The Irish immigrant experience is no stranger to the world of fiction, but in The Walking People, Irish American Mary Beth Keane captures the nuances of one woman’s journey in this promising first novel.
Protagonist Greta Cahill, cast aside early in her life as a “simple girl,” is destined to face gross underestimation not only of her intelligence but of her ability to lead a full life. The Walking People demonstrates the fullness of that life as Greta leaves her small community in the west of Ireland for the threatening yet hopeful streets of New York, where she discovers love, work and a new kind of family. Like so many immigrants in the 1950s, Greta faces the struggle of leaving behind her pre-immigration life, and the secrets that she keeps maintain an even stronger separation between her American life and her Irish past. The depth of the characters Keane weaves recreates the dynamic experience of the American immigrant, and does not speak exclusively to an Irish audience.
“I think of Greta’s story not necessarily as an Irish story, but more of a woman’s story,” Keane told Irish America.
Keane’s writing of The Walking People took two years, though her imagination had taken hold of the story long before that. Greta’s story emerged organically in Keane’s mind as she allowed her characters to trudge their own paths. Keane’s dynamic personalities seem to find their own destiny through her pen.
“As time went on, and Greta became more vivid and more surprising, my passion for the story became focused on representing her accurately and bringing her to life so that others could know her as well as I do.
“I knew Greta was going to end up in New York, but I had no idea what circumstances would drive her there or if she’d be alone or part of a group. For a while I thought she might end up returning to Ireland, but then when the time came, it felt like a familiar decision – one I’d seen in books and movies a little too often,” Keane said. “And by then I knew Greta was more surprising than most people had ever given her credit for, so I let her stay in New York and make her life there.”
Keane’s remarkable achievement of entering the world of the Irish travellers* in this story is one not often undertaken by writers. The character Michael Ward leaves his past in the travelling communities, often referred to derogatively as “tinkers,” to go to New York with Greta and her free-spirited sister Johanna. Very little literature exists from within these communities. The vast majority of the information was presented by observers of the lifestyle of those in these camps.
“The travellers were difficult to research because it’s not as if one can walk into a camp and start asking questions. They have a strong oral tradition, but very little is written down for posterity,” Keane said. “I interviewed friends and family about their memories of travellers, and then to get inside the traveller point-of-view I relied on a few well-researched books written by scholars who managed to gain trust and access; one even lived as a traveller for over a year. And I looked at many, many photographs of caravans and camps from the 1950s, 60s and 70s.” Keane also spent time in the National Library in Dublin, poring over newspaper archives to find accounts of the communities.
Michael finds work in New York as a sandhog,* or urban miner. This presented Keane with another challenge and opportunity to portray a very different way of life than that of a traveller.
“I needed to see what he was seeing, so I asked my father, who is a retired sandhog, if he would help me get permission to go down into a tunnel and see for myself. He agreed and came down with me,” Keane said.
Keane drew on her own family’s and her community’s experiences as immigrants in the United States. Her parents both hail from the west of Ireland – Galway and Mayo. Native to Pearl River, New York, Keane’s early childhood years as the oldest of three sisters were years immersed in the Irish-American culture of her town.
“Every summer, a few of my grade school classmates would disappear ‘home’ with their mothers until September and school started up again. I didn’t care about any of this, of course, until I grew up and realized how remarkable it was for my parents and others of their generation to come from a place so vastly different from New York City, and be able to not only adjust, but to thrive.”
That adjustment came as no easy task to Irish immigrants in the 50s. “I thought about what a strange in-between spot that left people like me in. When we go to Ireland we are very much American, but here in the U.S., as an adult with a variety of friends from all different backgrounds, I realize how much being Irish defines me. First-generation children know that ‘home’ means Ireland, but it’s a complicated relationship because chances are that we don’t know Ireland very well at all.”
Keane left Pearl River for New York City to attend Barnard College. After writing for years, it was at Barnard that Keane found her mentor in professor and noted author Mary Gordon. Gordon’s eighth novel, Pearl, explored the streets of Dublin in an emotional narrative centered on the theme of martyrdom. “She became my advisor, and is still advising me now… more than 10 years after graduation. Even now when I get stuck I think of how she’d always steer me back to the most honest kind of writing, and that helps me push through,” Keane shared. That honesty is not in short supply in The Walking People. The depth and compassion of the novel, which will be released in paperback in May, has made it a remarkable first work. Readers will certainly be eager for Keane’s future works, which include a novel on Typhoid Mary Mallon that she is currently researching.