an interview with Thomas Keneally      
photo of Thomas Keneally

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  You're known primarily as a novelist. Is this work of history your first nonfiction book? How do you think it ties in with your other work?

In a very real way, Schindler's List is nonfiction in that there is nothing made up or fictive in that work. The survivors said that if anything in the book was wrong, that would be used to discredit their experience, and I had to be certain that that wouldn't happen. Schindler's List is thus kind of a nonfiction novel, one which takes on its prose the texture and intensity of a novel. The Great Shame is more clearly nonfiction, but it tries to take on some of the human intimacy and intensity of a novel as well.

I had written an earlier book about a journey in Ireland, and that was very good training for this more massive exercise. In my fiction I favor the sort of material that is represented in The Great Shame. Like most novelists I am fascinated by the struggles of people on the margin--whether they may be the Eritreans of East Africa [the subject of To Asmara], Australian aboriginals [The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith], or Irish convicts. In fiction, though, one draws more on one's own intimate experience of personal discrimination. In history it is in the record.

Did you miss writing fiction while you were working on The Great Shame?

While I was writing The Great Shame, draft after draft, I was aware of novels queuing up to be written, like taxis outside the door. Indeed, much of the material in The Great Shame seemed to cry out for fictional treatment. But since it is all comprehensively dealt with in The Great Shame, those are novels that will never be written. The Great Shame is a kind of omnium gatherum of just about everything I could possibly say on Ireland and the Irish diaspora.

This book is obviously prodigiously researched. Where did you begin?

Hugh Larkin, the Irish peasant protester with whom the book begins, was my wife's great-grandfather. I heard about him from her family. Before I wrote the book I knew the bare details. He was my starting point, since I thought that by looking at him, I could see the whole DNA of Irish grievance, and also of Irish experience in the new world. For as despised as peasant emigrants to New York might have been, the Irish convict to Australia lay even more profoundly at the bottom of society.

When you began the project, did you have any idea how much you were getting into? And how much exactly were you getting into?

The Great Shame inevitably required more research than any other book I have written. Longitudinally the research stretched from Tasmania to Canada, latitudinally from London to West Australia. Once I became involved, for example, in the adventures of say Thomas Francis Meagher, Irish rebel, American general, and governor of Montana, I needed to cover research sites as diverse as the National Library of Ireland, the New York Public Library, the National Archives in Washington, the Historical Society's Archives in Helena, Montana, the Huntington Library in California, and the Tasmanian State Archives in Hobart. It was somewhat like that for all the major figures in the book.

Schindler's List, of course, required similar work. It took in research in Australia, the U.S., Germany, Austria, and Israel.

Did you uncover anything truly surprising in your research for The Great Shame?

One thing I discovered which was a bit surprising, given the way history was taught in my childhood, was that Irish protest criminals like Hugh Larkin produced such splendid Australian families. When I was a child, history was taught in a way which made one expect the opposite. But many of the convicts from Ireland were transported for acts of rebellion against the system, and so it is not surprising that, given the greater political latitude which Australia offered them, their offspring became pillars of the society.

The second surprising thing was how pervasive was the Irish freedom movement amongst the diaspora in the 19th century. An example was the great rescue in 1876 of the Fenian prisoners from the penal colony of Western Australia by the Yankee Whaler Catalpa. The money for that enterprise was raised in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, the fledgling city of Los Angeles, Australia, and New Zealand. It seemed to be a secret operation but one in which the entire Irish world was involved.

The last thing, which wasn't so much a surprise as part of the history that's often left out, is that the story of the Irish diaspora is full of the most splendid women, whether they be Mary Shields, the Limerick convict woman whose career The Great Shame follows; the resonant Speranza, Lady Wilde, revolutionary poet and mother of Oscar Wilde; or Eva of the Nation, teenage literary phenomenon, rival of Speranza's, whose long life, beginning in East Galway, ending in the 20th century in Australia, was itself a core sample of Irish history.

Did you emerge from The Great Shame with a specific sense of any unique characteristics of the Irish that have allowed them to overcome such daunting odds?

One obvious characteristic that marked the Irish wherever they went was a passion for politics. Deprived of political power in a country where less than 2% of the population had a vote, the Irish found the political room-to-maneuver they found in the U.S., Canada, and Australia very exhilarating. Up against intense prejudice--such as that of the Know-Nothings in the U.S.--they became geniuses at creating political machines, whether that was in Sydney, Boston, or New York. The concept of "getting the vote out" was an Irish one. Using it, they were able to capture Tammany Hall, outshine the polite Boston gentry, and transform the face of the New World.

Another characteristic of the Irish emigrant was sort of a peasant toughness, but combined with such a mentality of tribalism that the industrial cities became a great challenge to his or her sense of self. To the peasant from the West of Ireland, New York tenements were a challenge to body and soul.

When reading the speeches of Thomas Meagher, it's remarkably easy to read them in the cadences of John F. Kennedy. Is there any historical validity to drawing this sort of connection?

This is an interesting question, not least because Senator Ted Kennedy tells me that the Kennedy boys were familiar with the speeches of Meagher of the Sword. It is not too incredible to argue that that the measure of Irish oratory should have found a home in Boston and in the oratorical delivery of President Kennedy.

What, if anything, do you think the book can teach us about the current inability to find an effective solution to the troubles in Northern Ireland?

I believe that the present and, we hope, soon-to-be-resolved conflict in Northern Ireland cannot be simplistically understood in terms of Protestant/Catholic polarity. Like all grievances, it has a long human pedigree, and I have tried to look at some of the strands of that pedigree in The Great Shame. I have also shown that all attempts to create fraternity between Catholic and Protestant in the 19th century were thwarted by prejudice and government policy both. In writing this book, I did hope that it would enrich the sense of how difficult, marvelous, and necessary a Northern Ireland peace would be. I also wished to honor the strong Protestant strand in Irish nationalism.

We understand that you spearhead the Republican movement in Australia. Will Australia leave the Crown? Did your political activity influence your writing of The Great Shame?

I was the founding chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, and later this year, under its new leadership, there will be a national referendum to decide whether we will remain under the crown of Great Britain or become a republic. Australia is in all regards a sovereign nation except in this anachronism. I hope that to celebrate the new millennium, to recognize its place in the South Pacific and the Pacific Rim, Australia will set itself on the splendid and fraternal course of a republic. But I am the first to say that the history of Ireland should have no influence on what happens at the referendum in November. It is as preposterous to try to get some sort of payback for the history of Ireland when you are a citizen of a nation some 12,000 miles removed from Ireland, as it is to go on pledging allegiance to a Monarch who also resides 12,000 miles offshore.

But perhaps some of the attitudes of my Australian forbears influenced me towards a republic at an early age.

You seem to always be at work on more than one project at once. What are you at work on now?

My capacity to do more than one project at a time has been diminished by age. And, I think, by The Great Shame. It was like giving birth to quints. And in creative terms, my minerals and vitamins are a bit depleted. But I am presently working on a long novel based on an 1840s sheep farmer, his Manchester-Jewish housekeeper, and their two great-granddaughters, one of whom is an Australian filmmaker and the other an aid worker in the Sudan. It seems to be working.

We'll certainly look forward to it.

--interview by Sean McDonald
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    Photo credit © Kerry Klayman