Review of Books
By Irish America Staff
April / May 2013
With her 2010 literary debut, The Walking People, Mary Beth Keane, the daughter of Irish immigrants, established herself as a writer who is especially sensitive to the experience of starting a new life in a new country. In her second novel, Fever, she has found a challenging but highly fitting subject in Mary Mallon, better known to history as Typhoid Mary.
Immigrating can be an isolating ordeal, a fact that, as Keane makes clear, no one knew better than Mary Mallon. She left Ireland for the U.S. as a teenager in 1884. She found work as a domestic, and eventually established herself as an in-demand cook, employed in the homes of a number of New York families. When people in the households where she worked became sick with typhoid fever, it was only a matter of time before an expert, Dr. George Soper, realized that Mary was the common variable.
An asymptomatic carrier, Mary found it hard to understand how she was at fault. Quarantined for three years on North Brother Island in the East River, she was eventually released in 1910 on the condition that she would not cook for anyone else – a promise she broke. In 1915 she was found out and sent back into quarantine, where she died in 1938.
Keane has taken a few liberties with history – giving Mary a long-term partner in the form of Alfred, a German immigrant, for example – but rather than reading as fillers of fancy, they serve to highlight other realities of Mary’s time. It’s hard to imagine any writer giving voice to Mallon more thoroughly than Keane has. One gets the sense that her aim was neither to pity Mary nor to persecute her, but to present a full portrait of the real Irishwoman behind the name. Here, as in The Walking People, Keane has shown a distinct empathy for those in situations somewhat beyond their comprehension; and how they can triumph or they can flounder. – S.L.
(Scribner / $26.00 / 320 pages)
Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice
Mary Robinson made history when she became Ireland’s first female president in 1990. She inspired women across the nation and expanded the boundaries of the position, redefining what it meant to be Ireland’s Head of State. She made unprecedented visits to West Belfast and Buckingham Palace, Somalia and Rwanda. She made a concerted effort to reach out to Ireland’s diaspora, and to those who were marginalized within Irish society.
American readers in particular may not be aware of all that Robinson did for Ireland in her lengthy career as a barrister and senator before she became president, or of the important human rights work she has conducted on a global scale since leaving elected office in 1997. Thankfully, her recently released memoir tells all.
Written with her daughter, Tessa, Everybody Matters is a sweeping yet meticulously organized account of Robinson’s life – from her childhood in Ballina, Co. Mayo, to her intellectually formative years at Trinity and Harvard, through her presidency and posting as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to her current work with the Mary Robinson Foundation– Climate Change.
The former president’s wisdom, humility and passion emanate from the pages as she takes us through her triumphs (bringing the Irish government to task before the European Court of Human Rights in landmark cases; her inaugural speech as president; becoming one of Nelson Mandela’s Elders), and her struggles (being denounced from pulpits across Ireland for her early attempts to legalize contraceptives; her family’s initial disapproval of her marriage to Nick Robinson, a Protestant; the censure she encountered as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights for speaking out against the U.S.’s post-9/11 practices).
At one point, Robinson laments not having been more diplomatic during her early months with the U.N. If diplomacy was a skill she ever lacked, Robinson now has it in spades, as her writing maintains a careful balance – erring, at times, towards a modesty that can also be read as reticence. But Robinson’s accomplishments speak for themselves. Readers will come away understanding that she is a true hero of modern Ireland – even though she would never say so herself. – S.L.
(Walker / $26.00 / 336 pages)
Tracing Your Sligo Ancestors
James G. Ryan, who pioneered the Roots column in Irish America in 1987, when genealogy research was still in its infancy, has written a book specific to tracing one’s ancestors in Sligo.
This beautiful county was particularly badly hit during the Great Famine, which began with the potato blight in 1845. In his introduction, Ryan writes that in a six-year period (1845-51) 30,000 people emigrated from Sligo, many to North America. By 1901 the population had fallen from 181,000 to 84,000 as many more fled. It is the descendants of those emigrants that Ryan had in mind when putting this book together, which is a primer for anyone tracing their Sligo ancestors.
Ryan provides detailed lists of useful guides to records available for Sligo, where common surnames include (O’)Hart, (O’)Healy, Brennan, Gallagher, Gil-martin, McDermot and Scanlon. He details both record-keeping practices and the records that are now available to the public, and how to use them. These include Catholic Church records and Ordinance Survey Field records, the latter of which may offer valuable information on how one’s ancestor lived. He also includes specific information on accessing General Register Office records of births, deaths and marriages. In addition to all this “how-to” information, Ryan’s book offers interesting tidbits such as the fact that while all non-Catholic marriages were recorded from January 1, 1845, the recording of Catholic marriages didn’t begin for another 20 years.
The publisher for Ryan’s book, Flyleaf Press, has also published genealogical research guides for the following counties: Clare, Cork, Donegal, Dublin, Galway, Limerick, May, Roscommon and Westmeath, and more are in preparation. – B.E.
(Flyleaf Press / $16.00 / 160 pages)
The Fighting Irish
The Irish have a storied history of participation in virtually every military engagement in which a European or American force was involved since the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Tim Newark, a historian who has published over 15 works of military history, covers all of them in The Fighting Irish, an ambitious chronicle of the Irish soldier at home and abroad.
Newark begins at the Boyne and proceeds more-or-less chronologically through major military involvements like Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, the Boer Wars, the World Wars, and more recent UN peacekeeping missions and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Using an impressive array of Irish soldiers’ diaries, blogs, personal interviews, memoirs, and official military documents to form his narrative, Newark writes a compelling yet brisk narrative of each engagement through first-hand accounts of one or two Irish soldiers. His brevity, however, leaves little room to interrogate his sources for validity or historical significance relating to a broader Celtic experience in foreign armies.
Focusing on military tactics and hyper-descriptive quotes of the battlefield, The Fighting Irish is engaging, but can become repetitive, and at times the historical value of his sources is undercut by the inundating effect of what seem to become mere sound bites of Irish bravery and valor. If there is one overriding theme beyond a pick-me-up catalogue of courageous deeds performed by Irishmen that Newark emphasizes, it is that the Irish are a polyglot lot, found on both sides of the battlefield in most wars since the 19th century, and for as many reasons (practical and ideological) as there are shades of green in Éireann. – A.F.
(Thomas Dunne Books / $25.99 / 288 pages)
The way things had gone, there was no good way out of this, no moral thing to do.” The dichotomy of good vs. evil and all the grey areas in between is at the heart of Gene Kerrigan’s latest crime novel, The Rage.
A web of interconnecting storylines, The Rage follows characters from different walks of life as they struggle with the aftermath of Ireland’s economic crisis.
For Kerrigan’s protagonist Detective Sergeant Bob Tidey, protecting the innocent and upholding justice has always been his passion; however, it is a task made difficult by the crooked bankers and politicians who have the money to call the shots. The main conflict arises when Tidey must decide whether to obey his superiors and abandon an old murder investigation that may be linked to his current case involving the death of a crooked banker. If he does, a dead man will take the blame for the murders while those responsible walk free.
One of the main characters in The Rage is Vincent Naylor, fresh out of Mountjoy Prison and already on the prowl for his next heist – annoyed that he missed out on getting what he sees as his fair share during Ireland’s boom time. “When he thought about it,” Kerrigan writes, “the big boys [bankers] might have got greedy, but when the shekels are there to be picked up, what else are you gonna do?” With the help of fellow crooks and his brother, Noel, Naylor plans to take as many shekels as he can.
Readers may find themselves sympathizing with Naylor and his crew and the dysfunctional past that has brought them to this lifestyle. Almost every character in The Rage has been screwed over by somebody, whether a lover, a banker, a colleague or friend, and each person deals with this betrayal in a different way. What matters, Kerrigan implies, is how. – M.M.
(Europa Editions / $17.00 / 320 pages)
Children’s Literature – as Gaeilge
Tomhais Méid Mo Ghrá Duit
For anyone who wants to share the joy of the Irish language with their favorite little ones – or for those who are just starting out as Irish language learners – Candlewick Press has just released an Irish translation of its best-selling children’s book Guess How Much I Love You. Tomhais Méid Mo Ghrá Duit is a beautiful, thoughtful translation.
First published in 1994 in the U.K., Guess How Much I Love You was written by Sam McBratney and illustrated by Anita Jeram. Jeram’s charming illustrations are unchanged here, and McBratney’s original concept of a big hare and a little hare expressing their love for each other in increments of increasingly impossible distances is beautifully conveyed as Gaeilge. Readers will love this new version “An bealach ar fad suas go dtí an ghealach – agus ar ais!” – S.L.
(Candlewick Press / $9.99 / 32 pages)