A FEW YEARS ago, I mentioned to a London Jewish friend that I was writing an article about the Irish diaspora. ‘Diaspora?’ he shouted. ‘We’re the ones with the diaspora. Is there nothing the bloody Irish won’t annex? Next you’ll be telling me you had a Holocaust.’ At which point I had to explain gently that this was the very term republicans and much of Irish America were now using for the Great Famine of the late 1840s. So it makes excellent sense that Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler’s Ark, should have moved on to chronicle both the Irish famine and the forced and voluntary emigration of the same period.
No one can argue that The Great Shame is lacking either in ambition or in comprehensiveness. Starting with the modest ambition of placing some of his and his wife’s convict-ancestors in context, Keneally extends his range to cover eighty years of the history of Ireland as well as that of the Irish in Australia and the United States.
His wife’s great-grandfather, Hugh Larkin, a peasant and cottier from Galway, transported in 1833 to Van Diemen’s Land for participating in agrarian violence, is the starting point. Thirty-five years later, John Keneally, a Corkman, lace-purchaser and Fenian, was shipped off with other revolutionary conspirators to Western Australia. Larkin, politically uninvolved and by now a modestly successful chandler, died of drink in New South Wales in 1857. When the much more successful Keneally, a prosperous businessman and Fenian machinator, died in California in 1908, the front page of the Los Angeles Times had a headline: ‘Revolutionist Irish Leader has Passed On’.
Around the lives of these two relatives, Keneally has woven the stories of closely interrelated groups of transported Irish revolutionaries – Ribbonmen of the 1830s, Young Irelanders of the 1840s and, from the late 1850s, Fenians. Inevitably, he gives most space to nobs – those who left a record through their writings or their public achievements. Much of the book, therefore, is dominated by extraordinary people, such as Thomas Francis Meagher, in his youth a journalist and the fiery-tongued scourge of the anti-revolutionary Daniel O’Connell. Transported to Tasmania after the revolutionary fiasco of 1848, Meagher later escaped to America, where he was hugely popular, earned vast sums of money as a lecturer, led the New York Irish Brigade in the American Civil War, and died – or possibly was murdered – at only forty-five, when he was Acting Governor of Montana. John Mitchel, his co- conspirator and co-escapee, worked as a journalist in New York, farmed in Tennessee, supported slavery and the Confederates and lost two sons in the Civil War: because of his compelling and venomously anti-British Jail Journal, he is still an inspiration in republican circles.
Among the dozens and dozens of young men whose lives Keneally follows there were many of real ability, energy and idealism who could have been of great help to Ireland had they not ended up exiled because they had been seduced by half-baked revolutionary notions. Part of their legacy, of course, has been to help make the bulk of the Irish in Australia and the United States fervently anti-British.
There are two major drawbacks to this well-researched, often impressive and frequently moving book. Stylistically, it is at least two hundred pages too long. Keneally should have been persuaded to cut his cast of characters by a quarter: it is impossible not to sag under the sheer weight of suffering transportees and grieving families. Much of the relentless detail should have been chopped too. Page after page about diseases of the famine, technical details of journeys and military manoeuvres in the Civil War sometimes cruelly break up the narrative. More importantly, Keneally has bought into the traditional nationalist interpretation of the whole period he covers. Although he is a writer of integrity, who never evades the truth about his characters, he sees Ireland almost exclusively from the point of view of those who objected to British rule. Virtually the only Protestants we get to know are romantic revolutionaries. Unionists (whom he calls Loyalists) barely earn a mention before the last page but one.
Just as serious is that Keneally has swallowed what Professor Liam Kennedy described as the MOPE (Most Oppressed People Ever) view of Ireland, which is rooted more in a profound ignorance of the sufferings of other European countries than in a realistic assessment of our own history. We are a nation of brilliant propagandists, whose emigrants have spread throughout the world a sorry and exaggerated tale of persecution and catastrophe. (I still recall listening with dropped jaw to a republican ex-terrorist explaining to a large audience in London that during the Penal Laws the Irish had suffered more than any people before or since. ‘What about the Jews?’ I asked through gritted teeth after she had finished her lecture. She shook her head. ‘Not as bad’, she said, in the absolute confidence of ignorance.)
Keneally won the Booker for Schindler’s Ark. If a mixture of hard graft and dewy-eyed sentiment attracts next year’s judges, he could well win the Whitbread for The Great Shame. Whether he does or not, his book will be hyped and over-praised and inevitably useful ammunition for the MOPE brigade.