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1.     Daniel O’Connell
Celtic Life International, Sept-Oct 2014

The grandest boulevard in Dublin, originally called Sackville Street, was renamed O’Connell Street in 1924. At the south end of that street, overlooking the a busy intersection and the River Liffey, stands a larger-than-life statue: Daniel O’Connell. In Glasnevin Cemetery, on the city’s outskirts, O’Connell is remembered with a round tower that dominates the graveyard. And at Derrynane, the estate he inherited in southwest Ireland, visitors can see the magnificent chariot in which O’Connell rode through Dublin, waving to the cheering thousands who had gathered to celebrate his release from prison.
O’Connell was jailed in 1843 when his non-violent “monster meetings” proved so effective that the authorities felt threatened. His profound commitment to nonviolence would inspire such figures as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who in the twentieth century would adapt O’Connell’s approach to freedom struggles in India and the United States.
O’Connell was arguably the greatest statesman Ireland had ever produced. But one century before the Dublin city fathers attached his name to their most splendid thoroughfare -- or 96 years, to be precise -- the man himself was fighting for his political life in the town of Ennis, 250 km to the southwest in County Clare.
Today, Ennis is a musical “boutique town,” population 25,000, situated on the River Fergus between Limerick and Galway. It is less than 20 km from Shannon Airport, and offers easy access to the Aran Islands, the Cliffs of Moher, and the Dingle Peninsula. In June, my wife and I spent five days there for all these reasons, but mainly because of Daniel O’Connell. I was researching a book about outstanding Irish and Scottish figures and I wanted to get a sense of the place where, almost two centuries ago, O’Connell made his first mark as a world figure.
By then he was forty-three. He had been born in August 1775 in a stone farmhouse whose ruins can still be seen at Cahirsiveen, County Kerry, 200 km southwest of Ennis. When he showed signs of being precocious, an uncle who owned an estate (Derrynane) stepped in to educate him. After studying in France, and narrowly escaping the violence of the French Revolution, O’Connell spent three years in London, training as a lawyer. At a debate on the fate of Britain, he heard Prime Minister William Pitt speak and took note of the man’s “majestic march of language” -- the way he used lower tones to end sentences and threw his voice to make himself heard at a distance. Inspired, O’Connell joined a debating society and began training himself as a speaker.
Now came a slow, steady climb to prominence. As a lawyer, he proved witty, incisive, erudite, theatrical, fluent in English and Irish, creative -- soon enough, peerless. His forte, according to biographer Charles Chenevix Trench, “was the cross-examination of hostile witnesses.” With great good humour, O’Connell would coax and confide, “from time to time rolling his large, blue-grey eyes at judge and jury,” until he trapped the witness in a lie or contradiction, and nailed him to the wall.
Born and raised a Roman Catholic, O’Connell became politically active.  Ireland’s Catholics.had been subject to discrimination since England had gained control of the country in the 17th century. They were barred from holding public office or serving in the army. Members of the government had to be Anglicans, so that even Presbyterians -- mostly Scottish -- did not qualify. By the early 1700s, the Anglican ruling class, known as the Protestant Ascendancy, had enacted Penal Laws to ensure their own dominance over Catholics and Dissenters of all stripes.
By the early 1800s, some of the worst excesses had been rescinded. Catholics could serve in the armed forces or enter the legal profession, for example. Yet still they could not inherit Protesant land, own a horse valued at more than five pounds, become court judges, or be elected to serve in the British House of Commons, which had governed the country since the 1801 Union of England and Ireland.
O’Connell set out to change all this, and to bring about “Catholic emancipation” by democratic means. He insisted “that all ameliorations and improvements in political institutions can be obtained by persevering in a perfectly peaceable and legal course, and cannot be obtained by forcible means, or if they could be got by forcible means, such means create more evils than they cure, and leave the country worse than they found it.”
In 1811, well-known as a barrister, O’Connell established the Catholic Board to campaign specifically for Emancipation, or the right of Irish Catholics to become Members of Parliament. A dozen years later, he turned this board into the Catholic Association, a broadly focused organization that sought to improve the Catholic situation generally. Gradually, he gained a massive following and built a war chest to support pro-emancipation candidates standing in Ireland for election to the British House of Commons. Yet because a discriminatory oath of office demanded the renunciation of Catholicism, all of these propertied men were Protestants.
In 1828, O’Connell decided to seek the election of an Irish Catholic who would go to Westminster but refuse to take the reprehensible oath. When the 1828 byelection was called in County Clare, he anticipated that a prominent Catholic, an ally from that County, would contest the election. When that candidate withdrew, he agreed to stand himself -- not out of personal ambition, he explained, but “to advocate a principle, which may in my person be vindicated.”
The election was to be held in Ennis. On Monday, June 30, 1828, after traveling day and night by coach from Dublin, Daniel O’Connell arrived at two o’clock in the morning. At the Court House a few hours later, his opponent, William Vesey Fitzgerald, gave a tour-de-force speech that reduced most of the audience to tears. As he rose to answer it, O’Connell -- already considered the greatest Irish orator of the age -- knew he had his work cut out for him.
O’Connell did not dislike Fitzgerald, a Protestant who supported Catholic Emancipation. But if he were going to win this election, he had to demolish him verbally. In King Dan, biographer Patrick Geoghegan shows how he did this with a speech that was “nasty, brutish, and brilliant, without doubt one of the greatest of his life.”
O’Connell charged that Fitzgerald belonged to a government that treated Catholics with contempt. He lamented that he could not rise in his chosen profession because he was a Catholic. He argued that Protestants could murder Catholics with impunity, and that Catholics were not permitted even to mobilize. Fitzgerald’s conduct was “barefaced and miserable hypocrisy.” The speech ended, Geoghegan writes, “with a volley of execration for the combined enemies of the Catholic cause” that had the crowd cheering, roaring, and laughing.
The formal vote began the next day and, with people pouring into the town from the countryside, lasted almost a week. When polling ended on Saturday, July 5, O’Connell had won with 2,057 votes to 982. The people had elected a Roman Catholic to enter the House of Commons.
In February1829, O’Connell went to London to try to take his seat as a Catholic member of Parliament. By now, the elected British government had accepted this idea. But King George IV was trying to prevent it. Finally, in April,  the emancipation bill gained royal assent. Because of a technicality -- the bill did not become law until after the Ennis election -- O’Connell had to get himself re-eected. This he did, unopposed, the following July. And when Parliament resumed in February 1830, he took his seat in the British House of Commons.
Having planted a flag on behalf of Irish Catholics, Daniel O’Connell became known as “The Liberator.” He would go on to fight many battles, and would even spend three months in jail for non-violent political agitation. But as biographer Charles Tenevix Trench observes in The Great Dan, “the reputation of this greatest of Irishmen deserves to rest not on what he might have done, nor on what he failed to do, but on his wonderful achievement in 1828, which raised his people’s heads and straightened their backs after generations of subjection and failure.”
In Ennis, where Daniel O’Connell changed the course of history, the Old Court House is long gone. But where once it stood we find O’Connell Square, which boasts a sky-high, 74-foot tower topped by a statue of the great man. A local historian, Jane O’Brien, sprinkles her daily guided walk around Ennis with anecdotes about O’Connell. The town’s main street, she tells us, which has taken his name, was once called Jail Street. And, this being Ireland, she takes us past a lively pub: Dan O’Connell’s. Here in Ennis, as in Dublin, the great man’s memory would appear to be cherished and protected.

       2. Marvelling at the Legacy of Farley Mowat
      National Post, May 16, 2014

The recent death of Farley Mowat at 92 sparked heartfelt reminiscences and stirred up old controversies. But the most interesting question, going forward, concerns legacy. Some of us contend that Mowat was a giant. For starters, we cite numbers: 45 books, 60 countries, and (ballpark) 15 million copies sold. But if, as a writer, Mowat was a Gulliver in Lilliput, and not just commercially, then surely he left a legacy? He must have established or advanced some literary tradition? Profoundly influenced younger Canadian writers?
The answer is an emphatic yes. Born May 12, 1921, Mowat energized not only the Baby Boomers, my own generation, but younger writers. Before going further, a clarification: as a Canadian, Mowat is often linked with Pierre Berton, who was born ten months before him. Both were prolific, larger-than-life personalities published by Jack McClelland. Both wrote mainly nonfiction.
But Berton, who cut his professional teeth as a journalist, became famous for sweeping Canadian histories: The National Dream, The Invasion of Canada, Vimy, The Great Depression, The Arctic Grail. Contemporary Canadian historians who achieve readability while tackling big themes are working in a tradition established by Berton and Peter C. Newman (The Canadian Establishment, Company of Adventurers). Think of Margaret Macmillan and Paris, 1919, or of Christopher Moore and 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal. Think of such military historians as Tim Cook, Mark Zuelke, and Ted Barris.
Farley Mowat did not write history. He took a keen interest in prehistory, in archaeology and legend, and so produced West-Viking and The Farfarers. But looking back at his long career in context, we discover that Mowat was Canada’s first writer of creative nonfiction (CNF).
The genre has been succinctly defined: “true stories, well told.” Its hallmark is engagement: personal presence or voice. Celebrated early practitioners include Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, and Joan Didion. But Farley Mowat started publishing in 1952, some fifteen years before these American figures emerged, largely from the “new journalism.”
Mowat had studied neither history nor literature. He had trained not as a journalist but as a biologist. He had no veteran writer at his shoulder, offering advice. When in the late 1940s, as a twenty-something environmentalist, Mowat sat down to cobble a book together, he was alone in the dark. He wrote because he felt deeply about the North, about the people and the wildlife he had recently encountered.
Driven by passion, and drawing on his extraordinary fluency, he produced The People of the Deer -- a powerful indictment of government mistreatment of the Inuit. Did he exaggerate and make mistakes? Yes, he did. Did he commit what today we regard as authorial sins? Again: yes. But Mowat was finding his way in a wilderness, pioneering a new genre of writing, one he called “subjective nonfiction.”
Today, nobody uses that term. Writers, editors and critics lean to literary,  narrative, or creative nonfiction (CNF). Over the past 60 years, through trial and error and countless furious arguments, we have hammered out a set of conventions. The writer of creative nonfiction writer enters into a contract with the reader. You agree to tell the truth. You don’t change dates, places, or other facts. You don’t invent characters. You draw on research, memory, and imagination, and you use all the technical skill you command to tell your true story.
As these conventions emerged, Mowat evolved and worked within them. To survey his body of work is to witness the development of a major writer. The rough carpentry of People of the Deer gives way to the equally searing but masterful Sea of Slaughter. Down through the decades, while remaining true to his singular vision, Mowat displayed an astonishing versatility. His permutations and combinations represent a master class in the possibilities of creative nonfiction. He did trail-blazing work in a variety of subgenres that other Canadian writers have taken up and developed: environmental polemic, autobiography/memoir, political polemic, exploration narrative, adventure travel, cultural advocacy, cross-gender biographical narrative, the man never stopped writing.
Mowat’s environmental polemics include Never Cry Wolf, A Whale for the Killing, and Sea of Slaughter. All three inspired films. The first, published more than 50 years ago, crosses the line into fictionalizing and today would not pass muster as nonfiction. It drew acclaim and sparked controversy in Canada, and in translation, prompted Russia to change its laws regarding wolf culling.
In A Whale For the Killing, Mowat relates his losing battle to rescue a trapped whale from hunters who laughed to kill it. And Sea of Slaughter (1984), probably the most powerful of Mowat’s indictments, reviews in vivid detail the way we humans have devastated birds, whales, and animal life along the Atlantic coast of North America.
With these books, Mowat cleared the way for John Vaillant (The Golden Spruce); Maude Barlow (Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever); Taras Grescoe (Bottomfeeder); J.B. MacKinnon (The Once and Future World); Wayne Grady (Bringing Back the Dodo); and Andrew Westoll (The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary).
Turning to memoir/autobiography, CNF’S most popular subgenre, Mowat displayed an extraordinary breadth of subject matter and mood. His harrowing evocations of life in the trenches during the Second World War (The Regiment, And No Birds Sang) contrast sharply with the comic misadventures that drive such works as The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be and The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float. His spectrum, from the profoundly moving to the hilarious, anticipates books ranging from Ian Brown’s The Boy in the Moon to Will Ferguson’s light-hearted Canadian Pie, and from the darkness of Jan Wong’s Out of the Blue to the whimsy of Paul Quarrington’s The Boy on the Back of the Turtle.
Mowat produced ferocious political polemics. The best-known is probably My Discovery of America, which he wrote after being barred from entering the United States. In this sub-genre, his heirs include Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism); Linda McQuaig (Billionaire’s Ball: Gluttony and Hubris in an Age of Epic Inequality); Stephen Kimber (What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five); and Lawrence Martin (Harperland: The Politics of Control).
While he was at it, Farley Mowat “invented” the Canadian North -- certainly in terms of global awareness, but also for many Canadians. In 1952, when he published The People of the Deer, readers around the world said, what? Canada includes an Arctic dimension? And people actually live in it? In a distinctive manner? Mowat drove this message home across three CMF sub-genres: exploration narrative, adventure travel, and cultural advocacy. Books like Coppermine Journey and Ordeal by Ice cleared the way for Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by John Geiger and Owen Beattie, and for my own Fatal Passage and Race to the Polar Sea.
Mowat’s works of adventure travel found him ranging widely, from the north (High Latitudes: An Artic Journey) to the European continent (Aftermath: Travels in a Post-War World. His Canadian heirs include Charles Montgomery (The Last Heathen); Will Ferguson (Beyond Belfast); Charles Wilkins (Walk to New York); Karen Connelly (Burmese Lessons); Wayne Grady and Merilyn Simonds (Breakfast at the Exit Café); Myrna Kostash (Bloodlines: A Journey into Eastern Europe); and J.B. MacKinnon (Dead Man in Paradise).
Mowat’s works of cultural advocacy, from People of the Deer through Death of a People and No Man’s River, opened the road for Ronald Wright (Stolen Continents), Tom King (The Inconvenient Indian); Daniel Francis (The Imaginary Indian); John Ralston Saul (A Fair Country); Richard Wagamese (One Native Life);  Wade Davis (The Wayfinders); and Kenn Harper (Give Me My Father’s Body).
The master’s adventure in cross-gender biographical narrative, Virunga: The Passion of Dian Fossey, encouraged Charlotte Gray’s book about Alexander Graham Bell (Reluctant Genius) and my own about the wife of Sir John Franklin (Lady Franklin’s Revenge). Yes, we Canadian writers of CNF are all in this man’s debt.
Farley Mowat never stopped working, never stopped sharing his vision, his passion, and his literary gifts. He kept blazing trails, opening up one new path after another.  His death has turned us into a first posterity, called upon to render judgment. On the one hand, we have a few rookie-writer mistakes that are 50 and 60 years old. On the other, we discover this marvellous legacy, still just launching. For those who read and write creative nonfiction, the decision is a no-brainer. Farley Mowat, R.I.P. We will not see your like again.

Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.