'Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?' is a grief memoir that shuns sentimentality
In the early days of the pandemic lockdown that had us all behaving as though we were shut in by a blizzard that would soon thaw, I Netflix-binged a perfect television show: Derry Girls. Set in Derry, Northern Ireland, in the mid-1990s, Derry Girls captures the mundanity and angst of teenage girlhood during the tail end of the Troubles.
The steady drumbeat of violence in the region acts as background noise to more pressing matters, like being banned from the chippy shop, performing a step aerobics routine to "Like a Prayer," and coming up with content for the school newspaper.
The brilliance of Derry Girls lies in how it reminds us that regular people lived regular lives during the Troubles, that growing up in a place like Derry does not inure you to caring about boy bands. I have been impatiently awaiting more episodes for nearly two years now. Luckily, Séamas O'Reilly, whose family's antics would not be out of place as B plots on Derry Girls, has a memoir out, titled Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?
O'Reilly has made a name for himself in the U.K. and Ireland as columnist for The Observer -- where he writes about parenting in such missives as "A blast of back pain leaves me floored, but luckily my son is on hand with his fire engine," — and contributor to The Irish Times, where he covers culture. His style and mining of family farce recall David Sedaris, but with a Derry bent.
Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? takes its title from one of the O'Reilly family's favorite tales. It's 1991. O'Reilly is almost 6-years-old, the third-youngest of his eleven (!) siblings, and their mother has just died of breast cancer. Their bungalow, positioned on the border between Derry and Donegal, is decked out for the wake with "folded chairs, industrial quantities of tea, and [an] expanding population of desolate mourners." Being 5, O'Reilly didn't understand "the solemnity, not to mention the permanence" of his mother's death. So he went around the wake "appalling each person on their entry to the room by thrusting my beaming, 3-ft. frame in front of them like a chipper little maître'd, with the cheerful enquiry: 'Did ye hear Mammy died?'"
As its titular anecdote makes clear, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died is a grief memoir that shuns sentimentality in favor of gallows humor. It's not all jokes — O'Reilly reflects and retrospects on how he grieved his mother anew as he grew older, on the way grief "cross-bred and multiplied" within his family of 12, on the purposes of mourning rituals. But even the passages that unearth deeper meditations are woven through with amusement. Here's O'Reilly pulling back on his mother's wake, encapsulating the absurdity and distractions of wakes in general:
"Wakes surround you, smother you even...[with] a cycle of social interaction that gives the entire process a strangely unreal tinge. Perhaps that's the point, and the whole wake system is just a ruse aimed at preventing emotional breakdown by demanding a ritual period of event management for the mourner. Of course, you can be alone with your dark, broiling thoughts, but only once you've made and distributed six hundred cups of tea."
I laughed out loud reading Did Ye Hear Mammy Died, especially at the bits that recalled for me the way my own family laughs to keep from crying. My parents both died of cancer by the time I was 14, so my brother and I have our own punchlines to puncture the ache of grief. During my mother's wake, for instance, my cousin Lucas, who was then 8, signed the guest book with his name followed by "John Street School," as he assumed this to be the protocol, given the stream of elementary school teachers who had signed before him.
Just as Derry Girls reminds us that the Troubles did not turn the entire population of Northern Ireland into, as O'Reilly puts it, "humorless, recreationally offended victims," Did Ye Hear Mammy Died forms a testament to the fact that losing a parent at a young age doesn't end your childhood. "My life wasn't over from that point on," O'Reilly writes. "I'd laugh and cry and scream about borrowed jumpers, school fights, bomb scares, playing Zelda, teenage bands, primary-school crushes...I'd just be doing it without her." In this, O'Reilly gets something I wish more people would understand about my own loss — my parents' deaths were devastating and I still had to go through my teen years after they died.
In Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?, O'Reilly focuses almost entirely on that childhood he still had after his mother's death. While it is billed as a straight memoir, it reads as more of a memoir-in-essays, 13 of them, most of which relate happenings in the early 1990s, when O'Reilly — known in his large family as one of the "Wee Ones" — was still quite wee. Writing about early childhood can skew mawkish, but O'Reilly manages to granularly depict the odd details of kid life as it was lived alongside a present-day perspective that treats his younger self with bemusement and tenderness in equal measure.
Take an early chapter, "Mother's Day," for instance — O'Reilly recalls being 8 years old, his classmates making "sparkly cards" for their living mothers, the room "quiet, aside from the soft, slow snipping of those stumpy little scissors they give kids, the blue plastic ones with all the bite of a damp oven glove." Being "Séamas of the Dead Mam," he is left to his own devices, namely a self-assigned list of "every memory I had of my mother." He came up with only 10, a number that "made it clear just how little of her I had left." What results in "Mother's Day" is a piercing grappling with what etches into our memories when we are very young, and how even a mother can turn into a "fragmentary presence" when she is gone too soon.
The obverse of "Mother's Day" is "This One Time Daddy Lifted a Car," a memory-rich tribute to Joe O'Reilly, the man who was left to rear 11 children on his own. O'Reilly's father is, he tells us, at once bestowed with the "ability to make the miraculous seem mundane," and "a ridiculous man who takes pride in ridiculous things," such as killing a mouse with a "bottle of holy water shaped like the Virgin Mary."
It's rare to read about good fathers in memoirs, and O'Reilly's portrait, complete with bits about how his dad is "God's one, true, perfect miser," who was nevertheless driven to "make sure we never felt poorer than anyone else," is hilarious and moving. It also reminded me of my own father, who was nothing like Joe but was a man allergic to pity. "Slack-jawed awe is the default reaction I get when I talk about my dad and what he did for us, and rightly so, but my dad hates this kind of sentimentality — and its close cousin, pity — more than he hates traffic wardens, or broccoli," O'Reilly writes. "Luckily, he has a ready stock of foibles ripe for us to tease him about."
It is this thread of refusal to be pitied, to have what happened to his family reduced to "a tawdry bit of sentimental fluff for people to tut along to and say how sad," that makes Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? so rousing. That it is also deadly funny is an extra treat.
Kristen Martin is working on a book on American orphanhood for Bold Type Books. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Baffler, and elsewhere. She tweets at @kwistent.
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