Classroom epiphany led to novel on Irish slaves

Kate McCafferty was attending graduate school at the University of Arizona when something a professor casually mentioned in class struck a nerve.

By STEPHANIE EARLS, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, March 9, 2003

It was a grace note in his lecture -- the fact that the favored concubines of British officers in the North American colonies were the products of breeding between Irish and African slaves in Barbados. But it was enough to send McCafferty, a native of Donegal, Ireland, tracing a thread whose circuitous path eventually led back to 16th-century Britain, and to the little-known roots of the white Irish slave trade.

From there, McCafferty began working her way back through the voice of Cot Daley, the fictitious, 17th-century narrator of her first novel "Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl" (Penguin Books; 224 pages; $13), released in paperback in January.

Daley, a composite of the people McCafferty discovered during her research, was kidnapped at age 10 from her home in Galway and shipped to the Caribbean.

In the telling, Daley's story answers questions that stirred in the author in that classroom, years before.

"You hear something and it's just a little piece of a jigsaw puzzle that intrigues you," said McCafferty, in a phone interview from her home in Spain, where she's at work on her next fictionalized historical novel. "I'd never read about it in history books. It was kind of overwhelming that I'd never heard of it before."

McCafferty will participate in a seminar at 4:15 p.m. Thursday, March 13 at Assembly Hall at the University at Albany's uptown campus center and will give a reading at 8 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center's Recital Hall, also on the uptown campus.

To Barbados

The slave trade in Ireland began by proclamation during the expanding colonial empire of Queen Elizabeth I. In the 17th century alone, more than 50,000 Irish people were forced into indentured servitude, stolen from their homeland to help prepare the tree-choked island of Barbados for sugarcane plantations.

McCafferty spent six years researching and writing the story, culling information from ship and plantation logs, birth and death records, even rifling through boxes of old manuscripts stored at the British Museum.

"I was lifting up rocks, in the strangest places," she said, adding that she couldn't understand why "people don't talk about the time when you could just grab anybody and say 'Look, I need my work done, you'll do it.'

Eventually, the trail led her to Barbados, an island that offered conquerors no indigenous people to provide forced labor.

For English monarchs, threatened by the strong tribal structure that existed in Ireland, human slavery offered a two-fold success.

"Once the slavery began, it was seen as 'Oh, how fortuitous.' This incredibly strong tribal structure that had existed in Irish prehistory could be broken down" and inhabitants used to work for the expanding empire, said McCafferty.

Widely praised by reviewers, the book has also drawn accolades from readers, McCafferty said.

"Response has primarily been from Irish or Irish-American people, and those Irish-American people are often African-Americans," she said.

Slavery as issue

McCafferty said she hopes that writing about that grim part of Ireland's history will bring about a better understanding of slavery as an issue not necessarily of race.

"Though racially and nationalistically different, the common values of the African and Irish slaves allowed them to come together and fight a certain oppression rather than identify with those who looked more like them," she said. "With the situation going on in the world, this book talks about the history of affiliation, and I can see no better time than the present for that."

Kate McCafferty