The Great Irish Potato Famine & The Trail of Tears

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Highlighting facts behind historical fiction with Gifford MacShane on family history, the potato famine, and her books.

The Donovan Family Saga, and in particular, THE WINDS OF MORNING, was inspired by my father’s family, who emigrated from Ireland in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As I looked over a genealogy my niece created, I realized my ancestors had lived through the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1847-1852.

I began to research and learned that close to a million Irishmen starved to death, while their English landlords continued to export the crops they raised. Another million souls fled the country, many to land in Canada and the US.

That’s when I knew who my characters needed to be: a family who somehow managed to keep body and soul together, and became part of the million or more Irish citizens who arrived in the Americas.

More recently, I saw an article about a sculpture being installed in 2017 in County Cork, Ireland, commemorating the Choctaw American Indian Tribe.

When the tribe heard about the starvation in Ireland, it reminded them of their recent trials on The Trail of Tears, where many of their tribe died of starvation or exposure. Their gift of $170 equates to more than $5,000.00 today, and created a bond between the Choctaw Nation and the Irish that’s lasted to this day.

On occasion, someone comments that my characters are “too good to be true.” But it is my belief that extreme hardship will have one of two effects on people: they’ll become sour and greedy, or they’ll learn to see others’ hardships and work to ameliorate them.

I’ve often wondered why, among so many deaths, my family survived the famine. Perhaps it is so this story gets told one more time.

About the Book

1848: the third year the potato crop failed in Ireland. The Protestant landlords have absconded back to Britain, leaving the Catholic peasants to fend for themselves, while the English feast on the massive amounts of Irish food they’re importing every day.

With two younger brothers to feed, Molly O’Brien takes her father’s place on the road gang, building a road that runs from her tiny village to the river and no farther. Yet fifteen hours of labor a day will not garner enough wages to buy food for her family.

She is beyond despair. And so far beyond the tenets of her childhood, she’s decided to offer herself to any man with the price of a loaf of bread.

But when a stranger takes her hand, will it be enough to make her sacrifice worthwhile?


“Please… I must have the bread first. For my brothers.”

The man stared at his pipe before he lit it. “All right, colleen, suppose you come with me. We will get you bread. Then I will go with you to the cottage and afterwards, you will come with me again.”

“Yes, sir.” She straightened up once more. He might think he needed to go with her, but she would have returned to him. “Thank you, sir.”

He held his hand out again and, like a child, she grasped it tightly. He led her to the public house and bade her sit on the bench outside while he went in. Her body was taut with anxiety. She relaxed only slightly when he came out carrying a fairly large sack.

She could see two loaves of bread in it, but dared not hope they were both for her. It was all she could do to keep from asking, from begging. Nor could she tell him that the smell of his pipe—the heavenly smell of tobacco—was making her stomach ache from hunger. She pointed out the way, then trotted along beside him saying anything that came to mind to keep from begging for that second loaf.

About the Author

Gifford MacShane is the author of historical fiction that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit. Her novels feature a family of Irish immigrants who settle in the Arizona Territory. With an accessible literary style, MacShane draws out her characters’ hidden flaws and strengths as they grapple with physical and emotional conflicts.

Singing almost before she could talk, MacShane always loved folk music, whether Irish, Appalachian, or the songs of cowboys. Her love of the Old West goes back to childhood, when her father introduced her to Zane Grey. She became interested in Irish history after realizing her ancestors had lived through the Great Potato Famine. She’s combined these three interests into a series of historical romances, each with traditional song lyrics and a dash of Celtic mysticism.

The DONOVAN FAMILY SAGA includes WHISPERS IN THE CANYON (Book 1), THE WOODSMAN’S ROSE (Book 2), and THE WINDS OF MORNING, a prequel novella requested by her fans. The fourth book, RAINBOW MAN, will be forthcoming in 2021.

MacShane is a member of the Historical Novel Society and an #OwnVoices writer. An avid gardener, Giff cultivates pollinator plants and grows tomatoes (not enough) and zucchini (too much). A self-professed grammar nerd, she currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband Richard, the Pied Piper of stray cats.

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Caroline Warfield, Author

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