It was an honor to write Galway Bay because through the process I met my great-great-grandmother, who kept her children alive in the most horrific circumstances and got them to America. How did she do it?
Her family faced the Great Starvation in Ireland of 1845-1849. One million died. Yes, a natural calamity destroyed the potato, the people’s food, but it was the policies of the British government that allowed the famine to happen.
The more I learned, the more impossible it seemed that anyone from the devastated West of Ireland had survived. But they did. They escaped to America in one of the greatest rescues in human history. The victims saved each other. I was alive because of the courage of this woman, yet I had no notion of the story until I started to read Irish literature in the 1970s. And even then, the famine was a kind of black hole – not spoken about.
Certainly, growing up in Chicago, I had never realized that my ancestors had suffered. I was Irish and delighted to be, but I didn’t connect that with the actual country of Ireland, nor did most Irish-Americans. We’d created an identity and prospered but I don’t think we understood how much they had to leave behind – a language spoken for two thousand years, stories that informed their lives and shaped their consciousness and because of that surely had some influence on who we were – all gone or diminished.
I only started to touch the truth in conversations with my father’s cousin, a nun who lived to be a hundred and seven and who knew my great-great-grandmother Honora in the 1880s. For twenty-five years I’ve been researching here and in Ireland and trying to imagine this young couple, Honora and Michael Kelly – married at eighteen and nineteen years old – with three little children when the blight struck. I knew Honora had a sister and I know how sisters support each other. I learned Michael Kelly was a piper, evicted from his land. I saw that in spite of all the persecution, injustice and suffering, the Irish spirit was not broken.
“We wouldn’t die, and that annoyed them.” Yes, the English had been trying to rid Ireland of the Irish for centuries, but inexplicably they held on, nourished by songs and stories and a faith much deeper than the institutional Church. Only the Great Famine defeated them, and even then they escaped and triumphed – they built America, fought the civil war and survived.
Discovering the details of the Irish story brought me closer to every immigrant’s story, and all the strong women who have somehow survived and kept their children alive.
I’m grateful for this sense of connection.
Mary Pat, thanks so much for joining us today and sharing your thoughts with us. I look forward to reading more from you in the future.
If you missed it yesterday there was a wonderful little chat at Blog Talk Radio with Mary Pat and you can listen to that here.
Book Description and Author Information
Here at last is one Irish family’s epic journey, capturing the tragedy and triumph of the Irish-American experience. In a rousing tale that echoes the myths and legends of Ireland herself, young Honora Keeley and Michael Kelly wed and start a family, inhabiting a hidden Ireland where fishermen and tenant farmers find solace in their ancient faith, songs, stories, and communal celebrations. Selling both their catch–and their crops–to survive, these people subsist on the potato crop–their only staple food. But when blight destroys the potatoes three times in four years, a callous government and uncaring landlords turn a natural disaster into The Great Starvation that will kill one million. Honora and Michael vow their children will live. The family joins two million other Irish refugees in one of the greatest rescues in human history: the Irish Emigration to America. Danger and hardship await them there. Honora and her unconventional sister Maire watch their seven sons as they transform Chicago from a frontier town to the “City of the Century”, fight the Civil War, and enlist in the cause of Ireland’s freedom. The Kelly clan is victorious. This heroic story sheds brilliant light on the ancestors of today’s 44 million Irish Americans. In the author’s colorful and eclectic life, she has written and directed award-winning documentaries on Irish subjects, as well as the dramatic feature Proud. She’s been an associate producer on Good Morning America and Saturday Night Live, written books on Martin Scorsese, World War II, and Bosnia, and a novel based on her experiences as a former nun – Special Intentions. She is a frequent contributor to Irish America Magazine and has a PhD in English and Irish literature.
- For one entry leave me a comment with an email address. No email address, no entry.
- Blog about this giveaway and spread the word for two entries.
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I will draw for the winner on March 29, 2009. Good luck everyone! Galway Bay really is a wonderful novel to relax with and savour.