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“Galway Bay” by Mary Pat Kelly is an historical novel which takes place in both Ireland and America.
The story is about the Irish generation who, with hard work and faith, survived the great Potato Famine. In the four years from 1845 to 1848 the potato crop failed three times. An airborne fungus that came on the fog devoured all their hard work in just a few minutes.
The Irish had little to begin with, since the land had been confiscated by the British and they were now just tenant farmers on the land they had once owned. Rents were high; the landlords uncaring. As the potatoes failed, the Irish were dying.
As a child the author heard endless stores about how her own great-great-grandmother, Honora Keeley Kelly, held their family together.
Honora and her sister Maire came from a large happy family. They were fortunate in that they had their schooling at the big house which many did not.
Da and their brothers were good fishermen and in the evenings they had the music from the illian pipes (Irish bagpipes) and laughter and stories to sustain them. Honora was seventeen and about to enter the Sisters of Presentation Convent when Michael swam out of the sea and walked up to her, mesmerizing her with grand stories and his blue eyes. With her father’s permission she married him and settled down to ten harmonious years. Yes, there were always problems with the British, but Honora and Michael had each other and a home high on a hill, filled with their children and with a glass window looking out over and framing the many moods of Galway Bay.
The author writes beautifully of this period and has researched the events carefully. They had each other, their extending family and enough to eat.
Life revolved around the church, of course. In most ways the church helped them and gave them community. But the priests often were not able to stand up to the British.
When Maire’s husband is lost at sea and presumed dead, one of the priests tells Maire she cannot remarry even though she is carrying a child and needs the support of a husband, because, without a body to bury, her husband might be alive. Both Honora and her sister Maire are very engaging characters and the reader wonders what he or she would do as they meets life’s challenges.
Eventually the sisters get to Chicago and find a new life. This is a wonderful saga that spans six generations, and the author has filled the novel with many informative anecdotes about the Irish and these times.
Readers will learn that someone who cries “uncle” is really asking for “Anacal,” the Irish word for mercy.