The new novel by Richard Kearney, Seelig Professor of Philosophy at Boston College, is a World War II-era coming-of-age tale centered on a small island off Ireland’s south coast.
In Salvage, Kearney examines the never-ending tug of war between modernity and traditionalism through the character of 14-year-old Maeve O’Sullivan, whose family is among the last inhabitants of what is now known as Rabbit Island but for centuries carried the name of the Celtic goddess Brigid, a patron saint of Ireland. Unlike her two older brothers, Maeve avidly takes after her father’s embrace of old legends, customs, and traditions—including those in honor of Brigid—practiced on the island down through the ages, especially speaking Gaelic and the use of various plants and herbs for healing.
But her father’s tragic death, her improbable friendship with a girl from the mainland, and the presence of a handsome young medical student all cause Maeve to reevaluate her life as an islander and a healer. What elements of her family heritage should she hold onto? What must she relinquish? Maeve’s personal dilemma about change and its implications occurs in the shadow of World War II, which sparked social upheaval on an immense scale. Kearney animates the narrative with Gaelic phrases and words and vivid descriptions of flora and fauna.
Deeming it "a gem of a book," American poet and novelist Fanny Howe calls Salvage "a story about love, faith and the future."
For Kearney, publishing fiction—he has two other novels, Sam’s Fall and Walking at Sea Level—and poetry (including his collection, Angel of Patrick’s Hill) is a means for him to traverse philosophical concepts and questions outside of the academic, and non-fiction, realm.
“I suppose for me fiction is rather like a playground: When your mind is off-duty, your consciousness plays,” he said, with a laugh. “If I’m going to write a book on philosophy, I have to have a proposal, a plan, and a table of contents. But with fiction, the process of writing is more organic and unplanned—playful. I’ve never sat down and said, ‘Here’s a philosophical idea, let’s see what I can do with it in a novel.’ If I had, it would’ve been a bad novel.”
Salvage is more appropriately classified as historical fiction, according to Kearney: Rabbit Island is a real place, visible from his house in Cork, and much of its characteristics and history described in the book are based in fact. Kearney even had the opportunity to speak by phone with the last known inhabitant of the island, who had emigrated many years ago (“She had just missed the Titanic, so she got the next boat to Brooklyn,” he explained); she died before Kearney was able to meet her in person.
The book’s title has a multi-faceted meaning that belatedly occurred to Kearney: “At first, Salvage referred to the fact that the islanders lived off salvage from shipwrecks. But I realized the word could also signify salvaging memory—of a name, a place, a language, or traditions.
“In that sense, Salvage has a personal dimension for me: My mother and sister were both healers like Maeve, and earlier generations of my family followed many of the same customs and traditions, including those related to St. Brigid, that the islanders did.”
For more about Kearney’s writing and research, see richardmkearney.com.
Sean Smith | University Communications | May 2023