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New Hibernia Review 7.4 (2003) 155-157
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Forgetting Ireland, by Bridget Connelly, pp. 263. St. Paul: Borealis, 2003.
Minnesota's contribution to American Literature is most often recognized through such figures as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Robert Bly, and J. F. Powers. Less well known is that Minnesota has produced a group of memoirists who are among the most skillful practitioners of this ubiquitous and popular genre. Notable books set in Minnesota by women writers include Patricia Hampl's A Romantic Education, Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk, and Alice Kaplan's French Lessons. Although Bridget Connelly's Forgetting Ireland lacks the belletristic glitter of these volumes, it can be —and should be—read alongside such works. All these books chart their author's intellectual or spiritual journey through the chaos of contemporary life. At their best, each memoir attempts to integrate its author's education and study of ethnic or religious roots with everyday experience. In Forgetting Ireland, Connelly traces the history behind her family's settlement in agricultural Graceville, Minnesota, in the 1880s, travels to Connemara to meet distant relations, and returns to Graceville on several occasions to piece together her family's history.
Read as a family history and memoir, Connelly's book stands out for several reasons. It is the first book to examine, through memoir, Irish family immigration to western Minnesota and the enduring transatlantic memories and connections among people divided by generations. The account also draws upon Connelly's training as a folklorist and scholar of epic literature, and benefits from the application of her education to her family's history and the history of late nineteenth-century Ireland and Minnesota. Connelly's education helps her to discover that the lives of ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances can survive for generations in the stories passed on by their relations, on two different continents. On the way to this discovery, she unearths history from newspaper accounts, interviews, and forgotten corners of midwestern cemeteries; what most compels her, though, are the ancestral legends and mythologies held by her family.
Forgetting Ireland's most memorable chapters are those that detail the 1880 emigration of thirty-seven families from Connemara's west coast. Drawing on both historical and oral sources, Connelly creates a compelling narrative of the families' travels to the prairies and their first years in Graceville, a model town [End Page 155] created by Bishop John Ireland. Part philanthropist, part colonizer, Bishop Ireland dreamed of populating Minnesota's vast western prairies with Europe's Catholic poor—a project that would creating for himself and for the railroad magnate, James J. Hill, colonies of immigrant farmers dependent upon them for spiritual and material services. Once transplanted to western Minnesota, however, the first Irish families encounter the infamous Blizzard of 1880, bitter cold, near starvation, discrimination, and severe handling by their benefactors, including a local Irish-American priest. After Bishop Ireland's experiment failed—the hardships of the "Conamaras" were widely reported, even making the front page of the New York Times—many of the Connemara families remained in Graceville, including Connelly's ancestors.
After laying out the harrowing lives of these early settlers, Forgetting Ireland alternates between a more personal account of Connelly's discovery of her Irish relations and her Graceville's history. Given the remarkable story of the early settlers' arrival in Minnesota, it is no surprise that the later sections of the book are less striking, particularly for readers accustomed to narratives by Irish Americans about their discovery of Irish relations. Connelly's account reads with greater depth than most such accounts, as it is seasoned with informed observations about the family lore she hears in Graceville and in Connemara. Scholars will find her observations about storytelling among Irish families intriguing; others will be impressed with how well she weaves sources as diverse as the historian Roderick O'Flaherty and the novelist Máirtín Ó Cadhain into her narrative.
Connelly also offers her narrative as a correction to other historical accounts about Graceville's settlement. She believes many other representations of Graceville's "Conamaras" have blamed the...