Review from The Celtic Connection On-line – Books: A fascinating tale of mystery and survival in the great tradition of Irish storytelling.
Reviewed by Anne Sanders
Set in modern times, yet weaving a story that travels back through many generations, The Emerald Diaries: Secrets of an Irish Clan is the first full-length novel from performer and author/songwriter, Mary Murphy.
Nora is the central character in an intricate story that combines fiction, fantasy and elements of Irish history together in a delightful saga.
At the beginning of the novel, Nora has just inherited a family farm in Ireland. While clearing out a dusty loft on the farm, she discovers a peculiar green box containing a chronological diary of her departed relatives.
The hardships, joys and the incredible strength and determination shown by the women of her previous generations are revealed. As Nora turns the pages of the diary, she is drawn deeper into the mystery and power surrounding a very unusual family heirloom.
Particularly engrossing are the sections of the novel when Nora’s ancestors set off for the unknown in the United States – part of the huge wave of Irish immigrants in the post-famine years.
Murphy effectively depicts their harsh journey by boat from their homes in Ireland to New York and the daunting process that lay ahead at Ellis Island. In a section of the diary, one of Nora’s ancestors describes the conditions on board a ship packed with many families, young and old.
“We have only been below deck for a couple of hours and already I have concerns. Most everyone here is soaked from the exposed hours in the elements. The smell of wet wool and nervous, sweating bodies is already powerfully foul. There is barely any ventilation and people are beginning to be sick from the ship’s movement.
“I heard some men talking this morning and they said that the thing Captains fear more than anything else on a voyage, is fire. I never really thought about that before, but I can see why they would fear it. We are only able to leave our quarters once a day and we are going to walk along the deck for our hour this morning.
The numerous challenges for the Irish immigrants in the United States are recounted by Nora’s ancestors throughout the novel.
The hardships they faced and their mission to be accepted while holding on to their Irish heritage is at times sad and joyful. Central to the story is the importance of family, how crucial it was that families helped each other persevere and the incredible strength required by the women in particular.
The author’s talent as a songwriter is apparent throughout the novel as the style is lyrical at times, incorporating Celtic ballads and poetry within a few of the passages.
While reading the book, it feels as if this kind of story is one that would be told around a hearth fire, in a cosy cottage in the dead of winter.
The Emerald Diaries: Secrets of an Irish Clan offers a tale complete with Druid priestesses, ancient legends, the pain of young love and even snippets of history surrounding Cromwell and his harsh treatment of Irish peasants.
Another interesting aspect of the novel is the symbolism and meanings behind certain Irish names. In another diary entry, a woman is writing a letter to her newborn daughter explaining the significance of the name she has chosen for her – Brighid.
“Saint Brighid worked for the advancement of women in general, insuring that women were allowed to hold property in their own names and that the crime of rape was unpardonable.”
As the story unfolds, more information is revealed and secrets that have been passed down from mother to daughter start to have a powerful impact on Nora and her future.
While The Emerald Diaries: Secrets of an Irish Clan is entertaining, having the narrative move from present-day then back and forth in time via diary entries can at times be a little confusing.
However, the characters are well-drawn and the story comes to a satisfying conclusion as Nora finally discovers the whole story surrounding her ancestors and the vital role she plays.