Irish Above All: A Novel

Written by Mary Pat Kelly
Review by Helene Williams

The third in Kelly’s own family-based sagas (following Galway Bay and Of Irish Blood), Irish Above All lands 44-year-old photographer Nora Kelly in 1923 Chicago. She’s home because of a family crisis, but she longs to be back in Paris, where she’s been working for the last ten years, or in Ireland, to visit the grave of her lover. Little does Nora suspect that her talent with the camera, and the complicated Kelly family, will thwart those plans. Her cousin Ed Kelly, currently an engineer with the city, is ambitious: he envisions Lake Shore Drive connecting the north and south ends of Chicago, the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, Buckingham fountain, and more. He has the connections and the passion to make those projects happen and, eventually, to lead Chicago through the Depression. Nora, or Aunt Nonie as the younger Kellys call her, is there for all of it, taking photos, fighting to earn recognition for her skills, and pointing out injustice in both her family and in the city.
This is a nonstop story full of colorful historical figures from Al Capone’s henchmen to political notables such as the Roosevelts and the Kennedys. Zelig-like, Nora is at every important event of the first half of the 20th century, including being with Maud Gonne and W.B. Yeats in Normandy and perhaps even causing the would-be assassin of FDR to miss and hit Anton Cermak instead. Kelly also strains the narrative by including every possible family story tangent; the inclusion of minute historical details may be well-intentioned but proves distracting. A firm editorial hand on the florid prose would have made this tale more poignant and kept the focus more appropriately on Nora’s own story.