Juliet Doubledee's Reviews > Galway Bay

Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly
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Mar 25, 11

bookshelves: ireland, romance, history, favorites
Read from March 16 to 18, 2011

Couldn't have finished Galway Bay at a better time, St. Patrick's Day. This book was so much more than I had expected, and gave me a good feeling for what the Irish went through during the Potato Famine, and what led many to emigrate to America.

Written in a first person perspective by Honore Keeley Kelly, this book tells the story of a young woman who evolves from a school girl (who had aspirations of becoming a nun) into a strong woman who will do whatever needed to help her family survive the Potato Famine, emigration to America, and participating in the U.S. Civil War. Set in the mid 1800s in the village of Bearna, off Galway Bay, Honore and her family must deal from day-to-day with the social bias' that they as Irish Catholics are considered the underclass by the landowning Anglo-Irish gentry, and little more than pack animals. Catholics made up 80% of the population during this period, the bulk of whom lived in conditions of poverty and insecurity not allowed to own land, thus forced to rent homes from the land owners. The majority of their yearly income went towards this rent, and at anytime they could be evicted (rent paid or not). Honore's family brought in much of their income from fishing the bay and selling the catch in Galway City. Since most the profit went towards rent, they depended on the potatoes they grew on the side to sustain their family. Others in the village tended the crops of grain that are grown on the Anglo-Irish gentries land. They also lived on potatoes they grew at home, because they couldn't afford to buy the Anglo-Irish owned grain at market price. This system enslaved the people of Ireland to depend on the potato for daily nutrition.

The book begins in June 1839, the day of Honore's older sister Maire's wedding; she has just been accepted into the first Catholic Convent to be established in 200 years in Galway City, and is unsure about her future. As she walks along the beach near her home looking out onto Galway Bay her eyes are drawn to a dark object bobbing in the waves. At first she thinks it is only a seal, but as the object gets closer she realizes that it is a person. Rushing to the shore to see if she can assist if this person is drowning, Honore comes face-to-face with Michael Kelly, and instantly the two are drawn to each other. Honore realizes at that moment that she will not be joining the convent but instead her life will be with this handsome, dark haired young man with the sparkly blue eyes.

The book then takes off describing the trials and tribulations of the young couple; from introducing Michael to her family, getting her parents to understand she no longer wants to join the church, and finally assuring them that he will be able to support her as his wife. Michael is not a fisherman, like her father, brothers, new brother-in-law Johnny, or any of the other men she knows. Instead Michael has been raised to be a blacksmith, and aspires to compete in the yearly Galway Races on a mare he has raised himself named Champion. In the end he does enter the race after being sponsored by the Honorable Marcus Lynch (who rents to Honore's family), and against the odds wins. The prize money is set aside to rent a parcel of land (to be divided between farming, raising horses, and trying to set up a forge for blacksmithing) which the couple will live on after marrying. From the beginning of their marriage though they are harassed by a cruel land owner, Major Pyke, who feels it his right to abuse the tenants. Also, there is friction with the local priest, as he is unwilling to release Maire from her marriage vows when her husband Johnnie is lost in a freak storm at sea, because the body was never found. This leads to much trauma for the widow, and for Honore.

By 1845 the couple have built on their dreams with fertile land that Michael's half-brother Patrick has taught them to farm, a thriving horse breeding business, and three children. One evening just before the harvest season begins they see a strange fog hovering above their potato crop and smell the putrid stench of rot. They find most all the spuds are now balls of black mush infected with an unknown fungus. This marks the beginning of the famine. With the blight wiping out the potato crop many who have grown dependent on this food source begin to die. The landlords and the British rulers do not care and attempts to help are mired down in bureaucracy and are ineffectual. It is estimated that over 1 million people die (20-25% of the population) during the famine which ran from 1845-1852.

Honora watches her children starve, her neighbors die, miscarries a baby because of malnutrition, and begins to search for a means of escape so she and her family will not perish. After praying year after year for a good season of potatoes, and only a forth of the crop being edible, it's decide in order to survive they must join the millions who are booking passage to America. The voyage is dangerous and many die of the fever before they even reach North America. But some make it and they send back the means for the next ones to escape. An entire race of people, trying to rescue each other.

In many places in the book you can't help but feel touched as you hear of the agony these people went through and how heartless their government was. To them America represented a new beginning and something to give them hope for.

Unfortunately, for many upon arrival during this time period they were exposed to America's problem, the slave issue, and the Civil War. In some cases families who had been separated during travel found themselves on opposite sides of the issue, and brother was forced to fight brother.

So much was discussed in this book, and when I finally reached the end to realize it was roughly based on the authors family history (Honore was in fact the author May Kay Kelly's great-great-grandmother) it touched me even more. I strongly recommend this book to those who love history, and those who enjoy a touching love story!
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Reading Progress

03/16/2011 page 225
39.0% "Picked up this book on Monday and haven't been able to put it down."
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