Books: The Ribbonman goes Down Under

The Great Shame: A Story of the Irish In the Old World and the New by Thomas Keneally, Chatto pounds 25

The document that inspired The Great Shame was written in February 1840, and carried the mark of an illiterate peasant woman from Galway. Esther Larkin's husband had been transported to Australia for life seven years earlier, and she was desperate to be reunited with him. Someone who could write composed a plea to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland on her behalf, mentioning that the couple had two sons, of seven and 10. "Under the above circumstances Petitioner begs of your Excellency to look with the eyes of pity on herself and children and order them a free passage to New South Wales." The combination of feudal subservience and poignancy had the desired effect, and the request was approved.

But Esther never made it to Australia. It is possible that she never received the answer, or could not even afford to travel to the port. Whatever the reasons, Esther remained in Galway to endure the horrors of the Famine, while the convict Hugh worked as a herdsman in uncharted wilderness.

Their story is touching, but not unusual. The population of Ireland was almost halved between 1841 and 1881, because of famine, disease, transportation and emigration. Hugh never knew why she did not come, or what happened to her, but he managed to make a new life for himself after conditional parole. Esther Larkin's death was not recorded, and she was buried in an unmarked grave. She would have been forgotten but for the Irish government officials who recorded her brief plea, and eventually entered it into a computer database. More than 150 years after the event it appeared on a screen at the National Library in Canberra, where the Australian Thomas Keneally was researching a possible new book on his own Irish ancestors.

The author won the Booker Prize in 1982 for Schindler's Ark, a book that demonstrated that the great catastrophe of the Holocaust was best understood in terms of individual tragedies. The reaction to it from the members of the Jewish community, who said the book had restored their history to their children, made him realise how little he knew about his own forebears, some of whom had been sent to Western Australia as political prisoners. The discovery of Esther's appeal on the database revealed that Hugh Larkin - the great-grandfather of Keneally's wife Judy - was a Ribbonman, a peasant protester against one of the many oppressive landlords in pre- famine Ireland. The beginning of The Great Shame concentrates on Hugh and his reasons for committing the crime that sent him to Australia. He was one of a gang who broke down the local landlord's door and threatened him.

This is not a novel but a work of historical non-fiction in which Keneally's tone is usually cool and his research meticulous. For example his explanation of the Irish dependency on potatoes - which would prove fatal when the crop was blighted - includes both a description of the choicest varieties and the argument that the Protestant Scots avoided the vegetable because it was not mentioned in the King James Bible. Details like that are sometimes used to disguise the absence of recorded fact about the lives of Esther and Hugh. Keneally does take the occasional liberty, such as the assumption that they courted in the elegant language of the Gaelic poets, but at least that is a useful excuse for some lovely quotes.

Hugh Larkin dies half way through the book, heartbroken by the death of his second wife and under restraint in an Australian hospital after drinking two gallons of rum. If this had been a book about him and Esther it might have been simple, profound and moving, but Keneally has grander ideas. He uses the Larkins as the starting point for an exploration of the Irish experience in famine, revolution and exile, at home and in the New World. Within a few chapters Hugh Larkin is fighting for space with famous republicans like William Smith O'Brien, John Mitchel and Thomas Meagher of the Young Ireland movement who were transported to Australia but eventually made their way to the United States where their fellow countrymen received them as heroes, at least initially.

The second half of The Great Shame details Irish participation in the American Civil War, which pitched the former comrades Mitchel and Meagher against each other. The author introduces his own distant relative John Kenealy (sic), who was arrested in 1865 for "Treason-Felony" along with other Fenians, believers in the armed struggle for a free Ireland. This Kenealy was transported to Western Australia but later became a businessman in San Francisco, from where he continued to be politically active.

If all these names and places are getting a little confusing, approach The Great Shame with caution. Keneally introduces dozens more of varying relevance, spinning away from one or other of the various main narratives to tell us all about the likes of Speranza, Oscar Wilde's mother or Major Joseph Anderson, commander of the Norfolk Island prison colony. The intention is obviously to compare and contrast the parallel worlds of rich and poor, famous and obscure, on different continents. The effect is to overwhelm and exhaust the reader.

The title of the book is not explained until the end. The Great Shame might refer to the shame of survival which the post-famine Irish are said to feel in common with the survivors of the Holocaust, says Keneally; it might also be a reference to British misgovernment of Ireland, the discrimination against Catholics in the North or the shame of transportation itself. The title is asking for trouble, of course, because the great shame is that this is not the book it could have been. The prose style is so dry, the detail so relentless and the narrative so unfocused and over-inclusive that the best moments are easily missed. There have been countless books about the famine and the Irish flight to America, but the real strength of this one is its insight into the lives of those who found themselves in the strange, harsh but beautiful landscape of Australia, where the old rules were overturned, just like the seasons.

Arts and Entertainment
music

Arts and Entertainment
Creep show: Tim Cockerill in ‘Spider House’

TVEnough to make ardent arachnophobes think twice

Arts and Entertainment
Steven, Ella Jade and Sarah in the boardroom
tvThe Apprentice contestants take a battering from the business mogul
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Jewel in the crown: drawings from ‘The Letter for the King’, an adventure about a boy and his mission to save a medieval realm
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

    "I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
    Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

    11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

    Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
    Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

    Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

    The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
    Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

    The school that means business

    Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
    10 best tablets

    The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

    They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
    Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

    Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

    The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
    Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

    Pete Jenson's a Different League

    Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
    John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
    The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

    The killer instinct

    Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
    Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

    Clothing the gap

    A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

    The Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain