[“]I remembered a story Johnny Leahy told right before our wedding. Fado,” Maire said, and winked at me. “Johnny was out fishing where Galway Bay meets the sea. They’d caught nothing, no fish, all day. When the sun sank beneath the waves, some boats turned back to shore, empty. But Johnny and his da stayed on. A slip of a moon rose, then disappeared. Complete darkness and still they waited. Then, long after most would have given up, the mearbhall – a kind of glow – started up from the deep, lighting up the sea. And suddenly all manner of fish – whiting and herring and great creatures Johnny couldn’t put a name to – came swimming up through the mearbhall and into the nets. The glow lasted until the morning star appeared. At the dawning of the day, they saw they’d netted a great catch.
“Mearbhalls come, Johhny told me, only on the darkest night. But no fisherman is able to say when or where. A gift, he said, like life itself.” – from Galway Bay, page 474 –
On the cusp of entering a convent, sixteen year old Honora Keeley discovers a man in Galway Bay.
He stood, foam swirling around his long legs, hands at his sides – not covering himself. Looking me right in the eye – smiling.
“You’re not drowning at all.”
“I am,” he said. “I am drowning in your beauty. Are you a girl at all, or are you a mermaid?” – from Galway Bay, page 8 –
Thus begins Mary Pat Kelly’s novel Galway Bay – a book filled with memorable characters, and love of country and family. But, Galway Bay is first and foremost a family saga which spans nearly sixty years (between 1839 and 1893). It tells the story of the Kelly family- first in Ireland on Galway Bay and then as they move west to America and settle in Chicago. Historically, the novel covers a sad period in Irish history. The Great Starvation (1845 – 1852) killed approximately a million Irish men, women and children when blight wiped out the potato crops and the English government turned a blind eye to the tragedy. The Irish population was further reduced by another million due to mass emigration. Galway Bay’s stalwart and courageous characters also experience the American Civil War(1861 – 1865), the assassination of President Lincoln (1865), the Great Chicago Fire (1871), and the Chicago World’s Fair (1893).
Mary Pat Kelly based her novel on her great-great grandmother Honora Kelly, and it is this character who drives the narrative through her determination to survive and carry the stories of Ireland all the way to America. Weaving together the lives of Honora, her siblings and parents, her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, Kelly unravels a history of the Irish people – including their lore, religion, and work ethic.
Kelly is a good storyteller and makes the reader care about her characters who come alive on the pages of her book. I did find her style of switching from past to present tense a little confusing at times.
I walked between Mam and Granny, carrying Bridget. Da and Michael were just ahead, deep in talk of some kind. They get on so well. Michael’s part of the Keeley men now, with is own fine children, his loneliness filled. – from Galway Bay, page 127 –
But after a time, these tense switches simply became part of the overall writing style of the book and I began to ignore them.
Galway Bay is a sprawling novel and the time period it covered is enthralling. As in all good historical fiction books, this one begs to be devoured long into the night.