Stories from the Heartland
memoir The Lie of the Land PJ Cunningham Ballpoint Press, €14.99, pbk
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
Every family has someone who writes or threatens to write down the stories of their childhood. This one is special: it is written by someone who knows how to write. And that makes all the difference.
A farming childhood on a small Co Offaly farm in the 1960s is the background for these 18 delightful true stories that amuse, entertain and captivate throughout. This is quality nostalgia, not the self-indulgent, mawkish stuff that often passes for nostalgia these days. This book can hold its own against any collection of short stories.
Journalist PJ Cunningham knows the tricks of how to make his tales engrossing and enjoyable.
For one thing, he doesn't tell us absolutely everything, thus adding to our delight when we work it out ourselves. We just know what happened to the rabbit who nearly escaped, we deduce the contents of the mysterious box discovered when the clocking hen was eventually found, we enjoy guessing what the brother said when PJ bested him by announcing the good news of the twin calves, and we can work out why Shep the dog never came home.
The stories greatly benefit from not setting out to be a record of everything that went on in the countryside in the old days but, instead, weave it all into the colourful tapestry of the material itself. For example, in one story featuring a German who bought the farm next door, we hear about dealing with troublesome neighbours, we find out about the relationship between country people and Travellers, we discover how nothing stands in the way of a heifer in heat and we get a charming glimpse of how PJ's parents got on when each had a different approach to things.
There are spellbinding stories -- all true -- of family feuds a couple of generations ago in PJ's own family that could be transferred directly into a John B Keane drama. The dialogue of the bargaining on 'Fair Day' is the best recreation I have seen, full of the entertaining plámás-ing that used to go on. The description of dealing with maggoty sheep is priceless (or disgusting, depending on your attitude) and the story of the scarecrow ("the homemade man") and shooting crows is a gem.
Delights abound. We meet the neighbour who blessed himself when he heard that the Cunninghams' pig had died of natural causes, we are confronted with the image of a naked Black-and-Tan during the War of Independence and we share the dismay in the family when it was realised that the new dairy cow was a kicker.
Stories from the Heartland of Ireland is the subtitle of this book. It is a real treasury of such tales.