If you've had the pleasure of following Dave McKean around the Acre or St. Patrick's Cemetery on walking tours, you know that he loves that section of the city and the subject of the history of Irish in Lowell.
A few years ago, he authored a well-received book called "Lowell Irish" on this exact subject but found that the presentation was a bit too formal for his liking.
"My intent was to write the story of those who came before, but by the time it was done, it read much like a text," he said.
His new slender volume "The Days That Went Before Us: Stories & Accounts of Lowell's Early Irish," is a more informal collection of articles McKean has written over the years, assembled as a garrulous uncle might tell a series of stories to the next generation of towheaded youngsters.
"The Days ..." is separated into decades, covering roughly the first 100 years of the Irish community of Lowell, 1820s to 1920s, and becomes a swiftly rolling pastiche of tales, rumors, histories, contemporary accounts and ruminations on what is known, what isn't known and what could be known of the actual people populating the Irish community of early Lowell.
McKean says in his introduction: "I ask each of you to remember who we are, where we've come from, and where we're going.
This remembrance is key to understanding how bold and accomplished his attempt to give face to scores of unrecorded, or under-recorded, laborers, shopkeepers, priests and leaders who contributed their blood, sweat and tears in the creation of Lowell. Fairly early in the book, McKean pauses his storytelling to reprint a toast originally appearing in the Lowell Mercury from the first St. Patrick's Day celebration in 1833: "Ireland -- Lovely though oppressed, despised by tyrants, yet art thou dear to us, still will we cling affectionately to the nurse of heroes, patriots and sages. Thy sons have been distinguished in all ages, and in all countries. In this our adopted country thy descendants have been exalted to the highest honors within the gifts of men."
It's fitting this time of year, while we festoon ourselves in green Mardi Gras beads made of little plastic shamrocks, that we remember the stories of the brave first Irish immigrants. Their real struggles, triumphs, trials and glories, here in Lowell and in America at large, contributed to a new community far richer and varied than anything before it. McKean's beautifully avuncular style belies at times the true depth and breadth of his research, but makes the book as a whole unfold in a very pleasant manner.
McKean will speak and sign copies of his book Saturday, starting at 10 a.m., at Pollard Memorial Library, Ground Floor Community Room, 401 Merrimack St., Lowell.
Sean Thibodeau is the coordinator of community programming for Pollard Memorial Library.