Athenry: A Brave Odyssey of Survival, Sacrifice, Music, and Love

Written by Cahal Dunne

This marvelous book features writing that has excitement, suspense, and great action. It was a pleasure to read. The books shows the years of Cahal Dunne’s careful and meticulous research that went into its preparation. This reader thanks the author for his thoughtful addition of pronunciation of Gaelic names: like Marie is pronounced Moyra.
Probably everyone of Irish heritage knows the story of the Famine, or Great Hunger. However, Cahal Dunne makes that grim event come alive as he presents characters, Liam and Moyra. They grew up children of neighboring families, they played together, but now “see” each other differently. They fall in love, get married, and have a child.
What do Liam and Moyra look like? Liam O’Donoghue is “six feet two,” with thick black hair and strong arms. His skin is “darker than normal.” Marie (Moyra) Donnelly has auburn hair, green eyes. “This book is my tribute to the strength and forbearance of the Irish race, said Cahal Dunne, the author of this fascinating book, and a well known Irish entertainer out of Pennsylvania.

Who is Cahal? He grew up in Co. Cork. Then, he won Ireland’s National Song Contest with his song, “Happy Man.” “He is a composer, pianist, comedian, storyteller, and television personality.” Dunne lives with his wife near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The British Penal Laws were forced on Ireland. The people were “dispossessed of everything they owned, lived at their master’s whim in a small thatched cottage on a tiny piece of land allotted to them by their landlord. They survived on buttermilk, the annual crop of potatoes, and a few roaming chickens.”

The Penal Laws “put into motion the downhill slide into the Famine…Everything the Irish might have used to be able to fight the Famine had been taken from them.” The potato crop failed in 1844. And failed for the next several years. “Without any meaningful English help, Ireland was now experiencing a merciless genocide.”

The attitude of the English government is shown by Sir Charles Trevelyan. An official in the British Treasury Department: He “believed that the Famine ravaging” Ireland “was the work of an all wise Providence. He believed that the judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson…”

Many Irish families “had been evicted from their homes, mercilessly thrown out into the countryside for not paying their rent.”

“As a last resort, they had gone to local workhouse in search of food. It was a miserable choice: die on the road, or die in those disease-ridden buildings. The inmates were forced to break rocks, build roads and rock fences to nowhere, and carry out many other pointless physical tasks.”

In the work homes, “Men and women were immediately separated from each other, as were brothers and sisters, never to see each other again. Children were pulled from their mothers as young as two years old.” Liam is moved by the unspeakable suffering he sees. He steals a bag of grain to feed his family. He is caught and sentenced to death.

A near riot in front of the court building is caused by Liam’s brutal treatment. This causes his sentence to be reduced to a life term in Botany Bay, near Australia!

While waiting in England to be sent to Australia, he is put to work repairing ships. While there, “he began to realize that people everywhere had the same dreams and regrets, and, like everywhere else some people were good, some were bad.”

His prison ship finally sails off to Botany Bay. It is a four month voyage. He is surprised that the captain of the convict ship is humane and runs a clean, orderly ship. Liam meets a fellow convict, who is a kind-hearted and generous Englishman who teaches him to read and write.

The convict ship had a good library, and Liam became a voracious reader. His “favorite was Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. It exposed the world to the awful workhouse condition for children deprived of food, warmth, and decent shelter in London…Liam identifies with Oliver, the hero of this classic tale of good versus evil, rich versus poor…

The English government and upper classes “took it as their right-that as a modern, enlightened Englishman, they were superior to anybody beneath their class. “He will find that, even in Australia, the upper-classes worked together.” Liam learned how all the nearby landlords back home share their farm equipment and even their tenants.

Nothing’s changed, thought Liam. They stick together where ever they rule, and everyone else be damned.”

Toward the end of that four month journey, Liam had become a more self-confident…young man. Liam considered all that he had to be grateful for: the patience and generosity of the English convict,…his friendship with the pensioner guards exposing him to the beauty of classical music; and Captain Anderson’s humane treatment.

When Liam arrives in Australia, he quickly learns that the class structure there, and ownership of the land, is the same as in Ireland. His adventures take him to several part of Australia. We accompany him as he meet many people who like his open, friendly personality. Liam befriends an aborigine who helps him at critical times. They decide to go to California to enjoy its social and political freedom, and to buy land for a horse farm. The end of the book is very dramatic. You’ll greatly enjoy it.

Athenry fully deserves its subtitle: An Odyssey of Survival, Sacrifice, Music, and Love. The book fulfills Dunne’s purpose in writing it; “This book is my tribute to the strength and forbearance of the Irish race.” Thank you, Cahal for this great book! Get the book at