The Triumph & the Tragedy
Mary Pat Kelly’s new novel Galway Bay captures the essence of the Great Starvation and the 19th-century Irish-American experience.
Ireland has a terrible history. As a kid in school reading about that history I was always afraid to turn the page; what seemed like a hopeful turn of events always was undone by a traitor or some clever English piece of skulduggery – the Indians weren’t the only ones with broken treaties.
So it was with me as Mary Pat Kelly’s new novel, Galway Bay, sat on my bedside table for several months. Mary Pat has a great reputation as a writer and filmmaker — indeed, she’s penned many an article for Irish America — but I kept putting off the book because the Famine, though it happened long before my time, is still painful to me like a scar that throbs when the weather turns.
So, finally, with deadline approaching I picked up the book. And it’s good, in fact, it’s great.
Mary Pat has a wonderful knowledge of Irish myth and history and she puts it to good use in this novel. There’s a love story, and a champion horse, also a shifty landlord, and ultimately the Famine, by which time I’m in love with the characters, so I see all the happenings I had known in the history books through their eyes — the Board of Works, the soup kitchens, the starvation, the madness caused by the starvation, and ultimately the escape to America.
Galway Bay is a great tale that really takes off on the boat journey to America, to New Orleans to be exact, and it just gets better as it goes along. Irish-American history – particularly the history of the Irish in Chicago – is vividly and richly explored. In short, it’s a book that should be in every Irish-American household library.
I sat down with Mary Pat conveniently at Irish America’s offices recently to talk.
When did you start this project?
In some ways, at birth. Growing up in Chicago, I was extremely proud of being Irish. But I realized that being Irish to me was about John Kennedy and Notre Dame. I didn’t have a real sense of what Ireland was or the fact that it was a real place. It was almost a mythical place to me. I read James Joyce in college. That was kind of a beginning, but in 1969 I made my first trip to Ireland. I was traveling with another Irish-American woman. We arrived at about one a.m. and we got on a city bus that took you into Dublin proper. I had had trouble in London with the bus conductors because they had this little machine that went “clank” and they would come to you. You were supposed to know where you were going and what the fare was. So we’re on the Irish bus, here comes the conductor with his machine, and we’re looking through our purses, I said, “Excuse me,” or something, and he said, “Would you ever relax, girls, you’re home.”
I wasn’t prepared for how physically beautiful Ireland was, how incredible the people were, the conversations. And that was the beginning of my really wanting to learn more about Ireland.
When I moved to New York for graduate school, I studied Irish literature and I guess I started to do the formal research in the 1980s. That’s when I thought to do the obvious thing, to ask my father’s cousin, who was in her 90s — she lived to be 107. She knew my great-great-grandmother who came over, we think, in 1849 or 1850 with five
Your great-great-grandmother was Honora in the novel?
Yes, she was Honora Keeley. And I called the book Galway Bay because she was born in Bearna. The townland was called Freeport, which was right on the shores of Galway Bay. And there was a fishermen’s community there, so I assumed she was the daughter of a fisherman. And for the novel, I could make her whomever I wanted.
I love the way you’ve weaved the mythology in with historic facts and made it all come alive. You must’ve done an awful lot of research.
I did. What I’m hoping is that some of these stories will lead readers to do further research. Of course, there are some wonderful academic studies on all of these things. But I wanted this to be popular, just a good story that people could pick up. Also, I know once removed how the myths and history infuse the lives of the people; it’s so natural to them. I tried to have some of that feeling, but I think that’s one of the things we’ve lost, maybe irrevocably. I mean, Irish people still have that sense of history, the landscape and everything, to this day, but for Irish-Americans it’s more . . . we can get to it, but it’s not as natural. On the other hand, it’s a great discovery when you do start to find it.
I thought you covered the Famine part very well and the boat journey to New Orleans. Did you go to New Orleans?
I did. I just love New Orleans and the whole Irish history there. I loved that they built St. Patrick’s Church. What happened to me was . . . first of all, when you really get into the Famine — I call it the Great Starvation because as everyone knows, it wasn’t a real famine; there was food — it’s so overwhelming. But I used a quote that starts the book; it’s something Agnella told me Honora had said. It’s maybe not word for word, but the gist of it, the way I put it, is “We didn’t die and that annoyed them.” But they had survived so much, because they had the potato. It wasn’t known at the time how nutritious the potato is. The British must’ve been scratching their heads because they’d taken everything away, the land, and here these people are still thriving. But of course when the blight came, that changed. And a million died. That’s overwhelming . . . such a tiny area. But then two million escaped. And I started to wonder, how did they get out? How? We say it very blithely, “Oh, somebody went over and earned money and sent it back.” But how did that happen? Even physically, how did they get the money back? Who did they send it to? There weren’t any mailboxes . . . and if the landlord knew somebody had money, he’d take it.
So, that was amazing to me, and that’s what I got into: How did they make this journey? And then, of course, the coffin ships . . . But I love New Orleans, and it was the third-biggest port of entry. After Canada and New York, it was New Orleans. And can you imagine them getting off the boat, cold and tired, and stepping into this beautiful warm place where the people were very hospitable? There were already Irish there. I found a lot of instances where the African-American people welcomed the Irish. There was an African-American nun called Henriette DeLille who had a ministry to slaves. There was a lot of interconnection between people that today we don’t really realize. My favorite was that the biggest architect in New Orleans, who built all the fancy buildings, was called Gallier, right? Except his name was really Gallagher. Again, we talk about the Famine, we see pictures . . . but [the new arrivals] didn’t miss a beat, they started right in. And they didn’t speak English; they spoke Irish. New Orleans? Good to be French? “Call me Gallier.” But they didn’t lose their identity. The Channel, and other Irish neighborhoods there, are still very strong.
And then the family go on to Chicago –
Yes. I liked the idea of them coming up the canal, because it was the Irish that built the Illinois-Michigan Canal and that was what really gave Chicago the chance to be the City of the Century, the central point. And people say, “Yes, the Irish dug the canal.” I found a report by a German engineer who was awestruck by the way the canal had been put together, the way the stones had been fitted, one to another. There were like 20 different [drops] that you had to have, and the skill of the men that built that was phenomenal. There was a horrible mortality rate. By the time Honora and her family come, they can get on the canal boat and land in Chicago.
One thing that tore out my heart was the description of the slaughterhouses where the sons find work.
That was shocking to me. Because when I looked at the census, my own grandfather, thirteen years old, was working at the meatpacking house. He went on to become a master plumber, which I used to think, “oh well,” until I realized to be a plumber in the 1880s? That was pretty good, very advanced. But he worked at the slaughterhouse with the other children. Another thing that impressed me, when I read the actual accounts of the people . . . Upton Sinclair’s is actually about a Lithuanian family . . . but when you read the accounts by the Irish, yes, there were horrible situations; however, they really created a community in Bridgeport, which was originally called Hardscrabble. The name was changed to Bridgeport because of the bridge there, at the end of the canal. Not to give away too much, but in real life Honora’s grandson was a Kelly, and he was the first real Irish mayor elected, and from Bridgeport. And the Daleys now, are also from Bridgeport.
What really impressed me was that no matter how terrible conditions were, they didn’t let it crush their spirit. I was just amazed at that. They unionized and tried to get better conditions. Eventually they moved the stockyards away, so they didn’t have to obey the few laws there were, but they didn’t let it destroy their spirit. Whatever they had to do, they did. And that wasn’t what defined them. That was the thing that impressed me too, and it made me understand a little bit about the role of the Church in their lives. And why did they build these churches? The first thing they did was build these magnificent churches. You know, they could have used the money in other ways. But I think they needed to be somewhere that affirmed their identity as they saw themselves.
You also cover the Civil War – the Irish who fought on both sides – and the Fenian invasion of Canada.
They enlisted in huge numbers and the slogan was “For the Glory of the Old Land, For the Defense of the New.” The idea was that by fighting in the Civil War, they would not only show their patriotism, but they would get the support of the United States for the liberation of Ireland.
There were two Irish regiments in Chicago. They had beautiful flags with shamrocks and “Erin Go Bragh” on them. They had their own stationery. Their only fear was that they weren’t going to get into battle. There was no problem about the draft; they had a huge enlistment. As the war went on and they started to see what the real situation was, they still enlisted, and reenlisted. It was really the [camaraderie] of being together, and the belief that with 50,000 Fenians in the army on both sides, trained in weapons, organized and battle-hardened, they could go on to liberate Ireland. And it was not an impossible dream. In the Chicago History Museum I found the letters of Colonel James Mulligan – an incredible character – and Peter Casey, where they talk about the Fenian meetings. They would make a solemn promise that they wouldn’t talk about the war. So the Southern regiments would leave the battlefield, meet at night in a ravine with the Northern regiment; they would post guards, have their meeting; the next day they’d face each other on the battlefield. Truly incredible.
They had these great Fenian Fairs, like in Chicago, where they would give prizes — rosewood pianos — incredible feats of organization. For one week in Chicago, the money received by the theatres was given to the Fenians. So this wasn’t a secret or some hole-in-the-wall thing. The Fenians had the support of the President and a lot of politicians. The deal was, they would go up to Canada; the U.S. would not do anything; they would declare a certain part of Canada a republic and then the United States would recognize them. They would be the government-in-exile from Ireland. They’d already worked out that France would recognize them. They had it all worked out. But there were unfortunate circumstances: they had to move up the date, so when it came time for the invasion they had only 7,000 men instead of 50,000. The saddest thing was that it wasn’t the British that defeated them. It was the American army that stopped them and an America navy captain who fired on them, against orders, as they were crossing Lake Ontario. Then the American army let the British chase them back across the border.
Do you think the Irish understand the Irish-American attraction to Ireland?
I don’t think Irish people really understand the emotion that Irish-Americans feel when they connect. Sometimes it might be in a flatfooted way, a cliché way, but it’s very sincere. And what I say to Irish-Americans is, “You don’t even know the half of it. You don’t know the incredible literature and the myths.” It’s a treasure trove. You could spend your whole life discovering just the history of the little place you came from.
You ended up marrying an Irishman. Was Martin able to help you with the book?
Very much. Of course I laugh, because before I married Martin I considered myself Irish, now all of a sudden I’m American. I mean, we consider ourselves Irish, but to Irish people, I’m American. He was great as a sounding board, and as far as knowing what rang true. He has it effortlessly, his whole family, his history, but he doesn’t dwell on it. He’s from the north, from County Tyrone. Of course you see [the pride] coming out when Tyrone win the All-Ireland, which they’ve been doing on a regular basis over the past few years. He was great about that, and also he understands Irish America too, and likes it very much. But it was his ear, knowing if it sounded right, if Irish people would say that. And that was really the biggest challenge: to try to make the language true to the time, and also true to what they would say.
Did you feel a connection to Honora through doing this?
Yes, I did. I just felt . . . What a woman! I wouldn’t be alive today if she hadn’t conquered incredible obstacles. She was young when she was widowed; she married at 17. She had five children by the time she was 23, 24? The house they lived in is still in Bridgeport; it’s still there.
America is now in another recession, and here we have a Chicago president —
I hope we look to our roots, all of us. We were not too proud to do whatever it took to survive, and had a lot of respect for work and what work meant, and knew that money is not the measure of a person. The ability to tell a good story, to live a good life, to be an usher at your church was as important as if you were on Wall Street. I think maybe we’re going to return, to find our center, to find the strength we’ve always had. And maybe realize that we don’t need the trappings, the bling that our society told us was so essential. I think it’s going to be tough. I think that the lesson of the Great Depression is that the poorest will not suffer in the way that they did. Laissez faire is what killed a million people in Ireland. The market, and [the idea] that the market was going to take care of everything, killed a million people. I think this is an awakening from that false thing: that somehow or other there’s this mythical thing called the market and it’s not human beings being greedy and manipulative. So. That’s my hope. And that people buy the book and get inspired.
I’d invite everyone to go to my website: marypatkelly.comLots of information and music: Mary Deady, a classically trained singer who’s toured with the National Folk Theatre of Ireland, sings songs from the novel.Martin and I will be touring the country, doing signings in March, April and May. Invite us to your community? And for people interested in their own genealogy, I’d be happy to help steer them in the right direction. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org