Thursday 18 January 2018

Review: Cissie's Abattoir by Eibhear Walshe

(Collins Press, €9.99)

Memoir David Norris

One could say this is a charming, enjoyable memoir of growing up in Waterford but that would be to undervalue seriously its significance. Eibhear Walshe, although an academic, is a natural storyteller, but his book is also a record of his profound love for his grandmother Cissie, a woman of colourful theatricality. Dr Walshe says that she "performed" her life, enjoying in an almost Wildean way the personal and financial risks she took and demonstrating that even in the grim 1950s in provincial Ireland "survival through style" was a possibility.

The author has a very sharp eye for social situations. He displays a ruthless honesty in detailing even unsavoury aspects of life such as the gory reality of the abbattoir of the title. He has an ear for telling sayings such as Cissie's description of her own mother's stinginess: "She could peel an orange in her pocket".

It is clear that Eibhear Walshe adored his grandmother but his is not a sentimental devotion, and he sees clearly through the contrivance of the mask. He describes the country and western music that formed the background to Cissie's life and "never failed to bring a contented tear to her easily dampened eyes".

In addition to the abattoir the other dominant influence was "the mental", that grim institution where not just the insane but social misfits of all kinds were incarcerated. Not only the inmates but also their keepers were double-locked in at night. That was before health and safety guidelines.

The atmosphere of the madhouse is wonderfully caught, with a poignancy that is almost painful in the description of the infliction of a performance of Chekhov's Cherry Orchard upon the inmates. They regarded the play with disinterest until the old servant Firs is accidentally locked away in the empty house. At this, a suspiration of misery was emitted in empathy with the fate of their brother victim. The nurses were unable to stop this terrible sinister noise of grief.

Mid-century Ireland is magically conjured up -- smoking in the car with the heater full on, The Late Late Show, Jackie Kennedy Onassis on a visit and the singing of the gruesomely sentimental 'Kumbaya' as well as the excruciatingly funny Midnight Mass at Christmas, when a drunk wandered into the church and responded to the Agnus Dei with a realistic but not entirely sheepish baaa.

The experiences described are so universal that the theme of homosexuality is but part of the sub plot, although any of us who were gay in the post war years will immediately recognise the guilty lingering in front of the underpants ad in a men's outfitter.

There is also a hauntingly poetic quality in the prose, memorably catching each moment in a new and arresting arrangement of words, simple but unique:

"Every summer night, after tea, I stayed out in that garden eating sweets and listening to the shouts of the John's Park boys playing, until the dark shadows under the blackberry bushes of the ditch lengthened, grew colder and crept up the lawn, the chill of early evening eventually driving me back into the bright kitchen."

Eibhear Walshe's native city of Waterford is recollected with affection -- and disdain. For him, the city came to seem like a puddle and there were larger pools awaiting.

Irish Independent

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