Author explains inspiration behind ‘August Gale’

Posted:  Tuesday, April 21, 2015 - 8:45am
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“This is the most difficult story I’ve ever had to tell,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barbara Walsh.

Walsh, author of “August Gale: A Father and Daughter Journey into the Storm,” was the guest speaker at St. Andrews Village April 14. Walsh has written three books, but her book about the 1935 hurricane was the primary topic of her talk. She explained the challenges of researching a story that happened 80 years ago to the small audience.

Walsh explained how she interviewed her father, several aunts and uncles that were previously unknown to her, and the children of a Newfoundland fishing community who lost their fathers several decades earlier in an epic storm.

“It’s an emotional story. And I didn’t know how it would affect my father by telling it. But it really brought us closer together,” said Walsh.

The book tells the story of Marystown, Newfoundland, which lost 40 fisherman in a 1935 hurricane. It’s also told the tale about the author’s family. The captain of the ill-fated schooner is Walsh’s great uncle, Paddy Walsh. She made three trips to Newfoundland interviewing the victim’s children. Walsh also met and interviewed relatives she didn’t know about. 

The book moves back and forth between 1935 and present day. She writes about how the fisherman’s deaths impacted the village’s next generation. Walsh also writes about her grandfather Ambrose Walsh’s estranged relationship with her father Ronald Walsh.

Before becoming an author, Barbara Walsh was a newspaper reporter. She won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for general reporting. She wrote 175 articles on the Massachusetts Prison System for The Eagle Tribune. The series began with a story about inmate Willie Horton, who committed a murder while on furlough.

In 2002, she was ready to write books. Walsh told her father she wanted to write novels like “The Perfect Storm.” Her father told her a similar story existed in the family’s past. Ronald Walsh told her about the August gale that claimed 40 lives of a small, Newfoundland fishing community. Ronald Walsh — who was born 10 days prior to the hurricane  - recalled the tale his father told him about the historic storm.

Her grandfather, Ambrose Walsh, had emigrated to U.S. to escape life as a fisherman. He was sitting on a Brooklyn pier in August 1935 when a swirl of wind blew a stray newspaper toward him. He was saddened to see the headline reported an epic gale had claimed the lives of 40 Marystown, Newfoundland fishermen, Ambrose Walsh’s hometown.

“I knew everyone of them,” he later told his young son.

Barbara Walsh remembers being surprised about hearing about the storm and her father mentioning her grandfather. Growing up, she and her five sisters rarely heard any mention about Ambrose who abandoned her father’s family twice.

Ambrose Walsh left his family the first time in New York. One night, he left for California with a mistress and a new baby. The second time, he sent for Ronald’s mother and her two sons to join him in San Francisco. They arrived in California, but Ambrose never met them.

Barbara Walsh was astonished at her father’s willingness to contact family members who were rarely discussed during her childhood. Her father volunteered to contact family members in San Francisco and Newfoundland to assist in her research.

The book transitions between 1935 and present day. She made three trips to Newfoundland to interview the surviving children of the fishermen. The story also tells how the Walsh family reconnected with Ambrose’s second family of four sons and two daughters in California, and the family’s distant relatives in Marystown, Newfoundland.

At first, Barbara Walsh only wanted to tell the story of Captain Paddy, but Ambrose’s story was too compelling to ignore.

“He seemed to be pushing his way into the story,” she said. “The more I learned about him I came to the realization he was an important part of the story.”

Three St. Andrews residents in attendance had already read the book. Another resident took advantage of the author’s presence and purchased a signed copy. Resident Leah Sample was eager to learn more about the story. She purchased a copy to read more about the seafaring community.

“I lived by the sea my whole life. And it sounds like an interesting story,” Sample said.

The author is hoping to make a movie about her book. She is working with actor James Walsh, who may or may not be a distant relative, according to her, in developing the story for a movie deal.