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Coming to Americay

Review by Jan Alexander
Galway Bay
By Mary Pat Kelly
551 pp., Grand Central Publishing, $26.99

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    Trust an Irish writer to turn a lyrical phrase out of toxic assets and the fallacies of the free-market.  Mary Pat Kelly, writing of her great- great-grandmother’s life in the old country when the Great Famine hit, tells of the fog that turned potatoes into black slime and how the English government massacred her people with the economic philosophy of  Adam Smith as their weapon of choice.

    The English newspaper claimed that without their potato crop the Irish would have to buy other food. “A demand…that let merchants charge higher prices. Other merchants, seeing the profit to be made, would bring in more food – a bigger supply – and the price would go down. The invisible hand setting things right.”

    “But Irish people don’t have cash money,” Honora points out to her neighbor Owen Mulloy.

    “…I asked Owen Mulloy was all this invisible hand blather only an excuse for the government to abandon us, let us starve?

    “Then Michael said a newspaper fellow had showed him an article from a London paper that said disasters like war or plagues or fire were sent by God to thin out the populations, get rid of the excess. The blight was a law of nature working as it should.”

    It is estimated that one and a half million people died of starvation or disease in the potato famine, but Honora Keeley Kelly was one who survived and left a story for her descendents, which the present day Kelly has written as historical fiction. Lucky folks, those Irish who know their family legends and choose to become writers. This is a ccultural stereotype of course, but walk into almost any creative writing class and there will be someone of Irish lineage who has an unfair advantage over the others, with a rhythmic voice that seems to come from nature, a knack for lines that laugh and weep all at once. Perhaps there is something inherent in the dewy sensuality of the Emerald Isle, the lilt of the old Irish language as it interweaves around English words, the story-telling tradition rich with heroes and saints and miracles, and even the thunderous pomp of the Church.

    Mary Pat Kelly is at her best when she is depicting the lands where her great-great grandmother trod and the turmoil of daily life in Galway Bay, and later, in the not-always-promising land she called Americay. It is clear that Honora worships the land and sea as gifts from the heavens, right from the rousing morning that begins the book: “Ah, the sun. Rising for me alone – the only one awake to see dawn fire the clouds and watch Galway Bay turn from gray to blue.”

    A lovely beginning, yet the early chapters follow an unconventional path to story-telling, filled as they are with relief, followed later by tension, rather than the other way around. The story starts with miraculous happenings and a sort of happily-ever-after tale that only history will thwart. At 16, Honora is meeting with Mother Superior and declaring her devotion not so much to God as to being part of a Catholic Church that stands up to the Protestant landlords.

     The Keeley family are tenant farmers for a relatively benevolent Norman. His daughter, Miss Lynch, however, is of a family that, as Honora thinks, has “bobbed and bribed your way through the centuries to stay rich and Catholic,” has educated Honora at her own  school for tenant daughters and recommended her for the convent. Mother Superior agrees to take her; a great privilege for a poor Irish girl. Honora, with three months to run free and make sure she is absolutely certain that a nun’s life is her calling, has no other options in mind. Yet there she is on that morning of communing with the sunrise, her sister Maire’s wedding day, and Honora is washing her long auburn hair with sweet-scented lavender soap at St. Enda’s well and Tobar Geal, “the clear, cool, fast-flowing stream beside it.”

    “I shook my hair back and forth,” she recalls. “Drops of water caught the morning light – rainbows in the air. How close to the scalp would the nuns clip my hair?”

     This sounds like a girl who would forsake the harem of Christ in a heartbeat if she were to happen upon a reasonably convincing Prince Charming. And in fact that very morning she doses off in the sun, not unlike like Sleeping Beauty, and awakes to – can it be? “There on the surface of the water, I saw something moving. ….Two eyes stared straight at me…very blue eyes in a man’s face.”

    A handsome man, emerging naked from the bay with “the male part of him growing before my very eyes”, and a fine horse named Champion tethered up nearby.  “How can I win your heart?” he asks her. And that is how Honora meets Michael Kelly, who becomes her husband and the father of the long line of Kellys that led to this book. He is a good man, poor but lucky in their early years. An improbable win at the horse races, with Michael the amateur jockey on Champion’s back, earns the young couple enough to sub-lease land.

    The sense of doom commences on their wedding day. Their land belongs to the Scoundrel Pykes, Major Pyke and his son, who demand a go at every new bride in their fiefdom. It is Maire, now widowed, who steps forward and saves her sister from rape. The year is 1839.

    Six years and three children later, Honora and Michael are about to face the potato harvest that never was. They learn slowly that the landlords, products of the Protestant Ascendancy over the Kingdom of Ireland that began in the 17th century, will be worse than uncaring, far worse. Consider the Scoundrel Pykes, who keep Maire prisoner for many years, feeding her and the children she has with the younger Pyke, but punishing her if she tries to smuggle food out to others.
    This is the dinner conversation Maire relates to her sister: “ ‘Honora, old Major Pyke had some professor fellow eating here who went on about how the Irish aren’t completely human. They made Thaddy, the stableman, come in… This professor took out tape and measured the distance between Thady’s forehead and his chin. He said it was the wrong amount of inches and that Thaddy was closer to a gorilla than a man.’”

    The Irish tenants grow all sorts of food for export to England, but all they can afford from their crops are the potatoes. In the years of blight, the harvest season of 1845 to 1848, they learn to recognize disaster by a horrible stench that rises from the land itself. “The stalks of all the plants, green the day before, were black and blasted, with slime instead of potatoes under the ground…. Wailing voices came from every hillside — the neighbors – their potatoes dead and dying too.”

    It soon becomes clear that the mass starvation presents the English with a convenient means of genocide, a word that didn’t exist until 100 years later, but should have been carved in men’s hearts with the dawn of civilization, or before. Quakers, Americans and even some British people send food and money. “But the British government, controlling even the money raised by private charities, took those funds meant for us and squandered them on high salaries to their officials and useless schemes.”  Maire witnesses the Pykes’ property manager, a man named Jackson, “reading from the London papers that “God is doing what man couldn’t.”

    With all of the horrors that come with knowing the British would like them all to die of starvation and plague; with Michael and Honora discovering a neighboring family buried in the snow, their faces full of wispy hair that grows in the final stages of starvation as the body begins to feed on itself; with Michael earning a few pennies in a pointless, exhausting job of chopping rocks  and a new baby surviving only by sucking mare’s milk from a rag, the still-young couple remain as in love as the day of their improbable meeting. A nice fantasy marriage in any time and place, marred only by the match of wits when she insists they should board one of the ships bound for Americay, while he is determined to stay in Galway and fight for their rights.   I couldn’t help but wonder, doesn’t misery always bring out the worst in couples? Drunkenness, wife-beating, and family fighting did not begin with Eugene O’Neill.

    But Galway Bay is far removed from any post-Freudian sense of the human condition. Leave the angst, whether wrought by deprivation, fear of God’s wrath, or hollow success, to the many Irish writers of the 20th and 21st centuries; they have had the luxury of wallowing through the psyche because they had enough to eat most of the time, and when they didn’t it was because they had chosen the garret life.

      Honora is supposed to be telling this sepia-toned story, and her memory revolves around fighting for survival. To that end, her great great granddaughter has skillfully kept the story sealed off from most contemporary sentiment, meticulously avoiding skepticism about  the  word of the Church, or the miracles wrought by saints, or the raw and mystical power of Michael’s outlaw/nationalist older brother Patrick, a man who rampages through Canada and the United States carrying a golden crozier that is said to possess magical properties. (An ouch factor, but of its time, is that a woman must never touch the crozier.) As for Honora’s too-good-to-be-true husband, I don’t want to give away too much of the story arc, but suffice it to say she would certainly like their progeny to know him as a man who was brave fighting the landlords, hard working, and always a devoted husband and father. 

    As history, Galway Bay is epic, spanning 1839 to 1893 – not incidentally, the year of the Chicago World’s Fair with its genuine reproduction of an Irish village in a banquet hall that served corned beef and cabbage, a dish never mentioned in Honora’s tenant farmer days. (Her father was a fisherman when the sea was calm enough to allow it, and if they had protein at all, it came from fish and cockles, or the occasional stolen egg.).  In the second half of the book Honora and Maire and their respective broods join the great emigration. A much deliberated decision, requiring hiding money from the landlords, but then comes the day when the landlords send drunken soldiers to chase the tenants out and burn down their cottages. Galway Bay is to be another Brighton with seaside villas, they say.

    And so a homeless horde crosses the Atlantic, some in vessels so deadly they are known as coffin ships; these ships have also carried slaves from Africa. Honora’s first sighting of American land is the port of New Orleans. The great blanket of heat is immediately seductive, as are the smells of coffee and cinnamon, the piles of bananas, and the flirtatious sailors. On the pier, Honora sees two little boys dancing and singing a song about picking cotton. “The American boys had tight black curls and brown faces,” she notes. Then a thickset foreman breaks through, shouting “Get out of here, you monkeys! Come on, you black bastards.”

    The foreman is Irish.

    That is a prelude to the struggle Honora and her descendents will find in Americay; a life where they will continue to fight and occasionally triumph. Many will willfully forget where they came from, both geographically and in the sense of emulating the oppressor when the opportunity arises. One who apparently did not forget was Honora’s great-granddaughter, Agnella Kelly, who lived to repeat the stories of the potato famine and coming to Americay to the author. Every American family would do well to have at least one Agnella Kelly as story-teller and one Mary Pat Kelly as writer somewhere in the line, just as every American family would like to have at least one remarkable son or daughter who shakes up the status quo for good.

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