Based on real events, this novel offers a sweeping view of politics in rural Ireland in the turbulent 1870s, focusing specifically on activist Michael Davitt and his role in the class struggle known as the Land War.
Michael Davitt has just been released from seven and a half years at Dartmoor prison, paroled from his 15-year term for felony treason against the British Crown. Although quiet and cautious from his years of solitary confinement, he is by no means chastened; straightaway he resumes his role as an agitator for chipping away at “landlordism,” the vestigial feudal system that persists in Ireland. Potato crops are failing, rents are rising, and the starving poor are being turned out of their homes just as they were during the famine of the 1840s. Davitt, everyone agrees, has the visibility and passion to help right these wrongs. Keady (The Dowry, 2006) enlivens his story with a cast of memorable characters: Mary Duddy, the housewife evicted from her land; Father O’Malley, the parish priest who must balance his love of country and commitment to the poor with his sworn allegiance to Rome; Lord Lucan, the malevolent aristocrat known as the “Old Exterminator,” and his unctuous Scottish land agent, MacAlister; Bicko, the ambivalent spy; and visionary parliamentarian Charles Stewart Parnell. The extent to which characters other than Davitt and Parnell are based on real people isn’t exactly clear, but either way, the author has laudably made them believable and engaging. Readers will find themselves fretting over what will become of Mary Duddy and her family, mentally hissing whenever MacAlister appears on the pages and rooting for Davitt to win in politics as well as love. Dealing with material that might easily become either ponderous or strident, Keady writes liltingly, with dialogue that rings true whether it’s the vernacular of Irish farmers or the measured politesse of the duchess of Marlborough. The book ends with some successes, some lingering complications and less than a third of Davitt’s life story told—a tantalizing hint, perhaps, of a sequel or two in the works.
Serious-minded yet eminently readable historical fiction handily done.