Mary’s Ireland is a love story between an Irish barmaid and a Polish sailor. From a working class Catholic family of nineteenth century Belfast, Mary Cannon meets Walenty Nikodemski in her pub, The Shamrock. Initially, Mary is taken by Walenty’s looks especially his eyes, which shine jade black ‘seeing right through me to the very white of my skin’. With attraction battling suspicion Mary gradually sees more deeply into the character, family and home of Walenty, or Nikoda, as sailors call him. Mary never gains the full picture.
Mary’s largely Catholic Ireland under centuries of Protestant British rule is compared to Nikoda’s Poland under centuries of Tsarist Russian occupation. Fighting hardship with family humour, love and their Catholic faith, the Cannons confront poverty, war, famine, corruption, violence, disease, death and family break up. From a peasant background, Nikoda’s family endures similar hardships also accepting them as a normal part of life, once again buoyed by Catholicism, long banned by the Russian Tsars.
These cultural similarities include bigotry, which is often based on self-serving fabrications. Mary’s Ireland reflects on this bias through the troubles between the Protestants and Catholics of Belfast, the lives of Jews, nationalism and religion. The Cannons and Nikodemskis bring their prejudices, bravado and egos to the traumas of Crimean War of 1853–1856, the subsequent Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878 and the battles on Belfast’s streets. Wealth, poverty and power breed the bias and underpin the novel, governing life from food, clothing and housing through work and education to religious and political freedom.
Encased in historical events and settings, Mary’s Ireland enshrines the human capacity to survive hardships and indeed flourish within them, ‘turning donkeys into racehorses’.
Mary’s Ireland is the first of a trilogy with Mary’s Poland and Mary’s War.