Friday 19 January 2018

Writer's memoir struggles in shadow of genre's finest

Charmed childhood: Patrick Deely (far left) with parents Larry and Mary and siblings.
Charmed childhood: Patrick Deely (far left) with parents Larry and Mary and siblings.
The Hurley Maker's Son.
Patrick Deely

The publisher's blurb on the inside jacket states that The Hurley Maker's Son is written "in a style reminiscent of John McGahern's Memoir", which does Patrick Deeley's book no favours at all.

The reference not only suggests that Deeley's memoir is derivative, but also that it exists in the shadow of one of the most-loved Irish books of the past decade. From the outset then, and whether intentionally or not, the reader is being invited to make comparisons with an acknowledged classic.

And while comparisons may be odious, or at least invidious, it's hard not to conclude that McGahern had a more resonant and powerful story to relate - that of a brutal father and of a beloved mother whose early absence from his life had such an effect on him. Indeed, you felt that the book was written with an urgent imperative by a man who knew he had little time left in which to tell the truth as he saw and felt it.

Deeley's book has a crucial parental absence, too - the sudden death of his carpenter father Larry in 1978, an accident that, as the book begins, brings the author hurrying down from his Dublin teaching job to the family home in rural Galway. But this father was someone he loved rather than feared, even if love "was a word our family just didn't use, ever". As with many Irish families of previous generations, "displays of fondness were in short supply", but clearly the taciturn Larry and his wife Mary were decent, caring parents and their son's depiction of them is both affectionate and vivid.

Deeley, a fine poet who also writes children's fiction, is just as vivid in his recall of a childhood spent in the countryside outside Loughrea, not least the nearby Callows, which consisted of fields criss-crossed by small rivers and divided among a handful of farms. "I never felt less lonely than when alone there," he writes. His prose is evocative, too, when he's remembering the rituals of his boyhood and youth, and the reader learns a good deal about lambing and tree-felling and will-o'-the-wisps and springs and seanchaís and other aspects of rural life in a bygone time - though city slickers with no memory of such matters may occasionally feel impatient at the author's detailed recall.

And I would have liked to learn more both about his four siblings, who are sketchily described, and about his own gradual development as a reader and a writer. He says late in the book that poems "gave definition and meaning to my life" and "helped me to save it" but this implies some kind of personal crisis that isn't explained.

In fact, he seems to have had an enviably charmed childhood, an adolescence unmarked by anything more than the usual teenage rebelliousness, and a fulfilling adult career, first as a teacher in a Ballyfermot school and then as the same school's principal.

His book is in a long tradition of Irish memoirs about vanished times that produced a 1988 bestseller in Alice Taylor's To School Through the Fields. Deeley's book is similarly engaging, while lacking the depth and potency that McGahern brought to the genre.

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