A child's eye view on the burning grounds of Belfast
Brian Keenan's memoir of his Northern Protestant childhood is more personal than it is political, writes Frieda Klotz
I'll Tell Me Ma
Jonathan Cape, €17.99
Brian Keenan's new book I'll Tell Me Ma tells the story of his childhood in Belfast long before he flew to Lebanon. He had left Belfast, he says elsewhere, due to feelings of "love and distaste". Now, inspired by his mother's illness and death, he returns to explore that ambivalence. He has done a remarkable thing, again revisiting a thorny past with not a smidgeon of bitterness.
I'll Tell Me Ma is a colourful memoir that brings you back to a bygone era. The account dwells on Keenan's childhood and older adulthood, without touching on the intervening period. It would be interesting to hear more about his teenage years and manhood, but the gain of this book is that you see events through a child's eyes.
Keenan knew Belfast as an expanding industrial city before it descended into the Troubles. As a youth he watched while its streets grew nasty. I'll Tell Me Ma is both political and personal; politics creeps into the tale slowly, as it would into a child's world. "I was told you could spot a Fenian a mile off," he says halfway through the book, "but no one explained how." Catholics were unclean, other boys said, and they lived "like pigs. If you kissed or even touched a Catholic you'd be diseased. The mass was devil worship. The Virgin Mary was a harlot." These and other intriguing stories surface but Keenan's mother simply dismisses them and tells him not to listen.
On Evolina Street where he grew up, the sense of community was strong and the neighbourhood was a family. His father used to bring home sick animals he wanted to care for; his mother would dish out advice to unhappy or mad local women. But Keenan himself did not have a particularly easy time. Grown-up troubles filtered into his dreams. He was a sensitive child, endured nightmares and sleeplessness, and was something of an outsider. He had friends but his teeth were bad. Other kids called him Bugs Bunny, Ratso, and Vampire Face.
Nor did Belfast remain happy. Keenan first describes the July 12 Orange Parade as a big party that gave euphoric release to youngsters. Boys would spend hours building bonfires, boasting about girls. He and his friends had a huge amount of fun collecting money ("a penny for the pope") and then burning a papal effigy that they understood little about. But as the Sixties proceeded, the event turned ugly. "In a fistful of years the atmosphere had changed to something nightmarish. The streets were still dark and full of anticipation. People moved through the burning grounds on rivers of alcohol, their mood blacker than the streets."
Every now and again, the young Keenan would bump up against sectarian constraints; his natural curiosity unintentionally brought him beyond them. Teachers deliberately avoided mention of the Republic of Ireland, and the school syllabus ignored it, but Keenan learnt about southern geography from a neighbour who trained pigeons. The religious split in Belfast was at first unclear to the young boy, and he says he was far more concerned with his own teenage angst. However, he was well aware of his neighbour, the only Catholic on the road, and he defended the boy when the other kids harassed him.
In this memoir you get a strong sense of an adult language that children struggle to comprehend -- the term Jezebel, which Keenan's mother forbade him to use, the whispered adult conversations about women and their husbands. The local graveyard fascinated him but his mother told him to avoid it; he later realised this was because poor parents would leave babies at the gates.
As a writer Keenan is good at seeing meaning in everyday things. The pigeon fancier next door spent hours with his birds. Keenan uses the images of these birds, tagged with bells, when his mother dies to signify her departure: "That's what we do with birds so we can locate them in the dark, and hear them when they fly back to us in the night." He writes with a fireside style, full of chat and humour. (Sometimes it's a little too cosy -- a few too many exclamation marks dot the text.) Keenan knows that his reader knows him. He tells us his dad was stationed during the Second World War in "Egypt, Ethiopia and, curiously enough, Lebanon". There are some references that he doesn't need to explain.
It's when he starts describing his parents that the book really gains momentum. In many ways, the memoir is about his parents as much as himself. Keenan's father was a gentle person, his mother more assertive. Halfway through their marriage they began to argue so badly that the young boy kept a knife under his pillow, without quite knowing why. As an older man, Keenan wonders about his mother's loss of femininity after marriage. He wanted to learn about her background, but Mrs Keenan refused to answer questions. When she became sick with Alzheimer's he discovered that she grew up in a Victorian family, one of nine children. She had an unloving father who believed kids should be seen and not heard.
In the final pages, tracing the progress of an illness that's become so familiar to us, Keenan's style really blooms. His mother becomes a child again, curled up in the foetal position, and her slow death, with its strange turns of memory, impels him to go back to his roots. In the end, I'll Tell Me Ma is, as the title suggests, more personal than political. The song "I'll Tell Me Ma" is a child's chant about a beautiful girl -- "When she gets a lad of her own/she won't tell her ma when she gets home."
Keenan has many questions and many things he wants to tell his mother. His personal take on a Northern Protestant childhood makes this an absorbing, compelling read.