Like wild seeds in the wind, during the nineteenth century Irish women and men came to be scattered all over the world; what they made of their lives in their new countries was phenomenal. In his The Great Shame: And the Triumph of the Irish in the English- Speaking World, Booker Prize-winning author Thomas Keneally powerfully chronicles the highly complex narrative of Irish convicts transported from Ireland to Australia. In the process, Keneally narrates the epic of the desperate Irish diaspora. Keneally, author of twenty-three previous works of fiction, recounts the Irish catastrophe and the halving of the population through famine, disease, and emigration in the 1800’s. Famed for his many novels including Woman of the Inner Sea (1992), A River Town (1995), and, in particular, Schindler’s List (1983), on which Steven Spielberg based his Oscar-winning film, in The Great Shame Keneally welds personal and political history. Through the tales of Irish political prisoners transported to Australia, including several of Keneally’s own ancestors, the author documents the spirit and will of the Irish to endure despite overwhelming odds.
Keneally provides the necessary detailed historical background information to make sense out of the nineteenth century Irish milieu. From Elizabethan times, Ireland was oppressed by Great Britain. Although English colonial settlers made up a tiny minority, through the force of arms, religious division, and an unscrupulous legal system they maintained control of their island neighbor. Although there were periodic uprisings, Britain managed to keep Ireland under its thumb, forcing the Irish citizens either to adopt the English language and Protestant religion or be sent to the poorest and least agriculturally productive sections of the country. Through the Penal Laws, Irish natives were deprived of their property and not allowed an education. Many times peasants were forced to hide so that the gentlemen landlords would not be exposed to the hunger of their bedraggled tenants. Under British law the Irish paid tithes to the Protestant church, and their food consisted almost solely of the potato.
The Great Shame does not spare the reader’s sensibilities concerning the Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840’s, particularly during 1847 (referred to as “Black 47”) when the potato crop failed due to a deadly fungus for the second year in a row. Keneally writes explicitly about how landlords’ agents traumatized and evicted starving children before setting fire to and pulling down their homes behind them. Utilizing travelers’ diaries, the author paints lurid pictures of famine-plagued Ireland. One such unforgettable and macabre scene evokes a young mother’s corpse lightly covered with earth, her flesh completely eaten off by dogs and the hair of her head a couple of yards from her skull. Although nineteenth century Europe was immersed in scientific enlightenment and artistic accomplishment, Ireland under British domination was decayed by poverty and political unrest. At a time when Europe’s overall population was increasing, the deaths and mass migration caused by the Irish Famine reduced the country’s population by almost half.
Primarily chronicled are the decades before, during, and immediately after the famine, and highlighted in particular are the early instances of political rebellion. The 1830’s saw the emergence of Irish rebels called Ribbonmen, localized groups of renters who spoke out against the actions of landlords who many times evicted starving peasants from the land on which they had been born, merely in an effort to clear more acreage for profitable pasturage. Protests from these Ribbon societies, which oftentimes employed violence against landlords, swept the countryside. In the 1840’s an emerging protest movement called Young Ireland, consisting of both Catholics and Protestants, attempted to gain full independence for Ireland. In 1858 the more militant Fenian Brotherhood vowed freedom for Ireland through any means necessary. Britain dealt with this political dissent by a routine penal procedure called “transportation.” Depending upon the severity of the “crime,” female and male prisoners would be transported to another British colony—Australia—for periods of years of indentured labor; many received life sentences.
What is probably most compelling about this book is that the individuals represented are real people. Unlike novelists, Keneally in this work does not have to breathe life into “characters.” Although often The Great Shame reads like a Charles Dickens novel—it certainly rivals Victorian novels in length—the awareness that the occurrences, mostly horrifying but on occasion satisfying, happened to real people gives it a sense of almost sacred authority that even the most brilliant novelists can’t convey. Although such historical personages as Daniel O’Connell, the Irish “Liberator” who...
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