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The Great Shame
Cover of The Great Shame
The Great Shame
And the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World
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"Thomas Keneally recounts history with the uncanny skill of a great novelist whose only interest is to lay bare the human heart in all its hope and pain. As he was able to do in Schindler's List, he shows us in The Great Shame a people despised and rejected to the point of death, who in the face of all their sorrows manage to keep their souls. This story of oppression, famine, and emigration—a principal chapter in the story of man's inhumanity to man—becomes in Keneally's hands an act of resurrection; Irishmen and Irishwomen of a century and a half ago live once more within the pages of this book."
—Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization
In the nineteenth century, Ireland lost half of its population to famine, emigration to the United States and Canada, and the forced transportation of convicts to Australia. The forebears of Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's List, were victims of that tragedy, and in The Great Shame Keneally has written an astonishing, monumental work that tells the full story of the Irish diaspora with the narrative grip and flair of a great novel. Based on unique research among little-known sources, this masterly book surveys eighty years of Irish history through the eyes of political prisoners—including Keneally's ancestors—who left Ireland in chains and eventually found glory, in one form or another, in Australia and America.
We meet William Smith O'Brien, leader of an uprising at the height of the Irish Famine, who rose from solitary confinement in Australia to become the Mandela of his age; Thomas Francis Meagher, whose escape from Australian captivity led to a glittering American career as an orator, a Union general, and governor of Montana; John Mitchel, who became a Confederate newspaper reporter, gave two of his sons to the Southern cause, was imprisoned with Jefferson Davis—and returned to Ireland to become mayor of Tipperary; and John Boyle O'Reilly, who fled a life sentence in Australia to become one of nineteenth-century America's leading literary lights.
Through the lives of many such men and women—famous and obscure, some heroes and some fools (most a little of both), all of them stubborn, acutely sensitive, and devastatingly charming—we become immersed in the Irish experience and its astonishing history. From Ireland to Canada and the United States to the bush towns of Australia, we are plunged into stories of tragedy, survival, and triumph. All are vividly portrayed in Keneally's spellbinding prose, as he reveals the enormous influence the exiled Irish have had on the English-speaking world.
"A terrible and personal saga, history delivered with a scholar's density of detail but with the individualizing power of a multi-talented novelist."
—William Kennedy
"Thomas Keneally recounts history with the uncanny skill of a great novelist whose only interest is to lay bare the human heart in all its hope and pain. As he was able to do in Schindler's List, he shows us in The Great Shame a people despised and rejected to the point of death, who in the face of all their sorrows manage to keep their souls. This story of oppression, famine, and emigration—a principal chapter in the story of man's inhumanity to man—becomes in Keneally's hands an act of resurrection; Irishmen and Irishwomen of a century and a half ago live once more within the pages of this book."
—Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization
In the nineteenth century, Ireland lost half of its population to famine, emigration to the United States and Canada, and the forced transportation of convicts to Australia. The forebears of Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's List, were victims of that tragedy, and in The Great Shame Keneally has written an astonishing, monumental work that tells the full story of the Irish diaspora with the narrative grip and flair of a great novel. Based on unique research among little-known sources, this masterly book surveys eighty years of Irish history through the eyes of political prisoners—including Keneally's ancestors—who left Ireland in chains and eventually found glory, in one form or another, in Australia and America.
We meet William Smith O'Brien, leader of an uprising at the height of the Irish Famine, who rose from solitary confinement in Australia to become the Mandela of his age; Thomas Francis Meagher, whose escape from Australian captivity led to a glittering American career as an orator, a Union general, and governor of Montana; John Mitchel, who became a Confederate newspaper reporter, gave two of his sons to the Southern cause, was imprisoned with Jefferson Davis—and returned to Ireland to become mayor of Tipperary; and John Boyle O'Reilly, who fled a life sentence in Australia to become one of nineteenth-century America's leading literary lights.
Through the lives of many such men and women—famous and obscure, some heroes and some fools (most a little of both), all of them stubborn, acutely sensitive, and devastatingly charming—we become immersed in the Irish experience and its astonishing history. From Ireland to Canada and the United States to the bush towns of Australia, we are plunged into stories of tragedy, survival, and triumph. All are vividly portrayed in Keneally's spellbinding prose, as he reveals the enormous influence the exiled Irish have had on the English-speaking world.
"A terrible and personal saga, history delivered with a scholar's density of detail but with the individualizing power of a multi-talented novelist."
—William Kennedy
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  • From the book

    Up to the moment we write, there have been about thirty unfortunate individuals convicted under the Whiteboy Act, and therefore destined to spend the remainder of their lives in a clime far, far distant from their native homes from the land which holds all that is dear to them in the world.--Galway Free Press,
    31 March 1832

    For English and Anglo-Irish noblemen, the post of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland was both a challenge and a reward. The Lord Lieutenant was chief executive of Britain's most ungovernable kingdom but also the British monarch's representative, and the centre and apogee of Irish society. In the bright July of 1833, the Lord Lieutenant happened to be a friendly and reckless 73-year-old womaniser named Richard Colley Wellesley, 2nd Earl of Mornington. He had the benefit of being the elder brother of the Duke of Wellington, conqueror of Napoleon and former Tory Prime Minister. For the mass of Irish peasants, it did not matter a great deal who held the post. The known face of their landlord or his agent, how much land they had to live off, how secure was their tenure, and what they could sell their labour for these were the intimate and recurrent concerns of their lives. People of quality though, in towns or on their estates in the west of Ireland, wanted to know about the Lord Lieutenant's movements, levees and recreation. They read, for example, accounts of that summer's Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) Regatta.

    "After the morning sailing races, all the Dublin establishment attended a splendid lunch in a huge marquee pitched in the Commissioner's store yard." Then the Lord Lieutenant and Lord Paget returned to Dublin in separate vehicles, and in Mount Street Paget's horses and vehicle ran into a Dublin urchin. His Lordship reined in the horses to prevent his carriage crushing the child, and footmen carried the bloodied child to Mr Burrowe's, apothecary, Lower Merrion Street. There were hopes for the survival of the little sufferer. The Lord Lieutenant might have enjoyed the opportunity to be of direct effectiveness. He could not have indulged such simple hopes for the health of Ireland as he did for the health of the Mount Street urchin. For in describing the ills of the kingdom of Ireland, commentators of that period rarely knew where to start. In that very same summer of the Lord Lieutenant's encounter with "the incautious child," a peasant cottier and farm labourer from East Galway named Hugh Larkin was waiting in the county gaol in Galway city. He was to be judged for a gesture of discontent against his landlord, and so against the system represented and protected by the Lord Lieutenant, Dublin Castle and the Parliament at Westminster.

    Hugh was twenty-four years old, married, blue-eyed, robust, and 5 feet 7 1/2 inches tall. According to his East Galway descendants, he was the intense, lively, likeable son of a widowed mother. Then or later he became hard-drinking, yet his record would not imply he was reckless or utterly headstrong.

    Larkin came from a scatter of houses at a crossroads known as Lismany. This name for the landscape in which he had spent his childhood and youth bespoke pre-British ownership. The Irish name was Lios Maine, the fort of Maine, long-ago king of the region called Hy Many. This kingdom was made up of parts of modern Galway, Roscommon and a small slab of modern Tipperary. The Gaelic lords of the region had been dispossessed after the victory of the forces of England's King William III over the Irish at Aughrim, a village north-west of Lismany, in 1691.

    During Hugh's childhood people had believed that the old Gaelic system was likely to be reasserted by God in some day of jubilation, but...

About the Author-
  • Thomas Keneally is one of Australia's leading literary figures. He has won international acclaim for his novels, including Schindler's List, the basis for the Steven Spielberg film and winner of the Booker Prize; and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. He lives in Sydney, Australia.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from August 30, 1999
    Keneally prefaced his Booker Prize-winning Schindler's List by noting that he had chosen to tell the true story of Oskar Schindler in novel form partially because "the novelist's craft is the only one which I can lay claim to." In the years between the publication of that novel and this remarkable new book, it appears that Keneally has banished any lingering uncertainty about venturing into nonfiction. But he hasn't left his novelist's craft behind. Combining a facility for storytelling with painstaking research, he has produced a lively, narrative history that is a model of the form. His subject is the plight of the Irish from the 19th century into the early 20th, and the experience of the Irish diaspora in the far corners of the world. In the 19th century, while Europe saw the emergence of a number of independent states, Ireland remained under the thumb of the British crown. By the end of the century, famine and emigration had reduced its population to little more than half of the 1841 total. Keneally enters this history by looking at his Australian homeland and tracing the history of his own family's Irish ancestry. Beginning with a poor farmer named Hugh Larkin (from whom Keneally's wife is descended) who was "transported" from Ireland in the 1830s for a vaguely political show of discontent toward his landlord, Keneally quickly sets the sociopolitical stage. Book I of The Great Shame follows the experience of Larkin (and through him, thousands of others like him) as a convict who ultimately earned his freedom and the opportunity to build a new life in a new land. Keneally simultaneously chronicles the rise and fall of Young Ireland, a group of elite, younger Irish statesmen who pushed for a more aggressive approach to independence than did Daniel O'Connell, who led the fight for Catholic Emancipation in Great Britain and Ireland. Among the ranks of Young Ireland were inflammatory writer and editor John Mitchel and future American Civil War hero Thomas Francis Meagher. Book II follows Meagher to the U.S., where he commanded the Union's famed Irish Brigade and introduced a new group of Irish insurrectionists, the Fenians, among whose number was one John Keneally, the author's ancestor. Keneally suggests several reasons for the "shame" of the title: failure, survival, injustice. But in capturing the resilient spirit of his subjects, and rendering their story with such a true and stirring touch, his book is a triumph, an invigorating, sprawling history of a people who flourished, as Irish, outside of Ireland. History Book Club main selection; author tour.

  • Tom Hayden, The Los Angeles Times

    "A brave work whose narrative threads connect the personal, the political and the historical, leaving us with vivid impressions of 'Irish ghosts' in both triumph and tragedy.... It is important to retrieve these immigrant memories because they help us recover and define our identity."

  • Richard Bernstein, New York Times "The Great Shame is an event, a broad-shouldered integration of personal and national history. As one would expect from this author, the writing is both flavorful and straightforward. Mr. Keneally never brandishes his accounts for their dramatic or cinematic effect. In the style of the best historians, he allows the intrinsic power of the tales he tells and the people who populate his pages to draw the reader into a fully elaborated universe.... The Great Shame puts a fully composed human face on political events and in doing so rises to a high level of humanistic achievement."
  • Jay P. Dolan, New York Times Book Review "Keneally breathes life and warmth into his Irish heroes...The Great Shame is an epic tale of courage and ingenuity."
  • Salon.com "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...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."
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    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Thomas Keneally
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