Search for Irish roots adds depth to author's Catholic identity

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Mike Mastromatteo

By Mike Mastromatteo

TORONTO (CNS) — Given Irish
history and the people’s struggles with the great famine, British absentee
landlord oppression, and the 19th-century migrations to North America, there is
virtual storehouse of material for historical fiction, especially for a writer
with an Irish-Catholic sensibility.

Chicago native Mary Pat Kelly has
researched her family history to produce a substantial body of work that, for
the most part, celebrates the Irish Catholic experience in the U.S. and

Her two most recent novels, “Of
Irish Blood” and “Galway Bay,” provide a fictionalized account
of the lives of her ancestors in19th-century Galway, Ireland, and later in

Kelly’s novel, “Special
Intentions,” is based on the author’s six years’ experience as a postulant at
the motherhouse of the Sisters of Providence at St. Mary-of-the Woods, Indiana,
near Terre Haute.

“I feel drawn to tell
certain stories,” Kelly said in a recent interview with Catholic News
Service. “I’ve been very lucky in my life by having some incredible
experiences,” adding that it took her 40 years to track down all her Irish

While the heroines in Kelly’s
fiction exhibit skepticism about the Catholic faith and some of its basic
doctrine, there remains a bedrock of appreciation, belief and respect for
tradition. Consider the situation facing Honora (Nora) Kelly, protagonist of “Of
Irish Blood.” Fleeing a destructive relationship with a shifty Chicago
hoodlum, Nora seeks to make a fresh start on life in Paris before World War I.

After finding absolution of
sorts from Father Kevin, a Paris-based Irish priest secretly working for Irish
independence, Honora learns something about grace and redemption. A priest of
the Irish College of Paris, Father Kevin recognizes her struggle to return to
the faith.

“I apologize to you Honora,”
says the Father Kevin character, “on behalf of the priests who made
Catholicism seem a religion that condemns us to guilt and shame. … How sexual
morality became the be-all and end-all of so much of Catholicism, I don’t know.
It’s been made more important than kindness or mercy.”

Afterward, Honora seems almost surprised
that absolution can be so simply obtained.

“It’s just like that,”
Father Kevin reminds her. “Grace flows; it doesn’t drip and drop.”

It’s clear that Kelly’s sense of
being Irish is as central to her identity as is her Catholic faith.

“I think it is a part of who
I am as a person,” she told CNS. “When I draw on my experiences, so
many of them are within the Catholic faith. I’m from Chicago. I grew up in an
Irish Catholic family. I went to Catholic schools, and I was in the convent for
six years. I entered when I was 17 and I was caught up in the changes of
Vatican II. I was really formed by the Catholicism of my youth, but my college
years was the time I really came to discover the church.”

In addition to providing the raw
material for “Special Intentions,” Kelly’s convent experience
fostered her appreciation for civil rights work. And while she only professed
temporary rather than final vows, there’s no doubt her convent experience,
coupled with the traditional Irish-Catholic upbringing, had a profound impact
on the future novelist and filmmaker.

“My time in the convent was
a wonderful awakening,” Kelly says. “I mean there were painful times
too, as anyone who went through that experience will tell you, but it really
was a deep, rewarding experience. I made a lot of good friends, and it gave me
an opportunity to be on the margins of society, which I might not have felt if
I hadn’t had the convent experience.”

Kelly is now based in New York
City with Irish-born husband Martin Sheerin. Ever eager to expand her knowledge
of things Irish, Kelly jokes that her husband’s ear for the sound of Irish
speech is a blessing when it comes to authenticating the dialogue she creates
in her Irish-centered novels.

Equally at home in fiction,
biography, documentary filmmaking and television show production, Kelly won
acclaim as a producer for TV shows as diverse as “Good Morning America”
and “Saturday Night Live.” She has produced noted documentaries on
African-American sailors in World War II, plus a pair of biographies of one of
her film mentors, Martin Scorsese. Her 1986 documentary, “To Live for
Ireland,” was nominated for an Emmy.

Kelly is now at work on another
novel, tentatively titled “Irish Above All.” It will focus on the
life and work of Edward J. Kelly, mayor of Chicago from 1933-1947 and a great
uncle of the author.

“There are stories that I
want to tell, and which I feel connected to in ways that are very providential,”
Kelly said. “I think as an artist, as a filmmaker and as a writer, in
some little way you are participating in that creativity. It’s a real

When not researching a novel,
biography or film script, Kelly still likes to visit Chicago to see family and
touch base with her “Chicago-Irish” roots. A big part of that going
home again experience comes by visiting her two favorite Chicago parishes, St.
James and what the locals call “old” St. Patrick’s.

“If anyone wants to feel
really good about being Catholic, go to Mass at one of those two Chicago
parishes,” she said.

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Mastromatteo is a Toronto writer
and editor.

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