In the nineteenth century, the Irish population was halved. The Great Shame is Thomas Keneally's astonishing work of non-fiction which traces the three causes of this depletion: the famine; the emigrations; and the transportations to Australia.
Based on unique research among little-used sources, this masterly book traces eighty years of Irish history, told through the intimate lens of political prisoners - some of them Keneally's ancestors who served time as convicts in Australia.
Beginning with Hugh Larkin, a twenty-four-year-old 'Ribbonman' transported for life in 1834, The Great Shame tells of the Ireland these prisoners came from and the Australia they encountered. It brings us close to Irish women such as Esther, wife of Larkin, and the future Lady Wilde, mother of Oscar, friend and collaborator of notable Irish prisoners.
But we also encounter the 'Famale Factory' and the Irish convict women who married humble Protestant criminals, and we learn of the often desperate survival methods of 'transportation-widowed' women left in Ireland.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Australian and American organisations participated in the extraordinary escapes or attempted escapes from Australia of some of the world-famous Irish politicals.
Amongst these was William Smith O'Brien, nobleman, leader of an uprising at the height of the Irish Famine, who became, from solitary confinement in Van Dieman's Land, the Mandela of his age.
Thomas Francis Meagher's spectacular escape led to a glittering American career as orator, Union general, and tragic Governor of Montana. John Mitchel, Meagher's friend in Van Dieman exile, became a Confederate newspaper man, gave two of his sons to the Confederate cause, was imprisoned with Jefferson Davis, but emerged to reinfiltrate Ireland and become member for Tipperary.
Through many such lives, famous and obscure, we see not only the daily experience of famine sufferers and Irish activists, but also the astonishing history of the Irish diaspora: to the Saint Lawrence, to New York, to the high plains of Montana and the bush towns of New South Wales.
All of them are vividly present in this extraordinary tale of Australian imprisonment, Irish disaster and New World redemption.
About the Author
Thomas Michael Keneally, AO (born 7 October 1935) is an Australian novelist, playwright and author of non-fiction. He is best known for writing Schindler's Ark, the Booker Prize winning novel of 1982 which was inspired by the efforts of Poldek Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor. The book would later be adapted to Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.