Monday 23 September 2019

Books: Amongst women - the stalwarts of rural Ireland

Charming: Taylor manages to avoid social commentary in the book
Charming: Taylor manages to avoid social commentary in the book
The Women

Anne Cunningham

Alice Taylor's appearance on The Late Late Show back in 1988 to discuss her memoir To School Through the Fields, warmed the hearts of the nation. The rural Cork childhood she described was ordinary and humdrum, but she possessed that rare spark of being able to extract the magic from the everyday.

To School Through the Fields remains one of the biggest-selling books ever published in Ireland. She's published a steady stream of books since then, further memoirs, novels and volumes of poetry.

Taylor's at her best when chronicling the way things were, in a country yet to be poisoned by accounts of clerical abuse, terrorist atrocities, Magdalene laundries, corrupt business and ghost estates.

To School Through the Fields preceded Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes by eight years. McCourt also charmed the nation on The Late, Late Show and Angela's Ashes sent us scurrying back to the bookshops. That the parallel worlds of both authors could co-exist in such close proximity speaks volumes about the dichotomy of the Irish urban/rural divide.

In her latest book, Taylor recalls the stalwarts of rural Ireland - the wives and mothers who stitched and darned the fabric of her childhood and held it together, sometimes by a thread.

Unsung heroines is a cliché; these women weren't interested in heroism, they hadn't the time. But they had the strength to keep small farms, large families and whole communities going, often in very difficult circumstances.

Each chapter is devoted to one particular woman, and again in these pages we see Taylor's remarkable gift of elevating the ordinary to something special, something poetic, even.

Starting with her own mother, then with her grandmother, she describes the lives of 15 very different women. The story of an Achill Island widow is a sobering tale, like reading Peig, except without all the complaining.

Another chapter tells the shocking story of a family discovering that their aunt Susan - always thought to be their dead father's sister - was actually their father's mother.

There's also an account of a young woman emigrating to America who is asked to bring a toddler with her from a convent orphanage in Dublin. She is to hand the child over when she arrives in America. She does so without question. It really was the age of innocence.

That said, Taylor avoids the mantle of social commentator in this book, and this is surely part of her charm. She is a teller of stories, simply that. She writes from personal experience and records the experience of others, without the gravitas and authority of an historian, but with empathy, wit and considerable poetic elegance.

In The Women, she records 15 remarkable lives that would otherwise have been forgotten. She is to be commended for that. And the fact that, like all of her books, it's a thing of gentle beauty.

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