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Reflections on writing I Am Patrick: A Donegal Childhood Remembered by Patrick Doherty

Writing.ie | Magazine | Tell Your Own Story | Writing & Me
Patrick Doherty

Patrick Doherty

I first wrote my memoir as the creative part of a PhD in Creative Writing. Doing a PhD in Creative Writing meant that I undertook a practice called ‘practice as research’. Essentially this involves the writing, drafting and redrafting in the normal way whilst at the same time reflecting and recording that creative process as it continues. I researched the big questions about memoir such as how can we represent memory? Or what is truth in memoir? And related those to my own writing.

My memoir represents my life from four to twenty-three and is written as a series of separate episodes in the first person and in the present tense. I attempt to write from a child’s point of view where the development of a child’s thought processes and language become more complex as he or she grows older.  I also try to represent the Malin Head dialect that I was raised in showing how that changed as I got older and went through primary and secondary school and eventually became a teacher. Interspersed between these episodes is a brief adult narrative in the past tense where I reflect upon my childhood as I travelled back to Donegal for my father’s funeral.

Being the eighth of nine children in a strict Catholic, tee-total family, where nothing private was shared I worried that writing my memoir may be seen as betrayal of secrets. Some family still live on the family farm and as, like so many families of my generation, we had kept our silence, I worried about what their reaction and the reaction of the local community would be. I continued to publication, though, and shared my book with everyone who may have felt they had a say too. I was amazed and surprised to receive their support and we have even begun to speak of our shared experiences. This has been a wonderful consequence of writing my memoir which alone has made the whole project worthwhile.

I could have written many more episodes than the ones included in my memoir and I have remembered even more since discussing my book with many family members. Ultimately, though, my choice was determined by my need to reflect the breadth of my childhood experiences in a range of emotions and during a variety of events from different periods that, put together, could accurately represent the reality of my childhood.

An example of my writing process is how I wrote The 15th which tells the story of the annual Feast of The Assumption community sports’ day. In order to mine my memories of the event I visited our church and sat where my family used to sit for Sunday mass. I remembered our local priest talking very sternly to the congregation. While I sat there, I could hear him publicly coercing and humiliating adults in order to get them to help with the organization of sports’ day and how he threatened the children to take part in the races and events. I remembered that if those tactics didn’t work he would confront families in their own homes. I retraced my journey from home to the field that was always used for sports’ day, recognizing muscle memories from a well-trodden route. I remembered the flow of traffic and families making their way there and how many of the children, who had left to get jobs, came back for this important community event. I stood in the field and pinpointed where the different stalls used to be held and how I used to duck and dive to hide from the priest searching for competitors. I recalled the stink of beer from the pub nearby. From my memories I was able to recreate a specific day in order to write one episode about a time when I was just beginning to recognize a world beyond my family and was beginning to question the behaviour of some adults.

The remote geographical position of the small rural community of Malin Head, its poor national links, delayed social development, poor education and poverty reinforced its isolation from the rest of Ireland. As I went along, I found that my memoir became a social history of my birthplace. I found that my exploration of my own identity creation in a society of casual, daily violence and cultural silence was part of Ireland’s social history of a recent past such as we have read in Paddy Doyle’s The God Squad, Frank McCourt’s Angelas Ashes or John McGahern’s Memoir.

When I submitted my memoir for my PhD I had put the stories in a random order to reflect the storytelling nature of the way in which they were written. They recalled to me the stories families tell each other when they get together at weddings and funerals. Those stories tend to get prompted by random thoughts and my original structure reflected that. When I re-read my memoir, though, a year after my PhD I realised that placing the stories in chronological order helped a reader make sense of all the characters and events more easily. What worked for a PhD didn’t necessarily work for publication.

(c) Patrick Doherty

About I am Patrick:

Patrick’s memoir recalls a deeply traditional world, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, that grappled daily with the harsh realities of farming, poverty, and the powers of The Church. Patrick was caught between the demands of his father, who wanted the boys to help on the farm, and his ambitious mother who wanted to give her children opportunities through education. In a distinctive, teetotal, non-smoking family Patrick, the seventh son, struggled to find his place.

You will follow a deeply conflicted child wanting to be one of the men as well as a good student. An acute observer of the farming year and the physical demands of planting, sowing, reaping, and digging. Singled out at school, young Patrick is voiceless in a world of silence and violence. His minutely drawn account of events, place and personality allow the reader to be transported to childhood fears and incomprehension.

Patrick narrates his story through the dialogue of his youth as he shows the challenges of subsistence farming life lifted by moments of family humour. His yearning for belonging, his endurance and his eventual escape speaks to generations of a remote, but not distant, Ireland.

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About the author

Patrick Doherty grew up in Malin Head, Ireland’s most northerly point. He is the seventh son of nine children. He attended the Colgan Hall in Carndonagh, Donegal. At Manchester he studied French and PE which included taking a year out to work as a teaching assistant in France. He taught French in a secondary school in Manchester for eight years before transferring to primary education in Lancashire where he worked for twenty-two years until his retirement from Headship in 2006.
With farming in his blood Patrick spent the next five years working as a milking assistant on a dairy farm of three hundred cows. During this period he attended creative writing courses and set up a local creative writing group which practised fiction, non-fiction and poetry. By 2011 he had completed a two years part-time MA in creative writing which was followed by a part-time PhD in Irish autobiography which included an early version of his memoir about growing up in Donegal. A revision of his memoir resulted in the publication of ‘I am Patrick: A Donegal Childhood Remembered’ by Clachan Publishing. Patrick considers himself to be Ireland’s most northerly memoirist.
Patrick now lives and writes in France. Having finished his memoir he now wants to record his reflections on writing his memoir.

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