Thursday 26 April 2018

Review: Call Mother a Lonely Field by Liam Carson

Hag's Head, €12.99

Liam Carson has written an evocative, and, at times, profoundly thoughtful and moving short memoir of his parents and growing up in west Belfast in the 1960s and 1970s. Like many authors in this genre, following the dominance of the Frank McCourt school of domestic misery, he is hampered somewhat by having had loving parents in a house of frugal comfort where there was neither abuse nor dissipation.

The book celebrates both parents with equal love and affection, even if there is clearly a closer bond with the mother. His father, William Carson, a postman, became entranced by the Irish language, and, self-taught, became a teacher, writer and savant, embraced the gaelic culture and way of life in an urban society with his Irish speaking wife and household.

This is the landscape mapped so mordantly by Hugo Hamilton in The Speckled People, although Carson pere, or Liam MacCarruin, comes across as reasonable and paternalistic when compared with the corrosive obsessiveness of Hamilton's father.

Carson presents the sights, the sounds, the smells, the essential character of the Falls Road of the period.

There is, too, the picture of a family culturally immersed in Irish in an English-speaking environment, the children caught between conflicting cultures with constantly variable rates of exchange, but not, apparently, politically committed.

Growing up during the Troubles, there is the sound of gunfire, the hovering helicopter, the road blocks and searches, the mother worried that her sons will return safe from a night out, and her growing reluctance to use the language she loved when it had been appropriated as a badge of protest and political allegiance.

The story is punctuated by the bloody reminders of atrocity -- Bloody Friday, the Gibraltar killings and many more only too well remembered.

There is a vivid clash of cultures as the young Liam emerges from the chrysalis of Irish and the values of the Donegal gaeltacht into a teenage world buzzing with psychedelic rock and punk, of musical and linguistic experimentation.

His mother's descent into Alzheimer's is described with a tenderness that is almost unbearable, as, after a life of varied experiences and explorations, he comes home to share his parents' last years, and to re-connect with his father, and with Irish, as his mother becomes unreachable.

He returns, too, to Irish as a critical element in his own identity. He presents an interesting picture of the status of the Irish language -- losing ground in the gaeltacht through social, economic and demographic change as television and twitter supplant the seanachie and sean-nos, and thriving in the cities, even in a mutated form, lacking syntax and grammar and referential landmarks. It is interesting to speculate where it will all finish up.

Every mother should have a son like this -- and indeed it is a lucky child who had parents like his. Liam Carson has done them both proud in this affectionate, haunting, highly readable and, at times, poetic memoir.

Irish Independent

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