The Cow Book by John Connell

The Cow Book: A Story of Life on a Irish Family Farm – John Connell


Prominent admirers of The Cow Book include Colm Tóibín, Roddy Doyle and Sara Baume so it is clear, just by reading the back cover, that there’s something literary about it.   The epigraphs, by Patrick Kavanagh and Henry David Thoreau, gentle the reader into a mood of anticipatory mellowness.

The first few pages, on the other hand, depict the writer, John Connell, struggling to deliver a calf on his own. Connell must use a jack and a mechanical wrench. Stomach-churningly reminiscent of the Irish horror film, Isolation, ‘the cow bellows low in a noise I don’t recognize, a noise of pain and strangeness’.

Still from the calving scene in Isolation. 2005. Billy O’Brien.

It is disturbing to discover that when a cow is calving her head is restrained in a galvanised headlock so that she cannot move. Meanwhile the farmer utilises the wrenching ropes. Connell explains that an older cow becomes so loose that two arms can be sunk up to the shoulder inside her birth passage – necessary, of course, to turn the calf for a safe birth.

After that the calf’s breathing is assisted with a vacuum pump and it is fed through a tube from a stomach bag. Interwoven with all this intervention is ‘the milk squirting into my jug, singing in the age-old sound of milk pouring onto itself’. This is lyrical writing: Connell says he learnt his skill with language from listening to his father’s storytelling. He and his da, incidentally, find it hard to resist fighting: two bulls in one field. All farmers know that is one bull too many.


The family have experienced upheaval as Connell himself became part of the diaspora after the Celtic Tiger boom and recession. Educated at DCU he travelled to Sydney and worked in film production making an award-winning documentary about Tamil refugees. Away for a decade in Australia and subsequently Canada he suffered mental illness and so returned to the sanctuary of home to farm and work out.


The past contains his relationships with alcohol, cigarettes and, the great modern sin, smart phones. Facebook still connects him with his girlfriend in Australia but Zuckerberg’s platform is guilty in Connell’s eyes of belittling a friend’s suicide by reducing his life and death to a few short sentences.

It is a truism that a simple life can be beneficial and Connell suggests that returning to an animal state of mere survival is healing. Nomads work with flocks and herds for mutual advantage. But these Irish animals rarely get that sort of peace. They are constantly being shaved, drenched, drugged and force-fed. Vinny the dog nearly lost his life because Connell chose to feed him sheep placentas thus encouraging him to attack a newly born lamb, hardly out of its caul and still smelling of the uterus, and try to eat it.


Whatever attempts Connell makes at mindfulness and reflection he finds himself in the middle of a vortex of opposing ideals and practices. Imperialism, capitalism and globalisation face up against the rural idyll of shepherds, haymaking and fashioning St Brigid crosses of rushes.

And yet… and yet… there is something charming in his cadences and melodies, in the speech patterns that he learnt near Ballinalee, Longford, which sweeten the incompatibilities and allow opposites to coexist.


Although he knows that the farm is a business venture and that, as his uncle puts it ‘there’s money being made there’, Connell is a man who wants to be kindly to the beasts. He takes care to explain to the calves, as they have their horns burnt off, that they will thank him for it in the end.

But the age-old struggle, that between father and son, still has to be resolved and that turns out to be a bloody business.

John Connell, centre, at the launch of The Cow Book with his parents, Margaret and Tom, brother, also Tom, fiancée, Vivian Huynh and Linda Keogh.  Image: Longford Leader

Works cited

Connell, J. The Cow Book: A Story of Life on a Irish Family Farm. 2018. Granta. Print.

Isolation. 2005. Directed by Billy O’Brien. Film Four and Lionsgate. Film.

A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 15th July 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor. 




A Song for Bridget by Phyllis Whitsell

A mother’s love.


It’s not new for readers to be confronted by tales of young Irish women enslaved and raped by their drunken and misogynistic fathers or brothers. Neither is it a revelation to hear about a young woman fleeing across the Irish Sea to England. And there are many books where ‘Sunday mass is the ‘moral censor and the emotional comforter for all of us’. Phyllis Whitsell’s books are different because they are based on herself and her mother: a history painfully lived and then painstakingly researched both around Birmingham and in Tipperary.


Community nurse, Whitsell, knowing that she was adopted, decided, aged 23, to find her mother, Bridget Mary. When she found the woman known as Tipperary Mary she nursed and supported the ‘bag lady’ over the course of many years. Wearing her uniform, and seeming to be an outreach worker, Whitsell was able to give informal succour to her mother without revealing what their true relationship was. That’s quite an extraordinary story and is told in Whitsell’s memoirs, My Secret Mother and Finding Tipperary Mary.

Bridget Larkin in the nursing home in which she spent her final days.

In the epilogue to her latest book, A Song for Bridget, Whitsell summarises her years caring for her mother and explains that Bridget Mary never fully understood that her nurse was Phyllis, herself a mother to three children. Bridget was befuddled by alcohol and onsetting dementia so was unable to take her place in the family. But at least this meant that she could not compute the death of her own son, Billy, from a heroin overdose.

Whitsell is at pains to counsel the reader about prejudicial attitudes towards addicts, explaining that behind every case ‘there is emotional and psychological pain and trauma’. Her compassion is unstinting towards the birth mother who handed her over to an orphanage at nine months. There is no shadow of blame or resentment in her attitude and this might be because her adoptive mother Mary Bridget was able to fill the void left by the loss of Bridget Mary.

Whitsell with her three children in 1992.

Whitsell opens A Song for Bridget with a letter from herself, ‘Little Phyllis’, written, on February 22nd 2018, to her late mother. In it Whitsell explains to her ‘dear Mum’ how over nine years, as she ministered to cuts and bruises, she also listened to ‘snippets and anecdotes’ which were ‘the fragments of your story’.


Welding them together with, ghostwriter Cathryn Kemp, Whitsell presents an organised account of Bridget’s chaotic life. It is endearing that the co-authors adopt the first person for their account as if they are offering understanding even in the way they structure the narrative.

Phyllis Whitsell, aged 6, at her confirmation

It is hard to believe that the ‘roaring drunk’, pub-brawler was once a nine-year-old child racing down the streets of Templemore on her way back from school. Facing Bridget at home was a cold range and no smell of bubbling vegetable stew. Upstairs her mother had just given birth to a fifth child, Philomena. Soon after that Bridget was removed from school to look after her baby half-sister. She loved Philomena and many years later named her own daughter, Phyllis, after her.

Phyllis Whitsell as a young nurse

The story that Bridget Larkin told Phyllis Whitsell is one of cruelty and treachery. Every family member either willingly or unwillingly deserted the young woman. The Catholic Church and other institutions removed child after child: Kieran, Phyllis, Angela, Billy and Jimmie. All the babes were taken from Bridget’s protesting arms.   But one returned to her and offered the love and care that she needed. That was Phyllis Whitsell and this account is the final chapter chronicling the life of Tipperary Mary.

Works cited

Whitsell, P. with Cathryn Kemp.  A Song for Bridget.  2018. Mirror Books.

A version of this review was first published in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 5th May 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.



Book reviews in sonnet form

Much of this blog is made of book reviews that I have written for the Irish Examiner.  These books are chosen for my attention by the paper’s books’ editor, Dan Buckley.

I also choose to read other books.  Just lately I have started to write reviews of some of them, as a challenge.


The main challenge is that the reviews are in sonnet form.  Not quite as tight as some purists might like but definitely 14 lines in length, whilst iambic pentameter always underpins the rhythm.  Sometimes I follow the 8/6 line structure whilst at other times I turn the meaning in the final couplet.  Rhyme, if present, is as likely to be internal as at the line ends, and the lines might be end-stopped or not.

Here we go …

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Smile is, I think the second book of Doyle’s that I have read.  In fact I only did so since it had such enthusiastic reviews.  There is not that much new in the story within its genre – Irish childhood and sexual abuse by priest on boy.  It’s a bildungsroman.  But…  The structure of the novel and its conceit are surprising and, finally, stunning – literally.  You’d probably have to start again at page one to get a grip.  Actually I haven’t read it as I heard it as an audiobook.  Doyle read it himself.  Brilliant.

Unknown.jpegNext up was Colm Tóibín.  I have read all his novels and short stories, I think, and some of his non-fiction. Here was something different, an adaptation of the tale of the house of Atreus. Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes and Electra are the father, mother and two of the children.  Iphigenia, a daughter, has already been sacrificed for the promise of a wind.  House of Names is written, mainly from the point of view of Orestes.  He does not see or know everything that audiences gather from plays by Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles, because, simply, he was not present at all moments.Screen Shot 2018-04-18 at 22.23.51.png

This book, sadly, did not receive the rave reviews that one might have expected.  For me, I suppose the cleverness and intrigue was in the ommissions and gaps.  The unknown unknowns, one might say.

DKp-xV2WsAAmxwg.jpgFrank McGuinness is best known for his playwriting including the priceless Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.  In The Woodcutter and his Family McGuinness bravely tackles the final hours of the life of James Joyce.  Narration is provided by his son, wife, daughter and self – in that order.  Finally there is the tale of the woodcutter.  The volume reads like an extended creative writing exercise.  This is perhaps unsurprising as that is what McGuinness teaches.  The book would have required lots of research as well as the writing of pastiche.  What drew me to it, as I passed the closing down sale of Liam Ruiséal’s bookshop on Oliver Plunkett Street in Cork, was the cover.

Screen Shot 2018-04-22 at 13.37.06.pngThat’s it thus far.  I hope that there will be more sonnets as I try to cross the bridge from my recent Irish Writing M.A. to, if I get accepted, my Creative Writing M.A. next year.  Both courses run at University College Cork.

NB  Today, 17th May 2018, I received notification of my rejection from UCC for the M.A. in Creative Writing.  ‘Unfortunately’, it seems, my application was unsuccessful.

Works cited

Doyle, R. Smile. 2017. Jonathan Cape.

McGuinness, F. The Woodcutter and his Family.  2017.  O’Brien Press.

Tóibín, C.  House of Names. 2017. Penguin.


Rise Above!

Rise Above! Letters from Tyrone Guthrie   Edited by Christopher Fitz-Simon




Tyrone Guthrie, from the moment of consciousness, loved his mother’s family home, Annaghmakerrig. The house in County Monaghan, surrounded by beautiful grounds, is now the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, a residential workplace for artists of all disciplines. Guthrie wanted to bequeath the property to his estate manager but his sister, Peggy and her husband Hubert Butler, persuaded him that it should become a creative retreat although at least the farmlands went to the loyal retainer.

Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre. 1963. Image:

Evidence of Guthrie’s artistic influence can be seen not just at Annaghmakerrig but also in the stages of the Royal Shakespeare and Chichester Festival theatres and also across the Atlantic in Stratford, Ontario and Minneapolis. Guthrie’s ruling idea, one that might win him the title of most influential theatre director, is to reject the frame of the proscenium arch and to advocate an open stage. His legacy is not only about theatre spaces, however, it’s also about exuberance and excitement in productions.

Annaghmakerrig. Image:

Guthrie’s catch phrase, ‘Rise Above!’ was delivered, after poor reviews, in the ringing tones of an Englishman educated at Wellington and Oxford. In spite of this, Guthrie and Peggy always considered themselves Irish and strained at the leash to leave their birthplace, Tunbridge Wells. Even as children they regarded Kent as tame and stultifying and they longed for the summers when they could run wild in Ulster. Peggy’s married life was spent in Kilkenny where she was a founder member of the Arts Week whilst Guthrie returned finally and met his end peacefully in his bed at Annaghmakerrig.

The selection of letters begins with brave little missives from preparatory school. Later, having won a place at Oxford, Guthrie devoted much of his final semester at school to the Officers’ Training Corps, preparing to fight in the Great War. Had the war not ended he would have joined the Irish Guards in January 1919. There is no indication of anything other than a stereotypically stiff upper lip in the expectation of facing death in the trenches.

In fact, and probably because of, etiquette, Tyrone’s letters are generally upbeat. It would never do to complain, and he is even jolly when his university results are disastrous. Anxious that the mater and pater might be ‘grieved’ he nevertheless skipped down the road in a Morecombe and Wise style with the distinguished J B Fagan. They were on their way to setting up the Oxford Playhouse Company, a theatre run in recent years by Rupert Gould, who is Guthrie’s successor in more ways than one. According to theatre critic Michael Billington the two men represent a similar ‘brand of visual bravura and reckless showmanship’.


Amelia Hall as Lady Ann in Richard III. Directed by Tyrone Guthrie. 1953. Image:

Perhaps this explains why Fagan dispensed with Guthrie’s services after one year. But letters show that ‘scrimmaging’ at OPC provided ample opportunities to stage-manage and play minor parts. Guthrie mentions Fagan’s mismanagement but is hardly better pleased with the organisation of the BBC in Belfast where he worked from 1923 as an assistant. Here he had a wide brief commissioning radio drama, music and comedy.

Tyrone Guthrie. Image: BBC.

Belfast was beginning to ‘steep’ Guthrie in ‘provincialism and rather bitter dullness’. And so to Glasgow which, after a honeymoon period, seemed ‘repellent’. The Old Vic in London called and before long the rest of the world became Guthrie’s oyster.

By 1931 his father is dead, his partially blind mother installed in the ‘melancholy’ of Annaghmakerrig and he is married to Jean Bretherton of Tunbridge Wells. From now on letters to his mother, sister and wife are sprinkled with the names of the glitterati with whom he was working: Peggy Ashcroft, Flora Robson, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Sybil Thorndyke, Ralph Richardson, Ninette de Valois, Benjamin Britten. Guthrie’s voice is exuberant and his gossip fascinating. It’s easy enough to smile at his snobbery and political incorrectness because the story that the letters tell is invigorating and inspiring.

Tyrone Guthrie. Image: Belfast Telegraph.

Works cited

Fitz-Simon, C.  Rise Above! Letters from Tyrone Guthrie. Lilliput. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 20th January 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.

Fastness: A Translation from the English of Edmund Spenser

Fall of the Titans by Rubens. Image classic

Fastness: A Translation from the English of Edmund Spenser by Trevor Joyce.

Londoner Edmund Spenser, born mid sixteenth century, travelled to Ireland to help put down the Desmond Rebellions. As Secretary to Lord Grey, Queen Elizabeth’s Deputy, Spenser was able to lay his hands on property in North Cork where he settled at Kilcolman Castle.images-1.jpeg

There he wrote much of the great epic poem The Faerie Queen, a work in which the figure of Gloriana represents his queen. The locations reflect the glorious pastoral countryside in which Spenser lived but the representation of Irishness is entrusted to deceitful, treacherous characters such as Malengin.  Spenser also wrote a prose work, A View of the Present State of Ireland, an excruciatingly racist account of the Irish often considered to have influenced Oliver Cromwell’s later earth-scorching and ethnically genocidal practices in Ireland.

spensersfaeriequ01spenuoft1.jpegPublished posthumously with the final segment of the twelve-book poem, are the Mutabilitie Cantos. These tell the story of a challenge that Mutability makes to the king of the gods, Jove. She says that he has stolen her birthright because Jove’s father, Saturn usurped her father, Titan. Now, she mocks, Jove can only keep power by using military might. Eventually, however, Jove’s position is confirmed after a court case overseen by Nature.

Cork-based Trevor Joyce is fascinated by Edmund Spenser and published a translation of his sonnets, Ruines of Rome, retitled Rome’s Wreck (2014). His latest book, Fastness is a reworking of the Mutabilitie Cantos. In his introduction Joyce explains how Nature’s court is on Arlo Hill, a name Spenser used for ‘Galtymore, the tallest mountain in the Galty range, which itself continues the arc of the Ballyhouras’. Joyce points out the similarity between the sounds Arlo and Aherlow, concluding that the setting for the Mutabilitie Cantos is thus the Glen of Aherlow.


Joyce suggests that Spenser, himself a local planter, felt threatened by ‘wolves and human miscreants’ in the glen, which was used by ‘insurgents during the Desmond Rebellions’. Spenser might be explaining to his Protestant queen that only her military power could ensure the safety of her loyal subject on his plantation in North Cork. Famously Spenser was run out by Hugh O’Neill. On his return to London and feeing betrayed by that queen he died, aged 46, in poverty.

As a poet Joyce decides that the best way to refute Spenser’s imperialistic or land-grabbing stance is to recast his verse. He thinks that it is his right to ‘intervene’ in Spenser’s work because he feels that Spenser has intervened in his own heritage. In other words the Protestant English colonists affected every aspect of Irish history and culture so that Joyce and every Irishman alive today is tainted with their stink.

Joyce rejects ‘highfalutin’ language and replaces it with his own vernacular. This is because he feels that the character of Mutability (Ireland) in her need to outmanoeuvre Jove (England) is diverted from her muscular aggression to the ‘high rhetoric’ of the courthouse. Thus she mistakenly decides to fight Jove with his own weapon, the Queen’s English.  Joyce suggests that if Mutability had used different means she might well have succeeded. Had Ireland fought on her own terms and rejected English laws and customs then the island might have been free of the yoke of imperialism much earlier and more completely.

He annexes Spenser’s tale and replaces the rhetoric with something much grittier but arguably more accessible. He writes his own view of late sixteenth century Ireland in the penultimate stanza, ‘I’m sick to death of seeing / this dodgy state of things’. On the back cover David Lloyd calls Fastness ‘a radical postcolonial Irish poem’. It’s worth engaging with.

Works cited

Joyce, T. Fastness: A Translation from the English of Edmund Spenser. Miami University Press. 2017. Print.

Spenser, E. The Fairie Queen. 1609. Print.


A version of this review was first published on page 36 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on November 18th 2017.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.



James Joyce and Hardiman face the facts

Joyce in Court: James Joyce and the Law by Adrian Hardiman

Supreme Court Judges, President of the High Court & President of the Court of Appeal during a sitting to commemorate Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman.               Photo: The Irish Examiner.

The late Honourable Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman, Supreme Court Judge, had completed a rough draft of this book when he died suddenly last year. His name was well known to the public because of his fearless fight for, and defence of, the Irish Constitution and Irish Law. He was a believer in freedom within the law and abhorred prejudice. He refused to be swayed by media pressure and stood for honesty and integrity in every area of society, including and especially the Gardá.


The published text of Joyce in Court had to be edited by Neil Belton, who had commissioned it. The two men had worked successfully together on the early chapters so it seems likely that Hardiman would have approved of the result.   The book reads like one of his elaborate court arguments and it is redolent with the knowledge for which he was renowned. It is a seemly memorial of his professional life in the courts as well as his parallel life as literary scholar.


One of Hardiman’s pet hates was the obfuscation that is the result of the “contrived terminology cultivated by so many Joycean critics”. Hardiman, whose papers on James Joyce, unlike those of some of the academics he criticised, kept to the facts. He researched the court cases mentioned in Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake, Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Joyce’s journalism. In addition he studied the legal context of Joyce’s life as a child and young man at a time when Ireland was moving from fin de siècle to twentieth century. As an opening quotation to Joyce in Court Hardiman chooses Joyce’s own words, “I tried to keep close to fact, to reality, which always triumphs in the end”.

Hardiman thinks that Joyce was so concerned about facts because he discerned a laziness all around him, in newspapers, for example, or at the bar – in both public houses and criminal courts – to establish what is beyond reasonable doubt. In other words Joyce, like Hardiman, was fascinated and horrified by miscarriages of justice caused by prejudice of one kind or another.


Hardiman points out that the most egregious cases at the turn of the century in Britain were those in which prejudice, either gender or ethnicity based, was at work. He also explains that it was following these that the Court of Criminal Appeal came into being. It would, of course, be many years before Ireland, then still called the Free State, got her own appeal court in 1924. A theme of the book is a comparison between British and Irish law and the tendency for Irish law to be left behind because of British prejudice against the Irish and their competency as a self-sufficient society.

Hardiman mentions that Ulysses includes references to 31 different criminal and civil cases from both Ireland and Britain. He also lists those who conducted them, including 11 judges, 13 barristers and any number of lesser professionals including a variety of hangers-on or disgraced practitioners. Hardiman obviously takes delight in minutiae as he details not only the participants but also the types of case from the momentous to the petty.

In September 1899 Joyce attended the three-day trial of Samuel Childs for the murder of his brother, Thomas. This, according to Hardiman, was life changing for 17 year-old Joyce. He states that it began a “lifelong preoccupation with guilt, innocence, proof, framings and officials who were ‘unscrupulous in the service of the Crown’”. Hardiman argues that Irish trials like Childs would have been forgotten had they not figured in Ulysses. He relishes the power of the great novel to keep them alive partly because he feels that they help provide the rich context of legal, political and social practice of the time.

Additionally Hardiman sees Joyce’s references to the law as a key technique in the novelist’s aim to achieve universality whilst writing only of Bloomsday. Part of Joyce’s technique, according to Hardiman, is to have his characters speak or think of the cases without any authorial explanation. They were part of the fabric of that day.

For many readers, however, the cases might be less familiar and this is where Hardiman’s helping hand becomes desirable. Thomas Childs was a rich, miserly, single recluse. His brother Samuel, the only other key-holder of the house in Bengal Terrace near Glasnevin Cemetery, was the sole heir to Thomas’s estate. He needed money as he had been made redundant and had insufficient to meet the needs of his wife and children.

The Crown’s case collapsed in front of Joyce’s eyes. This fed his suspicion of the police and the prosecution. They were seeking the death by hanging of a man against whom they had a weak case. Hardiman, to the joy of the reader, assesses the case himself and comes up with a likely scenario, considering that no one alive today saw what happened. One of Joyce’s and Hardiman’s interests in the Childs case is the fact that Samuel’s wife is not allowed to give evidence because of her status as his spouse.


A further chapter, fascinatingly intricate, is on the subject of life insurance. Here a focal point is the question of suicide and the fact that life insurance policies did not pay out in that event. In addition it proves to have been the case that many citizens mortgaged out or sold their policy, resulting in possible non-payment on death. This applies to Joyce’s character Patrick Dignam who dies suddenly leaving his wife and five children impoverished as well as bereft. Joyce concentrates on the fate of the children especially the elder two who will be apprenticed to augment the family’s income.


In spite of its being set in 1904 Ulysses is infused with references to the romantic Irish hero Robert Emmet. In Joyce in Court there is a chapter on his trial in 1803 and at the end of the text there in an appendix with an account of it. Both Joyce and Hardiman, like many others, are mightily impressed by Emmet’s speech. It is quoted at length and admired for its elegance, balance and content. They are also both, somewhat gorily, insistent on detailing the process of hanging, drawing and quartering.

Finally Hardiman turns his attention to censorship and legal attempts to prevent the publication of Ulysses. These focus mainly on America and England although it is impossible to overlook the heinous behaviour of the Irish Censorship of Publications Board. It is wonderful that today anyone can read Joyce’s work and then check out the legal context in Hardiman’s book.

Adrian Hardiman. Image: Irish Examiner

Joyce in Court is not entirely cohesive because it is to a great extent a collection of the papers written, for differing purposes, during Hardiman’s lifetime. Some chapters skim over vast areas whilst others go into the forensic detail of one case. In the latter there is a tendency to repeat sections from the former – not only in terms of content but also the bon mots which are so much a part of Hardiman’s style. It is impossible, however, not to feel a tear at the corner of an eye in reaction to the poignancy of the words of such an eloquent man, one who devoted his life to law, history and literature. And to facts.

Works cited

Hardiman, A.  Joyce in Court: James Joyce and the Law. London: Head of Zeus. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on pages 34 and 35 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 21st October 2017.  It is republished here by permission of the Editor.

How the Irish teach us to die

My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach us to Live, Love and Die  by Kevin Toolis.

His legs bestrid the ocean.

It is astonishing that this line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra does not appear in Kevin Toolis’s book, My Father’s Wake. This may be since Toolis favours quoting from the Iliad, preferring the ancient Greeks, to the English bard. This is not unusual: Irish literati are often fond of the classics as can be seen in great works such as Brian Friel’s Translations or James Joyce’s Ulysses.


The description of Mark Antony is fitting as Toolis’s legs have, since babyhood, bestrid the ocean that is the Irish Sea. And, his second favourite word, not far behind his absolute favourite – death – is ocean. Toolis prefers ocean to sea to the point of repetitiousness. But this is because he is talking about the Atlantic – the grand ocean that crashes against the west coast of Ireland, and in particular, Achill Island. For Achill Island, although unnamed in the book, is the seat of his ancestors. Toolis, like so many of the diaspora, has a leg in both camps, the West of Ireland and the UK.


Toolis writes powerfully about the coast ‘where huge Atlantic storms break onshore, scouring the landscape … surging in assault, striking at the rattling roof, the shaking windows, to suck you out, every living soul within, up into the maelstrom’.   He relates how many, most, of his family had, over the years, been driven out of the island by its hostile weather and infertile land. Men and boys had left for the building trade, resulting in the family homestead being abandoned and left to rot.

Toolis himself was brought up in Edinburgh and suffered at an early age from the threat of death. In a chapter headed Intimations – an allusion to Wordsworth’s poem, Intimations of Immortality – Toolis describes his two month incarceration, at the age of eleven, in the Male Chest ward. He was waiting for test results to prove that he merely had tuberculosis and not lung cancer. Men around him coughed and wheezed, visiting the smoking lounge to irritate the surfaces of any bit of lung unexcised by surgery.


This intimation of his own mortality, along with his brother’s death at 26 from Leukaemia, is what started Toolis on his life long obsession with the phenomenon. He worked with death, mostly as a journalist, in theatres of war, terrorism, mortuaries, famine, AIDs and the Troubles. Toolis became intimate with death, incessantly and intrusively questioning the bereaved until one day he decided that he, like death, had lost all purpose.

The subject of this philosophical memoir is how the Irish prepare for death from an early age. It is centred in rituals of reposing, removal, mass, internment and, especially, wake. Toolis, Irish by heritage, and Scottish by birth, writes critically about the Anglo-Saxon approach to death. He abhors modern habit of hiding behind euphemisms and condemning the moribund to agitated deaths in frenetic hospital wards. He calls this the Western Death Machine.

MI Irish Wake 1873 sketch Irvine.jpg
Sketch of an Irish Wake 1873. Image: Irish Central

In the first chapter, Mortalities, Toolis’s father is dying. Surrounding the bed the family and neighbours pray, chant, and keen in unison as if they were one sorrowing creature not separate selves. Interspersed through the rest of the book are chapters returning to the deathbed, the death and the aftermath. Toolis celebrates the fact that on Achill, when someone dies, hundreds of people, from children to centenarians, participate in what he calls teaching ‘us how to live, love and die’.

Works cited

Toolis, K. My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach us to Live, Love and Die.  London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson. 2017.

A version of this review first appeared on page 36 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 14th October 2017.  It is reprinted here by permission of the Editor.