A Passionate Girl

Written by Thomas Fleming
Review by B. J. Sedlock

In 1865, Bess Fitzmaurice leaves Ireland to help her brother and Dan McCaffrey escape to America. The two are deeply involved in the Fenian movement and are running from a murder charge. Bess’s part in their escape is greatly exaggerated by the American press, and she is feted as the “Fenian Girl,” a heroine working for Irish freedom. She allows the deception, because her admiration for Dan leads her to become dedicated to the cause.
She meets noted historical figures while being exhibited to the public, such as “Boss” Tweed, President Johnson, and William Seward. On a tour of the South to raise money for the cause, she is present at one of the first incidents involving the Ku Klux Klan. And she poses as a nurse in order to be with the troops as the Fenians deploy their key strategy—launching an invasion of Canada in order to gain support of the Irish living there under British rule.
This book educated me about aspects of post-Civil War history I never encountered in school. The role of Irish influence on American politics of the period was a revelation, and Fleming deserves kudos for making it better known. However, I did not find Bess a very compelling character. I was reminded a bit of the recent Forever, by Pete Hamill, in which the main character seemed to exist solely to hang the history lesson on. Despite that reservation, I still enjoyed the book. I appreciated Fleming’s depth of research, such as claiming Bess was caricatured as the “Fenian Joan of Arc,” a cartoon that actually appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1865.