Sunday 19 November 2017

Moving missives don't hold anything back

Non-­Fiction: Letters of My Life, Mary O'Rourke, Gill Books, hdbk, 288 pages, €19.99

Sage advice: Mary O'Rourke
Sage advice: Mary O'Rourke
Letters of My Life by Mary O'Rourke

Claudia Carroll

I met Mary O' Rourke once. It seems like a hundred years ago now, when I was in a play that was touring around Ireland and which happened to be playing Athlone. The lovely Olivia Treacy was playing Lady Chatterley and I was the maid with approximately five lines. Anyway, we were playing the Hudson Bay Hotel and O'Rourke, who'd been at the show, came around to the dressing rooms afterwards to say hello.

Of course the cast wanted nothing more than to peel off to the bar as quickly as possible, but O'Rourke gamely eyeballed each and every one of us as we stood there in various stages of undress (one cast member was in his underpants) and chatted away, as if we were all dressed for the Oscars. She was relaxed and friendly, had a kind word for everyone and even gave us a few touristy tips about where to go and what to do in Athlone.

What a consummate skill, I remember thinking, to be able to stride into a room full of total strangers, and immediately launch into a big chat, freely and without inhibition, somehow finding common ground with everyone. O'Rourke's political CV I leave to others but now, at 80 years young, she's written another book, a sort of follow-on to her debut Just Mary, which enjoyed great success.

Letters of my Life has as its springboard the kind of exercise that writers' groups are so fond of; try writing a letter to your 15-year-old self and see what flows. But it's so much more than that, too. Because here, O'Rourke writes more than 20 letters to people who've influenced her and left a mark on her life in one shape or another.

Some letters are for her loved ones, including a particularly moving missive to her sister-in-law Ann Lenihan. Here, she touches on deeply personal issues, including the death of Ann's husband Brian, and the selfless help and encouragement Ann freely gave when the author took her first tentative steps towards adopting her second child.

But then it's that kind of book; a no-holds-barred read, and O'Rourke clearly isn't afraid to put it all out there - the good, the bad, the messy and the emotional. Such a brave thing to do at any age, never mind 80.

There are also letters to some well-known figures in public life, too. The chapter to comedian and actor Katherine Lynch is a particular joy to read as it's littered with quotes from poet Patrick Kavanagh's work - who turns out to have been Lynch's great-uncle. Who knew?

Another gem I particularly enjoyed was a letter written to the late Mo Mowlam, who the author had met briefly when the Mighty Mo served as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the late 1990s.

Apparently, a meeting between Mowlam and the powers-that-be here in Dublin had been set up in Leinster House and the great and the good were all lined up for a meet-and-greet. Anyway, in breezes Mo, immediately launching into a story about how her tights had laddered on the way there and she hadn't had time to buy a spare pair. She even whooshed up her skirt to show the offending ladder to the room as - amid much embarrassed coughing - one of Bertie Ahern's secretaries was dispatched off to buy a replacement pair. Now that's how you make a memorable entrance in politics.

Some of the letters are to people who the author has never met, such as Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, on the sudden loss of her husband Dave. This one is particularly moving, as it touches on the demands of juggling single parenthood with a full-on career and the day-to-day difficulties women in the workplace often encounter.

The author quotes the VP of PayPal, Louise Phelan, who once said: "I never for one moment thought, I'm not a man, I can't do that."

Wise words indeed.

O'Rourke also gives a lot of insight into the grim realities of life on the campaign trail, and in a letter that's brimming with advice to Norma Moriarty, who'd run (unsuccessfully) for election in Kerry during the 2016 election, she includes a lot of common-sense about canvassing. Don't wear bling, for starters. Dress in work-appropriate clothes as you would for any job interview. And if the doorstep chat descends into a row, calmly and politely end the conversation there and then. "Anger is not how you would hope to be remembered."

But it's the author's family who remain front and centre in this book, from her grandchildren, who clearly mean the world to her, to her deceased brother, Paddy. There's even mention of an uncle Joseph who was a double-spy during the war for both the Germans and Allies.

Which immediately made me think; could someone please get this woman on an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? A movie in the making, if you ask this reviewer.

Claudia Carroll's new book, All She Ever Wished For, is out now in paperback published by HarperCollins

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