Two recent memoirs by Irish writers explore the haunting presence of the past in Irish lives and communities. Although James Joyce’s literary avatar Stephen Dedalus declared history “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” the Irish are known for their infatuation with the past.
In My Father’s Wake, journalist Kevin Toolis travels home to a remote island off the coast of Ireland to lay his father (and his personal demons) to rest. The subtitle of Toolis’ memoir—“How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die”—is a bit of a red herring, as this is not exactly a guide to coping with death. Instead, Toolis has written an exceptionally personal and moving story of his own encounters with death, from his brush with tuberculosis as a child to his beloved older brother Bernard’s untimely passing from leukemia. Despite donating bone marrow, Toolis is unable to save his brother, and Bernard’s death in a hospital is hygienically swift.
Traumatized by the experience, Toolis subsequently becomes a “death hunter” journalist, interviewing bereaved family members in global war zones. Toolis explores the ways in which the “Western Death Machine” has alienated us from our ancestral rituals of death and dying, rituals that persist in rural West Ireland. When Toolis’ own father, Sonny, dies in the tiny island village of Dookinella, the old rituals of keening and waking the dead prove the balm that he has been searching for. Sonny dies at home, seen over by a bean chabrach, or death midwife, and keened over by bean chaointe, or wailing woman. The entire village gathers at Sonny’s wake, watching over his passage from life to death. “A wake is the best guide to life you’ll ever have,” Toolis writes, encouraging his readers to learn how to live by accepting the inevitability of death.
Like Toolis, who finds solace in the rituals of the past, Booker Prize-winning author John Banville is similarly preoccupied with the weight of the past on the present in his new memoir, Time Pieces. But while Toolis returns to the ancient rituals of rural Ireland, Banville explores the great Irish city of Dublin, using it as a site for excavating and contemplating history and its movement. “When does the past become the past?” septuagenarian Banville asks while wandering the city, reflecting on his life.
Personal and national history intermingle in Banville’s genial ramblings around Dublin as he considers his youth and coming-of-age in Dublin’s Baggotonia neighborhood or discovers granite fragments of Nelson’s Pillar (blown up by the IRA in 1966) in the Pearse Street Public Library. Accentuated by Paul Joyce’s moody black-and-white photographs, Time Pieces has the feel of a valediction and farewell by a writer looking back on his passage through a particularly Irish time and place.
This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.