Review of Books
By Irish America staff
February / March 2009
The list of hefty novels which explore the terrible time of the Great Hunger continues to grow, and is all the more noteworthy because so many of the works are impressive.
In the wake of older classics such as Liam O’Flaherty’s Famine, we’ve had Peter Quinn’s brilliant Banished Children of Eve and Kevin Baker’s Paradise Alley, both of which explored New York City as desperate emigrants were fleeing Ireland.
Irish America contributor Mary Pat Kelly is the latest to add to the contemporary canon of Irish Famine novels with Galway Bay. This is an epic story on a grand scale, which explores not just the Famine in Ireland, but a wide range of other events from the era, including the U.S. Civil War and the Fenian invasion of Canada.
At the center of Galway Bay are Honora Keeley and her sister Marie. Early on they live what, in many ways, was the timeless life of ancient Ireland – amidst fishermen and farmers who pass ancient songs, stories and traditions on to the next generation.
Of course, this way of life is disrupted by the Famine, as well as by the woefully inadequate response of the British government.
Honora and Marie (I hope it doesn’t ruin the story to tell you that they both end up widowed) make a vow to survive the calamity and manage to escape to the U.S. with their children. After arriving in New Orleans they head for Chicago in search of Honora’s brother-in-law who is involved in the cause of Irish freedom.
Mary Pat Kelly’s knowledge of Irish and American-Irish history is what drives this novel. Her descriptions of the immigrants aboard ship, their journey to the Chicago suburb of Hardscrablble, which later became Bridgeport, and work in the slaughterhouses is especially evocative, as indeed is her coverage of the Irish participation on both sides of the Civil War.
Galway Bay, which is based on Kelly’s family’s own experiences, also offers a glimpse into how women specifically navigated the nightmarish Famine experience and managed to carve out a place for themselves in America.
A writer and director of documentaries, and the movie Proud, a story of African-American servicemen in World War II, Kelly is also the author of a previous novel entitled Special Intentions. Galway Bay, though, is clearly a labor of love, not to mention the labor of a lifetime. Kelly has ambitiously attempted to capture the 19th-century Irish-American experience, and manages to help us understand how we are still living with this legacy today.
($26.99 / 562 pages / Grand Central)
John Boyne has had the kind of meteoric rise most writers would only dream of. At this point, he may best be known for the young-adult novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which explored the Holocaust through the eyes of two children. It was made into a well-received film late last year. There was also the century-spanning Thief of Time, in which Boyne – who clearly has an interest in historical events – presented arguably his most ambitious work to American readers. In the book, a character blessed (or cursed) with eternal life experiences many of the major historical events of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Another noteworthy recent release by Boyne was Crippen. Also based on actual events, Crippen was a deft recreation of a notorious 1910 British murder scandal involving Boyne’s titular doctor. Given this prodigious output, no wonder The Sunday Business Post cited Boyne as one of 40 Irish people under 40 who were likely to be “the movers and shakers who will define the country’s culture, politics, style and economics.”
Now, Boyne has written Mutiny: A Novel of the H.M.S. Bounty, a thriller exploring one of the most infamous voyages in the history of the high seas. Boyne’s novel explores young troublemaker John Jacob Turnstile, whose troubles with the law leave him only one option: to serve as an assistant on a ship bound for Tahiti.That ship is the Bounty, presided over by the notorious Captain Bligh.Mutiny, of course, has been explored in numerous histories, documentaries, novels and films. The most famous version, perhaps, is the early 1960s film starring Irish thespian Richard Harris, Marlon Brando, and Trevor Howard as Bligh. But Boyne attempts to tell a story broader than Bligh’s mistreatment of the crew and its eventual revolt against him. In particular, Boyne offers up a fresh, almost revisionist portrait of Captain Bligh in Mutiny, which is yet another historical highlight from Boyne.
($25.95 / 384 pages /
Thomas Dunne Books)
Andrew M. Greeley has been a towering figure in Irish-American letters for decades now. A best-selling author and novelist and widely published sociologist and columnist, he is a professor at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona, and as a priest, has made groundbreaking comments regarding the Irish, the clergy and sexuality.
Recently, Greeley – who is 80 years old – fell and suffered a serious head injury. Though the prognosis was bleak at first, Greeley’s status has improved dramatically. If all goes well, we might even see the indefatigable Greeley on TV discussing his 17th Blackie Ryan book, which is just out, called The Archbishop in Andalusia.
Ryan, of course, is Archbishop John Blackwood Ryan of Chicago. In The Archbishop in Andalusia, Ryan goes to Spain for an academic conference, but once there, learns suspicion is running high that a prominent wealthy widow may be murdered. The tension builds as the widow and various scheming family members unearth bitterness and anger from the past. Meanwhile, on the home front, a nephew of Blackie’s may or may not be trying to delay his wedding, while one of Blackie’s colleagues back in Chicago is ailing.
The Archbishop in Andalusia is yet another informative page-turner from Andrew Greeley.
($24.95 / 269 pages / Forge)
Galway crime master Ken Bruen is back with a new thriller that is dark and hard-boiled even by the very high standards he has set in previous novels such as The Guards. Just don’t expect this book to be endorsed by either the Irish or New York police benevolent associations.
Bruen’s latest, Once Were Cops, follows an unhinged Irish cop named Matthew Patrick O’Shea who, in typically underhanded Bruen fashion, finagles his way to New York to spend a year working with the NYPD. Once there, “Shea” teams up with an equally disturbed partner, Kurt Browski, who, when not maiming and thieving, is being investigated by Internal Affairs for his close association with known organized-crime figures.
Shea’s lies and Browski’s scheming are on a collision course, setting up a chilling conclusion to Once Were Cops.
Bruen has always explored the deepest, darkest themes of crime and punishment among cops and criminals. But it is Bruen’s style in Once Were Cops which stands out. It is perhaps his most unsettling performance yet, making even Mickey Spillane’s prose look tame.
“Took his legs out with the hurley. Swoosh. I love that sound,” reads one typically gruesome passage. Bruen, best known for his Jack Taylor series, has written another winner for his loyal fans.
($22.95/294 pages / St. Martin’s Minotaur)
Abroad history of the Irish in America is, arguably, a risky topic for an author these days, even one as esteemed and respected as Notre Dame professor emeritus Jay P. Dolan. In his Preface to The Irish Americans, Dolan writes that for years he taught a course in Irish-American history, which “kindled in me a desire to learn more about the history of the Irish in America.”
Adding that “William Shannon’s book The American Irish, published in 1963, was the last history written for the general reader,” Dolan felt it was time for another such book. But it’s tough to make the case that those in search of Irish- American history have had trouble finding it in recent years. Dozens of books, documentaries and more have explored this topic. Still, if anyone is equipped to synthesize these works, and the main themes of the Irish experience in America, it is Dolan, whose many previous books include The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present.
Religion, politics and organized labor are among the themes Dolan explores in this roughly chronological exploration which begins with the 1690 Battle of the Boyne. (Though, again, Dolan’s choice to call the 1700 – 1840 era of Irish emigration “The Forgotten Era” is questionable, given that we’ve had numerous full-scale explorations of the Scotch-Irish in recent years.)
All in all, though, Dolan’s treatment of major Irish-American themes and figures is excellent.
($30 / 352 pages / Bloomsbury)