Nothing compares to a Liberties childhood
Seán O'Connor – father of Sinéad – evokes a vibrant and forgotten Dublin
One problem with the avalanche of celebrity memoirs hitting the bookshops these days is that the people writing them – or having them ghost written – have very often quite simply not truly lived their lives yet. They may have lived a small segment of it – some early moments of sporting success or reality television fame – that has briefly put them in the spotlight, but this does not constitute a lived life.
Kierkegaard rarely gets quoted in meetings when agents hammer out the sort of book deals that mean that Justin Bieber has already produced two memoirs. But the Danish philosopher once noted that while we live our lives forward, we can only understand them backwards.
On the surface, Seán O'Connor seems an unlikely candidate to write a memoir. Some people might know him under his professional name, John V O'Connor, as a successful consulting engineer from a working-class Dublin background whose intellectual curiosity drove him to become a barrister and then return to engineering consultancy in 1988 as a founding partner in a successful firm.
If he is known to a wider public, it is as the father of five children, including art historian Eimear, singer Sinéad, and novelist Joseph. But while all five children are thanked in his acknowledgments, this is not their story. Nor does it chronicle his successful business career that parallels how many of his generation – born into the hardship of the 1930s – pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps to create thriving businesses that allowed them to raise families in a different environment from the world into which they were born.
O'Connor is precise and careful as to where this memoir begins and ends (it finishes when he is 14). While it is about the O'Connor family, it is not those who came after him, like his children, but those who came before: his parents, siblings, relations and in-laws – and people with no direct blood ties who were still afforded equal respect as in-laws – who shaped this boy who was born into a family of 13 in Francis Street in Dublin's Liberties.
Growing Up So High is a vivid account of a boyhood lived forward (at the breakneck speed with which any physically active, intellectually curious boy embraces life) and understood backwards by a grown man wise enough never to allow his adult perspective to impede the immediacy of a child's voice recalling the heart of a city that has essentially disappeared.
To open any page at random is to be instantly swept up in a swirling cornucopia of the sounds, sights and sensations of his childhood, all rendered as fresh as when first experienced by this impressionable, mischievous and inquisitive child who seems to drink in every experience and family story told to him. O'Connor's memory of vanished shops, slang expressions and street characters is so strong that here is a memoir for any lover of Dublin folklore to test their knowledge against.
In addition to his own family, the teeming laneways and close-knit community of the Liberties act like a second extended family. School friends or parents of friends, shopkeepers, neighbours and even rival gangs of children from similar tight-knit communities all expand his understanding of the lives previously lived on those streets and also yield intimations into the future mysteries of adulthood.
Its slightly unstructured style suits this book. Instead of being a chronology of dates and facts, it becomes a cascade of impressions, a love poem to the people who turned an inquisitive child – who left school to start work at 13 but who never stopped learning – into who he is today. He captures a 1940s Dublin where green fields start at Walkinstown Crossroads, where Civil War memories are raw (one uncle fled to avoid Noel Lemass's fate) and a teenage soccer player could be as equally enthused by bird-watching as by opera.
The writing is impressive for what it says and what it doesn't say. We live in the age of instant confession, of constantly being told too much. This book is dedicated with love to his wife Viola, but ends with a fleeting and serene image of his first wife, the mother of his children, as she was when he first met her, when he glimpses an intimation of those children to come in the eyes of a beautiful local girl outside John Lane's Church.
Any life truly lived contains happiness and sadness: but O'Connor claims his right to tell his story in his own way by leaving his young narrator there in that moment of happiness. If public triumphs or private sorrows are to come, they form no part of this story because such future events could not be known to the young Seán O'Connor, who would later win major prizes for engineering design.
This is his story on his terms; bringing us into the heart of a family embedded in the Liberties for almost 200 years; taking us to the cusp of adulthood and leaving us there. The reader comes away understanding what shaped him and with a series of shining impressions of what remains vivid in his mind: memories lovingly recreated in this vibrant memoir of a vanished Dublin.