If you're looking for a yarn that waxes romantic about Irish rebels struggling to free the Auld Sod from the British boot heel, you won't find it in Thomas Fleming's "A Passionate Girl."
In keeping with Fleming's reputation as a debunker of historical myths, this is a hard-edged novel without a trace of blarney or romanticism about radicals who are willing to do anything in pursuit of a cause.
The title character is Bess Fitzmaurice, a politically inclined young Irishwoman enraged by British injustice who dreams of an 1865 incarnation of Donal Ogue, the hero of an Irish poem, to rescue her beleaguered land.
When her radical bother Michael, while fleeing the British army, brings Dan McCaffery, a Tennessee-born Irish-American gunman, to her accomodationist father's home, Bess throws everything away to join them.
McCaffery and Michael are in Ireland to organize a "Fenian Army" (a precursor to the IRA), but have been betrayed by informers and discouraged by the lack of enthusiasm their American-Irish sponsors assured them would be present in the countryside.
During their flight, McCaffery kills several British soldiers, and the hunt for the trio of Fenian rebels becomes front-page news. After a sleazy American reporter changes the story to make Bess the gunslinger -- both to sell more papers and because the Cause would benefit from having a heroine -- she becomes a notorious celebrity when she arrives in New York City. She is hailed and denounced far and wide as "The Fenian Girl."
Though a true believer in the Fenian cause, Michael is horrified by Bess's transformation. And the fact that she has taken McCaffery as her lover becomes the least of his worries.
Suddenly unconstrained from her sheltered upbringing, Bess is cast morally adrift, entering a world where killing is a means to an end, the truth must be molded to help the Cause, sex is a negotiating tool and even the lives of those who embrace your cause can be expended en masse without a moment's regret.
The centerpiece of the novel is a doomed invasion of Canada by a Fenian army made up of disillusioned Irish-American Civil War veterans. McCaffery becomes one of the chief fund-raisers for the plan, while Bess uses her charms to lobby government officials -- including the drunken lout of a son of President Andrew Johnson.
President Johnson, eager for Irish votes, encourages the invasion plan and gives it everything but practical support other than making it easy for the Fenians to buy weapons and keeping law enforcement off of their backs. Until after the bullets fly, that is.
"A Passionate Girl" is fascinating as both a novel and history. The characters are rich, passionate (of course), flawed (extremely) and unpredictable. The details of the invasion across the Niagara River are especially compelling and will compell even history buffs to exclaim, "Why haven't I heard of this before?"
Fleming explores the wreckage left in the wake of the Civil War, from embittered troops, an inflamed South, cynical politicians and moral despair.
The story has relevant parallels in the modern world, from the Bay of Pigs to the money-raising on behalf of the IRA in America to the funding of Islamist terrorist organizations through so-called charities; this is a potent antidote to those who romanticize the past. Then, as now, "follow the money" is the watchword, as greed and the quest for personal power often overtake the lofty stated goals of radical organizations.
Instead of wasting time with such melodramatic and historically illiterate tripe as "Gangs of New York," check out "A Passionate Girl" if you want to understand the Civil War roots of Irish-American radicalism. But if you're less ambitious and just looking for a hard-hitting and fast-paced historical entertainment, it fits that bill, too.