Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? A memoir by Séamas O’Reilly is published with Fleet, an Imprint of Little, Brown Book Group. The dedication, To Daddy. For Mammy, tells half the story because Séamas’s mother is only a memory. She died from breast cancer when he was five. The other half of the family equation is that Séamas was the third youngest of eleven children. His father reared them in a large bungalow in Co. Derry, near the border with Donegal, against a wider backdrop of British army checkpoints and bomb scares.
With good humour and wonderful turns of phrase, Séamas guides us through his early life from the morning his mother died, through the family’s minibus trip to Spain towing a caravan and on into his dinosaur-obsessed phase. There are detours to his grandparents in Fermanagh, his father’s catalogued collection of films on VHS tapes via numerous family anecdotes.
Séamas gets inside his own five-year old head, describing the new corduroy trousers he gets when his mother dies and his cheery greeting of ‘Did ye hear Mammy died?’ as mourners arrive at the house. Guilt raises its ugly head when he’s about eight and blames himself for losing some of his memories of his mother.
With tenderness, he then goes on to describe the eight memories he’s managed to hold onto, vignettes from his early life that can never be re-assembled into a continuum. They are ordinary moments for the most part: cradling his head to his mother’s knee when she tells him to say goodbye to his teacher; being allowed to eat a Penguin bar and drink lemonade one Friday after school, a bomb scare that forces their bus to take a detour. But knowing, as we do, that he never saw his mother after the age of five imbues them all with poignancy.
This is a book about grief but heavily seasoned in humour as it covers the rituals of an Irish funeral, (endless tea, visitors to the house, and fruitcake) the special treatment Séamas used to get in school in the run up to Mother’s Day (no glittery cards for him) and the various ways in which people tactlessly try to be sympathetic or kind to him, but many of them equipped only with what he terms a ‘Fisher Price’ understanding of loss.
Five-year-old Séamas was, like most children, equipped with a literal mind. So when a family friend explains heaven in terms of his mother now being a flower in God’s garden, he pictures ‘Two great probing fingers smashing through the roof to relocate Mammy to that odd garden God kept in heaven, presumably so he would have something to do on Sundays.’ This idea also makes him fearful that God may pluck other unsuspecting relatives at any moment.
The eleven siblings are a roll call of Irish names but they’re classified in groups reminiscent of First Sister and Middle Sister in Anna Burns Milkman. The O’Reillys are made up of the Big Ones, the Middle Ones and the Wee Ones. Then there’s their long-suffering father who’s affectionately portrayed but not immune to the humour that makes this book sing. When the sliding door falls off the family minibus in Northern Spain Séamas, pokes fun at him for blaming the children by saying, ‘Yous didn’t close it right.’ Then there’s the truly funny description of his father quietly insisting at a checkout that the three-for-two deal does apply to large packets of toilet roll, while thirteen-year-old Séamas shrivels with embarrassment.
This memoir never dwells on sadness. Instead, galloping on, compelling the reader to smile.
In the final chapter, unprocessed grief erupts in Séamas’s adulthood like ‘intermittent controlled explosions’. That’s when we glimpse the complexity of the bereavement process when it affects a child too young to articulate its pain.
Overall, though, this book is packed with the author’s sense of humour and colourful descriptive powers as he depicts an effervescent family imbued with the love, nosebleeds, singing and mishaps that make up the weave of collective memory.
(c) Mary Butler
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