Background to The Piano Player

In Victorian Dublin, wealth contrasts savagely with squalid poverty, the bitter injustices of the Great Famine create a generation of the dispossessed, and hospitals are overwhelmed with pandemic disease. Dissent is driven underground. Deaths haunt every street, but some are not due to natural causes: patients who should have recovered are dying, and a violent gang murders in plain sight.

Here Jane Verity and William Doughty, long estranged, encounter each other again in the midst of a cholera pandemic and the Great Famine. Jane has married Edmond, a starring actor, but he falls ill under the care of a colleague of William’s and loses his fortune. Will William and Jane reach out to help each other survive? 

I emigrated from England to Ireland when I was part way through writing my debut novel HEART of CRUELTY. I was tempted to move its setting but it would have meant some fundamental changes. Now in THE PIANO PLAYER I finally visit 19th century Dublin, a few years after HEART of CRUELTY ends.

The mid 1840’s saw the Great Famine in Ireland, accompanied by famine fever (typhoid and typhus). 1847 was the worst famine year (Black ’47), but in 1849 Ireland also suffered a cholera pandemic. During this time, the practice and teaching of medicine in Dublin was in a golden age when hospitals were developing from mere holding institutions for the destitute sick to become centres of excellence where medical treatment advanced. Doctors came from all over Europe to Dublin to learn.

Millions of people died or left Ireland during the Famine. The potato crop failures were accompanied by large-scale rural evictions. Landowners were taxed according to the number of tenants, so that even tenants who were up to date with their rent represented a financial burden which they would not support. Their bailiffs carried out brutal evictions, burning roofs off cottages to make them uninhabitable. They left whole families dying of cold, starvation and disease in makeshift shelters, in ditches by the road, or, if able to make the journey, in the big cities: Dublin, Cork and Limerick, in what were considered to be the worst slums in Europe. During all this, huge quantities of meat and grain continued to be exported by the landowners, under armed guard, to Britain. This is why the famine was far more than a natural disaster, and is often argued to have been a form of genocide, or ‘genoslaughter’.

In 1848, inspired by uprisings across Europe, there had been an abortive attempt at an Irish Nationalist uprising, followed by suppression of Nationalist newspapers and the arrest, conviction and transportation of ‘seditious’ journalists. There was also an extravagant state visit to Ireland by Queen Victoria in 1849, and a failed attempt by the nationalists to kidnap her. At that time the glittering life of the elite and the progress being made in medical knowledge contrasted sharply with the misery of the Dublin slums and the suppression of dissent.

In THE PIANO PLAYER I have set out to create a narrative that weaves strands from a pivotal epoch in Irish history into an intricate tale of music and medicine, of trust and trickery, of murderous secrets and lost love: compelling, intriguing and poignant.