How It’s New YorkKate Kerrigan’s latest book is OF New York; it’s called Ellis Island: A Novel

and she’s reading from it on the 6th, 12th and 13th in different venues.  The book is about Irish people who choose to go back to Ireland after living in our fair city, and was inspired by a visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue.

How It’s Irish:  Kate was London Irish, and lives in Ireland now.  And of course, it’s a book about the relationship between Ireland and the US, told through the personal.

See Kate at:  Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar, 6 October, 9:30-LATE
Literary and music event reading from my novel Ellis Island and performing with traditional Irish musicians to evoke the words and songs of emigration represented in the novel.

The Tenement Museum, 12 October
Kate will read from Ellis Island and present a lecture on my how her Irish heritage has influenced her work – including slide show of family pictures, interviews with her mother and taped audio of her grandmother talking about her life in Mayo at the beginning of the century.

Bookmarkshoppe Reading, 13 October
Reading and signing at cook Brooklyn bookstore
Details on events are in the scrolling calendar at right!

Honor Molloy writes about novelist Kate Kerrigan and her visit to the Dublin book festival in March 2011.  Honor is a playwright and novelist and frequenter of the Irish American Writers and Artists Salon and other doings.  It’s a very great pleasure to have this essay for the blog.  Here’s hoping I can coax her into doing more!  Honor asks us to “show Kate what New Yorkers are made of and give her a hundred thousand welcomes of her own.”

“It’s easy to imagine that, if you squint your eyes, perhaps you can catch a glimpse of Ellie lugging her valise as she makes her way up the avenue. Or perhaps you see your own nana, granny, or gran. The buildings may have changed, but the essential immigrant story remains the same.

Keeping the Roof On with Kate Kerrigan

The City of Dublin hosted a book festival in early March of this year. Authors, publishers and readers took over pubs and tearooms, bookshops and libraries, even City Hall. A literary feast was spread out before me. I couldn’t wait to get started.

 As I approached City Hall I came upon a jaunty looking a camper van. The back was flung open, and there stood two young women wearing neon green Dublin Book Festival vests that made them look like literary crossing guards. Indeed, they behaved like crossing guards, cheerfully guiding me into the camper van because they were sure that I’d enjoy a visit to Kate Kerrigan’s traveling parlor.

I peered in to find Kate Kerrigan herself. Kate—whose real name is Morag Prunty, but who uses a pseudonym drawn from her middle name and her husband’s surname—smiled and waved me in. Kate explained that she drives her camper van around to festivals so that people can sit down in her little bit of living room to “read a poem, sing a song, or tell a story over tea and biscuits.” What a lovely modern variation on the old tradition of the traveling bard.

In the few minutes before Kate was scheduled to appear on a panel, she revealed that her agent, Marianne Gunn O’Connor—who represents the likes of Colm Tóibín, Roddy Doyle and Cecelia Ahern—had sold her novel Ellis Island to Harper Collins USA.

This is the first in a trilogy that tracks the feisty heroine Ellie Flaherty Hogan as she crosses the Atlantic to New York City and back home again to County Mayo. Ellie only plans to stay in Manhattan for a year—just long enough to earn the money to pay for an operation her husband John needs. She covers thousands of miles to New York City, but much of Ellie’s journey in Ellis Island is an interior one. Who is she when she reaches New York if not a wife? And who is she, upon her return to Kilmoy, without the clamor of the city, her office job and her glamorous clothes? More importantly, who is she now that she’s tasted the freedom of the New World?

Not only does Kate draw parallels between the physical and emotional distances Ellie has travelled, she deftly builds her heroine’s growing sense of dislocation by juxtaposing the vivid natural world of County Mayo with the thrum of Jazz Age New York. There’s an unforgettable scene where Ellie first steps onto the solid ground of her new country, and thinks to herself:  “Ireland was in my heart, but under my feet was America.”

Ellie finds her way to Broadway and takes the five-mile walk all the way up Fifth Avenue where there’s a job waiting for her. As part of her research for the book Kate took that same journey, “carving out all that’s there now,” she says. “Interesting to see what’s changed, what’s still there.”

It’s this kind of writing that might drive the curious reader to hike the same path. It’s easy to imagine that, if you squint your eyes, perhaps you can catch a glimpse of Ellie lugging her valise as she makes her way up the avenue. Or perhaps you see your own nana, granny, or gran. The buildings may have changed, but the essential immigrant story remains the same.

That immigrant story—intimate yet universal—is one that Kate is well equipped to tell. She’s lived her own version of it. Reared in London as an Irish child during the 70s when it wasn’t good to be Irish—not when IRA bombings were rocking the English capital—she spent welcome summers with grandparents at their home in Ballina, County Mayo. Irish to the English and English to the Irish, Kate has had to navigate the difficult path of belonging to two nations at once.

After a stellar career in the British magazine world, she moved to Dublin in 1990 to act as editor for Irish Tatler. Seven years ago she moved her young family west to rural County Mayo so she could be closer to her mother.

The countryside is a good place to live and work. When the weather is fine, Kate sets out in her caravan and writes looking out at the sea and sky. When the weather’s bad she writes in a room at her mum’s home, or in the “hermitage”—a shed that her granddad built for her in the back garden. Her mother’s house was her grandparents’ house, so she is steeped in her family’s books and images. She can reach out and literally touch her family because the walls are lined with photographs of generations past. She is writing history… her family’s history.

Kate can easily recall conversations with her maternal grandmother, who was born in the early 1900s and serves as a prototype for Ellie. And Kate’s mother remembers her own grandmother, so Kate has access to family stories as far back as the mid-1800s.

Like Ellie, Kate is a hearty Irish woman—a self-described “no messing, no plastic surgery, get-on-with-it woman.” This runs in her blood. A beloved family story tells of Honora Boyle—Kate’s great-great grandmother. One Saturday night in January 1839 there was a massive storm in Mayo. The wind was so strong it ripped slates and beams and rafters off the roofs of houses and sent the debris whipping through the streets. Called the Great Wind, this maelstrom was in fact a hurricane that not only unroofed houses but blew sheep off the mountains and tore thousands of trees from the ground.

During the night of the Big Wind, Honora’s husband was out playing cards with a neighbor so she was left all alone to protect her family. When the house rocked and creaked with a gale force wind, Honora climbed onto the roof and held the thatch down with her body. Sheer determination and what physical strength she possessed kept her house from being blown apart. That’s where Kate comes from, she says. “I want to write about, I want to be that sort of woman.”

Kate is coming to New York next to promote Ellis Island. There’s a series of events lined up in a variety of venues. There’s the traditional bookshop reading, a presentation at the Tenement Museum, a bit of craic during the Irish American Writers and Artists monthly salon at the Thalia Café, and a night of rousing stories and song at Paddy Reilly’s that’s sure to raise the roof. Let’s show Kate what New Yorkers are made of and give her a hundred thousand welcomes of her own.

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.


  1. Avatar
    Kate Kerrigan / October 7, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    Brilliant! You’ve done a lovely job of capturing the link I’m trying to forge between Ellie’s inner and outer journey. Gwen and Honor, thank you so much for all your support. So great to be making friends in NYC. Hope to see you Wednesday at the Tenement Museum! Much love, Kate.

  2. Avatar
    Kellyann Zuzulo / October 10, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    Wonderful way to set the scene, Honor! I love to read books that span those very human “physical and emotional distances.” My mother left Wesport, Co. Mayo, just a stone’s throw from Ballina, to come to America at a tender 17. From what you describe, Kate has captured the essence of the immigrant’s journey. I look forward to reading Ellis Island and to meeting Kate on Wednesday.

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