History and heritage


OBSERVER Staff Writer

John McGlarry, an alumnus of SUNY Fredonia and a first generation Irish-American, has completed his first book, “The Leaving,” a historical romance that follows the life of Liam McGinley in the 1840s as he leaves Potato Famine-stricken Ireland and travels to New York City.

“The main point of this historical romance is someone leaving Ireland, and what that meant on an individual basis,” McGlarry explains.

The story of the protagonist, McGinley, begins in Donegal, where he was left behind by his family to care for his aging grandmother. When McGinley’s father is injured and can no longer work, though, the novel’s protagonist is called upon to make his way to one of the “coffin ships,” empty lumber ships that took on poor passengers, stuffed them into the holds, and transported them to America. Those passengers spent the cramped, filthy and disease-ridden voyage dreaming of a better life in a new country. Many did not survive the trip.

McGinley makes it to America, though, where he will face even bigger challenges than his precarious ocean-crossing. One of those dangers turns out to be the blue-eyed gaze of the most beautiful woman McGinley’s ever met. Readers will be hooked from the very beginning, eager to follow McGinley as he navigates a new world full of wonders and terrors in a story rich with history and culture.

McGlarry’s interest in the Irish people and their history comes from his own deep-reaching geneological roots. His family’s story isn’t too far from McGinley’s.

“My father and his sister came over to (America) from Ireland. Another sister was left behind to take care of their mother. They weren’t reunited until 40 years later,” McGlarry says. “My mother and her family came over one or two at a time.”

He has traveled extensively in Ireland, where he became involved with Irish issues and history, particularly the famine years. He noticed that in America, historical coverage of the Potato Famine era was mostly limited to what immigrants did when they got to the United States, and even then, generalized the experiences of immigrants.

“I wanted to tell the story about this time period,” McGlarry says, “about the people leaving and left behind.”

McGlarry wanted to learn more about what this experience was like on a personal, individual level. The books he read spoke of the story of “a people,” not of “a person.” His research spawned McGinley, a composite but realistic character who could show readers what it was like to travel to America. And McGlarry was determined not to start the story on Ellis Island, or even on the ship or at the Irish port. He would start at the real beginning: at one of the private homes that had to be left behind by those courageous and determined Irish emigrants. And he would not skimp on the details.

“I lived in Ireland for months at a time during my research,” McGlarry says. “And I just saw that there was no money in Ireland. I couldn’t understand how anyone (in the 1840s) could afford to get to a ship or get on the ship to come to America. The people at that time, they were merely surviving. There was no money left.”

McGlarry didn’t begin his research with the aim of writing a historically accurate novel. He began his research out of pure and simple curiosity. He became a writer almost by serendipity; he wanted other people to know what he learned. He wanted to share this story.

“I don’t know if I’m even a writer now!” McGlarry jokes. “I wasn’t a writer until I wrote this book … I’ve been writing it for nearly 20 years.”

McGlarry’s epic project started with him writing notes down in longhand. He would hand them off to family and friends to read. Then he got a typewriter, and eventually a keyboard, changing his process along with the times. What never changed was his passion for this story.

“As I got better at writing, all of these ideas came to mind. It was very easy for me to visualize this story. But who can explain imagination? I’ve always had a tremendous need to express myself,” he says. “This work is a combination of that and needing to tell this story, being interested in the history. I’ve always been touched by certain things.”

McGlarry knows, more than most, that books are not born merely of inspiration, though. They take years – maybe 20 years – of hard work.

“I just kept working on it, and then I got help with the editing,” says McGlarry. “But I had to learn about technology, Create Space on Amazon, mechanical things and more. And the research was not separate from the writing; it was not one then the other. Everything was connected, going on at once.”

McGlarry’s master’s degree is in reading, and he believes that reading and writing are intertwined. A person must work on both of them to be good at either. But when people write, he says, it’s important to just get the ideas down first.

“When you start, don’t edit,” he says. “Keep the creative flow going. Then go back and read it, and rewrite it. Then do that three more times. Show it to someone. Get opinions. Then go back and rewrite again. Then do this again and again. But the technical aspect is the last thing to do.”

“The Leaving” will be available soon in bookstores and on Amazon.com.

Readers of McGlarry’s novel will agree with his parting sentiment: “The story is always the most important thing.”

Send comments on this story to rschwab@observertoday.com