Michael Connolly, Professor Emeritus of History and Political Science at St. Joseph’s College, a frequent exchange teacher in Ireland and lifelong resident of Munjoy Hill in Portland, is well known as the author/editor of such sterling nonfiction books as “They Change Their Sky: The Irish in Maine,” “John Ford in Focus: Essays on the Filmmaker’s Life and Work,” written with Kevin L. Stoehr; and “Seated By the Sea: The Maritime History of Portland and its Irish Longshoremen,” as well as the documentary film “Building Bridges: Connections Between Maine’s Governor Joseph Brennan and Senator George Mitchell.”

“Murky Overhead” is his first novel, and both subject and style are anything but murky.

I will not give the story away – in fact, that would be impossible to do, as a treat or new disclosure comes on nearly every page. Connolly has clearly been preparing all his life for this gem.

The story follows an Irish immigrant couple, the Folans, and their Maine-born offspring through the edgy, colorful byways of Portland on the last day of January 1900. The scenario depends largely on the doings of three people, including the father of the family, Coleman (Coley), a member of the Portland Longshoreman’s Benevolent Society, who loves his wife and family but has a penchant to drink, and his son Johnny, a part-time high school student and part-timer at the Murdock & Freeman Soda bottling plant. On this day, though, Johnny is playing hooky with friends and overhears a not improbable discussion between fictionalized but actual Republican powerhouse Thomas Brackett Reed and Democrat William Jennings Bryan during a gathering in Reed’s home. Both men are presidential hopefuls and staunch anti-imperialists.

The reader also falls in with Mary Joyce Folan, the very pregnant mother of the Folan family, out on an East End stroll with a friend. She comes across a neighbor, a rabbi, who is being harassed by a bunch of Irish street thugs. She puts herself in the middle of the conflict, points out that the troublemakers are from another neighborhood and sends them packing. This dustup sparks the birth of the Folan’s 10th child, Helen, a few hours later.

Coley is not at home at the time. He is taking care of Longshore union business, his bread and butter, while many of the younger benevolent society members have strayed off toward City Hall in anticipation of Bryan’s impending oration. Johnny is also on the fringes of City Hall with his crew.


Connolly gives us the city in full spin. The trails of three adventurers provide the structural framework for their world, which encompasses the rest of the vivid family and such wonderful originals as the infant-terrible, the future John Ford. Never before has this world been drawn so well in fiction, though Edward G. McKeon’s “In the Streets Half Heard,” a novelized autobiography of a real Portland family, needs mention among other talented Maine Irish writers.

Despite its rather bleak title, “Murky Overhead” is a joyful rollick through the life of the fictional Folans, and through one family, it tells the story of many. If anything, first-time novelist Connolly may be too sure-footed, having grown up immersed in a multigeneration Hibernian clan and gone on to interview elders in the Longshoremen’s Union (Connolly, in fact, was instrumental in placing the archives of their benevolent society at the Maine Historical Society) and to lecture on this topic in Ireland and America. Turn any page and you will find a fascinating fact or incident. Consider, for instance:

“It struck Johnny that the pace of work on the conveyors was set as fast as any human being could possibly respond, and then just a little bit faster than that. In order to determine what that pace should be, the speed was often increased until the workers on the line ultimately failed to keep up with the workload. At times like this, bottles either backed up or were lost over the edge of the conveyor belt, creating loud popping noises as they smashed on the wet cement floor sounding much like a series of minor explosions.”

Connolly has full command of both the story and its delightful supporting details. This is neither a feel-good melodrama nor a Studs Lonigan copycat. For me, the book’s most poignant writing comes when Connolly is describing the birth of Helen. Though the details are accurate to the period, the passage does not sound remotely like a midwifery text. Did Connolly’s “Anam Cara” (Gaelic for “soulmate”) or someone else have a gentle hand here? It works beautifully.

Everything comes together for “Murky Overhead,” from the book’s cover, drawn by Maine artist Holly E. Gilfillan Ready, to an excellent glossary of Irish words and phrases, this befitting the novel’s heavy use of Gaelic. And why not in “almost literally the next American parish west of Galway,” as Portland was known, Connolly writes.

Connolly’s account of the Irish in Portland is every bit as well-written and fun as Gerard Robichaud’s “Papa Martel,” the classic, award-winning 1961 novel of a Franco-American family coming from Quebec to Lewiston. Readers will be enriched by both.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” He is working on a history of the Maine Historical Society. He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.

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