Galway Bay – Book Review

galwaybay [“]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.



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    • Kathy on March 24, 2009 at 12:53

    I struggled at the beginning of this book, but grew to love it.

    • Wendy on March 24, 2009 at 12:54

    *nods* I felt the same, Kathy.

  1. Great review!

    • Laura on March 24, 2009 at 15:42

    I love historical fiction and this sound great! It is especially neat that it is based on the author’s great-grandmother.

    • Wendy on March 24, 2009 at 15:56

    Thanks, Swapna!

    Laura: actually her great-GREAT grandmother *smiles* I liked that part of it too! If you are a lover of historical fiction, you won’t want to miss this one.

    • Staci on March 24, 2009 at 18:27

    I know this book is on a big blogging book tour and I found myself salivating over it at B&N last weekend. Each review I read is unique and gives me something different to think about. All of them and yours included has assured me that I need to read this book!!!

  2. I am glad this book is living up to its cover, as I really like the cover!

  3. Having read Galway Bay, I agree with your review, in so far as it goes. You didn’t comment much about the Chicago portion of the book. I was particularly struck by the skill with which Kelly puts together various aspects of Chicago’s history from its early days through the 1893 Columbia exposition.

    • Teddy on March 26, 2009 at 21:48

    Wonderful review Wendy. This is yet another book we agree on. 🙂

    • Jenny on March 28, 2009 at 09:46

    I am not usually the biggest fan of these multigenerational sagas, but you make it sound so good. Plus, I like learning about history by reading fiction – the author researches it so that I don’t have to!

    • Wendy on March 28, 2009 at 11:06

    Staci: I have yet to read a bad review of this book – it is a good historical fiction; hope you’ll enjoy it!

    Kailana: I love the cover too!

    Patricia: I agree – the Chicago portion of the book was very well written (I liked it better, actually, than the part set in Ireland). I admit my review was not all encompassing – I recently added a puppy to our family and was happy to get ANYTHING written through my fog of sleep deprivation *laughs* Thanks for pointing out the part that I missed!

    Teddy: *laughs* We rarely disagree!!

    Jenny: I love reading history through the pages of a novel – it brings it to life so much more than a nonfiction account.

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