Review: 'The Great Shame: And the Triumph of the Irish In the English-Speaking World'

The Great Shame: And the Triumph of the Irish In the English-Speaking World

By Thomas Keneally (of "Schindler’s List" fame)

Reviewed by John Edward (Ed) Murphy

Overall a good book and a very scholarly work. Great Shame covers significant historical events in 19th century Ireland, America, and Australia. And to a lesser extent, Canada. The book is quite extensive. Great Shame contains 605 pages of basic text, followed by some 604 notes (documenting Keneally’s sources), and over 80 illustrations and photographs. And, let’s not forget a three-page preface, providing a nice concise description of why Keneally embarked on this work.

Perhaps Keneally could have shortened some coverage. I feel he could have (but it’s his work — not mine). Nevertheless, Great Shame is not for the casual reader. Nor is it for someone with limited or token knowledge of events like the Famine, the Young Ireland Movement, the Fenians, or the American Civil War, and the UK’s 19th century practice of “Transportation.”

Take for example, coverage of Thomas Francis Meagher. Keneally follows Meagher exploits from his:

* Involvement in the Young Ireland movement;
* Participation in the 1848 affray at Widow McCormack’s house on Boulagh Common (insultingly referred to in some circles as the “cabbage patch” revolt);
* Subsequent apprehension, conviction, and sentence to “transportation;”
* Life in Australia, and escape to America; * Involvement in pre-Civil War American politics;
* Participation in the American Civil War (leading the Irish Brigade in combat at Bull Run, Fair Oaks, Antietam and Fredericksburg); and
* finally, his death on the Missouri River while enroute to take up his position as Governor of Montana Territory.

We Americans may remember Meagher from our American History lessons. We remember him as the Civil War Union Army General, leading the Irish Brigade in combat at Bull Run, Fair Oaks, Antietam and Fredericksburg. Meagher’s battlefield exploits are well covered by Keneally.

But Keneally also shows some of Meagher’s “warts.” I was surprised — and disappointed — that “… Meagher aligned the Irish News with the phenomenon called ‘American filibustering’ — and he particularly admired the most notable filibuster William Walker …” Filibustering was the 19th century practice of military incursions into Central America nations by private American citizens. William Walker was perhaps the most famous (or infamous) of these 19th century buccaneers.

And, later in the book commenting on Meagher’s attitude toward the Flathead Indians (in Montana and Idaho), Keaneally reports:

“Significantly, he saw the plush Flathead Reservation with its 12,000 souls as ‘an extravagant franchise’ which should be made available to white settlers. The Indians ‘virtually do not turn to advantage, one-sixteenth of it.’ The former defender of the rights of Irish peasants and tenants felt little sympathy for the idea that the Flathead might have uses for their remaining land.”

Keneally provides enough material on Meagher for a book in its own right. But, Keneally doesn’t just cover Meagher. He also provides rather detailed treatment of other famous Irish of that era: Daniel O’Connell, William Smith-O’Brien, John Mitchel, Kevin O’Doherty and his wife Eva, Lady Jane Wilde (Oscar’s mother), John Boyle O’Reilly, and many others. And coverage of others (previously unknown) like Hugh Larkin, Ester Larkin, Mary Shield, and John Kenealy. He makes all these historic personages come alive.

"Great Shame" is worth reading — but don’t cheat yourself. If you have only a token knowledge of these events and personages, you might be well advised to read a book like "May the Road Rise To Meet You: Everything You Need To Know About Irish American History" by Michael Padden and Robert Sullivan (Paperback, 352 pages). Then go on to read "Great Shame."

Views: 1179

Tags: American, American Civil War, Antietam, Australia, Books, Fredericksburg, Ireland, Keneally, Literature, Maegher, More…Opinion, Reviews, Transportation, United States

Comment by Bit Devine on July 28, 2014 at 5:41pm

I'm going to need a bigger house just for my books soon...

Comment by John Edward Murphy on July 28, 2014 at 6:26pm

Use the public library, Bit.  They are one of the greatest bargain!

Comment by Bit Devine on July 29, 2014 at 10:55am

I know the library is an option...but I love to be able to pick up a book at a later date and thumb through it for a reference, an inspiration or simply to reread a favorite passage...

A cozy throw, a comfy reading chair, a steaming cuppa and a nibble...and a good book...what more would you need?

Comment by Bob Nagle on July 29, 2014 at 6:56pm

Thanks for the inspirational review. I'm off to the library this morning to collect The Great Shame. To my "shame" as an Australian it'll be my first Thomas Keneally !  I may have had an ancestor in the fighting 69th so it's time I took a deeper look at Irish-American history. Cheers!

Comment by Sarah Nagle on July 29, 2014 at 7:02pm

Thanks for reminding me of "The Great Shame" --I bought it for my father for his birthday a few years ago (what else do you give an Irish-American man of a certain age?) & he found it interesting. Definitely not a primer & fat as the book is there are --a few-- gaps when it comes to the American story. I happened to give him another similar book (history, Ireland, Australia & the U.S.) the next year which he just raved about: "The Voyage of the Catalpa" by Peter Stevens. They are very different books, but since then I've always thought of them as companion volumes. Anyone who has their appetites wetted by Kenneally may enjoy the Catalpa story as well.

Comment by Richard R. Mc Gibbon Jr. on July 29, 2014 at 7:48pm

I read the book a few years ago and a working knowledge of Irish and American- Irish persons and our history are a must to make the most out of this read. As a history teacher I found a few "gaps" but nothing that would significantly add or detract from the main purpose of the author and his book. Slainte!

Comment by John Edward Murphy on July 30, 2014 at 7:45pm

To Bob and other interested parties

The Irish Brigade were deployed  in the Battle of Antietam in September 1862.  Antietam was the bloodiest single day in the Civil War.  (Gettysburg was bloodier, but over three days.)  After reading The Grate Shame, I did a bicycle trip through Antietam, and took some photographs.  Some are posted on the DC Civil War Roundtable site at

I also did bicycle photo tour of Fredericksburg, but I misplaced the photographs.  Fredericksburg saw the Irish Brigade courageously deployed on  in the assault on Marys Heights.

Comment by Daniel Williams on August 2, 2014 at 9:46am

I read this book twice. As an intrepid reader of Irish history, I was quite surprised at the extensive coverage of the Australia and American aspects of Irish history. Note: Not disappointed, ever, but loved the experiences and adventures in America and Australia. At only 605 pages, that brevity of the book was the only disappointment. I gave it to a friend, a native of Ireland, he said, "If you only read one book on Irish history, read this one."  Since reading The Great Shame, I have purchased a half-dozen books on Irish history and admit six is not enough. "Shame" has only whetted my appetite. I think I'm amazon's best customer. I worry my house might collapse of the weight. The book is monumental in my opinion. "Shame" taught me a lot about the American Civil War, AND a great deal about the Irish experience in Australia, which was very significant.


You need to be a member of The Wild Geese to add comments!

Join The Wild Geese

The Wild Geese Shop

Get your Wild Geese merch here ... shirts, hats, sweatshirts, mugs, and more at The Wild Geese Shop.

Irish Heritage Partnership

Start a Business Today!

Adobe Express:
What will you create today?


Extend your reach with The Wild Geese Irish Heritage Partnership.

Congrats to Our Winners

© 2024   Created by Gerry Regan.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Privacy Policy  |  Terms of Service