ('Yeats Is Dead!' 2001; etc.) pulls out all the melodramatic stops for a thrilling tale without once losing his eye for the right detail or his ear for the perfect phrase.

A brave and artful novel.

A powerfully symbolic microcosm of the time. Bottom Line: Shining Star

By deconstructing the most defining moment of Irish history, and breaking down its essential components, he has given a face and a voice to the million who died.
Irish Echo
By deconstructing the most defining moment of Irish history, and breaking down its essential components, he has given a face and a voice to the million who died.
People Magazine
A powerfully symbolic microcosm of the time. Bottom Line: Shining Star
New York Times Book Review
A brave and artful novel.
From the Publisher

“A brave and artful novel.”—THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

“In Star of the Sea, O’Connor has written not only an epic novel, but also a very important one. By deconstructing the most defining moment of Irish history, and breaking down its essential components, he has given a face and a voice to the million who died.”

“Along the way O’Connor even brings in a thoroughly gripping murder mystery that is all the more affecting for the depth he gives his characters. They add up to a powerfully symbolic microcosm of the time. Bottom Line: Shining Star.”—PEOPLE

author of This Side of Brightness - Colum McCann

...O'Connor's most inventive novel: brave, comic, ambitious and still, at its core, uniquely contemporary.
The New York Times Book Review - James Kincaid

"A brave and artful novel...[T]his is "a good old thumping yarn", the sort of thing a reader can "sink his tusks into." But Star of the Sea is also an agonizing enquiry into the nature of abandonment and the difficulty of finding anyone who will truly care about the fate of others...Few modern writers have exposed with so much passion and skill the protective measures...that we wrap around ourselves."

Product Details

Secker, Martin & Warburg, Limited
Publication date:

Read an Excerpt

The Monster

A PREFACE; in which are sketched certain Recollections of THE STAR OF THE SEA; the condition of her passengers and the evil which stalked among them.


All night long he would walk the ship, from bow to stern, from dusk until quarterlight, that sticklike limping man from Connemara with the drooping shoulders and ash-coloured clothes.

The sailors, the watchmen, the lurkers near the wheelhouse would glance from their conversations or their solitary work and see him shifting through the vaporous darkness; cautiously, furtively, always alone, his left foot dragging as though hefting an anchor. A billycock hat was crumpled on his head, a ragged scarf wound around his chin and throat; his tattered military greatcoat so utterly dirty it was impossible to imagine it ever having been clean.

He moved with a deliberation that was almost ceremonial, a curious strain of threadbare stateliness: as a king in a story in disguise among his lessers. His arms were very long, his eyes needle-bright. Frequently he had a look of bewilderment or foreboding, as though his life had come to a point that was beyond explication or was drawing ever closer to such a point now.

His mournful face was disfigured with scars, cross-hatched with the blemishes of some affliction much exacerbated by his bouts of furious scratching. Though slender in build, made like a featherweight, he seemed to carry an indescribable burden. Neither was it a matter of his deformity alone -- a distorted foot in a brick of a wooden clog which was stamped or branded with a capital M -- but the air of anguished expectancy he bore; the perpetually frightened watchfulness of the abused child.

He was one of those men who attract great attention by making a great effort to attract none. Often, although they could not explain it, the sailors had a sense of his presence before seeing him. It became their amusement to wager on his whereabouts at a given hour. 'Ten bells' meant down by the starboard pigpens. Quarter after eleven found him up at the scuttlebutt where by day the destitute women of steerage prepared what little food they had -- but even by the third night out of Liverpool the contest had lost its power to kill the time. He walked the ship as though following a rite. Up. Down. Across. Back. Stem. Port. Stern. Starboard. Materialising with the stars, stealing below with the sunrise, he came to be known among the ship's nocturnal denizens as 'the Ghost'.

Never did he engage the sailors in conversation. The night-stragglers, also, he completely eschewed. Not even after midnight would he speak to another, when anyone still above boards would talk to anyone else; when the dark, wet deck of the Star of the Sea saw a fellowship seldom apparent by daylight. Gates were left open at night on the ship; rules relaxed or quite ignored. It was illusory, of course, this witching hour democracy; darkness seeming to obliterate station or creed, or at least level them down to a point where they were not worth acknowledging. An acknowledgement in itself, perhaps, of the axiomatic powerlessness of being at sea.

At night one sensed the ship as absurdly out of its element, a creaking, leaking, incompetent concoction of oak and pitch and nails and faith, bobbing on a wilderness of viciously black water which could explode at the slightest provocation. People spoke quietly on the decks after dark, as though fearful of awakening the ocean to savagery. Or one pictured the Star as a colossal beast of burden, its rib-timbers straining as though they might burst; flailed by an overlord into one last persecution, the hulk half dead already and we passengers its parasites. But the metaphor is not a good one for not all of us were parasites. Those of us who were would not have admitted it.

Below us the depths which could only be imagined, the gorges and canyons of that unfathomed continent: above us the death-black bowl of the sky. Wind pounded down in an outrage of screams from what even the most sceptical mariner was careful to term 'the heavens'. And the breakers thrashed and battered our shelter; like wind made flesh, incarnate and animate, a derision of the hubris of those who had dared to invade them. Yet there was an all but religious tranquillity among those who walked the decks at night: the angrier the sea, the icier the rain, the more palpable the solidarity among those withstanding them together. An admiral might chat to a frightened cabin boy, a hungry man of steerage to a sleepless Earl. One night a prisoner, a maddened violent Galwayman, was brought from the lock-up to take his doleful exercise. Even he was included in this communion of the somnambulant, quietly conversing and sharing a cup of rum with a Methodist minister from Lyme Regis in England who had never tasted rum before but had often preached its evils. (Together they were observed kneeling on the quarterdeck and quietly singing 'Abide With Me'.)

New things were possible in this Republic of night-time. But the Ghost showed no interest in possibility, or novelty. He was immune; a crag in the vastness surrounding him. Prometheus in rags, awaiting the avid birds. He stood by the mainmast watching the Atlantic as though expecting it to freeze over or bubble with blood.

Between first bell and two bells most would slip away; many alone but some together, for tolerances flowered under night's kind cover; nature and loneliness bedfellows in the dark. From three until first light, little happened on deck. It rose and it fell. It climbed. It plunged. Even the animals slept in their cages: pigs and chickens, sheep and geese. The clang of the watch-bell would sometimes puncture the ceaseless and numbing susurration of the sea. A sailor might sing shanties to keep himself awake: he and a comrade might tell stories to each other. From down in the lock-up the madman was intermittently heard, yelping like a wounded dog or threatening to brain the other prisoner with a handspike. (There was, at that time, no other prisoner.) A couple might be glimpsed in the shadowed alleyway formed by the aft wall of the wheelhouse and the base of the funnel. Still he would stand, that man from Connemara, gazing out at the awesome darkness; facing like a figurehead into the sleet, until the webs of the rigging emerged from the murk, so black against the reddening sky of dawn.

Just before sunrise on the third morning, a seaman approached to offer him a pan of coffee. Beadlets of ice had formed on his face, on the back of his coat and the brim of his hat. He did not accept the benevolence nor even acknowledge it. 'As poor as a pox-doctor's clerk,' the Mate remarked, watching him shuffle silently away.

The sailors sometimes wondered if the Ghost's nightly ritual was a religious observance or exotic self-punishment, such as the Catholics of Ireland were whispered to favour. A mortification, perhaps, for some unspeakable transgression, or ransom for the souls ablaze in Purgatory. They believed strange things, these Aboriginal Irish, and a mariner whose profession took him among them might expect to witness strange behaviour. They talked in a nonchalant, matter-of-fact manner about miracles; saintly apparitions; statues that bled. Hell was as real as the city of Liverpool, Paradise as mappable as Manhattan Island. Their prayers were like spells or voodoo incantations. Maybe the Ghost was a holy man: one of their gurus.

Among his own tribe, too, he evoked confusion. The refugees would hear him opening the hatch, hobbling down the ladder and into the gloom of candles; his hair wild, his clothes sodden, his glazen eyes like those of a half-dead mackerel. They knew it was dawn when they saw him coming, but he seemed to bring below the stinging cold of the night. Darkness clung around him, a cloak of many folds. If there was noise, as there often was even at dawn- a huddle of men colloguing, a woman deliriously chanting the Mysteries- his arrival would cause much of it to die. They watched as he shivered the length of the cabin, as he dragged himself down through the bundles and baskets, flaccid with exhaustion, dripping and coughing, a battered puppet whose strings had been cut. He would peel the drenched coat from his shuddering torso, fold it and roll it to the shape of a bolster and slump in his blanket to sleep.

No matter the happening, he would sleep all the day. Invulnerable to the noises of babies or seasickness, to the quarrels and tears and fighting and gaming that made up the clatter of life below decks, to the roars and oaths and wooings and ragings, he would lie on the boards like a corpse. Mice scuttled over him; he never gave a twitch; roaches ran under the collar of his semmit. About him the children would canter or puke, men would scrape fiddles or bellow or argue, women would haggle for a little spare food (for food was this waterborne dominion's only currency, its disbursement a matter of fevered speculation). From the heart of the din came the groans of the sick, rising like prayers from their paltry bunks; the sick and the healthy sleeping side by side, the tormented moans and fearful invocations mingling with the buzzing of the innumerable flies.

The line for the only two water closets in steerage formed directly past the coffin lid of squalid floor that the Ghost had silently claimed as his berth. One lavatory was cracked, the other clogged and overflowing; the cubicles infested with legions of hissing rats. By seven in the morning the ammoniac stench, constant as the cold and the cries of steerage, would have invaded that floating dungeon with savage force, would be filling it up like an erupting spirit. The stink had an almost corporeal presence; it felt like something you could grasp in gluey fistfuls. Rotten food, rotten flesh, rotten fruit of rotting bowels, you smelt it on your clothes, your hair, your hands; on the glass you drank from and the bread you ate. Tobacco smoke, vomit, stale perspiration, mildewed clothes, filthy blankets and rotgut whiskey.

The portholes intended to ventilate steerage would be thrown open in an attempt to quell the astounding putrescent reek. But if anything, the breeze seemed only to make it worse, blowing it into the hollows and alcoves. Saltwater would be sluiced over the boards twice a week, but even the freshwater stank of diarrhoea and had to be laced with vinegar before it could be faced. The malicious fetor oozed its way around steerage, a steaming, noxious, nauseating vapour that stung the eyes and inflamed the nostrils. But that choking effluvium of death and abandonment was not baneful enough to wake the Ghost.

Since the start of the voyage he had remained imperturbable. Just before noon on the morning we left Liverpool a great shout had gone up from a group on the maindeck. A barquentine had been sighted approaching from the south, heading up the coast towards Dublin. The Duchess of Kent was her honoured name. She had carried the remains of Daniel O'Connell, M.P. -- 'the Liberator' to Ireland's Catholic poor -- from his death-place at Genoa in August of that year, to be laid to rest in his motherland.* Seeing the ship was like seeing the man; so it appeared from the passengers' tearful praying. But far from joining the Novenas for the fallen champion, the Ghost had not even come up on deck to watch. Heroes did not interest him as much as sleep; nor did their hallowed vessels.

*In my memory the sails on that ship were black, but when I consult my notes I see I am mistaken. --G. G. Dixon.

At eight o'clock the galley crew distributed the daily ration: half a pound of hardtack and a quart of water for each adult, half that banquet for every child. Roll call was taken at a quarter after nine. Those who had died the night before were removed from steerage to await disposal. Sometimes the slumbering Ghost was mistaken for one of them and required the protection of his dilapidated fellows. The plywood bunks would be hastily hosed down. Swabs were mopped across the boards. Blankets would be collected and boiled in urine to kill the lice that spread scabies.

After they had eaten, the people of steerage would dress and wander up to the deck. There they would walk in the clean, cold air; would sit on the boards and beg from the sailors; would watch through the cast-iron double-locked gates as we First-Class passengers took pastries and coffee under the shelter of the silken awnings. Exactly how the cream was kept fresh for the rich was often vigorously discussed by the poor. A bead of blood dropped into the mix was said by some to be effective.

The first days passed with agonising slowness. To the passengers' stupefaction, they had learned at Liverpool that the ship would be taking them back to Ireland before setting out to confront the Atlantic. The news led to frustrated drinking among the men, which in turn had led to frustrated fights. Most in steerage had sold all they owned to gather the fare across to Liverpool. Many had been robbed in that unhappy and violent city, swindled into parting with their few possessions; sold heaps of crudely stamped pewter washers which they were informed were American dollars. Now they were being carried back to Dublin, from where they had fled in the weeks before, resigned- or endeavouring to become resigned, at least- to never setting eyes on their homeland again.

But even that small blessing was to be denied them. We had chopped across a filthy-tempered Irish Sea and docked at Kingstown to take on provisions; then crept down the jagged south-east coast, making for Queenstown in the county of Cork. (Or 'Cobh', as it is known in the Gaelic language.) Seeing Wicklow glide past, or Wexford or Waterford, seemed to many a bitter taunt, a poultice being ripped from a putrefying wound. A consumptive blacksmith from the town of Bunclody jumped the upperdeck rail near Forlorn Point and was last seen swimming weakly towards the shore; every last shred of his will employed to bring him back to the place where his death was certain.

At Queenstown a hundred more passengers came on, their condition so dreadful that it made the others seem as royalty. I saw one elderly woman, little more than an agglomeration of rags, barely gain the gangplank only to die on the foredeck. Her children beseeched the Captain to take her to America anyway. No means were available to pay for her burial but they could not support the shame of dumping her body on the wharf. Her aged and crippled husband was lying on the quayside, too afflicted by famine fever to be able for the journey, a few short hours from death himself. He could not be asked to witness that sight as one of his last sights on earth.

The Captain had refused to acquiesce. A sympathetic man, he was a Quaker by faith, but bound by a set of regulations he dared not to transgress. After almost an hour of weeping and begging, a middle course was discovered and carefully plotted. The woman's body was wrapped in a blanket from the Captain's own bunk, then placed in the lock-up until we had left the port, at which point it was discreetly thrown overboard. Her people had to do it themselves. No seaman could be asked to touch the remains in case of infection. It was later recounted by the Fourth Engineer, who against all advice had been moved to assist them, that they had disfigured her face terribly with some kind of blade, fearful that the current would drift her back to Crosshaven where she might be recognised by her former neighbours. Amongst those so poor that they deserve no shame, shame lasts even longer than life. Humiliation their only inheritance, and denial the coinage in which it is paid.

The batterings of recent crossings had taken their toll of the Star, a vessel approaching the end of her service. In her eighty-year span she had borne many cargoes: wheat from Carolina for the hungry of Europe, Afghanistan opium, 'blackpowder' explosive, Norwegian timber, sugar from Mississippi, African slaves for the sugar plantations. The highest and the most hideous instincts of man had been equally served by the Star's existence; to walk her decks and touch her boards was to feel in powerful communion with both. Her Captain did not know -- perhaps nobody knew -- but she was bound for Dover Docks when this voyage was completed, there to finish out her days as a hulk for convicts. A few of the steerage people were offered work by the Captain's Mate: coopering, caulking, doing odd bits of joinery, stitching up shrouds out of lengths of sailcloth. These were envied by their comrades who had no trade or whose trade back in Ireland had been tending sheep: as useless an occupation aboard the ship as it would surely prove in the slums and rookeries of Brooklyn. On-board work meant extra food. For some, it meant survival.

No Catholic priest was among us on the Star of the Sea, but sometimes in the afternoon the Methodist minister would recite a few uncontroversial words on the quarterdeck or read aloud from the scriptures. He favoured Leviticus, Maccabees and Isaiah. Howl, ye ships of Tarshish: for your strength is laid waste. Some of the children found his fiery style frightening and pleaded with their parents to be taken away. But many remained behind to listen, as much to kill the boredom as anything else. A small-headed, dapper, compassionate man, he would stand on his tiptoes and conduct them with his toothbrush as they sang the adamant hymns of his denomination, the lyrics starkly majestic as granite-stone graves.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come;
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.
Down in steerage, the Ghost slept on through the singing.

And then the darkness would descend again. He would rise from his flea-ridden heap of stinking bedding and devour his ration like a man possessed. His food was left for him in a pail beside his berth and though theft of food was far from unknown on the Star, nobody ever stole the Ghost's.

He would take a drink of water. Every other day he would shave. Then he would don his ancient greatcoat, as a warrior putting on his armour of battle, and bluster his way up into the night.

The steerage cabin was situated directly below the maindeck, its half-rotted roof planks here and there as brittle as the biscuit that kept its inhabitants one swallow from death. So sometimes in steerage, as the dusk came down, they would hear the clug of his wooden shoe above them. A thud, and a shower of powdery splinters, causing children to chuckle into their gruel or take a kind of delicious fright. Some of the mothers would seize on their trepidation: 'If you're not good this minute and do as you're bidden, I'll put you above for Lord Ugly to eat you.'

The Ghost was not ugly but his face was unusual. Pale as milk and slightly elongated, its features might have been stolen from several different men. His nose was bent and a little too long. His ears protruded slightly like those of a harlequin. His hair, as a hideously overgrown black dandelion, might once have belonged to a pantomime ghoul. His wan blue eyes had an unearthly clarity which made the rest of his face seem dark despite its pallor. A smell of wet ashes hung around him, commingling with the odour of the long-time traveller. Yet he was more careful than many in his habits and was frequently observed to use half his water ration to wash his comically tangled hair, as meticulous as any débutante preparing for a ball.

Tedium was the god who reigned over steerage, commanding the acolytes of restlessness and dismay. The Ghost's eccentric demeanour soon began to attract speculation. Any assemblage comprising human beings, any family, any party, any tribe, any nation, will bind itself together not by what it shares but ultimately by what it fears, which is often so much greater. Perhaps it abhors the outsider as camouflage for its own alarms; dreading what it would do to itself were the binding to fall asunder. The Ghost became useful as the stranger of steerage, the freak come among the terrified normal. His presence helped to cultivate the illusion of unity. That he was indeed so very strange only increased his value.

Rumours adhered to him like barnacles to a hull. It was said by some that he had been a moneylender back in Ireland; a 'gombeen' in their slang; a hated figure. Others pronounced him the former master of a workhouse, or a landlord's agent or a deserted soldier. A candle-maker from Dublin insisted the Ghost was an actor and swore he had seen him playing his namesake in a production of Hamlet at the Queen's in Brunswick Street. Two Fermanagh girls who never laughed were certain he must have served time in a bridewell, so cold was his expression and so calloused his small hands. His apparent fear of daylight and love of the darkness led some of the imaginative to call him 'a cithoge'; a weird supernatural of Irish legend, the child of a faerie and a mortal man, possessed of the power to curse and conjure. Yet nobody was sure of exactly what he was, for he gave away little in conversation. Even a question of platitudinous unimportance would draw only a mumble by way of response, always evasive or too quiet to be understood. But he had the vocabulary of a scholar and was certainly literate, which many of those in steerage were not. Approached by one of the braver children, he would sometimes read in an oddly tender whisper from a tiny book of stories which he kept in the depths of his greatcoat and never allowed anyone to touch or examine.

When drunk, which was rare, he had his countrymen's habit of talking in ironies that do not seem ironic: of turning a question back on the interrogator. But most of the time he did not speak at all. He took pains to avoid one-to-one conversation completely, and in company -- which was often unavoidable, given the merciless realities of steerage -- he would bow his head and gaze at the boards, as one lost in prayer or hopeless recollection.

It was said by some of the children he tolerated that he knew the names of an astonishing number of species of fish. Music, too, seemed to interest him somewhat. One of the sailors, from memory a Mancunian, claimed to have seen him studying a broadsheet of Irish ballads -- and laughing at its contents for some unrevealed reason: 'cackling like a crone on Hallowe'en night'. When asked with absolute directness he would give an opinion of a fiddler. But the opinion was always briefly expressed, and almost always approving in tone, and as happens with those who only give approving opinions, the others soon wearied of asking him.

He had something of the younger priest; an unease around women. But clearly enough he was no sort of priest. He read no breviary, dispensed no blessing, never joined in the Glory Be. And when the first of the passengers was taken by typhus, two days out of Queenstown port, he did not attend the obsequies such as they were: a dereliction that caused a certain amount of muttering in steerage. But then it occurred to someone that the Ghost might be 'a Jewman', or possibly even some kind of Protestant. That, too, could have explained his unease.

It was not that he did anything unpredictable- in truth he was the most predictable man on the ship. It was more that his very predictability made him strange.

It was as though he was certain that someone was watching him.

Even at that greener and youthful interval, I had happened upon men who had taken life. Soldiers. Presidentes. Gangsters. Executioners. Since that terrible voyage I have met many more. Some killed for money, others for country: many, I think now, because they found pleasure in killing and used money or country as varieties of disguise. But this inconsequential little man was different to all of them: this monster who haunted the decks at night. To observe him shuffling that vessel of miseries, as he shuffles, still, across my memory, even at this interim of almost seven decades, was to witness one who was curious in his behaviour, certainly; but no more than many in the strangle of poverty. No more than most, if the truth be told.

There was something so intensely ordinary about him. It could never have been guessed that he meant to do murder.

Copyright © Joseph O'Connor 2002

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

What People are Saying About This

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

Meet 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.

Brief Biography

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

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Star of the Sea 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 30 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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A little confusing
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well written - Good Book Star of the Sea was a difficult book for me to ‘get into’ because in the beginning I forgot it was a historical book with fiction woven into the story. My reading preferences of late have been very shallow compared to this book—sweet stories, light mysteries, etc. The writer relates, sometimes in great detail how easily lives were destroyed due to greed, iron wills; stations in life; and circumstances not under one’s control when the entire country (Ireland) was plunged into famine. It was heartbreaking to realize exactly how cruel humans were toward each other. And yet, we are in a different century, under different circumstances; but, maybe not really so different from those in the story. If you enjoy stories which delve into serious subjects, based on historical facts along with fiction, and well written, then consider reading Star of the Sea.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Save your money. This book is tedious, worse it is morose, maudlin and ugly--talk about a dark plot. I just gave up at about 100 pages could not take the negativity.
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Can't get into it
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted anyways. Because you shouldn't leave just because of something like that in RP. If you want, change you name and start over. But dont quit from something stupid.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It seemed very intriguing at first, almost as if it were a knock off of Titanic, but the farther I read the drier and more predictable it got. There is a sort of historical aspect in the book that can be somewhat interesting to particular types of readers, but overall I say it's not worth it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posts anyway. "You are wrong I would miss you and so would our little family you have tons of friends but I will always be here for you no matter what." I say
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted anyway because connor beeds to know that he is loved and that quitting rp will be the most depressing thing right now. Besides, what about masconnor (to much?)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well. It didn't work last night. I'm still thinking about whether or not to quit rp. He<_>ll, I'm thinking about lots of things. I only have a few friends on here, so I won't be missed like Kenny, or Doc, or Seth. The Greats. Please don't respond to this. I'm still debating whether or not to quit. My life is just messed up. Everyone says "You're always there for everyone" but no ones there for me. And to conclude, my descision shall be made by 4:30 pm Pacific Standard Time. I will post my descision at the next res.