"We Are What Happened to Them"

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By Helen Kossler

Reading Between the Lines

River Forest Library sponsored an appearance by Mary Pat Kelly, author of Galway Bay, on Thursday evening 11-04-10.  She spoke to a capacity audience about Irish history, how she came to appreciate her Irish heritage and her sources for the book.

Kelly comes to the writing of the Irish immigration to America with stellar credentials—she has a doctorate in Irish Literature; she’s written scripts about the Irish experience and she has produced a documentary about Ireland that will be shown at the Irish American Heritage Center on Saturday 11-06-10. Not to mention that she was born and raised in Chicago and taught at Providence School (now Providence-St. Mel’s) several years ago.

Kelly tried to give the audience a connection to their own ancestry and talked about how the Irish were one of many ethnic groups to come to America to escape genocide. She described standing in the village in Galway where her grandmother was born and realizing, in a visceral way, that this is truly where she came from. 

She made the point that when you visit places where people have fled you wonder what happened to all those who left and where did they finally settle down.  To the Irish descendents in the room she said, “We are what happened to them. They came to America, survived and eventually thrived.”

Kelly describes an Ireland that was “on it’s knees” after the Great Starvation (which she says is a more accurate term than the Potato Famine because there was plenty of food in Ireland when the blight hit the potato crop, but the British authorities would not allow the people to have it.) She maintains that America and Irish-Americans saved the culture of Ireland and brought it back to the island.  The population was decimated between the millions who died from starvation and the rush of immigration. Nearly 80% of the Irish people either died or left in 10 years.

Her book, Galway Bay, is the story of the migration told from the perspective of one family. I bought the book last summer because my grandparents were born in County Galway and it charmed me to read something about the place where they grew up. I found it hard to get into the book and set it aside after about 60 pages.  But listening to Kelly describe how she came to write the book has inspired me to go back to it again.

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Mary Haley from Oak Park  

Posted: November 17th, 2010 11:26 AM

It's so easy when you are the third or fourth generation born in this country to forget the courage it took for family members who came before us to try to find a better life. Truly we are the rest of the story, we are "what happened," but only because they were able to face the unknown, risk illness or death, experience grinding poverty and persevere to gain a foothold in a new world -- and not so very long ago in the overall scheme of things. The least we can do is be mindful.Mary Haley

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