THE GREAT SHAME

And the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World

By Thomas Keneally

Doubleday. 712 pp. $35

In the relatively clement history of the English-speaking peoples, the Irish have forever seemed square pegs refusing to be pushed into round holes. Their continuing travail is as fresh as yesterday's bulletin from the Ulster peace process, which, God willing, may yet write the last chapter in a drama of fraternal discord now centuries old.

This is the old conflict upon which Thomas Keneally plays variations in this huge book--the tale, as he has it, of the Irish "diaspora." Readers of "Schindler's List" know that Keneally has a gift for heroic stories--whether of an industrialist with a passion for rescuing Jews in Nazi Europe or, here, the scattering--often by cruel measures and misfortune--of Irish heroes and martyrs to every corner of the world.

The worst of it began with a terrible event, the potato famine of 1845-47, when a fungus blighted the staple food of millions of land-bound peasants. The Great Hunger accelerated a tide of immigration to North America. In the space of a decade, amid scenes of unimaginable misery, the population of Ireland fell by at least a third. The grievances arising from famine became the ultimate open sore in an already angry relationship. The Irish had come to think of the Union with Britain of 1800 as an act of shameful submission and viewed the English as heartless oppressors.

The English, in turn, often viewed the Irish as a romantic people, steeped in poetry, drink and myth, economically unresourceful and sometimes treacherous. This condescending view was memorably articulated by no less than Benjamin Disraeli: The Irish, he said, would be far better off if "they led that kind of life which would invite the introduction of capital . . . instead of those feelings which they acquire by brooding over the history of their country, a great part of which is traditionary"--and by "traditionary" Disraeli meant largely fictitious.

Like all half-truths, Disraeli's remark had substance enough to sting. But where was this capital to take root? Dispassionate historians have noted that 19th-century Ireland was an overpopulated land of few resources and little industry, where a massive peasantry sought to wring subsistence from too little arable land. Much of that land was controlled by rapacious middlemen acting for remote or absentee landlords of another "race" (for thus were Angles, Saxons and Normans designated in 19th-century parlance) and religion, who often found it advantageous to evict their multiplying tenants rather than subdivide their acres. Add to the mix a distant officialdom enthralled by laissez-faire economic theory and a tradition of ferocious rural violence that had become the Irish peasant's customary resort against oppressors, real and imagined.

This was the caldron brewing the tales of rebellion and retaliation that Keneally tells. He highlights the personal character and fortunes of his rebels, with only fitful nods to the historical conditions that underlay their rebellion. As an Australian, he is especially interested in the use of his country (especially New South Wales) as an antipodean Siberia for Irish offenders transported for their crimes, some of which were political. His first story is of a young "ribbonman" (rural agitator against oppressive landlords), Hugh Larkin, an ancestor of the author, who was separated from his wife and young child and forced to make a new life Down Under.

Perhaps half this book is taken up with the story of Young Ireland, a romantic insurgency that took up the cause of repeal of the Act of Union--Irish independence--when Daniel O'Connell's home-rule movement flagged. Its leaders were Thomas Meagher, John Mitchel and the high-born Protestant Smith O'Brien, who traced his ancestry to ancient Irish kings. Having returned or escaped from Australian exile, O'Brien retired from the political arena, but Meagher and Mitchel both made spectacular new lives for themselves in America. Meagher, a celebrated orator and champion drinker, became a Union general during the Civil War, commander of the Irish Brigade and later acting territorial governor of Montana. Mitchel, after a sojourn in Tennessee, edited a Confederate newspaper in Richmond. Such was his zeal that he even dared question Robert E. Lee's dedication to victory.

There is the admirable John Boyle O'Reilly, who escaped from Australian exile to become a noted New England poet and editor, a friend of old-stock Yankee grandees and ultimately a conservative critic of some of the wilder brands of Irish irredentism. When the Fenian movement staged a tatterdemalion invasion of Canada (a step that was supposed to contribute, mysteriously, to the liberation of Ireland), O'Reilly asked: "What are we today in the eyes of Americans? Aliens from a petty island in the Atlantic, boasting of our patriotism and fraternity and showing at the same moment . . . deadly hatred." All these represent instances of triumph in the diaspora.

Keneally closes his chronicle with brief and sketchy attention to Charles Stewart Parnell, William Ewart Gladstone and the second Home Rule movement. By the 1880s, however, the Irish diaspora had waned, although it continued at a slower pace into the 20th century. Keneally's storytelling is spiced with an unabashed pro-Irish bias, but it is generous in tone and without malice or rancor. The Irish exiles appear in his pages as gifted and often admirable people of eloquence and imagination who are only rarely equal to the more mundane pursuits of statecraft. Adventure and agitation are their long suits. There is much heroism here, but substantially less penetrating exploration of the underlying causes of the Irish tragedy.

"The Great Shame" is a good read, but its readers, who will presumably be many, would be well advised to chase it with a book or two of plain history.