This meticulously researched debut novel follows the trials and travels of two Irish men, one historical and one fictional, in the wake of the famine that crippled their country.
The Irish potato famine of the 1840s was one of the greatest catastrophes of modern times, causing the death of 1 million people and the mass exodus of roughly a million more. It is also the decisive event in O’Neill’s sweeping novel, which follows the turbulent lives of two Irish men. At one end of the class spectrum is the charismatic, well-born Thomas Francis Meagher, a fierce nationalist who leads the radical Young Ireland movement against the British, only to find himself imprisoned and banished to a Tasmanian penal colony. He escapes to America in 1852, around the same time as the impoverished, young John Gillespie, who has barely survived the famine that killed his family and inspired him to join Meagher’s ill-fated uprising. In tough, gritty New York City, Meagher and Gillespie simultaneously struggle to find their place in a “tumbling, searching, catch-as-catch-can heap of America.” Although their lives follow strikingly different paths, they are both fueled—and led astray—by a rebellious, fighting spirit that propels them into politics, gang wars, the Civil War and, eventually, the West. A natural storyteller, O’Neill brings to life a dizzying array of historical events (the first transatlantic cable, Tammany Hall, the Irish Brigade) and injects humor into the darkest moments. His descriptions of the carnage inflicted by the famine and the Civil War are as harrowing as his description of Gillespie’s New York arrival is hilarious. Haunted by failure and the horrors they left behind, Meagher and Gillespie are compelling, flawed figures. When they meet once again near the end of the novel, Meagher poignantly ruminates on the winding journey that has led them to the fertile fields of Minnesota: “To succeed you must know what it is that you are trying to do.”
A powerful, poignant debut novel.