Ireland, 1848: Blight has killed the potato crop for the third time in four years, there’s no work or food, the rents are due, and you are being turned out of your home. Just as you decide you must escape to America, your beloved husband dies, leaving you with four young children and another on the way. So what do you do? If you are Honora Kelly and her sister Maire, you forge ahead, doing what you must to survive and give your children a better life.
Mary Pat Kelly’s Galway Bay is based on her great-great-grandmother’s life, and what a tale it is. Honora Kelly not only sailed to America with her unconventional sister and their eight children, but she determinedly dragged them all to Chicago in hopes of locating her late husband’s brother, Patrick. Once there, Honora and her sister find work and watch as their sons grow strong in the shadow of the upcoming Civil War, all the while trying to maintain a sense of their Irish heritage.
Initially, I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy Galway Bay; the author spends the first few chapters being what I thought of as “too Irish”: repeating Irish folklore and using Irish words so often that it became distracting rather than illuminating. However, as the story continued, her characters took over the narration and led me into their lives and hearts; I surprised myself after fifty pages or so at how drawn into the story I’d become. Kelly does an admirable job of giving the grim details of The Great Starvation, and her characters’ desperation for survival literally swept me away. By the end I was cheering them all on proudly and willing the story never to end. This is not a pretty tale, but it is ultimately an uplifting one. Highly recommended.