Sunday 20 August 2017

Review: Memoir: Maggie’s Breakfast by Gabriel Walsh

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Maggie's Breakfast by Gabriel Walsh is a bit of an oddity. In fact, it could be described as a throwback.

It tells the salvation story of the young Walsh (then a teenager from a very large and poor family in Inchicore) when he met the fading opera diva Margaret Burke-Sheridan while working as a waiter at Dublin's Shelbourne Hotel in the 1950s. But it takes an infuriatingly long time to reach that point.

By the stroke of luck of coming in touch with Burke-Sheridan, who took a liking to him, Walsh set off to the US where he stayed with her incredibly wealthy patrons in upstate New York who sent him to high school and college.

After a stint in the army he went to California where he started acting and then, more crucially, screenwriting.

He made his breakthrough in 1970 as the writer of Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx, which starred Gene Wilder as an autistic Irishman who falls in love with Margot Kidder (later of Superman fame).

But this isn't really a book about the talented Irish youngster who left home and made good in America.

It's far more about the Hell of an Ireland he left and the hard times endured by his family during his childhood. The word Hell pops up everywhere.

And this is what makes Maggie's Breakfast such an oddity. Frank O'Connor's comedic First Confession was published in 1939. At the time it was hailed (by those doomed to everlasting perdition) as a subversive masterclass in comedy.

Most of Maggie's Breakfast has the same flavouring, but it is served up 70 years too late. Walsh writes of a hated Christian Brother teacher with an Oliver Cromwell fixation: "Every time I looked at the man in black I saw two horns grow out of his forehead and his tongue was a rope of flame."

It is a memoir that is written by a man who has spent the greater part of his life in America, and is perhaps too Oirish for most Irish people to recognise as real.

There are a great number of references to how The English done us down over and over. But there are many times, too, when it has a ring of half-forgotten truth.

There are times when this memoir recounts experiences of grinding poverty which are so painful that you could almost dig your fingers into the author's gaping wounds.

And there are moments in it which are so funny that you just know they couldn't be made up. Even the creators of Father Ted never came up with a scenario involving a priest with an unhealthy crush on the Blessed Virgin Mary.

To borrow from another branch of Christianity, it would be fair to say that Maggie's Breakfast is a curate's egg of a book -- good in parts.

But it's an extraordinary story.

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