Book Review: Galway Bay, by Mary Pat Kelly

The difficulty in writing this review will be trying to avoid hyperbole. How can you gush and go on about a book without sounding insincere? (or a little bit goofy?) Oh, but I loved loved loved this book, hyperbole be darned.

From Hachette Book Group’s full description of Galway Bay:

In a rousing tale that echoes the myths and legends of Ireland herself, young Honora Keeley and Michael Kelly wed and start a family, inhabiting a hidden Ireland where fishermen and tenant farmers find solace in their ancient faith, songs, stories, and communal celebrations. Selling both their catch–and their crops–to survive, these people subsist on the potato crop–their only staple food. But when blight destroys the potatoes three times in four years, a callous government and uncaring landlords turn a natural disaster into The Great Starvation that will kill one million. Honora and Michael vow their children will live. The family joins two million other Irish refugees in one of the greatest rescues in human history: the Irish Emigration to America. Danger and hardship await them there. Honora and her unconventional sister Maire watch their seven sons as they transform Chicago from a frontier town to the “City of the Century”, fight the Civil War, and enlist in the cause of Ireland’s freedom. The Kelly clan is victorious. This heroic story sheds brilliant light on the ancestors of today’s 44 million Irish Americans.

Mary Pat Kelly explains in the afterward to the book that it took her 35 years to fully research and flesh out the story of the Kelly family, distant ancestors of hers. In fact, you can read a letter from Mary Pat Kelly about the genesis of the book, and the research involved. Kelly’s commitment to accuracy shows in all the careful details of the book – in place (Ireland, America), in history (the potato famine, the Civil War), and in story (Irish tales and lore). I admit that I expected the historical aspect of the narrative to overwhelm me, but Kelly keeps things moving so briskly, and properly puts the characters in the forefront, with history as their context (not the other way around).

Honora Keely is the book’s narrator, and I quickly found myself at her feet, hanging on her every word. She is strong, smart, loving, and brave. She is drawn so vividly, the reader feels her every blush and every heartbreak. Kelly succeeds in this respect with all her characters, actually, populating Galway Bay with a full, relatable cast of souls. This is no small feat, considering the book spans 7 generations (though always stays in Honora’s voice).

This book is a love story between two people, amongst a family, and between a people and their country. It’s a story of struggle and triumph, of heartbreak and hopelessness, and a dogged determination to survive. I was so connected to every moment of this book; it seemed as if every scene unfolded before me and wrapped me in its emotional textures. Author Frank McCourt’s quote on the book’s cover sums it up: “Laughter and tears and pure magic.”


Category: FICTION
Publish Date: 2/9/2009 (Grand Central Publishing; Hachette Book Group)
Pages: 576