Book Review: The Love of One’s Country
A novel by Brian Brennan
Full disclosure: I have known Brian Brennan for years, and we get together as part of a writer’s group six or eight times a year. What’s more, I am married to an Irish immigrant. As a result, I have often gone to Ireland to visit, and I long ago learned to love the Emerald Isle.
The members of our writers’ group – formally known to its participants as “Beers with Peers” – have all published books, written for newspapers or journals and in other ways established journalistic backgrounds. Even so, in terms of publishing volume, Brennan is a step above most published writers. His writing career began with a 25-year career as staff writer and columnist with The Calgary Herald. After leaving that paper, he began his book-writing career.
From the beginning, his books have been about people. He’s a gifted story-teller, and until recently his books have been about characters in western Canada. As I look around my shelves, I find The Good Steward: the Ernest C. Manning Story – the first and only biography of the former Alberta premier. Another is Rogues and Rebels: Unforgettable characters from Canada’s West. Then there are Scoundrels and Scallywags: Characters from Alberta’s Past; Building a Province: 60 Alberta Lives; and Alberta Originals: Stories of Albertans who made a difference.
In the last few years, however, Brian has become more interested in his roots. Máire Bhuí Ní Laoire: A Poet of Her People. She bore that name in real life in the 1840s when the potato blight, which led to famine, motivated seemingly endless streams of migrants to flow from Ireland to the UK and North America. For this work he translates from Gaelic into English the work of this woman, who was in fact his maternal grandmother's grandmother. Then came the autobiographical Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada.
Having written biography, volumes of short stories, and translated a volume of poetry into English, Love of One’s Country is his first novel. Like his other books, it’s deeply rooted in people and their impacts on the world. Reflecting his recent work, it’s a novel which is historically accurate. Máire Bhuí Ní Laoire is a key character in the story, and her descendant Jerry is keenly interested in her story. In the novel, she is Jerry’s paternal grandfather’s grandmother. It’s a piddling difference: anyone who knows Brian understands that Jerry and he are the same.
How many stars? My major interest is history, and I don’t often read novels. However, I’ve always enjoyed Brian’s work, and I have family ties with Ireland. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The author moves seamlessly between periods, beginning each new section with a headline noting place, year and month. Once he has set the stage, his writing uses the present tense only: “She is,” “he sees,” “they do.” In the dialogue, of course, people speak normally, using the proper tenses and nuances of English speech. His Irish characters often use the pronoun “ye” for “you” – a common practice in Ireland today, and one which adds charm to Brian’s writing.
The shadow of Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland (1649–53) is often present in the 1840s portion of this book. Irish rebellion against British domination is clear throughout the 19th century portions of the book. It reflects both religion and outrage at the large Protestant estates occupied by descendants of Cromwell’s men. In Love of One’s Country, this reaches fever pitch when Diarmuid de Búrca plans and leads the murder of an Anglo-Irish aristocrat, and the destruction of his property.
In the end, Diarmuid boards a ship for Canada to escape the catastrophe of the potato famine, after having received a blessing from his mother, the poet. (“Diarmuid” is Gaelic for Jeremiah, and thus the origin of Jerry, the present-day hero of the book.) Diarmuid and Nell, his bride, are able to get privileged cabins on a ship, Sir Henry Pottinger, for the trip to Grosse Île, Québec. However, their presence on the ship enables the author to tell the tragic story of the bulk of the immigrants – poor peasants who travelled in steerage, below deck, and the tragic conditions they faced. Conditions do not much improve when they disembark, and many would-be immigrants died before setting foot on Canadian soil. Grosse Île was the end of many dreams of a new life in Canada. Today it’s the home of an Irish Memorial National Historic Site.
How many stars? I’m a tight-wad when I rate books, so let me put it like this: I enjoyed this novel immensely. Read The Love of One’s Country and decide for yourself how many stars it deserves.