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Stephen McGann’s interest in his family’s history when at the age of 17 he read in a parish record book that in 1868 his great-great-aunt had died in a Liverpool slum at just 18 months from ‘marasmus’ the medical name for starvation. What he has found out since then (he’s now 54) fill this moving account of his Irish family fleeing to Liverpool to escape the potato famine the nineteenth century only to find unspeakable slums and starvation. It’s also a well-informed social history of deprivation and disease amongst those impoverished classes from which he comes.
There are some wonderful stories here which are manna to the family history researcher. There could be a complete book on the life of his great uncle James who was a fireman on the Titanic and miraculously survived as one of the last men to leave the ship with the Captain, only to die of pneumonia not a great many years later. (The analysis of the diseases and infections that killed before antibiotics and vaccinations is a recurrent theme). The most moving section is McGann’s long talk with his mother as an old lady relating how at just 21 her twin boys died at birth and she was never allowed to see them or know where the babies’ father had them buried in an anonymous person’s coffin (which McGann later found for her). The lingering trauma of untreated grief is another of McGann’s themes. (His father’s undiagnosed depression following his war experiences blighted his life and those of his family).
I give this 4 rather than 5 because I felt it was a misjudged indulgence to give so much detail of the birth of his son and the terrible near fatal illness of his adored wife Heidi (Heidi Thomas producer and writer of the Call the Midwife series in which McGann plays the gentle Dr Thomas). It was all very vivid and intense but seemed to lose the powerful theme he had been exploring until that point. I also found his delivery over-sentimental in places – the extremely moving content didn’t need it.
But overall this is a excellently researched and intelligent book which recreates the lives of the McGann family who like countless others have suffered and struggled - and been forgotten. McGann has given back to his family their lives which without his researches would have been lost to him and to us.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Having read so many good reviews I was excited to read this book - but the fact it's so wrenchingly written became tedious very quickly.
Im Irish and grew up in Liverpool and was hoping to find a familiar world in this book. That partially happened, but there are also wild inaccuracies (Liverpool and Everton football teams never having been sectarian for instance - it's not well known in the city, but it was certainly true at the start of the clubs).
this lack of research outside of the genealogical and medical which McGann so obviously loves was annoying when teamed with such overly emotional writing.
That said you're a super fan of the McGann's or filled with passion for family research this may well be for you.