A family memoir by former UCC lecturer Colbert Kearney has none of the misery of other accounts of working-class life in Ireland after independence, writes Marjorie Brennan.
Tales of childhood suffering and adversity are not in short supply in Irish literature, with Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt often give credit — or blame, perhaps — for kickstarting the phenomenally popular genre of the ‘misery memoir’.
When former UCC lecturer Colbert Kearney decided to write a memoir of growing up in Dublin, he did wonder if having a childhood which didn’t feature grinding poverty and deprivation might be an obstacle. However, he believed there was also a place for his own story, that of a content and secure upbringing with devoted parents who he describes as ‘soulmates’.
“I was conscious of that. There were occasions that I thought it might fare better if there was a bit of misery thrown in. But that would be fiction.
Down by the Liffeyside is an engaging and beautifully observed account of growing up in Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s, and a tender and affectionate portrait of Kearney’s parents Con and Maisie. The couple both worked at Dublin’s Queen Theatre, Con as a lighting technician and Maisie as an usherette. The family first lived in Inchicore, later moving to the new suburb of Finglas.
Kearney, Professor Emeritus of English literature at UCC, says he had not intended to write a memoir, per se.
“I did have plans to start working on a novel and one morning, I thought I was going to sit down and do that. Then I found myself scribbling these notes and it took over from there. It is in a sense, inexplicable. I had it in the back of my mind for a long time. I have three daughters and when I told them stories of my own childhood and things like that.
“I remember being conscious of the fact that for them it was distant, vanished, almost imaginable world. I thought it would interesting to preserve those stories and keep a record. I was very blessed with great parents, and my girls loved them as well, they knew them. It grew from there.”
The book is also an elegy for the working class that emerged in the wake of the War of Independence and the Civil War, when the fight for freedom had been won. These events were of particular import in the Kearney family, as Colbert’s grandfather was the republican Peadar Kearney, 1916 veteran, uncle of Brendan Behan, and composer of Amhrán na bhFiann.
According to Kearney, what distinguished their lives from that of the average working-class family was the ‘cult’ of his grandfather, who had died three years before his birth. “It was like believing in God, an attachment of vital importance but limited to allocated hours,” he writes.
The Somerville Press launches Down by the Liffeyside by Colbert Kearney on May 29th in Dublin. pic.twitter.com/KD7cPb3iF6— Munster Literature Centre (@MunLitCentre) May 9, 2019
“It dawned on me when I was writing the book that in so much as my grandfather was a famous person and my parents were not famous people, I thought all three of them were equally heroic,” says Kearney.
He decided to devote a section of the book to delving deeper into the story of the patriotic hero of the popular Irish imagination. “My father’s father was dedicated to politics and he was heroic in a great sense but he was a distant father. I think my father decided to go the other way, to be intimate as a father. He and his brother Pearse idolised Peadar Kearney, and I was brought up to idolise him. I still admire him greatly but as I got older, I realised there were aspects of his domestic life which were covered up in a way.
“I think my grandfather suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder but like so many people who fought in the War of Independence and in the trenches in the First World War, there was no treatment and no talking about it. Even the fact that in the case of my grandfather, the men that were executed in 1916, these were not distant people, they were close friends. If there was some price to be paid for that, in terms of anxiety and depression, that was inevitable. It was never allowed directly to take in any way from the reverence due to him.”
According to Kearney, his own father Con decided that republicanism would take a back seat to raising a family.
“He idolised his father for what he did but not, I think, as a father. He and my mother were soulmates and they decided together that they were primarily parents before they were patriots. They dedicated their lives to their children and achieved a great degree of happiness in doing that.
Con and Maisie’s dedication to their children — Kearney has three sisters — is also clear from the importance they placed on education, fittingly culminating in their son becoming a university professor.
“My father would say ‘education is no burden to carry’. You felt there was nothing that they wouldn’t
sacrifice. If they had to deprive themselves in order that the next generation would improve themselves, that was instinctive within them, it was natural. They were aspiring people. They were proud of achievement, and willing to work for that.”
The book’s cover features endorsements from several literary heavyweights, including Richard Ford, whose imprimatur is particularly gratifying for Kearney. “I was very grateful for that because I am second to none in my admiration of him. I think he is the great American writer of his time and Independence Day is the masterpiece of his period. I am very thankful to all the people who have written kind things about it — Joseph O’Neill, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and Dermot Bolger, they have all written great memoirs.”
And while Down by the Liffeyside is a paean to his native city of Dublin, Kearney has by now spent a far greater portion of his life in Cork, where he still lives.
“One of my sisters couldn’t understand why I didn’t move back to Dublin. I have two daughters here and I could have three here soon. I have been here most of my life now. Cork has seeped into my blood now. I’m very fond of hurling and when Cork turned on the style against Limerick there, I found myself shouting at the television. That’s when you know you’re gone.”
The process of writing the book has been a rewarding one, turning the stories that he once told his daughters into something else entirely.
“The act of writing is very different from the act of telling. Writing and rewriting puts everything into slow motion. In pondering these things, my admiration for my parents and my understanding of them has been increased, even though it seemed to be infinite beforehand. I am happy, as it were, to follow the instructions of the commandments and honour my father and mother.”
Down by the Liffeyside, published by Somerville Press, is out now