In a killer opening line, Carmel McMahon writes: “After I got sober, it took a while to start writing again.” But a reader who’s hoping for a sensational account of drunken escapades, a vodka-soaked gargler’s ‘Confiteor’, will quickly find they are in the wrong shop.
This is no tell-all chronicle of public humiliations. Rather it’s a reflection on the cyclical nature of time itself and on how these cycles affect a life, a family, a nation.
Ordinary Time is marked in the liturgical calendar as the time that passes between the annual cycle of major feast days. And McMahon has sectioned her book into the four ancient Irish feasts that have marked time for aeons: Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain.
It opens with the finding of the body of a young alcoholic Irishwoman, Grace Farrell from Dundalk, in the portal of St Brigid’s Church in New York.
They didn’t know each other but Farrell, like McMahon, had emigrated to the US in the 1990s. Farrell, like McMahon, had developed a fondness for the drop. But Farrell died alone, disconnected from the world, in a church doorway on a freezing New York night.
In reading about the dead young woman, McMahon “felt the pain of… disconnection, so I set about facing the silences that caused it and began writing a reconnection to the ancestral past”.
In Ordinary Time is part memoir, part family history and part history of colonialism and emigration. It’s similar in this regard to Elizabeth Boyle’s Fierce Appetites, but only in its themes.
McMahon’s book is written with more elegance and restraint, a truly literary reflection on the big themes and the big traumas – grief, addiction, love, loss – rather than merely an angry reaction to them.
In the nature of all cycles, McMahon has returned to Ireland. After more than 20 years in New York she now lives by the sea on the Mayo coast.
She has found peace here, enough “to think about how we are connected to all that has gone before, and to remember that our future, while not yet written, will arise out of this moment”.
It’s unusual to find a memoir and family history, strewn with so much human suffering in this valley of tears, to also be so attuned to the low thrum of quiet hope.
‘In Ordinary Time: Fragments of a Family History’ by Carmel McMahon, Duckworth, €17.99