So after reading The Hunger Games, I thought I would move on to some lighter reading…how about the Irish Potato Famine. I know, right? I am really more of a happy book kind of girl so my current streak of heavy and often sad books is a little out of character for me. That being said, I really did like Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly and would recommend it to anyone interested in the potato famine, Ireland, and Irish emigration to the United States. In her acknowledgement section, Kelly says that this book is her family’s story and while this is literally true, it is also the family story for millions of Americans. For those of you don’t what the Irish Potato Famine/The Great Hunger is, I can recommend some great books on the topic…as a historian I cannot emphasize this enough…please stay away from Wikipedia! Sorry, huge pet peeve of mine.
A quick basic history to start. The Irish potato famine was the total failure or partial failure of the potato crop in Ireland between 1845 to 1850. An airborne blight which originated in North America spread to Europe and destroyed the potato crops in not only Ireland, but many countries in Europe as well. The difference being A.) England’s feudal land system which was made worse in Ireland by mostly absentee English landlords and B.) Other countries cared about the well-being of their citizens and when the blight hit, shut down ports and kept what food what being grown in the country rather than continuing to ship out grains and livestock as England did. Basically, Ireland’s complete reliance on the potato crop as the staple of their diet coupled with England’s extreme dislike for the Irish, their Lassiez-Faire economic policy and belief in the Malthusian population theory set Ireland on course for the worst disaster in its history.
Ok, sorry…now on to the book review. This book begins in Galway, Ireland about 5 years before the first loss of the potato crop. Just for reference, Galway is on the west coast of Ireland almost directly across from Dublin on the east coast. In the beginning, Honora Keely, who is supposed to be entering a convent in three months meets Michael Kelly and they fall in love and get married. All goes well and the couple have 3 children and are quite content farming their plot of land until the famine strikes. Then there is a lot of what you would expect, death, anger and struggling to survive. Ultimately, the family makes the journey to America — Chicago. Here they struggle, but eventually find their place and help shape American history. You know there are other little twists in there but, I won’t give them away. I will tell you to watch Honora’s sister Maire who while having her own tragic story, also add a bit of levity when it seems most terrible.
While there was a great deal of crying, I really did enjoy this book a lot. If you are looking for a feel good book, I would suggest you look elsewhere though. There are definitely those moments when you cheer and laugh with the family, but they are punctuated with a great deal of pain, suffering, and heartbreak. This is the first book I have read by Mary Pat Kelly though, I am anxious to see what else she has out there. She has a very nice website and if you do get a chance to read the book, go to her blog section and check out the “Celebrating Honora” post. It shows all of Honora’s descendants coming together to place a headstone on her unmarked grave in Chicago. Somehow it seems even more poignant knowing that while fictional, the story is based in reality and on a real person who survived it all.