Thomas Keneally
Thomas Keneally
The Great Shame & the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World
ISBN: 0385476973
The Great Shame, Part 1
Based on unique research among little-used sources, this masterly book surveys 80 years of Irish history as seen through the eyes of political prisoners—some of whom were the author's ancestors, who served time in Australia.
—from the publisher's website
Search Audible
Video Clip Search is not avaialbe for this video.
TRANSCRIPT
The Great Shame, Part 1
Program Air Date: January 2, 2000

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Thomas Keneally, author of "The Great Shame and the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World." Before we get to this book, how did you get involved with "Schindler's List"?
Mr. THOMAS KENEALLY, AUTHOR, "THE GREAT SHAME": Oh, I was at a--a festival of Australian films in Italy. And on the way home, via Los Angeles--and in those days, Sydney wasn't a glamour destination, so I had a few days and I--to wait for a plane, and went to buy a briefcase. The briefcase store owner was a Schindler survivor, and he told me the story. He was possibly the leading Schindler survivor of California because he had out the back of his store an archive of Schindleriana, which he'd built up as a result of MGM nearly making a film on Oscar's life while Oscar was still--still alive in the 1960s. So that was the start.
LAMB: What year was that?
Mr. KENEALLY: 1980, last Saturday in October, I went into that store to buy that briefcase, and then the book was published in '82 by Simon & Schuster. In '83, Steven bought the--the rights to the book. I did a first draft of the screenplay, which Steven didn't like, and then--then it went through the hands of a number of writers and, ultimately, he made it.
LAMB: How much of your life has been kind of revolving around the "Schindler's List" story?
Mr. KENEALLY: A--a fair amount, not as much as one would expect. I mean, the fact that someone makes a really very accomplished film out of one of your books means that you'll be identified by that book, but in my own personal life and in my sense of self, it--it's just one of my children. My novels are somewhat different for--in--in style from that "Schindler" book. It--it's not totally representative of my body of work. And so those other less-recognized children crowd up and take the foreground, too, from their famous brother or sister, whatever it is, whatever its gender is. And--so I--all through the years when the film wasn't being made--being made, I just went on writing books--I--novels. And since the film of Schindler was made, again, I've gone on--well, first, this great folly to do with the Irish, but I--I have another novel nearly finished now. And I see--tend to see myself as very much a novelist and I see somehow the novels all having a corresponding value to each other.
LAMB: Where do you live?
Mr. KENEALLY: I live in Sydney, which is nearly my hometown. The Keneallys' hometown is really a little country town 200 or 300 miles north of--of Sydney. It's a place called Kempsey. It's a coastal town on a beautiful river and it debouches into the sea with some of the most splendid beaches on Earth, either side of the mouth of the river. And my last book, "A River Town," was--was written about that town--was written about that town in 1900, round about the time my grandparents first went there. But that's where I grew up at first and then we moved to Sydney. Now being in Australia, being from Sydney is to have a special vocation in life. It is to be a booster of the harbor, of the great harbor of Sydney. It is to be a--to follow a particular kind of popular culture. S--Sydney's culture is an extraordinary mix of crassness and cultivation of s--Sydney is a great lout of the city upon whom sensibility is being forced by--by the beauty of its location. And that--that's pretty much the sort of fellow I am. Even in my writing, a great lummox of a sensibility trying to get towards the light.
LAMB: "The Great Shame" is what book for you?
Mr. KENEALLY: It is--I don't know, but -it's well--must be two dozen or more being published in the US. And it's a total departure because it is a conventional history in many ways. But I hope I am able to bring a novelist's raciness to it; not a novelist's lies, but a novelist's raciness.
LAMB: Keneally, the name is in the book, but where is your folks from originally?
Mr. KENEALLY: They're from places like Cork and Donegal. And there is a convict in "The Great Shame," John Kenealy, who was a--a Fenian, an Irish Republican from North Cork, a relative of my grandfather from the same town land outside the l--little town of Newmarket in North Cork. And he--he's a very interesting fellow to follow, because he becomes an Irish radical. Grows up on a farm, becomes an Irish radical, is transported to Australia, tried for sedition, found guilty; is pardoned by Gladstone, and then comes to the US and becomes both a Democrat and a businessman and a fund-raiser for Clan na Gael, an Irish organization here.

Very much involved in raising money to buy a Yankee whaler to send back to rescue the last of the life-serving Fenians, Irish Republicans in Western Australia. And that whaler was ultimately bought and--so that was my little share of Irish sedition, if you like. And I--fortunately, Kenealy wrote in the year he died in Los Angeles in 1908 a little memoir of Fenianess, of Irish Republicanism. And it's a very useful document, because it shows why some young men of conscience could decide that there wasn't any parliamentary or constitutional solution to Ireland's problems; that they would have to drive the English out.
LAMB: What are the years that this book covers?
Mr. KENEALLY: The book covers from--forgive me--the book covers from the 1830s, virtually up to the eve of the Easter uprising. But it also looks back...
LAMB: That's '22, '21?
Mr. KENEALLY: Yes, and -1916...
LAMB: '16, OK. Yeah.
Mr. KENEALLY: ...that was the Easter uprising. And although it starts in the 1830s with the transportation of my wife's great-grandfather, who was a--a peasant activist, it does look back to earlier convicts who were shipped in the 1790s and early 1800s, shipped for various acts of sedition to do with the--the 1798 uprising. So the tradition of Irish plotting or Irish protests, if you're looking at it from a British point of view, sedition, began early in Australia with the transportation of those--of those united Irishmen after '98.
LAMB: Define the word `sedition.'
Mr. KENEALLY: Well, sedition in the--in the British definition was to promote the concept that Ireland could had--have legislative independence, that the monarch of Great Britain would lose and should lose her sovereignty over Ireland. The--in other words, to talk about it from an Irish point of view, that Ireland should be free. So it didn't take much to be seditious in Ireland. You didn't have to say too much or believe too much before you were technically at least guilty of sedition.
LAMB: In 1830, how many people lived in Ireland?
Mr. KENEALLY: We know the census of 1841, 8.2 million. The cops took the census and it's not known that they penetrated every glen and climbed every mountaintop, so there may have been far more than 8.2 million, but that's the official figure. By the end of the century, it had dropped to just above five million. So there had been a massive diminution of the Irish population and there'd been no natural--natural increase. And if you look at a community, it takes a lot to prevent natural increase; that is the birth of more children than there are people who die. So it was a--a--a country which suffered population implosion, and it continued to suffer that implosion throughout the 20th century and it's only just recently that President McAleese of Ireland has said that the numbers coming back exceed the numbers going out. So it--it has taken 160 years to redress the hemorrhaging of people, which began with the famine, which was strong even before the famine, but which was turned into a torrent by the famine.
LAMB: I checked the almanac, and I think as of '97, there were 3.6 million in the Republic of Ireland and 1.6 million up in Ulster and up in Northern Ireland.
Mr. KENEALLY: Yes. Yes, that's right.
LAMB: So it's--it's still 5.2 million here up...
Mr. KENEALLY: Yes, it's -it's remained--I believe it might have reached the slowest point in the 1920s sometime, so, of course, countries like Australia, countries like the United States, Canada were, in a sense, the beneficiaries of this grievous situation at home. But that doesn't alter the fact that it was a grievous and ill-managed kingdom, part of the United Kingdom.
LAMB: When did you start this book, your research on it?
Mr. KENEALLY: I started around about--I wrote a little novel about my grandparents in this little town I come from. And it was called "A River Town." It was published by Nan Talese about four or five years ago. And it was at that stage that I started full on my research. Fortunately, I was teaching at University of California-Irvine, although teaching might have been a polite description of what I was doing. Nonetheless, that's what I was supposed to be there to do.

And I was able to visit a lot of the germane research centers that I needed to visit at that time. And then I've been back to them as the book progressed since. Sources like the Huntington Library in--in California, the New York Public Library, the Boston Public Library and the National Archives. And you might ask why a book which begins with the transportation of the Irish to Australia as convicts would end with sources like the National Archives in Washington. Well, the--the answer is that many of these convicts or a number of these convicts escaped to the United States or came here when they were pardoned. And so through them, you can see not only were the grievances--what were the grievances of Ireland, you can see not only what politicized young men and women in Ireland, but you can also see the workings of the Irish diaspora, of--of Ireland in the New World. And that is fascinating to me because you do see the New World, whether it is the new world of Australia or the New World of America making a claim upon these people.

For example, an obvious example, Thomas Frances Meagher, one of the escaped convicts from Australia, who became a Union general, finds himself involved in the Civil War. One of his best friends from Tasmania finds himself on the Confederate side. Two Irishmen...
LAMB: John Mitchel.
Mr. KENEALLY: John Mitchel--two Irishmen responding to the same political--New World political equation and reacting in--in different ways. And that's what I--I liked to look at in--in the book.
LAMB: Here is General Meagher. And about how old is he here in 1865?
Mr. KENEALLY: He's--he's in his 40s there.
LAMB: And it's--it looks like it's either Meagher (pronounced Mee-ger) or Meagher (pronounced May-er) and you're saying it a different way.
Mr. KENEALLY: Yes. It's--actually, a lot of his American admirers pronounce it Meagher (pronounced Mee-ger), but the c--the Irish pronounce it Meagher (pronounced Ma-tha), which is a very difficult sound for the Australian tongue to reproduce, but it's M-A-H-E-R. It's pronounced the same. The name is spelled M-A-H-E-R in some cases.
LAMB: Here's another photograph of him. This is in 1861. What was he doing then?
Mr. KENEALLY: He was responding to the great American phenomenon of the succession of the Southern states by deciding to be a Union Democrat and lead Irishmen into battle. He raised an enormous brigade of Irishmen. And most of them were members of the Fenian Brotherhood who believed that they deal with the rebs and then go on to liberate--to--to liberate Ireland. And, of course, it didn't happen, because the Civil War became its own all-consuming struggle. The end of the Civil War, the Irish, men and women--but particularly men, because the Irish were a very male-dominated group--split in two factions in the US: men who'd fought in the Civil War a--and who were--wanted to take military action to liberate Ireland. They set on two opposing strategies.

One was to invade Canada and hold it hostage. And so they l--l--expended a lot of time, effort and e--and money upon invasions of Canada, which did not work. And then others expended effort on penetrating Ireland and leading rebellions in Ireland, and they did not work either. And so you did have something of a tragedy of contrary intentions occurring o--post the--the Civil War. Still, Ireland--that stage--needed a sort of deliverance. It was still subject to hunger, but--and the land reforms had not taken place, and so it was still a very marginal life for the small farmer. An--and yet, because of the mixed intentions of American and Irish Fenians, Irish Republicans, no independence was ever achieved.
LAMB: Where does the word `Fenian' come from?
Mr. KENEALLY: It's a word that was re--applied to Irish Republicans. It's a reference to the ancient warriors who fought with the giant hero ancestor, Finn MacCoul. And the Fenians were organized in cells of nine. And they had specific rules based on nine, that they never went into battle without killing nine men or they never retreated from--if they were one, they never retreated unless there were more than nine facing them, etc., etc. They had a--a--they were sort of prehistoric Irish samurai. And, therefore, the Irish Republican movement in America, which had the most extensive membership and the most intensive purse, treasury, the most lush treasury, contributed by ordinary Irish, saw themselves as the deliverers and protectors of Ireland.
LAMB: Depending on what statistic you find, it's something on the order of--40 million to 45 million Americans have some connection to Ireland. How much of that connection is directly as a result of what you're talking about in this book?
Mr. KENEALLY: In the book, I talk about general emigration, as well as the specific emigration of the involuntary kind where people are transported to Australia. So I do cover general emigration. But I look at general emigration from the point of view of someone like Thomas Frances Meagher, escape from Australia, escape from imprisonment in Australia, arriving in New York, what does he see? Well, he sees a race which is gaining political muscle, but still lives in the squalor of the tenements downtown, frequently a dislocated life, frequently still with their pig, which was their economic buffer in--in Ireland and got them through the summer. They sold the pig to buy oatmeal. A disoriented people, a people whose death rate is nearly as high as it is in the famine, a people who suffer so much from tuberculosis in the slums of New York that Archbishop Hughes called some tuberculosis the Irish death, the Irish disease. An--and, yet, as I say, he sees a--a--an America which is being taken over, politically. The machines, such as Tammany Hall, are being taken over by the Irish. So he sees the--the first American underclass becoming the--exercising its muscle and--and fighting its way into the mainstream of the United States. And the same sort of thing happening in Australia, even from ex-convicts.
LAMB: Go back to Ireland in 1830, or roughly in those years, 32 counties, were they all under British control?
Mr. KENEALLY: Yes. They were all administered from Dublin Castle, and it--it is hard to find a more poorly administered kingdom, because the people at Westminster were very much influenced--the members of the House of Commons, very much influenced by the landlord class in Ireland. Though, very much influenced by a sense of threat from the peasantry, from the--from the what you could call, if you wanted to use shorthand--I hope no one's offended by it--the patty peasantry. And they--they suspected them as a massa damnata of possible turbulence, and--but everything was--was run from Westminster. The laws were made in Westminster. The edicts were issued by the lord, lieutenant governor, of Ireland in Dublin Castle.
LAMB: Let me just stop you for a second. So in London, they made the laws in the House of Commons...
Mr. KENEALLY: Yes.
LAMB: How many members of the House of Commons in London were from Ireland?
Mr. KENEALLY: Not enough ever to finally influence the--the outcomes. Round about the time of Parnell later in the century, it was about 100. Earlier on, there weren't as many seats in parliament. I--I think at various stages, O'Connell had 30, 40 members in the House of Commons. And I...
LAMB: Who was O'Connell?
Mr. KENEALLY: O'Connell was the liberator of Ireland and he was the kind of--well, he's called the liberator of the Irish soul because he brought about Catholic emancipation, the lifting of the penal laws which restricted Catholics in all man--manner of ways. They couldn't hold office until then. They couldn't join the army. They couldn't--or they couldn't hold a commission in the army, etc., etc. What O'Connell did was that he created vast popular movements to which the peasants were able to contribute. It was the--the--the peasants who contributed a penny a month to O'Connell's fighting funds, which kept O'Connell and his members of parliament in the House of Commons in Ireland, agitating for Ireland, creating problems for English policy if it didn't take adequate account of Irish problems. And that gave the Irish the sense of political intent, which we then saw emerge in them when they at last reached the New World.
LAMB: Step back about--about your book a moment. There--it's split into two, books one and book two. What's the difference between the two books?
Mr. KENEALLY: I think book one goes basically up to the liberation of some of the most important of these convicts. William Smith O'Brien, whose statue is on O'Connell Street, who was a nobleman, very much the Mandela of his age when he--after being freed, he came to America. He was given audiences by presidents and greeted as some--as a--a great man of the age, and you see there, too, the castle he came from. He didn't come from the normal peasant hovel.
LAMB: Dromoland.
Mr. KENEALLY: D--y--Dromoland Castle. And it's now a five-star hotel and golf course in--in--near Shannon Airport.
LAMB: And he lived in there?
Mr. KENEALLY: And that was the family home. So he was a remarkable Irishman who had solidarity with the ordinary peasants, and, as I said, when he came to America, he was fated by both sides in the coming quarrel, the North and the South.
LAMB: What was book two, then?
Mr. KENEALLY: They wanted to claim his moral authority.
LAMB: And then book two was about?
Mr. KENEALLY: And up to his liberation is book one. Book two is round about from the Civil War onwards. And the emergence of the Fenians and the transportation of the Fenians to Australia.
LAMB: Seven hundred-page book. How long did it take you to write it?
Mr. KENEALLY: Oh, five years. It was much longer when I finished it. Getting it down to 700 pages was the problem. But because it is comprehensive, the w--what I tried to do with it was the way Schindler--I realize now--the reason Schindler is--works as a story is that you're able to use Schindler as a lens, a human scale lens, through which you look at this giant catastrophe called the Holocaust. And since he has contact with every aspect of the Holocaust, he tells the you can tell the story through him. But it occurs on a human dimension, and that's what I'm trying to do with the whole Irish question, use these convicts as that lens. Now in the "Schindler" book, there was just the one lens, Schindler, so Schindler is a book of more modest dimensions. But I was trying to use these people to tell the entire Irish story; the Irish story in Ireland, the Irish story in the New World as well.
LAMB: Five years, you wrote it where?
Mr. KENEALLY: I researched it all over the world, but I mainly wrote it in the same room that I've written most of my books in. It's a study on the bottom floor of a beach house where we live, at a little beach called Bilgala Beach, just north of Sydney, about 40 minutes out of the city. It is a beach on which you have great muscular Aussie lads riding surfboards and rising and falling on the tide, and you look out at them whale--while you're wrestling with O'Connell and the famine and convictism, and you know they don't have a thought about that, and it's a wonderful perverse echo of unknowingness out there on the Pacific that co--washes into my study and kind of--well, sparks me, I suppose.

That is the place where--where I've lived since the early '70s, apart from our travels in America and elsewhere. And I don't think we'll ever leave it because it is such a splendid little beach, and between our front--we face south, we don't face--you know, we don't have a northern aspect as Americans do. We face towards Antarctica. And between our front glass--window glass and Antarctica, there's nothing but sea. And, therefore, we get ferocious gales. But we also get passing whales and dolphins. And we get great muscular Australian birds, the sulfur-crested cockatoos and the rainbow lorikeet who are kind of punk bird. They're spectacular. They're emerald. They're blue. They're golden and they're scarlet and they're gangsters. And they visit us a lot, too. So it--it is a splendid place to--to--to live.

And I recently had an American on my--on our sun deck, and he was amazed at these birds. He'd traveled hundreds of miles into the bush on the off chance of seeing one of them. And all the time, they're on our sun deck.
LAMB: And what--when you write, what kind of--what time of day do you write?
Mr. KENEALLY: I write a lot in--in the morning. I find that, now that I'm over 60, gents my age often rise at 3 AM for undisclosed purposes. And I find it an awful temptation not to write then because there's something pristine about 3 or 4 in the morning. There's a 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning fear, and there's also a 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning exultation. And you think, `If I started now, I can revise 2,000 or 3,000 words before dawn. Then I could have a couple of hours sleep, get up again and do a full day.' And it never works out. That's--no one asked me to write "The Great Shame," and it's my own fault, but that's why "The Great Shame" wore me out, because I was always getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning.

Saner novels, like--well, say like "The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith" or like "A River Town," are--that process, when you're--you really know what the book is about, and every time you wait you want to go downstairs and work on it, that--saner novels are shorter--or saner books are shorter than that one. And, therefore, that period when you wake at 3 AM and don't go back to sleep again till the following night is foreshortened, in--in their case.

But Schindler--I--I lined up all the Schindler documents on a pool table down in my study, just above the Pacific, and I did the same thing with the Irish material, although it was far more extensive and took up immensely more room. In fact, every time someone visited the house, I had to apologize for the condition of my study because it was an absolute wreck. It had -well, yes, we won't--we won't go into the squalid story, but -this is the place where I've written most of my novels since the mid-70s.
LAMB: You mentioned--and this is off the subject, but it'd be interesting hearing you talk about it, you mentioned the fear at 3 AM in the morning when you wake up vs. the exhilaration. What's the fear?
Mr. KENEALLY: The fear is this: `When will I get this book finished? Will I ever get this book finished? Will I be rescued from this book?' I find my--the sort of writing I do, I find that the--for a little while you're in control, and then the book really takes over. And you feel a quite frightening lack of control. So you wake up and you think, `I don't quite have control of this novel yet. And I--I'd like to just get a--the wrench on--on it and turn it a couple of turns,' you know, get management over it, write some clarifying passage that--that gave me some--gives you some confidence that you'll ultimately finish it and you n--you'll know what--you know what you're doing.

So I think it was Napoleon said that no man a--is a hero at 3 AM in the morning, and that particularly applies to novelists and the--the fear that you will not finish, the fear that this material will evade you, that it will fly, the center will not hold. See, a novel is supposed to be partly chaotic. Randall Jarrell once said--I--I believe it was him that--words to the effect that a--a novel is a fiction of uncertain length with something wrong with it. And if there's too much wrong with it, it never gets written, of course. And trying to get it to that point, where there's only something wrong with it instead of the entire mass of it being chaoticis something which strikes you at 3 in the morning when you're both a little rested and a little tired and then maybe a little depressed. And you think, `If--if I did another thousand words of this book, I might get a greater sense of mastery over it.'

It's a--it--it's a great p--problem for writers, I think. I'd like to hear what others had to say about it. That--but the tendency to do that is less strong early in the book, where you're eking out a certain amount of wordage per day. It's when you reach the intermediate stage, where the book is fighting you for control and you're fighting it. And I've always had a sense that the books hold me hostage and that I have to write my way out. The only way to get out is to write my way out. I told someone that writing "The Great Shame," this huge work of--of--of history--I don't know if it's any good or not, but it is--I think I can make the claim it is--it -it is at least huge. I felt as if I was locked in a closet with a Tyrannosaurus rex, and only one of us would get out alive. And I was simultaneously aware of novels queuing up outside the closet, waiting to be written, and this--the particular demands of this book prevented me from--from doing that.

And so I have an impulsive temperament, and I tend to want to get the book written. And when a book holds you hostage for five years, you do feel a certain powerlessness. Of course, it's very good for the soul to lose that control that all humans want, but--but which we cannot sustain throughout our lifetime, and yet I did feel at times very lost during the writing of this book, and I--I wanted to get back to writing novels.
LAMB: How many characters would you say you developed? You mentioned the Smith O'Briens and people like that. How many...
Mr. KENEALLY: Yes.
LAMB: ...total characters? Do you take them through a whole several years or...
Mr. KENEALLY: The whole book, yes. Well, there's Hugh Larkin, who dies at the end of Book I and my wife's great-grandfather. And there's Mary Shields, another peasant convict who dies, again, on the eve of the Civil War. And she goes all through Book I. But then there are--there is O'Connell, who dominates...
LAMB: The liberator.
Mr. KENEALLY: ...the Irish scene, yes. And there are the young rebels: Mitchel--John Mitchel; William Smith O'Brien; various friends of theirs: John Martin; a man called Kevin Izod O'Doherty, who was a surgeon--a young surgeon politicized by serving in the fever wards during the--during the famine. And he is in love throughout his Tasmanian imprisonment. He, O'Doherty, is in love with a famous young poet--or poetess, as they used to say whimsically then--called Eva O'Kelly. She's called `Eva of The Nation.' The Nation was the great Nationalist newspaper.

And--and that romance goes right through the book. It goes through their marriage, and they ultimately settled in Australia. So it follows Eva. This heroic young teen-ager joined the famine. It follows her to her death on the edge of World War I and a corrugated iron roof in Queensland in Australia. And--and one, therefore, returns to characters throughout the book; says what they're doing, says what they're-- we say what is befalling them. We say what their perception on the Irish question, a topic on which they never lost their opinions--what--how that is progressing, what impact living in the New World has had upon it, etc., etc.
LAMB: You've mentioned several occasions the famine. When did the first famine hit Ireland?
Mr. KENEALLY: It was--there had been famines in the 18th century, early 19th. There'd been potato failures. But the one which served as this great historic trigger of immigration began in 1845. The Irish peasantry depended on the potatoes for the bulk of their food. It was their staple. And...
LAMB: Let me ask you a numbers question. You said earlier about eight and a half million people lived there in 1845.
Mr. KENEALLY: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: How many of those were people that were peasants?
Mr. KENEALLY: Oh, well, there would have been--as peasants and small farmers, there would have been over six million people nearly exclusively dependent upon the potato. And...
LAMB: On the pot--all of them had to grow potatoes in order to live?
Mr. KENEALLY: Yes, indeed. They-- -if they grew any crops, as some of the middling farmers did, they sold them to pay rent. And their diet consisted chiefly of buttermilk and potatoes; in the summer, of oatmeal, a bit of bacon, occasional piece of fish and so on. But the potato was one of the few plants--it may indeed be the--the only one--which can totally sustain life when fed to a peasant. And it did have a very rich and complex array of calciums and irons and proteins and so on, carbohydrates. So it was an excellent food.

The problem was that if it vanished, there were very few other food resources. The Irish peasant, like Hugh Larkin before he was transported, kept often in the house a pig, the notorious patties pigs, which he then sold in the spring to buy oatmeal to tide you over until the potatoes were harvested again in the--in the fall, in the--September. And this condition of life made the Irish uniquely susceptible because the potato blight, which struck Ireland in 1845, also struck Scotland, also struck England, the Low Countries and so on all the way to the Caspian Sea. But it was only in Ireland, because I--the Irish peasantry was so marginalized--it was only in Ireland that it caused this massive number of deaths and the fleeing of the country, the people who would have hung to their land at all costs suddenly choosing to flee.
LAMB: In 1845, how many Irish at that time had come over to the United States? Do you know?
Mr. KENEALLY: They say it may have been as m--many as a million and a half had immigrated...
LAMB: Already?
Mr. KENEALLY: ...for--to a number of places in the world, including a lot to that point went to Canada because Canada was the closest from Ireland. And...
LAMB: And Canada was under what control? What...
Mr. KENEALLY: It was a--a British colony as well. And early in the 19th century it was--it--it was relatively mismanaged, too. There was a high Tory--a high Tory hierarchy in Canada, who ran Canada for their own benefit. And in 1837, both the French Canadians and various Anglo-Saxon Wesley--Wesleyans and others, Presbyterians, rebelled. And the people from that rebellion were sent to Australia also. A number of them were hanged, and others were sent to Australia. So...
LAMB: Australia's under whose control?
Mr. KENEALLY: Under British control. It was a British colony. And after the American colonies had separated from the mother country and had achieved their sovereignty, the American Atlantic colonies could no long--Atlantic states would no longer serve as prisons for British prisoners as they had, to an extent--Georgia and North and South Carolina--up to that point. And so the British had to find a new jail. They had epidemic crime. They had great social dislocation brought on by the--by the industrial revolution, the growth of the criminal class in the major cities. And...
LAMB: Are you saying that when we were colonies here, that Britain shipped the bad...
Mr. KENEALLY: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...whatever, the prisoners, over here?
Mr. KENEALLY: Yes, they shipped convicts to...
LAMB: Many?
Mr. KENEALLY: I believe about 50,000.
LAMB: Why would they ship them here?
Mr. KENEALLY: Because they had the power to and because there was a shortage of labor in some of the American colonies. So it served two purposes: getting the criminal out of Britain, getting the undesirable out and supplying the colonial labor requirement. And the same conditions existed in Australia. Very soon after the founding of Australia, it became a great wool-producing center. Wool was to Australia what cotton was to the South. And so there was great demand for labor and cheap labor, and of course convicts were very cheap labor.

Hugh Larkin came from a--the ribbon man I mentioned earlier, came from a wool-producing area of--of East Galloway. So he got a job under a master on a sheep station as a convict very early in his Australian experience. And his Australian experience seems to have been relatively positive because of the fact that he was experienced in sheering and lambing and all the activities of wool breeding.
LAMB: And Hugh Larkin, again, is your wife's...
Mr. KENEALLY: Great-grandfather, yes. And...
LAMB: And what year did they ship him out of Ireland to Australia?
Mr. KENEALLY: 1834. And it's remarkable that there are only three generations between him and Judy. It's due to old men marrying young women and having children late. But the-- there are only three generations between my wife and that Irish convict. He also has great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren in East Galloway to this day.
LAMB: In Ireland.
Mr. KENEALLY: And it's very--yes. And it's very interesting to go around and meet them. We had the honor to go around and have tea at each of their houses some years ago under the guidance of a man from East Galloway, who was a great help to me, called Michael Larkin, who is--who--one of whose forebears was Hugh.
LAMB: Go back to the potato famine again, 1845. D--I mean--and, by the way, today if you only could eat potatoes, would you survive?
Mr. KENEALLY: Yes, if you had a bit of buttermilk with it and just a few other additions. You would just about get by on--even on water and potatoes. It--it is a remarkable plant, and that's why it was taken up so alacritously in the--in Europe. And, in fact, it's believed that the great population explosion of Europe in the 18th and 19th century was partly fueled by the potato because it's got all these goodies in it, and it's good for hormones, and so, you know--I don't have to draw a picture, I'm sure.

The famine was produced by the marginal condition the Irish peasantry was living in anyhow. With--the conditions of land tenure were appalling. The power of the landlords was unjust. Many landlords behaved well during the famine; many didn't. But nonetheless it--it didn't alter the fact that the f--for millions of our forefathers and foremothers, life was very marginal.

And when they stuck their shovels into the ground at the end of the summer of 1845 and found that the potatoes, protected by the soil, had putrefied, had turned to rotten pulp, which if you ate, as some did, produced dysentery, there was howling throughout the country, there was caning. The Irish felt orphaned by that first onset of blight, nor did anyone understand what it was. It was a spore which actually probably came from the US. It was a little microscopic fungus, which came to Ireland in ships. The conditions of moisture and wind in Ireland helped it spread right throughout the island of Ireland. And it attacked not only the stalk and the leaf and turned them black, but it attacked the fruit as well.

So there was huge hardship in the more--in the most marginal areas of Ireland. There was immediately huge hardship in the winter of '45 and '46. But the Irish were not yet fleeing the country in huge numbers. Then the following year it was expected that the potato crop would grow normally after this visitation of God. Those who felt that they'd sinned and repented, everyone had been saying the rosary, everyone expected that God would lift this curse from the new potato crop. But--and--and in some areas it came out of the ground looking healthy, and people rejoiced. But the spore was already in it, and within hours it putrefied.
LAMB: How Catholic was Ireland, out of their eight and a half million people then?
Mr. KENEALLY: Very heavy population of--of Irish Catholics and nearly all the peasantry. I don't know what the exact divide was, but I would guess about a million Protestants and seven million Catholics. So...
LAMB: Did they, in those years, live up North?
Mr. KENEALLY: They lived all over.
LAMB: The Protestants?
Mr. KENEALLY: The Protestants lived all over. They--they were large landlords, middling landlords, large farmers generally. They were--some of them were struck and hit by the famine as well. And the conditions of land tenure and the difficulty of getting land is what--what had driven the Scots-Irish as they're called, the--the Ulster Irish, in great numbers into America in the 18th century. The sort of people who lived in the Allegheny Mountains, who occupied those mountains in the 18th century, were people from the North of Ireland.

And they were tough guys. They were the v--made very good soldiers. And, of course, they produced a number--that kind of--of background, the Ulster Protestant, produced a number of early American prime ministers--sorry, wash your mouth out, Tom--American presidents. Jackson, for example, and I believe that something like three out of the first five American presidents--I shouldn't quote the figures because I'm not certain. I knew them once and don't anymore. But they came from the Scots-Irish background. So the Protestants found the conditions of land tenure intolerable also, but fewer of them were on that lowest level of society, the ones to whom the removal of the spuds was death. And in 1848, the blight didn't recur. By then, though, the Irish were abandoning Ireland in huge numbers.
LAMB: First, let me ask you, though, how many died as a result of the blight?
Mr. KENEALLY: We think it might have been as much as a million and a half, but probably about a million. And...
LAMB: How did they die?
Mr. KENEALLY: They died--as people die in famine in--in Africa, they die mainly of opportunistic fevers. They get so malnourished that before they can actually starve, something like cholera, something like gastroenteritis will finish them off. What finished them off in this famine, above all, was typhus and relapsing fever. These are diseases which are communicated by lice and by the dung of lice. And the lice excrete the dung in the clothing of the peasantry, who are now weakened and, even if they wanted to, cannot find and--find the fuel to boil up water to wash their clothing.

And it was in the clothing of the Irish peasantry that typhus came to New York, came worst of all to places like Montreal and Quebec, where the very poorest of the poor immigrants went on very unseaworthy ships, very inadequate shipping. And the--therefore, as in modern famines in Africa, 90 percent of people died of these opportunistic fevers, which struck you when you were weak, and you had none--no resistance to fight them.

The death of people in the street, in the ditch, so on, was so appalling in Ireland that by 1847, a number of people concluded that a permanent curse had descended upon Ireland, and that's when the great fleeing of Ireland occurred, particularly being--between April or the--the melting of the ice in the St. Lawrence in 1847 and the freezing of the St. Lawrence later that year. Tremendous numbers caught ships to--to Canada. Some stopped at New Brunswick or other--other ports. Others went down into the St. Lawrence to Quebec.
LAMB: In the book you mentioned American Presidents Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore and, later on, Grover Cleveland, who all got involved. But in that time of the blight and time of--when people were dying, what was America, what was the United States doing to help, if anything?
Mr. KENEALLY: Well, right throughout the English-speaking world and in other parts of the world as well, there was quite a lot of generosity of donation. A lot of Irish immigrants knew their families were back there undergoing -they read the newspaper reports, and they sent money back. So money repatriated to Ireland by ordinary Irish immigrants was very important to some families. Funds were raised. The Society of Friends, the Quakers, were very important in America in sending funds back to--to Ireland. And the Society of Friends operated as a--sort of an NGO, an aid operation within Ireland. Boston sent a ship, New York sent a ship full of grain and--and so on.

There was a--a great outpouring of generosity. The same--the various archdiocese, the Archdiocese of Boston, sent--raised and sent money, but so did the former convicts, so did convicts in Australia raise money, send it through the Archdiocese of Sidney s--or send it directly to families who they knew they were never going to see again back in Ireland.
LAMB: By the way, in--in the...
Mr. KENEALLY: And so there was considerable generosity.
LAMB: ...in--in the course of writing your book, how much time have you spent in Ireland?
Mr. KENEALLY: Oh, I don't know all that, but I've been there maybe two dozen times. And I went over there for a spate doing the research on the early part of the book, on ribbonism and Hugh Larkin and all the rest of it. And then I went back to do the Letters of Young Ireland in the National Library of Ireland and to do the research into the Fenians in the National Archives of Ireland. So a number of journeys were involved, although sometimes things are copied p--microfilmed in--in--and sent to other archives.

The letters of William Smith O'Brien relating to his transportation, this nobleman convict who was considered the secular pontiff of Ireland and was the Mandela of his age, as I've said, his letters are both in Tasmania, in Hobart, at the end of the Earth, on film and they're also in--the original in--in the National Library of Ireland. So I was able to look at them at various stages in both those places.
LAMB: Do you consider yourself Irish?
Mr. KENEALLY: No, I--I'm definitely and irretrievably Australian, but--and I've been somewhat involved in--in Australian constitutional agitation, I suppose you'd call it--utterly peaceable constitutional agitation. But if I undertake any Australian political comment, it is always from the basis of what I believe is good for the Australian community. It doesn't grow out of what happened in Ireland in the 19th century.
LAMB: We just haven't even cracked the surface of this book. This is what it looks like. It's called "The Great Shame." Our author has been Thomas Keneally. Thank you very much.
Mr. KENEALLY: Thank you.


Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2003. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.