Friday, March 17, 2017

A Great Example of Writing About Ancestors - Novel "Galway Bay," by Mary Pat Kelly

On this, Saint Patrick’s Day 2017, as a nod to my Irish ancestors, I thought I’d post a book review of the historical novel, Galway Bay, by Mary Pat Kelly (Grand Central Publishing, 2009.)

If ever there was a good example of someone who took their family history and fictionalized what she needed to, it was Kelly. Galway Bay is rich in history of Ireland’s ancient lore and superstitions passed to descendants, and also the time of the Great Starvation and exodus, and then the impact of the Irish on America.

There are characters in the story from six generations, but Honora [On-NOR-ah] Keeley is the heroine who we follow from a teenager (1839) to an elderly woman (1893).

Here’s a quick plot summary without any spoilers:

The story opens in Bearna, on Galway Bay, when Honora is considering becoming a nun, but instead marries a traveling boy named Michael Kelly. It is a time when British landlords treated the Irish unjustly, but still a time of simple familial joys for the Irish. They had food in their bellies for the most part, even if it was just potatoes.

The Kelly’s are a close-knit family, supported by a father and older brothers who are fishermen. Most of their catch goes toward paying exorbitant rents. Michael is a blacksmith and piper, but he can find no work in these occupations, so he becomes a tenant farmer, giving his oats and grain to the landlords to feed the English. Potatoes are the Kelly’s only staple food.

Michael and Honora have two sons and one daughter when blight destroys the potato harvest. Over four years, blight hits three times. The landlords and British government turn their backs on the Irish and an estimated one million die of starvation. Honora and Michael vow to save their children by traveling to America.

The family lands in New Orleans, but soon travels north by boat to where they help build the burgeoning city of Chicago. The Kelly sons grow to be young men and fight in the Civil War in the cause of Ireland’s freedom (a concept I did not understand until reading this book). After the War, they become honest, hardworking citizens who raise their own family of “Americans.”

Words from Honora in the Prologue: 

“But we didn’t die. Two million of us escaped, one reaching back for the next.”


A little bit of my opinion about the writing and research:

The Irish language is sprinkled throughout, which I found authentic and interesting. The author’s style was a bit formal with the telling of facts and rarely are we told what Honora or others are feeling (which is not so common in novels of our day). Characters’ personalities are not always completely developed. Yet, it was much nicer to learn Irish history by reading of a family’s saga in Galway Bay than by reading a history book. Seeing how a person actually lived and experienced hardships from their eyes, made it that much more interesting. It helped me imagine my own ancestors, who lived just up the road from the Kelly’s, working in the same conditions and making the same lifestyle choices.

My ancestors up the road from the Kellys

I would have liked a little more clarification with notes at the end of the book, or an epilogue, or something similar that explained the truth of some of the high points of the story and plot. For instance, did the family members really marry who they were said to in the novel? Was Michael’s brother really a leader in the cause for Irish freedoms? A family tree would have been helpful. Photographs would have been fantastic! (I read an electronic version, so perhaps these were in the physical book?) Did the characters really intermix with some of the famous early Chicagoans that were mentioned in the book? (By the way, if you have an interest in early Chicago, I think you’d enjoy this book.)

Even though I’ve picked at it a bit, the novel was still worth the read and I’ll probably read it a second time. Kelly didn’t just research her family, she spent “30 years of reading texts of all kinds in libraries big and small…in local libraries in Ireland and in collections of papers such as those in the Chicago History Museum.” Much of the information came from family histories. Kelly also used the stories told to her by her cousin Agnella, the great-grandchild of Honora, who lived to be 107. In Galway Bay, the fictionalized Agnella wanted to know the stories and was told the family history by Honora. I assume this was based off of the truth.

It’s always such a blessing to find a family member who wanted to keep the stories!

Although there is not a bibliography in Galway Bay, there is one on Kelly’s website.

Cudos to Mary Pat Kelly, an author and filmmaker. Other fiction: Special Intentions. Nonfiction: Martin Scorsese: A Journey, Home Away from Home: The Yanks in Ireland, Proudly We Served: The Men of the USS Mason, Good to Go: The Rescue of Scott O’Grady from Bosnia.

I will always remember the story of Galway Bay.