From the beloved author of Schindler’s List comes a sprawling account of the lives of dozens of Irish men (and some women) who fled or were transported from Ireland to farflung places, including principally the penal colonies of Australia, the United States, Central America, and Continental Europe. The story begins with one of Keneally’s own relatives by marriage, a minor figure named Hugh Larkin who is meant to typify the Irish in his relative anonymity, his revolutionary tendencies, his forced family-separating transportation, and his new life abroad (including a new wife and family). Quickly, however, the stories Keneally retells are those of the more famous: John Mitchell, William Smith-Obrien, the poet Esperanza and her son Oscar Wilde, Thomas Meagher, John Boyle O’Reilly, Charles Stewart Parnell and dozens of other familiar names. Keneally is a magnificent juggler; for the most part he manages to keep all the balls in the air as he tells these interwoven stories over the decades from the 1820s into the early 20th century. Certain accounts are riveting; the elaborately plotted escape of six Fenians from the penal colony aboard a New Bedford whaler is a tale of great suspense. Other choices seemed a little odd: a minute-by-minute account of the last hours of John Boyle O’Reilly lacked both tension and interest. This sprawling tome needed an editor. (Indeed, the text was marred by careless grammar errors, such as the use of the phrase court martials instead of courts martial.)
Keneally has made great use of original sources, from which he recites at length, and he is a master at deploying particulars to convey a sense of the whole -- at times, however, one wondered whether continuously referring to one member of the diaspora as "Saint Kevin" from beginning to end was a bit laborious and I wasn't sure I needed to hear about the (sad) end of every single one of his offspring, no matter how tangential to the history.
The title and subtitle were also confusing. While Keneally attempts to explain the use of the word “shame” in an afterword, one does not sense in his retelling either shame concerning the failure to build an Irish state or survivor’s guilt. Indeed, I read more frustration than shame into these stories -- primarily at the unending streak of factionalism and backstabbing that typified every effort to launch a free Ireland in the period. As for “triumph” of the Irish in the English-speaking world, the lives told were indeed in some cases very successful and even redemptive, but as many ended in the gutter dead of alcoholism or its complications. Triumph did not seem like le mot juste for this disparate collection of lives.