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In a hidden Ireland where fishermen and tenant farmers find solace in their ancient faith, songs, stories, and communal celebrations, young Honora Keeley and Michael Kelly wed and start a family. Because they and their countrymen must sell both their catch and their crops to pay exorbitant rents, potatoes have become 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–victims saving themselves–in the emigration from Ireland.
Danger and hardship await them in America. Honora, her unconventional sister Mv°ire, and their seven sons help transform Chicago from a frontier town to the “City of the Century.” The boys go on to fight in the Civil War and enlist in the cause of Ireland’s freedom.
Spanning six generations and filled with joy, sadness, and heroism, Galway Bay sheds brilliant light on the ancestors of today’s forty-four million Irish Americans–and is a universal story you will never forget.
This book is a work of historical fiction. In order to give a sense of the times, some names or real people or places have been included in the book. However, the events depicted in this book are imaginary, and the names of nonhistorical persons or events are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance of such nonhistorical persons or events to actual ones is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2009 by Mary Pat Kelly
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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OTHER BOOKS BY MARY PAT KELLY
Martin Scorsese: The First Decade
Martin Scorsese: A Journey
Home Away from Home: The Yanks in Ireland
Proudly We Served: The Men of the USS Mason
Good to Go: The Rescue of Scott O'Grady from Bosnia
Dawn, St. John's Night—June 23, 1839
AH, THE SUN. Rising for me alone—the only one awake to see dawn fire the clouds and watch Galway Bay turn from gray to blue. Thank you, God, for this perfect summer's morning, for the sand of the Silver Strand growing warm under my feet, for the larks and blackbirds tossing their song into the sky and the sharp fresh smell of the sea. Please, Lord, let the weather stay fine for my sister Máire's wedding.
Now, I'd better hurry along the shore to the stream near St. Enda's well and wash my hair or it won't dry in time. Of course, if you'd given me feather-light curls like Máire's instead of this stick-straight mass . . .
I wonder, will the nuns cut it the very first day? Miss Lynch told me they won't shave my head. That's a Protestant lie. My being accepted into the first convent allowed to open in Galway City since Cromwell, two hundred years ago, is a great honor for the whole family, Miss Lynch says. Mam's over the moon. It was a near thing, though. The scene came back to me as I followed the shoreline away from Bearna village into the woods.
"Honora Keeley is my best pupil," Miss Lynch told Mother Superior two weeks ago, Mam and I with her in the parlor of the Presentation Sisters Convent, keeping our eyes down. "She speaks perfect English, has studied Latin, history, literature, geography, and mathematics."
Mother Superior nodded, telling Miss Lynch what a great woman she was to teach the daughters of her tenants, opening the Big House to us. Admirable. Not many landlords would do that.
"Thank you, Mother," Miss Lynch had said to her. "I realize you don't usually consider girls, girls . . ." Then she'd stopped.
Ah, spit it out, I'd thought. Say: Girls like Honora Keeley, too poor and too Irish. Not like you Lynches, who've bobbed and bribed your way through the centuries to stay rich and Catholic.
I am a Keeley, an O'Cadhla, Mother Superior, I'd wanted to tell her. We ruled Connemara long before the Lynches and the rest of their Norman relatives set foot in Galway. My Granny Keeley says, "What are Normans anyway? Only Vikings with manners put on them!" But if I'd said anything at all like that, Mam would have collapsed on the spot.
So. I'd spoken up very politely in my best English and said that I was proud to be a fisherman's daughter. My da was born into knowledge of the sea, I told her, and can gauge winds and tides, steer a clear course through Galway Bay, and follow the gulls to a school of herring.
Mother Superior nodded, so I'd gone on to explain how the fishermen along Galway Bay—men of the Claddagh as well as those from Gleninna in Clare and Connemara—went out together, and then we women sold the catch under the Spanish Arch in Galway City. "We're very good bargainers," I'd said, "and also patch the sails and repair the nets."
And why did I think I had a vocation to the religious life? Mother Superior asked me. I told her I'd always felt close to Our Lord and His Blessed Mother. I admired St. Bridget and all the holy women who'd helped St. Patrick bring Christianity to Ireland, studying and teaching and praying in the great abbeys for a thousand years until the English wrecked them all. And now that the nuns were back, I'd be honored to join them. "My granny says that you're standing up to the Sassenach," I'd told her. And then she'd questioned me about my studies and I'd recited prayers in Latin and English and we'd finished up talking about what a great time it was for the Church now that Daniel O'Connell, the Liberator, had made the British government get rid of the last of the penal laws that had outlawed our religion and Catholics could go to school openly, build churches, own land, vote even.
"A new day," Mother Superior had said. And she would be happy to find a place for a girl like me in the Community of the Sisters of the Presentation. I would enter in September and undergo a two-year trial period, she said. I'd be called a novice and wear the black habit, but have a white veil. I'd start my studies immediately. My family could visit four times a year. I would miss them, Mother Superior said, but I'd get the needed grace.
Now less than almost three months until Entrance Day: September 15, 1839—my seventeenth birthday.
I stepped through a gap in the hedge, crossed to St. Enda's well and Tobar Geal, the clear, cool, fast-flowing stream beside it. Flowers covered the bank—féithleann (honeysuckle), fraoch gallda (St. Dabeoc's heath), and fearbán (buttercups). I named them to myself in Irish but translated them into English as if reciting for Miss Lynch or Mother Superior.
I pulled up my skirt, knelt on the soft grass, inhaled the lavender scent of the soap Miss Lynch gave Máire and me for Christmas, then undid the three hairpins—careful, mustn't bend them. I leaned over, ducked my loosened hair into the water, and then lathered the soap into bubbles, digging my fingers into my scalp.
"Rua and donn," Mam called my hair. Red and brown. Mixed. Better that way. A redheaded woman brought bad luck to fishermen. If Da met one on the road, he'd go back home and not fish at all. So not red and yet not brown. "Mixed hair," Mam said, "and nothing wrong with that."
"Everyone can't be blond like me," Máire had said. Máire resembled Mam and her family, the Walshes—a tiny waist and curves above and below. "Péarla an Bhrollaigh Bháin," my Snowy-Breasted Pearl, Johnny Leahy, the groom, calls her, she'd told me. "Don't let Da hear him," I said, but she thrust her chest out at me and said, "Some have brains and some have bosoms," then crossed her eyes and I had to laugh.
I take after Granny and Da and the Keeleys—tall and thin with green eyes, "but they see as well as your blue ones," I told Máire.
Lather and rinse, lather and rinse, then a long third rinse. I shook my hair back and forth. Drops of water caught the morning light—rainbows in the air. How close to the scalp will the nuns clip my hair?
Round pebbles turned under my bare feet as I followed the stream's channel out of the woods and down to the sea where my rock waited, a small squat tower on the strand, layered with seaweed, dulsk.
I peeled off a bit and spread it out in the sun. Dulsk tastes best dried where it's picked. Now, I'll sit, eat my dulsk, and enjoy a sweet hour of quiet. Bearna will be stirring soon enough.
The easily found seaweed was gone already, the rocks stripped of winkles and barnacles, the shellfish on the shore taken. The farming people had come down from the hills looking for food for the hungry months, July and August, when the potatoes dug last fall have been eaten and the new crop isn't ready.
Mam tells the women, "Cook those cockles and mussels. Don't eat them raw, they'll kill you."
"Thank God we have fish to sell," she'd say to me. "Once the farmers give their wheat and oats to the landlord for the rent, they're left with only potatoes to eat. Those women never touch a coin. Some are married to poor laborers who work for nothing but the use of a one-room cottage and a scrap of a potato garden. We know how to deal and dicker in the market, get real money. A fisherwoman has a better life than the wife of a farmer or laborer."
Perhaps, but we too depended on the pratties. Our food came from the field the fisher families shared. Money went for rent. And the farm women never know the fear we do when the mist rolls down from the mountains, the Bay dissolves into the sky, and the sea goes wild. Nothing to do but try to pray the boats home safe. Every year, some men lost. The land might be hard, but it didn't kill.
Galway Bay . . . so calm and quiet. But I know your moods. Turn my back and you could be raging and rolling. At least the land stays still. But what farm woman's heart lifts as mine does when our Bearna boats join with the Claddagh fleet and the Clare men? Hundreds of hookers and púcáns move together down Galway Bay, their red sails full of wind, following the Claddagh Admiral's white sail out to the sea. The Bay's empty now, though. No fishing for two days, not on St. John's Night or his feast day tomorrow. So, a good time for Máire's wedding.
Well, I won't be the wife of a fisherman, watching my husband away, praying him home as I had always expected. A bride of Christ, Miss Lynch says.
I wondered, did Miss Lynch pick me because she's still fond of Mam from when Mam was Mary Danny Walsh from Bearna village, working in the Big House and the same age as the landlord's daughter? She might have stayed there, but John Keeley and his mother arrived from Connemara, and Mam fell in love with Da and married him. And when Máire, her first child, was born, she asked Miss Lynch to stand as godmother. Miss Lynch accepted. An honor for us, Mam says.
When Miss Lynch started the free school for girls, Máire and I were in the first class. I was five and Máire seven, creeping up to the attic classroom in Barna House, afraid we'd meet the landlord. Ten of us came from the fisher cottages and ten from the farming townlands, scrubbed clean and ready for the learning. All of us were shy but Máire. She'd been cheeky enough to correct Miss Lynch and ask her to pronounce her name "Mah-ree"—the Irish way.
Most girls left Miss Lynch's school at twelve to mind the younger children, mend the nets, sell the catch, and then at sixteen marry a fisherman's son. But Da and Mam let me stay on to study, except for the days I was needed under the Spanish Arch with Mam and Máire.
It was Máire told me to watch the way Mam looked at the new Presentation Convent and talked about the sisters when we passed it. "Mam wants you to be a nun. She and Miss Lynch have it fixed up between them. Miss Lynch will pay the dowry. You'd better find a fellow fast if you don't want to go into the convent."
But what fellow? Máire'd been courted by every boy in Bearna, but I never felt a pull toward any one of them—a sign the convent was God's will for me. Our Lord hadn't sent me a husband so I could serve Him. Maybe He was sparing me, too. I'd seen the drink take over fellows until they made their wives' lives a misery, and I'd heard my own mam scream through my little brother Hughie's birth, though she said a woman soon forgot the pain. Still . . . Almost three months. The whole summer. No school. I'll be ready by September.
Drowsing in the sun, I heard Mam say, "I'm grateful to God for calling you. . . ." and Da telling me, "Daniel O'Connell won a great victory getting the nuns back. I'm proud of you, Honora—the first fisherman's daughter to become a Holy Sister. . . ." Miss Lynch was saying, "A link is restored. . . ." and Granny Keeley was adding, "Irish nuns are women warriors, equal to any man." And I fell asleep.
The noise of the tide breaking on a rock woke me—Galway Bay, rougher now.
There, on the surface of the water, I saw something moving. A piece of wood? A cask lost from a ship? It's pulling against the tide, floating parallel to the shore. A seal? But the seals live farther out in the colder waters where Galway Bay joins the Atlantic Ocean.
Two eyes stared straight at me. Not dark eyes set in the sleek black head of a seal, but very blue eyes in a man's face. Could it be a sailor fallen from a ship or a fisherman? But sailors and fishermen could not swim.
This one was swimming. His arms were stroking through the water. A flash of feet and legs kicking under the surface, splashing and thrashing. Was he going down?
I ran into the surf. "Are you drowning?" I shouted.
Need something for him to hold on to. The tide pulled at my legs. Here he is. His face. Closer. He's . . . laughing! He dove down into the water, slid up again, then launched himself onto a wave, riding it onto the strand.
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?"
"I'm real enough." I can't move. Has he cast some spell on me? Granny says mermen can step out of the sea, but this fellow's human, no question.
Strong, muscled legs. Wide shoulders. The length and breadth of the man. And no clothes needed. Bulky, unnecessary things they seemed. The male part of him was growing before my very eyes.
He saw where I was looking. "You can't be a vision," he said, "or I wouldn't be . . . Please, my clothes are just over there."
Clothes—get them for him now. Miss Lynch could be looking out her window from Barna House just above us. But still I stood, gazing.
An image of the parlor in Presentation Convent came to me: Mother Superior, Miss Lynch, and Mam . . .
But the picture blurred, then faded away.
And all I saw was him.
TELL ME WHO YOU ARE," he said. "Tell me everything about yourself." He'd dressed himself in dark trousers and a loose linen shirt, and the two of us were leaning against my rock.
"My father and brothers fish, and my mother and sister and I sell the catch in Galway City." I pointed to the cluster of whitewashed cottages tucked back along the curve of the shore and told him I lived in one of those with my mam and da and granny, my older sister, three younger brothers. "Thirty of us fisher families in the village, Bearna, it's called—the Gap, in Irish. Though the name's been twisted in English to a Barna." I stopped. This isn't what I want to say.
He knew. "That's the outside. Tell me the inside," he said. "What do you think, feel? How can I win your heart? Give me some great quest; send me over the mountains, through the seas. I'll ride my horse, Champion, to Tír na nOg and back to earn your love."
"Love? You don't even know my name."
"Then start there."
"Honora. Beautiful. Honora: honor."
So it really does happen. Love at first sight, as in Granny's stories of Deirdre and Naoise, Grainne and Diarmuid. To look at a face and know this is the one. Astonishing. True.
"And what are you called?"
"Michael Kelly," he said. "My father was Michael Kelly. My mother's father was Murtaugh Mor Kelly. I come from Gallach Uí Cheallaigh."
"Gallagh of the Kellys," I said, making English of the name. "I'm starting to understand."
"That you're a Kelly."
We laughed, as if I'd made the cleverest remark possible. Then he took my hand, and I went silent.
I looked around the rock and up at Barna House—the curtains were still drawn, good. I had to lean across Michael to see our cottages. Quiet. Everyone sleeping still. I let my hand rest in his. Warm.
"You're not . . . I mean, is this some kind of enchantment?" I asked him.
"It is, of course," he said. "Wait, let me fetch my fairy steed."
Steed! He said "steed" and "fetch," so I answered, "Please, my gallant hero."
How well he moves, striding along the strand, fairly running up Gentian Hill to the horse standing on the summit. A fairy place, that. Should I stand up now and run away? What if he's about to carry me off to a fairy rath? But I didn't stir as he led the animal down the hill and over to me. Michael had a saddle over his shoulder and a bundle under his arm. I stood up to meet him.
"Easy, easy now." He patted the horse's neck and set down his burdens. "You're fine, Champion," he said, and then to me, "Neither of us has ever been near water that has no limits. To see Galway Bay stretching out toward the sea like this—very exciting for both of us."
"A fine horse," I said.
"She is. And going to stand quiet and polite while I sit down beside Honora Keeley. Her name is Champion."
"Rua," I said. "Red."
"Chestnut," he said. "The color of your hair, all fiery in the sun. Truly, Honora Keeley, it was your lovely hair flowing around you made me think you were a mermaid. Like the one carved in the lintel of Clontuskert Abbey."
"A mermaid? I thought you were a merman or a seal," I said.
"Do you want me to be a seal? I would be a seal for you gladly."
"Be a man. A man with a fine horse."
And then I realized: a man with a horse. Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Blessed St. Joseph! A gypsy, a tinker . . . A lifetime of warnings: "Don't wander off, or the gypsies will get you!" "Those tinkers would steal the tooth out of your head and sell it back to you!"
When the painted gypsy caravans drove through Galway City, Mam pulled me close to her. The women in the market whispered, "They beat their wives something awful."
"Turn your face away, Honora, don't stare!" Mam said. "Gypsy women can give you the evil eye."
And now here he was, a man with a horse—a gypsy!
"And where are the others?" Go carefully, Honora.
"Others?" he asked. "Only Champion and me."
"You're not traveling in a pack of wagons?"
"You think I'm a gypsy?"
I didn't care. His eyes were the same blue as the Bay, and his mouth—smiling now.
"I'm not a gypsy, though I believe there are decent enough people among them. A terrible thing to be wandering the roads, and I suppose a bit of thieving here and there is understandable."
"Understandable," I said, "but you aren't one?"
"I'm not, Honora Keeley, though I am without home or hearth at the moment."
"At the moment?"
"I want to tell you my story, but I don't know where to start. Should I begin with my mother?"
"Do," I said. "Mothers are very important."
Then we laughed again. He took my other hand, and I didn't care if he had a mother or not, if he was a gypsy or not.
His horse lifted her head and snorted.
"Is she laughing, too?" I asked.
"Probably. Champion likes this story because both of us were born outside what my old schoolmaster called 'the natural order of things.'"
What did that mean? He'll tell me. We settled ourselves against the warm rock. I turned so I could watch his face as he started the tale. Lovely how his lips form the words. His eyes, rimmed in a deeper blue, hold such light. What thick black hair, and that straight nose. A hero come from the sea. Michael Kelly . . . Well into his story now.
" . . . so Murtaugh Mor—"
"Sorry, Michael. And who is he? I thought you were starting with your mother."
"I am. Here, sit closer so the wind doesn't carry the sound of my words away over Galway Bay to the green hills of Clare."
"I'm fine. I can hear. Start again."
"My mother's father, Murtaugh Mor Kelly, was a huge, big man, and few in Gallagh or indeed in any townland around Ballinasloe would challenge Murtaugh Mor Kelly. Even Colonel Blakeney, the landlord, spoke to him with a certain respect. 'Martin,' he called him, trying to put English on him, though he was 'Murty' to everyone else.
"Now, Kellys had been ruling East Galway for a thousand years when Blakeney's ancestors rode in with Cromwell, burning and pillaging."
"And destroying the abbeys and torturing the poor nuns," I said.
"Strange you should think of that, because abbeys come into it! Amazing that you should mention abbeys!"
"Amazing," I said. More laughter. I moved closer to him, both of us warmed by the sun now.
"The men in my mother's family have been smiths for generations. You've heard the stories of Goibniu?"
"My granny tells them. Goibniu made weapons for the heroes of old and welcomed the valiant into the other world with a great feast in the time before Saint Patrick came to Ireland."
"He did so," Michael said. "And even after Saint Patrick, smiths like Goibniu pounded gold into thin sheets to shape chalice cups for monks, croziers for bishops and abbots, and make great neck torcs, brooches, and pins for the chieftains. The kind of knowledge learned from forging iron and gold makes smiths silent, cautious men who hold tightly to their secrets. And that was my grandfather.
"But my mother was easy with the silence. Though not by nature a closemouthed woman, she was happy enough, she told me, to spend her days cooking and minding my grandda, because marriage had passed her by. No one cared to ask for the hand of Murty Mor's daughter. A quiet man frightens people, especially if he's well-muscled—"
"Like yourself?" I said before I could stop myself. I felt his arm against my side—well-muscled, certainly.
"I'm only puny compared to him," Michael said. "He was a giant who lifted rods of iron with ease and could hammer out a horseshoe with a few strokes. It would take a very brave man to walk into that dark forge to ask Murty Mor Kelly for his daughter. And none had."
"But one did," I said, "because here you are."
"Here I am."
Silence—thickening between us.
"Go on," I said.
"Have you heard of Gallagh Castle?" he asked.
"I'm sorry, I haven't," I said.
"Good. Then I can tell you. Imagine a huge stone fort built on a high hill with terraced slopes so the crowds who come to watch the Kellys race their horses on the Course will have soft seats. The castle's a ruin now, but when dusk falls, ghosts appear, and with them the good people, who you know are fond of fast horses."
"That I do know," I said. "My granny is a great woman for the fairies."
"Ah," he said. "Something else we have in common." We smiled. "A Kelly on his ancestral land has no fear of fairies," he said. "As a boy, when I rode my imaginary horse over the Course, I heard the noise of that other crowd rooting me over the final jump—up and over—and a soft landing on green grass."
"Good to touch down easy," I said.
"Right you are, Honora." He squeezed my hand. "So, you have Gallagh Castle and the racecourse fixed in your head?"
"I do, Michael."
"Now, as I said, the whole place was thought to be fairy country and none in the neighborhood would plow or plant the hillside. Even the Blakeneys stopped trying to force their tenants to till those fields. Nor would horses graze there. Oh, they might lean down for a few mouthfuls of the sweet green grass, but then their heads would come up, their ears would twitch, and off they would trot to the fence by the road to stand there until they were taken away. And the Blakeneys' cows, animals with little intelligence compared to horses, would not graze on these fields either."
"Everyone knows horses are superior," I said, though Champion was the first one I'd ever been this close to. "Look how Champion stands here listening."
"And she's heard the story before," he said. "Now, the most famous of the Kellys of Gallagh was William Boy O'Kelly."
"When?" I asked.
"When did he live?"
"Oh, long before Cromwell, but a few centuries after the first Kellys came down from the North. Their leader was called Maine Mor. His son Ceallaigh gave his name to our family line. Ceallaigh means 'contention,' and true to the name, the Kellys fought. Against the invaders, but also, if the truth be told, among ourselves. Contention. Brothers killing brothers for the title of Taoiseach, Chieftain. Now, you won't hold that against me?" Michael asked.
"My ancestor Queen Maeve knew a thing or two about contention," I said.
"Maeve's your ancestor? Why, her stronghold's not far from us."
"We Keeleys are the descendants of her son Conmac—Conn-na-Mara, Conn-of-the-sea."
"So you and I were connected," he said, "even before . . ."
I could only nod. He leaned closer, still holding my hand.
"Sorry to get between you and your story, Michael. Go on."
He cleared his throat. "So. This chieftain William Boy led the clan during a sliver of peace, the Normans settled and Cromwell not yet arrived. He decided to have a party, the greatest party ever given or heard about in the entire island of Ireland. He invited all the chieftains and princes for many miles around. They came with their wives and children, their warriors and servants, their poets and priests, to Gallagh Castle for this great Christmas feast. In those days, families within the clan owed allegiance to the chieftain, and each one coming to Gallagh had a particular duty. Take the Naughtons—they carried the Kellys' French wine from the port to the castle, an important responsibility," he said.
"And have you a great fondness for drink?" I asked.
"I can take it or I can leave it alone," he said.
"Good," I said. "So. Go on. I suppose the guests brought horses?"
"They did. Splendid horses—some glossy black, others pure white. One's coat was the color of a newly ripened chestnut. Lovely for horses, or women," he said, and brushed the crown of my head with his one finger, soft and swift, yet I felt his touch through my whole body. "A good heavy fall of red brown hair you have—like Champion's tail."
"Couldn't begin to compare with the thick, lovely mass of your hair, Honora Keeley. Your eyes . . . so clear. Green with flecks of gold and . . ." He stretched his hand toward my face, then dropped his arm back down to his side.
I swallowed. "Go back to the party, Michael," I said, my voice sounding hoarse.
"So . . ."
"So the feasting began. They roasted whole sheep in huge fireplaces. And all the guests thanked the cooks kindly."
"Good manners," I said.
- "A vividly lavish historical novel. Through the eyes of the extended Kelly clan, the reader is treated to a panoramic overview of the Irish American experience."—Booklist
- "[Will] appeal to fans of Frank McCourt and Irish History."—Publishers Weekly
- "After reading her novel, Galway Bay, you might wonder if Mary Pat Kelly knows everything about 19th century Ireland, the Great Famine, and the emigrant experience in America. But it's her exploration of the human heart that moves you. Against landscapes beautiful and bleak she brings her characters to unforgettable life. As they say in Ireland, 'Take your ease with this book.' You'll need time for laughter and tears and pure magic."—Frank McCourt, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of ANGELA'S ASHES
- On Sale
- Feb 28, 2011
- Page Count
- 576 pages
- Grand Central Publishing