Séamas O’Reilly’s debut book, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?, is a tender, comic chronicle of the author’s upbringing as one of 11 children raised by their widower father in Derry, Northern Ireland. O’Reilly, a regular contributor to the Observer who has a knack for crafting uproarious anecdotes, is attuned to the extraordinary—and somewhat absurd—nature of his childhood. He takes a jovial approach in the narrative, and the result is a rousing tale of family fellowship.
The book opens in 1991, right after the death of O’Reilly’s mother, Sheila (Mammy), from breast cancer. O’Reilly, who was 5, struggled to make sense of the loss and the events that followed, including Mammy’s well-attended wake. When a family friend told him that Sheila was a flower picked by God to be in his garden, O’Reilly observes, “It was nice to think that Mammy was so well-liked by God, since she was a massive fan. She went to all his gigs—Mass, prayer groups, marriage guidance meetings . . .”
After Mammy’s death, O’Reilly’s father, Joe, an engineer, was left to care for his 11 children. A devoted dad, Joe possessed seemingly bottomless reserves of patience and good nature, which allowed him to bring up a happy brood against all odds. (O’Reilly points out a particularly challenging juncture when six of his sisters were teenagers at the same time.) The O’Reilly children shared bedrooms and books, divvied up household duties (not always equitably) and traveled with Joe in a minibus dubbed the “O’Reillymobile.”
The author describes his parents as “comically, parodically, Catholic,” and religion is a constant undercurrent in the book. As O’Reilly came of age, the violent sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles was waning, but he still found himself reckoning with its long-term effects. One lasting repercussion: the sense of gallows humor that’s pervasive among the Northern Irish.
Indeed, finding comedy in tragedy seems to be an operative instinct for the author. Stylistically, O’Reilly is an unabashed maximalist, packing his sentences with adverbs and consistently minting fresh figures of speech. Throughout the book, as he sifts through memories of his boisterous upbringing, he never fails to find cause for joy or a good joke. As a result, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?—title aside—feels bracingly alive.