McCann’s “TransAtlantic” weaves trio of Irish historical events

UPDATE: Waterford erected a plaque honoring Douglass’s 1845 visit.


I’ve just finished reading Colum McCann’s “TransAtlantic: A Novel.” The book wraps the stories of several generations of women around three historical events that involved crossings of the Atlantic Ocean between North America and Ireland.

The most recent of the three events were the 1990s travels of U.S. Sen George Mitchell to broker peace between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland. Such recent history is well known and have been covered previously in this blog.

The other two events are older and perhaps less familiar. One is the first flight across the Atlantic by John Alcott and Arthur Brown. The men left Newfoundland on June 14, 1919, and reached Clifden, in County Galway, the next day.

McCann’s describes the aviators’ first look at Ireland after a 16-hour flight:

The plane crosses the land at a low clip. Down below, a sheep with a magpie sitting on its back. … In the distance, the mountains. The quiltwork of stone walls. Corkscrew roads. Stunted trees. An abandoned castle. A pig farm. A church. … Ireland. A beautiful country. A bit savage on a man all the same.

The third historical event in the novel centers on the 1845 visit of Frederick Douglass, including his meeting with “Liberator” Daniel O’Connell. “The ghost of the Irish nationalist, before and after the Civil War years, often inhabited Douglass’s thinking,” according to this piece by historian Tom Chaffin.

One of the most poignant parts of the novel describes Douglass’ trip to Cork from Dublin as famine began to grip the Irish countryside. McCann writes:

They entered wild country. Broken fences. Ruined castles. Stretches of bogland. Wooded headlands. Turfsmoke rose from cabins, thin and mean. On muddy paths, they glimpsed moving rags. The rags seemed more animated than the bodies within.

Below: Mural of Douglass on the Falls Road in Belfast.