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
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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.