From Rebel Heart Books, Jacksonville, OR:
“When anyone asks me about the Irish character, I say look at the trees. Maimed, stark and misshapen but ferociously tenacious.” ~ Edna O’Brien.
Not long ago, my oldest son called from college and said to me and my daughter, “I think you both should watch Derry Girls together.” He had seen part of the first episode in a literature class and saw my father in the character of Grandpa Joe. As soon as my ear became attuned to the Derry dialect, I’ve never laughed at a show so hard in my life.
Derry Girls is a dark comedy about a group of teenagers growing up in Derry, Northern Ireland during the end of the Troubles. They fight, criticize and swear at one another but they are also bound by fierce loyalty and love.
Grandpa Joe has a deep-seated suspicion of everyone, including his son-in-law of 17 years (“I’ll find dirt on you yet, boy. I’ve got people working on it,” and “I’ll compromise you through that window.”). My kids grew up knowing the story of my father’s reaction to the Czech name of my college boyfriend (my husband just 6 years later)- “Jesus Christ! Does he speak English?” A reaction which didn’t keep my father from wanting to ‘Grandpa Joe’ his own brother through a window when he found out that brother told my bearded husband at a family reunion that he looked like a terrorist.
My father is Irish Catholic. He is the last of seven children, born when his mother was 49. They both almost died. Two of my father’s brothers became priests (my Uncle Eddie presided over my parents’ wedding, mine, and my older brother’s) and the family lore was that my father was supposed to become one as well until he met my Italian mother. Family get-togethers on my father’s side were volatile. We would wait for the invariable argument to break out among the adults and one of the brothers to tell his wife and children to “get in the car, now” and not bother saying goodbye.
In a sea of cousins named Mary, Joseph and John, my father gave me and my brothers what, in his opinion, were unique names– Christopher, Eileen, and Daniel. My mother had prayed to the Virgin Mary for a girl, promising to name a daughter after her and so when I was born she did, throwing in Mary’s mother’s name as my middle name for good measure. But my father didn’t like it. After a nameless week, he declared my name Eileen. My mother was left with only my middle name for the Virgin Mary. I don’t think my mother (or the Virgin Mary, she’d say) ever got over it.
“Trust no one,” my father told me and my brothers. He meant it. When we were young, we visited my father’s downtown office after hours. My brothers and I walked down corridors of desks and rooms adorned with pictures of children and spouses. My father’s office in the city was devoid of any personal artifacts. “It’s nobody’s damn business,” he said.
Sometimes my brothers and I would call him at work (when we knew he was around other people), and try to goad him into acknowledging he had children, three in fact (a modest number compared to his brothers’ large clans), and might just have some affection for them. “Love you, Dad!” we’d yell in unison and await his measured reply, purely reserved for business, “Yes, uh huh, good talking to you” before hanging up on us.
A therapist once told me that humor is a higher form of coping. Perhaps it should be no surprise that dark, expletive-filled humor was my siblings’ love language. My college roommates once heard my older brother’s message on my answering machine: “Where the f*** are you? Answer the f***ing phone!” They asked me, voices laced with concern, “Does your brother not like you?” to which I replied, “What the f*** are you talking about? My brothers love me.”
Although we attended mass every Sunday, I don’t remember hearing my father’s voice at any point during church. He’d stand up with arms crossed, kneel, and sit as commanded but he kept his mouth set in a firm line because no one, not even God, was getting anything out of him he didn’t want to give.
Perhaps the “trust no one” mantra was one reason why I never liked going to confession. Why would I willingly sign up for telling some random man my sins? But since it was part and parcel of attending Catholic school, I always chose Father Joyce, a gruff and gray-haired man who always seemed angry and sad, and therefore worthy of a bit of trust. No one ever wanted to go on his confession line, which endeared him to me. Father Tom was jovial and young with unmoving black hair swooped on a perfect side part (not unlike Derry Girls’ Father Peter, whose presence Sister Michael can barely tolerate). His confession line was long, everybody loved him and I didn’t trust him worth a damn.
Sister Michael is the head mistress of the Catholic school the “Derry Girls” attend. She’s my favorite. She is deadpan, funny, cynical, has no patience for artifice and suffers no fools. “If anyone is feeling anxious or worried or even if you just want to chat, please, please do not come crying to me.”
If I had become a nun, I suspect I would have been like Sister Michael. When the Archbishop came to visit my Catholic school, he asked in church if any of us had ever thought of becoming a nun or a priest. Though I had never once considered being a nun, I couldn’t stand watching him look out toward the crowd, as if the answer would validate his own life choice so I raised my hand and saw his face light up like an altar candle. Quite predictably, I was thereafter called Sister Eileen and declared “Most Likely to Become a Nun” in my eighth grade yearbook, as I internally railed against my classmates’ collective lack of will.
Sister Michael was the role I played in my family – the one who would say the thing no one else would, the relentless, sharp-tongued truth teller. My friends tease me about my dark heart– I am the Night, as Batman (on the list of my brothers’ favorite superheroes ) once said. I won’t give up. I’m the Black Knight in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail who gets every limb chopped off but will not concede defeat to Arthur, King of the Britons, “I’ll bite your legs off!” I don’t trust easily and God keep you from me if you don’t hold yourself accountable because in the words of Sister Michael, “You might want to think about wising up.”
My father is alive but it’s been almost 5 years since I’ve seen him. His decision (and my mother’s) to become estranged from me and my brothers is one we did not want and whose repercussions have reverberated in ways they do not want to know. The grief of losing parents before they have died is difficult to describe- it has no specific point of entry and no resolution. There is no comfort to be had.
My father warned me when I was young that “there is no such thing as unconditional love.” Some part of me believed him because I was tough to date (just ask my husband). The same son who told me to watch Derry Girls once said, “I don’t know how you turned out the way you did,” but then said, “I think it’s because of your brothers.” My brothers are the reason why I turned out the way I did, a way that is good and made me trust and love my husband as well as bear the particular joy and agony of loving one’s children without condition, when you don’t trust the rest of the world.
Seeing your life experience reflected in art, in whatever form it may take, can make you laugh and cry with relief and recognition. Watching Derry Girls, with all its Irish character, made me do that. Sometimes it’s the only comfort to be had.
March is Women’s History Month and Irish History Month. These books embody courage, achievement, and dynamism. Perhaps you’ll find some of your life experience reflected in these stories, and perhaps you too will find a moment of recognition and comfort.
Title links go to Bookshop.org to ship directly while supporting Rebel Heart Books directly and other independent bookstores indirectly. You can fill out this form to order for pick-up at Rebel Heart Books. You can find independent bookstores near you with indiebound.org.
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
Bard: The Odyssey of the Irish by Morgan Llywelyn
Maeve in America by Maeve Higgins
Ireland by Frank Delaney
Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat
Hounded: The Iron Druid Chronicles Book One by Kevin Hearne