Saturday 16 December 2017

Review: Memoir: The House on an Irish Hillside by Felicity Hayes-McCoy

Hodder & Stoughton, £15.99
Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

The House on an Irish Hillside seems, on the surface, to be the latest in a certain type of memoir: middle-aged artist leaves the big city and "finds self" in rustic paradise.

In this case, Felicity Hayes-McCoy: a writer and director across various media (books, theatre, film), she's Irish-born but spent much of her working life in England.

Several years ago she and husband Wilf, a fellow artist, found their dream home in Corca Dhuibhne, known in English as the Dingle Peninsula. They now divide their time between here and the UK capital.

Hayes-McCoy examines what makes the place so special and why she feels at home and at peace there. She talks about how the pace of things is different, how people move to the rhythm of the seasons, and more, almost seem to have a sense of a sort of geological time, rather than rushing through their lives to the dictates of human society.

No less a luminary than Joanna Lumley gives the front-cover blurb, describing the book as "the taste of something we all once knew, ever-present if only you look for it".

So is it just the latest A Year In Provence-type memoir -- a homage to nature, a call to simplify, the kind of well-meaning but fuzzy-headed New Age stuff that clutters up so many bookshelves?

No -- that would be an unfair description for a few reasons. The most important is this: Hayes-McCoy is a lovely writer, far superior to the average memoirist, most of whom seem more interested in detailing the tedious minutiae of their lives than thinking about things and putting them in context.

She has a style that's poetic but not showy; finely honed but easy and unforced; descriptive and evocative without seeming to try too hard. And you never feel like you're stuck with someone who insists on dragging you through every incident that ever happened to them.

Although this is by its nature a personal story, Hayes-McCoy makes herself part of something bigger; she reveals universal truths about humanity through the prism of her individual experiences.

Here's a quote from the very first paragraph of The House on an Irish Hillside, describing the location of the place, on the Dingle Peninsula: "At night the sky curves above it like a dark bowl, studded with stars."

A mere 14 words, but how much is expressed in that short sentence -- your mind is immediately filled with visions of a blacker-than-black country night, an inky sky twinkling above, all the hugeness and beauty of the western shoreline and Atlantic ocean.

She also has a sense of humour, and seems a reasonably practical sort; you don't get that awful memoir sense of some likable but vacant eejit who totally misunderstands where they are and read far too much into everything. Rather, Hayes-McCoy comes across as a curious mind, a perceptive observer with an artist's eye, a seeker of truth and beauty.

Darragh McManus

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