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Colum McCann: TransAtlantic

Though born and bred in Ireland, Colum McCann has spent much of his adult life in the United States and his books show that. This book, as the title implies, is about the relationship between the United States and Ireland. However, unlike the traditional Ireland-US focus, it is more about people coming from North America to Ireland, rather than the other way, at least in the first part of the book. (The second part will deal more with traditional Irish immigration to the United States.) The first part tells the story of three sets of historical characters who all came to Ireland from North America, though, in the case of the first pair, one was English and one Scottish and they came from Canada.

The first pair were Alcock and Brown, the first people to fly across the Atlantic non-stop. McCann tells their story in a straightforward way, including the delays and the few glitches en route but there is never really any excitement, as we know perfectly well that they made it. We then jump back in time to Frederick Douglass who visited Ireland at the beginning of the potato famine. McCann has a few interesting snippets, such as the fact that Douglass states that he never had seen anything like the suffering of the starving Irish. However, he also mentions that he is never called nigger in Ireland though, when he finally is, he almost welcomes it, as it makes him feel at home. The third and last foreign visitor is Senator George Mitchell who helped broker the Good Friday Agreement. This may be the least successful of the three, as Mitchell, who is still alive at the time of writing, comes across as someone separate from everything that is going on. This may well have been the case but it seems odd that he comes across as wholly disengaged from the whole peace process – both from the overall politics and also the detailed discussions. His interest seems to be to observe the individual Irish, learn about the individual tragedies and worry about his long-distance commute. I wonder what he thought about this portrait of him, though according to the acknowledgements, he did assist in this section. The only really interesting snippet is when Mitchell notices that Blair, at a meeting in Stormont, when they have been working flat out and not even going back to the hotel, seems showered. It seems that Blair has managed to find the only shower in Stormont. Mitchell has his staff hunt it down.

The second part moves to fiction. In all three of these stories the real characters have come across fictional Irish women and it turns out that they are all related. We start with Lily Duggan, who worked for Richard Webb, Douglass’ Irish publisher and the man who put him up in Dublin. When Douglass and Webb go off to Cork, she follows them – on foot (a distance of over 160 miles). She is determined to emigrate to the United States. We saw this briefly in the first part but, in the second part, we follow it in more detail. Her life is not easy. She has a son -Thaddeus – but the boy’s father does not stay around. He enlists for the civil war. She follows him to the battlefield – McCann does not say which battle but it sounds like Antietam – and works as a nurse. There she meets and marries Jon Ehrlich who supplies ice to the Union army. After the war, they continue the ice business and, after he dies, she continues on her own and does very well. It is her daughter Emily who, as a journalist, will be there when Alcock and Brown take off and will give Brown a letter from her mother to post in Ireland. Brown forgets to post it but, when Emily goes over to Europe, she visits Brown in Wales and he gives her the letter. It is Emily’s daughter, Lottie, who will meet and even play tennis with Senator Mitchell and Lottie’s daughter, Hannah, who will finally get the letter, which has remained unopened all this time.

While I felt that the idea behind this book was excellent and McCann is clearly an accomplished writer, it did not fully work for me. I can understand why McCann might want to skirt around the political issues in the Mitchell section and why, generally, he focuses on the personal side of the political questions, be it the slavery question, Irish famine, US civil war or the Irish troubles, but it all seems like he is avoiding the big questions. Portraying historical characters is always difficult, particularly those in recent history, as unless the author gives a completely new aspect or is outrageous or tells us about someone generally unknown, there is a risk of being pedestrian and mundane, and McCann, frankly, does tread close to the pedestrian and mundane in his portrayal of Douglass, Alcock and Brown and Mitchell. That the three women individually met the historical characters was an interesting idea but the meetings were, in all cases, incidental, though Lily Duggan may well have been influenced by Douglass, and I always felt that there should be more. Nevertheless, the book is certainly enjoyable and worth reading but not one I shall seek to reread.

Publishing history

First published 2013 by Bloomsbury