Thursday Book: Ungainly tales of the Irish diaspora

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IN THE preface to this sprawling book, Thomas Keneally sets out his inspiration for a task he likens to being locked in a cupboard with a Tyrannosaurus rex. The huge success of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, based on Keneally's Booker Prize-winning novel Schindler's Ark, provoked messages of gratitude from Jews around the world. His readers, or at least those who had seen the film, thanked him "for having documented on a human scale the Jewish catastrophe of the Second World War".

Keneally confesses to being guiltily bemused that he had "validated the past for those who lived through it" merely by discovering Schindler's story and writing it up, because it was "a great tale". The experience compelled him to turn to his own past: an Irish ancestry of deported convicts both on his own and his wife's side. "I wanted to tell the tale of the Irish in the new world and the old."

The problem with the entire book is that word "tale". The story of Oskar Schindler was a self-sufficient drama. But the chronicle of the Irish experience of famine, failed rebellion and forced migration in the 19th century, assembled as a series of biographies extracted from years of research, is so diffuse as to render it pointless.

There are at least five books here: the story of the romantic Young Ireland movement and the fate of its leaders, deported to Australia after their operetta-like rebellion of 1848; of those leaders who escaped to the US and the Irish who participated in both sides of the American Civil War; of the birth of the Fenians, precursors to the rebels of 1916; of the famine in Ireland; and, finally, the story of Keneally's own humble ancestors, transported to Australia from rural Ireland.

By far the most interesting part of this ungainly medley is the life of Hugh Larkin, great-grandfather of Keneally's wife. Hugh was a labourer and cottier in Galway. He was arrested, jailed, convicted and transported to Australia after participating in a threatening attack on his landlord in 1833. Leaving behind his wife Esther and their two children, Hugh was put to work as a convict shepherd in the bush of New South Wales.

Esther ends up working for the landlord and suffering the hardships of famine. Her petition to the Lord Lieutenant for a free passage to Australia to be reunited with her husband is the starting point for Keneally's investigation. Nothing came of her plea. Was it an ailing relative she could not leave, or a lack of money for the journey to the boat in Dublin or Cork, or a bureaucratic lapse, banal but crushing? Keneally can only surmise that her death probably occurred in the late 1850s; even her final resting-place is unrecorded.

Hugh rode the lonely planes beneath blazing skies, served out his term as a convict and took another woman as his wife when separation became absolute. "It was nearly an endurable life," Keneally writes. Yet it is, surprisingly, a story of how Hugh prevailed in his own way. As a free man, he established a chandler's shop. His Australian children made their way in the new world. Although he died from drink, it would be fair to say that he prospered in his convict life, in spite of grief and loss.

This story is skilfully told. But it is not pondered or explored. Instead, Keneally launches into the story of the Young Irelanders, romantic nationalists enthralled by purple oratory. Their attempted revolt in 1848 was a farcical failure. One of them, Thomas Francis Meagher, gave a speech from the dock which was delivered "as if he fully expected that in short order it should be printed upon handbills".

After escaping from Van Diemen's Land, Meagher settled in America, becoming a supporter of the annexation of Nicaragua by the Yankee adventurer William Walker, then a commander of an Irish brigade on Lincoln's side in the Civil War, and subsequently governor of Montana. Another Young Irelander, John Mitchel, ended up in the Deep South, a defender of slavery and the Confederate cause.

There are oceans of facts and quotations, but Keneally shies away from interpretation, as if frightened by the swirl of controversy that now surrounds the writing of Irish history. At times he employs a cool historian's voice; at times the voice of the novelist, neatly shaping a speculative re-construction with vivid detail. And at times he seems to take on the voice of lilting Victorian political melodrama. The book's unreflectiveness ends up being unbearable. As a story, it repeatedly falters on its irrelevancies. Tales and Irish history do not go together anymore.