The Great Shame (Thomas Keneally)

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  After Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List revived interest in the story that I had told in my novel, I was frequently thanked for having documented on a human scale, through jaunty, disreputable Oskar Schindler, the Jewish catastrophe of the Second World War. I had stumbled on the story, written it with passion because it was a great tale, and now with a delighted and slightly guilty bemusement found that people, particularly the Jewish community throughout the world, were talking to me as if I had done something larger--had to an extent validated the past for those who had lived through it, and had restored their history to their children.

What of my own past? I was Australian, and I knew that my name and ancestors were Irish. I knew vaguely that I had some forebears who were convicts, one of them a John Kenealy who served time in Western Australia as a political prisoner. I discovered too that I had married the great-granddaughter of what one historian calls 'a protest criminal,' a so-called Ribbonman--sent from Ireland to Australia for life in the decade before the Irish Famine, which began in 1845. This, if it is a boast, is not such an uncommon one in Australia, even if earlier generations of Australians would have suppressed what they then perceived as genealogical stains. I knew that, throughout the nineteenth century, until the last shipload of Fenian prisoners arrived in Western Australia in 1868, and until the last political prisoner had died in exile well into the twentieth century, Australia was the potential punishment that hung over all protest, political activism and revolt in the British Empire--over the Chartists of Britain, the French habitants of Lower Canada and the republicans of Upper Canada, but in particular over gestures of protest and rebellion in Ireland.

I wanted to try to tell the tale of the Irish in the new world and the old through the experiences of those transported to Australia for gestures of social and political dissent. The suppression of dissent in Ireland of course marked both Ireland itself, the point of departure, and Australia, the shore of exile. But Australia's place as a zone of sub-Antarctic political punishment would also influence the intense and fatally riven Irish politics of emigrant societies in the United States, Britain and Canada, and I wanted to try to tell some of that tale as well.

Unlike the humble criminal with whom I begin this book, internationally renowned Irish figures serving time in Australia would sometimes be pardoned or, in more graphic cases, participate in highly organised escapes, arriving again in the northern hemisphere, above all in the United States. There they would exploit in various ways their lustre, and marshal for 'the Irish cause' the sympathy of America and of liberal thought everywhere.

In the twentieth century the reputation of the better known of these prisoners has remained stronger in Ireland and America than in Australia. The famed and tragic Kennedy boys of Boston, for example, would be pointed by the Boston Irish political culture to the speeches of former Tasmanian life-sentenced convict and US general, Thomas Francis Meagher. John Mitchel's Jail Journal remains a classic of penal experience, particularly in Ireland. In Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, the grave of Terence Bellew McManus, whose funeral procession--from San Francisco down to the Central American isthmus and across the Atlantic to Dublin--must have been one of the longest funerary events in history, is still honoured and a place for pilgrimage.

But the document which made it inevitable that I should write this book is an obscure one--far more so than any attaching to the spectacular careers of General Thomas Francis Meagher and of John Mitchel, famous friends in Australian exile, famous opponents in the American Civil War. The item which provoked this narrative is a far humbler article than the National Library of Ireland's holdings of the letters of the Irish nobleman prisoner William Smith O'Brien, whose statue stands near O'Connell's in the centre of Dublin; or than the literary and civic flourishes of the spendid Fenian escapee of 1869, John Boyle O'Reilly, in his adopted city of Boston.

The document which stimulated this book is an 1840 plea from an Irish peasant woman, Esther Larkin, for reunion with her husband. Using the services of a scrivener who knows how to phrase petitions to Dublin Castle, Esther Larkin asks that she and her children should be sent to her husband, who is serving a life sentence in Australia. It is a plea which seemed to me to combine the required feudal subservience with an understated poignancy of loss.

The humble petition of Esther Larkin to His Excellency Viscount Ebrington, Lord Lieutenant General and General Governor of Ireland.

Humbly herewith--

Your Excellency's Petitioner is the wife of Hugh Larkin who was sent out to New South Wales under the Rule of Transportation for Iife, from Galway Assizes in July, 1833 under a charge of Terry-Altism.

Herewith, Petitioner has two male children one ten years old and the other seven. Petitioner's age 28 years. Under the above circumstances Petitioner begs
of your Excellency to look with the eyes of pity on hersef and children and order them a free passage to New South Wales and Your Excellency's Petitioner will forever faithfully pray.

Esther X Larkin.
Laurencetown, 7th February, 1840

It is this Hugh Larkin from whom my wife and daughters are descended. I hope that, through exploring Larkin and his transported brethren, both the obscure and the more famous, I may show at least some of the experience of the Irish diaspora, and some of the crucial events in the new world's societies. I also hope that through the people of this book some of the causes of the greatest nineteenth-century Irish tragedy will be better understood. For during the course of this narrative, the population of Ireland, between the census of 1841 and the census of 1881, declined to a level barely above half of what it had been--a catastrophe unique in Europe.

It has been delightful to search out these connections, and to live in hope that the reader wil1 be as fascinated by this material as is the writer himself.

Tom Keneally

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Excerpted from The Great Shame by Thomas Keneally. Copyright © 1999 by Thomas Keneally. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.