My parents did me no favours as a writer.
It seems to me that most writers, especially Irish ones, were blessed with parents who imparted sufficient neuroses to sustain them through a lifetime of writing. In some cases, the Irish writer’s mother died early, leaving behind a child racked with guilt or burdened with a sense of abandonment. Otherwise, the mother lived on to smother her offspring with stifling affection so that escape and retribution seemed to be the only valid responses. The fathers of writers were either drunken philanderers or cold, emotionless figures who withheld from their children any display of affection or validation and, as a result, the writer was obliged to spend a lifetime vainly seeking the approval of the parent. All the better if the childhood was played out against a background of grinding poverty and bleak hopelessness. Then, in the vernacular of rural Ireland, the writer was sucking diesel.
The portrayal in memoirs of the stereotypical Irish family is vividly described by Frank McCourt. “The poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire.” But McCourt cautions the writer that “the happy childhood is hardly worth your while”. Colm Toibin goes further: “A happy childhood may make good citizens, but it is not a help for those of us facing a blank page”. Alan Bennett treads a similar path. He references the Philip Larkin poem “This Be The Verse” which begins: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”. Bennett elaborates: “If your parents do fuck you up, and you’re going to write, that’s fine because then you’ve got something to write about. But if they don’t fuck you up, then you’ve got nothing to write about. So then they’ve fucked you up good and proper”.
Tolstoy doesn’t offer much encouragement either : “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.
Is chronicling the lives of happy families “worth your while”? Tolstoy, McCourt, and Toibin don’t think so. It seems that, unless you were neglected and abused by your parents, you have nothing to say – nothing worth hearing or writing about.
In my case, there were none of these “advantages”. My father was never out of work for more than a week or two, did not drink alcohol, and routinely displayed affection towards his wife and children. My mother, in the more demanding role, kept the home and family together. Both of them were loved and revered by their children and later by their grandchildren.
We were among the lucky ones. That’s what I would say as an adult when questioned about growing up in the 50s and 60s. But, when I began to research my family history, I was confronted with the realisation that, rather than having a relatively privileged and care-free existence, my parents were faced with a potentially disastrous sequence of set-backs and tragedies during the first fifteen years of their marriage. Any one of these dramatic occurrences had the potential to destroy the marriage and the family. This dreadful accumulation of events would be expected, at the very least, to have had a traumatic impact on the parents and children.
But my parents didn’t burden us with their problems as they struggled to cope. They ensured that their children, sailed through unscathed. At least I did. Or I think I did. Which is probably the same thing.
When Alan Bennett mused on whether your parents really do “fuck you up” as a writer, he came to the conclusion that you don’t write in order to write about your youth; you write to find out about your youth. I wrote in order to find out about my youth and specifically about my parents. I wrote in order to understand how my own parents managed to steer the family ship through turbulent waters while their children lounged on the deck, blissfully unaware that anything unusual was happening. It was only when I became a parent that I was able to fully appreciate the complexity of the task which they had completed without drama or fuss.
My parents deserve to be written about. As Walter Junior says in the TV series Breaking Bad: ”The good guys never get ink like the bad guys do.”
I wrote to find out what motivated these two people who steered their happy children through these turbulent years? I discovered two remarkable people whose unique story needs to be heard. But, they did me no favours as a writer…
(c) Colman Rushe
About The Things We’ve Handed Down:
This book is the antithesis of the Irish misery memoir. It is an inspirational and joyous celebration of courage and resilience in the face of adversity; an account of how a couple managed to raise seven children in a happy, carefree environment while encountering a potentially disastrous sequence of set-backs and tragedies during the first fifteen years of their marriage. The book provides a vivid description of life in the rural west of Ireland during the 50s and 60s and is an uplifting celebration of the happy family, hitherto grossly unrepresented in Irish writing.
Order your copy online here.