By Terry Golway
THE GREAT SHAME, by Thomas Keneally. Nan Talese/Doubleday. 712 pp. $35.
Until recently, any gathering of Irish-American history buffs was likely to produce all sorts of questions about the stunning number of blank pages in the Irish and Irish-American narrative. Why, for example, was the stirring story of the Catalpa rescue in 1876 not better known? Why was the Protestant contribution to Irish nationalism not understood? And why hadn’t the saga of the American Civil War been told in its undeniable, dramatic and tragic Irish context?
Now we have our answer: We’ve been waiting for Thomas Keneally to do the job. And the wait has been well worth it.
The famed author of "Schindler’s List," an Aussie of Irish descent, devoted more than four years in the researching and writing of his latest work of non-fiction, "The Great Shame." The subtitle better explains Keneally’s mission: "The Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World." For Keneally’s book is indeed a chronicle of the Irish triumph over oppression, discrimination and starvation in the 19th Century. But the triumph the book refers to is not the establishment of the Irish Free State, for Keneally’s 700-plus page saga (including an extensive bibliography and copious footnote) ends in 1916. No, the triumph of the Irish in "The Great Shame" is not political, but spiritual: It is the triumph of indomitable men and women who defied their oppressors and never gave up, even when dispatched to the prison colony of Australia, even when fighting on the battlefields of America’s most-terrible war. Their triumph was the triumph of the spirit.
Keneally’s subjects are Irish men and women sentenced to transportation to the land of his birth, Australia, in the early and mid-19th Century. It’s easy for the 21st Century types to forget just how terrible such a sentence was for fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. The jacket photo of "The Great Shame" serves as a reminder; It shows a young woman on a pier holding a child, as a young man, his hands shackled behind him, gives his son or daughter a farewell kiss. The ship that will take the prisoner away looms in the background, while in the foreground, an old woman in a kerchief sits and watches the heart-wrenching farewell. One can almost hear her keen.
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Tom Keneally, whose wife is descended from an Irish convict dispatched to Australia, tells the story of this unlikely and startling triumph of the Irish through the eyes of some obscure people, like Hugh Larkin, his wife’s great-great-grandfather, and some of the better-known men and women who tried to rally Ireland in the midst of the Famine in 1848. And so, at last, we are presented with the astonishing stories of two generations of Irish rebels who served time in Australia; the Young Ireland generation — William Smith O’Brien (who once said he actually stood for "middle-aged Ireland"), John Mitchel and Thomas Francis Meagher — and the Fenians, especially John Boyle O’Reilly.
For me, and, I suspect, for many American readers, the heart of this book — the heartbreak of this book — is Keneally’s treatment of the Irish in the Civil War. What a magnificent, sprawling tale it is, and Keneally renders it in heroic terms, but not without turning a blind eye toward the racism and anti-Semitism of some Irish. Now, Irish racism and anti-Semitism are traits that are hardly unique to the Irish, but you’d never know it by reading some of the revisionist histories and biographies of the last quarter-century, which dwell on such flaws by way of discrediting the Irish nationalist movement. While Keneally examines Irish warts with a cold eye, he also explains that the Irish themselves were victims of racism and anti-Catholicism. And he does so with great eloquence and style (Full disclosure: Tom Keneally is a generous man who has written blurbs for my biography of John Devoy and my upcoming history of Irish nationalism, "For the Cause of Liberty," which Simon & Schuster will publish in March).
The Civil War chapters focus on Meagher, who served as a general in the Union Army, and Mitchel, a pre-Confederacy journalist whose three sons donned the South’s gray colors. That Keneally can re-create a Civil War battlefield like few other writers ought to surprise nobody. His Civil War novel, "Confederates," is considered one of the best (in my humble opinion, the best) historical novels of the period. From an Irish perspective, there is no more poignant moment than Keneally’s description of Thomas Francis Meagher leading the Union Army’s Irish brigade on its furious and futile assault on Marye’s Heights during the battle of Fredericksburg. "As ever," he writes, "the Irish went forward at their de rigueur rush, trying to prove their worth to nativist America. They crossed a ruined cornfield to the dirt fence, rushed to the second and were now . . . 50 yards below the stone wall and the Rebels. This was as far as any human on the Union side got."
Somewhere on the other side of the battlefield was John Mitchel’s son Willy. Mitchel himself had left his position overlooking the Union line, where his friend and one time young Ireland colleague Meagher was preparing for battle.
Keneally’s Irish patriots are complicated, contradictory and unfailingly interesting. His audacious mission — to explain 19th Century Irish nationalism on three continents — is accomplished in style. And, in the book’s final pages, he explains the title and his own point of view:
"This book is entitled ‘The Great Shame’ because in spite of all the struggles and travails . . . the population of Ireland had by the time of the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922 shrunk to barely more than half the population of 1841. . . . The title might be seen in its most direct sense as referring to the misgovernment of Ireland under British rule, and the continuing discrimination against Northern Catholics in the decades following the [Anglo-Irish] treaty."
Yes, this book has been well worth the wait.