Galway Bay is fiction based on the stories of Mary Pat Kelly’s great-great grandmother about leaving Ireland in the first half of the 19th century to come to America. The novel covers a lot of ground—the iniquities of Ireland’s Anglo-Irish landlords, the Great Famine, early Chicago, the American Civil War, the Fenian Brotherhood—and ends with the Chicago World’s Fair.
Honora Keeley is a young girl living in a fishing village on Galway Bay when she meets Michael Kelly and they fall in love at first sight. They want to marry, but they have to convince Honora’s family, because Michael owns nothing but his horse. However, he earns enough to marry by winning a horse race in Galway.
Honora’s sister Maire, who was married the day Honora met Michael, is soon a widow after her husband dies in a fishing accident. On Honora’s wedding night, Maire saves Honora from the landlord’s droit du seigneur by volunteering in her stead. I’ll say something about this later.
Michael is no fisherman. Honora and Michael have a tough enough time of it farming but are making out okay when the potato blight hits. The behavior of the landlords and the British government during this time is shameful, and Kelly depicts it vividly. After several years of the blight and other misfortunes, Honora finally is able to convince Michael to leave for America, to Chicago, where his outlawed brother Patrick is said to reside.
Although this novel has a fairly good story, there is something about the narrative style that bothered me. It is told in first person, but in a modern style that is not convincing. Many things happen, but I didn’t ever feel as if I understood much about the characters’ personalities. Especially early on, when we are getting to know the main characters, often opportunities for revealing dialogue turn into storytelling episodes, where we hear another Irish legend. Everyone has one or two identifying characteristics, but they don’t feel like real people. I think the novel may have been more successful in the third person.
Finally, I was highly skeptical of whether droit du seigneur would have occurred in the 19th century, as it is usually associated with Medieval times. I’m sure this event is based on family legend, but I think Kelly could have treated this one with a little skepticism, especially as the lord’s behavior is abetted by a priest. I attempted some research on the topic and was surprised to find a lot of discussion about whether it was ever actually practiced at all. But with one exception, the references were to Medieval mainland Europe, not the British Isles. That exception was a Facebook page about Ireland, but I was unable to find the actual reference on the page to see if it cited any sources. I have read several history books about Ireland and took a graduate course in Irish history, and I have never heard anything about this, although the other abuses are well known. (I have since found one source for this alleged practice, Arthur Young, the author of a book called Tour of Ireland in 1780, who stated it was commonly practiced in rural Ireland. He is listed in Wikipedia as an agriculturalist who traveled to observe agricultural practices. Still, with this little information, we have no idea if his statement is based on rumor or fact, and this report is 50 years or so before the time of this novel.)