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An Extraordinary Life for an Irish Peasant - an Editorial Review of "The Execution"

The Execution: Life and Times of Patrick O'Donnell Book cover

Book Blurb:

History tells us that Patrick O’Donnell was hanged in Newgate Prison in December 1883 for the murder of James Carey, the infamous Phoenix Park Killer and notorious Irish informer. History however tells us almost nothing of this remarkable man. Letters sent from Victor Hugo and US President Chester A. Arthur, asking Queen Victoria to show clemency, hint at an extraordinary life for an Irish peasant.

The portrait of Patrick O’Donnell stared down for years from the wall in the author’s family home during his youth. Decades later and curious about a possible family connection to the enigmatic figure, he started digging, and what he found is astonishing! In his extraordinary new book, The Execution, Life and Times of Patrick O’Donnell, Gavin O’Donnell reveals in intimate and fascinating detail, through a series of letters, the incredible life of one man — and the times in which he lived.

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Author Bio:

Gavin grew up in Wales, Ireland, North Africa and England. An elective mute until the age of 5 his first word was ‘Texaco’... don’t ask. Aged 11 unable to read properly he was classed as Educationally Sub Normal (ESN).

He studied Construction Management in Limerick obtaining a degree and later, at age 40, by way of distance learning he obtained his Batchelor of Laws at Nottingham.

He retired early from a varied career from the nuclear industry to construction project management. After retiring he and his wife Linda refurbished several cottages in SW France and built up a small holiday business before selling up and returning to rural South Wales; where they now reside in a self-built stone cottage along with three cats, Jess, Bob and Kpo, several chickens and a few thousand bees. Their two grown children and one grandchild live nearby.

Gavin started writing in 2019 with a memoir about the loss of their daughter in a fire in Bordeaux, in 1990. A few short stories followed and then his ‘piece of resistance’; 'The Execution, Life and Times of Patrick O’Donnell', which is by far his most ambitious project to date. A work of creative fiction closely bound to and conflated with historical facts.

Recognised as Shelf Media Group: 2023 - Top 100 Notable INDIE Books and Reader Favourite: 2023 - 5 Star Award

His screenplay for ‘The Execution Life and Times of Patrick O’Donnell’ reached the 2022 Scriptation Showcase Script Competition quarter finals.

He is currently working on a humorous but serious novel about mental health, and how it is misunderstood; it is entitled 'Brian'.

Editorial Review:

In the somber cell of Newgate prison in 1883, Patrick O'Donnell awaits his fate for the murder of James Carey, the man responsible for the notorious Phoenix Park killings. Through a fascinating blend of letters and the author's commentary, this novel offers a glimpse into the harsh realities of life and the Irish immigrant experience during a difficult period in history.

So here ends my tale. I have a good companion who knows my limits in companionship and who demands nothing of me. I have money and the wit and means to make more of it. I have shaved off my whiskers and I shall grow my hair and if people think they know me I can say that man is under a slab and who can argue that?

For now, I will set about the roast lamb and the potatoes and wine and enjoy what is left of my time. The steward is a handsome young man and I fancy I may engage him later in a game of cards.


Your servant

Pádraig O’Domhnaill - December 18th 1883

The story is mainly told through Patrick’s letters, a man who escaped the horrors of the Irish potato famine only to face a different kind of struggle in America. Patrick O'Donnell's life can be viewed as a series of unfortunate events – his existence is one that was marked by struggle, survival against insurmountable odds, and unexpected twists that challenge conventional notions of justice and fate.

His story begins during the harrowing period of the Great Famine in Ireland where the devastating impact of the potato famine forces young Patrick and his brother to seek refuge in America. However, because of immigration issues, he and his brother begin on a treacherous voyage to Canada, only to be met with tragedy and illness on the terrifying coffin ships.

We see how childhood experiences shape Patrick O'Donnell's views as an adult. His time in Ireland made him dislike organized religion. He admired his mother for seeing through the hypocrisy of certain religious institutions. Patrick also grew resentful toward Ireland itself because he witnessed Irish food being sent to England while people in Ireland starved. This injustice deeply affected him and colored his feelings toward his homeland.

Later on, while quarantined on Grosse Island, Patrick encounters Hanora, a nurse who becomes his guardian angel in the camp. He later ventures to South Africa in pursuit of fortune. It is during this journey that Patrick's encounter with James Carey alters the course of his life forever. His drunken mistake would lead to dire consequences. O'Donnell masterfully captures the essence of Patrick's life, bringing to light the brutal challenges and hardships that defined his existence.

Settling in the wilderness and later in New York, Patrick’s letters illuminate the trials and triumphs of immigrant life in 19th-century America. His story explores personal relationships, the challenges of integration, and the stark realities of societal hierarchies faced by the Irish diaspora. O’Donnell’s narrative skillfully captures the essence of Irish immigrant experiences, vividly depicting the hardships and aspirations of a marginalized community striving for acceptance and belonging in a new land.

The author's interpretation adds fascinating context to Patrick's letters.

Through Patrick’s perspective, readers confront profound themes of identity, disillusionment, and resilience. His disillusionment with religion and homeland underscores broader societal critiques, painting a nuanced picture of cultural and personal upheaval.

Through Patrick's journey, readers gain insight into the extent of the human will to survive and the moral complexities faced by individuals navigating challenging circumstances. Central to the narrative is Patrick's resilience and resourcefulness, shown through his survival tactics, determination, and sheer luck. The author lays out his morally complex choices, including his involvement in the Confederate Army and his later entanglements. Influential figures like Victor Hugo (to whom the letters are addressed) and President Chester Arthur also get brief mentions, whose interventions underscore international opposition to capital punishment.

Something remarkable about O'Donnell's storytelling is his ability to render historical contexts in a vivid and relatable manner. The exploration of the mining industry and the Civil War feels authentic, providing readers with a tangible sense of the hardships and complexities of those times. Through Patrick's experiences, we are shown a world where survival and resilience were paramount, offering a unique lens into the struggles and triumphs of individuals during a transformative period in American history.

Moreover, the author’s narrative style effectively bridges the gap between history and storytelling, making the characters and the historical settings come alive on the page. This blend of education and entertainment ensures that readers not only gain insight into historical events but also develop a deeper connection with the characters and their journeys.

This story is a brilliant reminder of the hardships endured by countless people during a period of famine and turmoil. O'Donnell's narrative poses profound questions about survival, identity, and the pursuit of justice, inviting readers to reconsider the complexities of historical memory and the narratives that shape our understanding of the past. History can often feel distant and abstract, and books like this one provide a valuable opportunity to connect with the past in a meaningful and enjoyable way.

The ambiguity regarding Patrick's ultimate destiny leaves us with more questions than answers. Was Patrick genuinely executed, or did he manage to escape an unjust fate? This uncertainty only adds to the story, compelling us to consider the complexities of historical narratives.

While the book offers an interesting exploration of Patrick's life, it does leave room for curiosity regarding the origins of the primary sources used in the novel. The authenticity and discovery process of the letters that form the backbone of the story remain unknown. Some information or footnotes regarding this would have been much appreciated and added much context to the overall story. Patrick and the author both share the same last name, so one naturally wonders about the link there.

"The Execution, Life and Times of Patrick O'Donnell" is a fascinating exploration of one man's harrowing journey through life. Gavin O'Donnell's novel is a brilliantly compelling read for enthusiasts of historical fiction.


“The Execution, Life and Times of Patrick O'Donnell by Gavin O'Donnell receives 4.5 stars from The Historical Fiction Company


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