"The Great Shame; and the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World"

A writer of Irish extraction explores Australia and North America in a quest to uncover Ireland's history.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Europe in the 19th century was a good place to be -- a heady world of scientific and artistic achievement, a land of abundance and enlightenment. Unless, of course, you happened to live in Ireland. Eroded by poverty and political strife, the island found itself wracked by a three-pronged wave of destruction -- famine, mass emigration and penal expulsions -- that decimated its population and nearly destroyed its culture and its spirit.

Let a master like Thomas Keneally take on this dramatic and poignant chapter in history and it becomes something vivid and heartbreaking and very much alive. Keneally knows a thing or two about the power that comes from combining history with storytelling, as anyone who has read "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith" or "Schindler's List" can testify. Here he whittles the large events that shaped the fate of a nation down to the personal tragedies and victories of individuals, from politicians to petty criminals (a few of them culled from the Keneally family tree).

Part of what makes "The Great Shame" so compelling is the smoothness with which the author moves around the globe. Observing both the rooted and the scattered, he shows not just how the outside world affected the Irish but also how the Irish changed the world. He follows the fate of male and female prisoners exiled to Australia (his own native land) for political rebellion and the flimsiest misdemeanors. He peers into ships filled with immigrants waiting in quarantine at the harbors of the United States and Canada. He swoops back to ground zero to describe the famine that started as an unfortunate potato blight and became devastatingly exacerbated by governmental ineptitude and apathy. And he explains how these tragedies spurred the Irish to far-reaching change.

But Keneally's greatest gift isn't in his passionate devotion to detail (though that's unquestionably evident in his meticulous sleuthing through ship's logs, court papers and personal correspondence); it's in his flair for molding real events into memorable narratives, in the smart turns of phrase that draw the reader into the action. When he quotes a traveler who sees the sorrow of shipboard disease in a boy wearing his dead father's coat, it's an exemplary use of historical materials. When he comments on how "bacteriologically uninformed" the traveler's observation is, pointing to the fate of those who cling to epidemic-tainted mementos, it makes the passage mournful in a whole new way.

The Irish all but lost their mother tongue under English repression. And yet they learned to sing their songs and to write their most famous stories and manifestos in a language adopted from their conquerors. So, too, they learned in their adopted lands to wield the political and social clout they couldn't on their own soil. Thus, for a book with such a tragedy-laden title, "The Great Shame" is a work of remarkable optimism: a story that reminds us how often human achievement is measured not in conquest or in riches but in simple survival against the odds.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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