A tender recollection of growing up on a farm in Ireland in the 1940s.
In precise, vibrant prose, novelist Phelan (Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told, 2015, etc.) creates a finely etched portrait of his parents and siblings, assorted friends and relations, the bully who made his school days a misery, and many eccentrics, clergymen, and neighbors who peopled his small world. On a 52-acre farm in County Laois, the Phelan family’s house was heated by the kitchen fireplace, hot-water bottles relieved the beds’ cold dampness for most of the year, and dry overcoats were piled on as extra blankets. Every Saturday evening, a black, cast-iron pot was hung above the fire, heating water in which every family member bathed. “As a child, I believed that my family was poor,” writes the author, because unlike some other children, he rarely had money for small pleasures. Whatever luxuries they had—a chemical toilet, gramophone, and Brownie Box camera, for example—were the rewards of tireless, demanding toil by his father, “with his all-devouring work ethic,” and his mother, “the sheltering harbor from the storms that sometimes raged in Dad’s head and spewed out in loud and angry words.” Frustration, fatigue, and worry fueled those storms. “I remember him as a man who loved his wife and his children,” Phelan reflects, “who at times was driven over the edge while trying desperately to take care of them.” Being a farmer was not in the author’s future; instead, it was assumed he was destined for the priesthood, a vocation he did not question. He absorbed Catholic theology and developed a requisite sense of guilt about breaking the Ten Commandments as well as a healthy skepticism about the “Irish mania” for missionary work: “the conversion of happy pagans into miserable Catholics.” He reveled in being an altar boy, besotted by the lovely Sister Carmel, who made learning responses for the Latin Mass “a time of warmth, love, and delight.” Ordained in 1965, he left the priesthood after a decade.
A captivating portrait of a bygone time.