A columnist for Britain's Observer looks back on his childhood in 1990s Northern Ireland, where he was the second-youngest of 11 siblings raised mainly by their father after their mother died of breast cancer in 1991.
This is an irrepressibly funny and poignant memoir of family life after bereavement ... O’Reilly brings to life the warmly raucous meals around the vast kitchen table, the dormitory chatter (teenagers on top bunks talking football, fights and discos; earnest discussion of dinosaur subspecies between the younger boys below), and being ferried to Mass in the family minibus (a 26-foot caravan, sensibly pre-blessed by a priest, was attached for longer trips) ... a cast of so many siblings poses narrative difficulties ... As a result, Sinead-Dara-Shane-Orla-Maeve-Mairead-Dearbhaile-Caoimhe-Fionnuala-Conall (always in age order) are left necessarily indistinct. It is his stoical father Joe, with his reverence for dogs, priests and esoteric tools, who comes into loving focus, adored and teased in equal measure. There are also superb pen portraits of peripheral relations, including stern-faced Granny O’Reilly ... A large family proves both a profound comfort and an essential distraction, but grief, inevitably, surfaces in its own time. These 'controlled explosions', harrowing and cathartic, are tenderly drawn, and mirror the background struggles of a community processing decades of trauma.
Anyone with prior knowledge of O’Reilly’s work will not be surprised to learn that this is not a heavy or ponderous read. In fact, it may be one of the funniest books ever written about the death of a parent. There is of course real sadness documented here. Much of it is centred around O’Reilly’s sense of dislocation about what has happened, and his limited ability to frame it afterwards ...
The book is a wonderful tribute to Sheila O’Reilly. She is depicted as an exceptionally compassionate, selfless woman, a gifted linguist and teacher who is mourned by their entire community on the Derry-Donegal border and beyond ... It is notable that O’Reilly derives such mileage out of his father’s enthusiasm for details. His own uproarious descriptions of Crazy Prices’s merger with Stewarts in Derry to become West Side Stores and eventual evolution into Tesco alongside their attendant marketing strategies betray the same endless appetite for minutiae ... O’Reilly provides an insightful account of the [Troubles] conflict’s rhythms ... O’Reilly has interesting observations too on the role of Catholicism ... There are moments when the structure of this book seems a little unclear, but O’Reilly is such a gifted and entertaining writer that it mostly doesn’t matter. Every paragraph is compelling, and it all makes for a very enjoyable read.
Grief is a journey which varies for each person who has lost a loved one and O’Reilly struggles to process his own grief due to his young age. The humour of which emerges from the pages is rightly inserted at the most inopportune moments. Sedaris in style (observational anecdotes in abundance), O’Reilly’s love for his father and siblings is apparent. Expect to laugh out loud, almost constantly, and fall in love with the O’Reilly clan. I cannot recommend this enough. An outstanding read.