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."