‘Your mammy was a flower’: a young boy’s bereavement

·12 min read
<span>Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

One thing they don’t tell you about mammies is that when they die you get new trousers. On my first full day as a half-orphan, I remember fiddling with unfamiliar cords as Margaret held my cheek and told me Mammy was a flower. She and her husband, Phillie, were close friends of my parents and their presence is one of the few memories that survive from that period, most specifically the conversation Margaret had with me there and then. “Sometimes,” croaked Margaret in a voice bent ragged from two days’ crying, “when God sees a particularly pretty flower, He’ll take it up from Earth, and put it in his own garden.”

It was nice to think that Mammy was so well-liked by God, since she was a massive fan. She went to all his gigs – mass, prayer groups, marriage guidance meetings. She had all the action figures – small Infant of Prague statuettes, much larger Infant of Prague statuettes, little blue plastic flasks of holy water in the shape of God’s own mammy herself. So, in one sense, Margaret’s version of events was kind of comforting. It placed my mother’s death in that category of stories where people met their heroes.

As Margaret reassured me that God was an avaricious gardener intent on murdering my loved ones any time he pleased, I concentrated once more on my new corduroy slacks, summoned from the ether as if issued by whichever government department administers to the needs of all the brave little boys with dead, flowery mams – an Infant Grief Action-Pack stuffed with trousers, sensible underpants, cod liver oil tablets and a solar-powered calculator.

Contrary to the expectations of non-Irish people, it was highly unusual to have a family of 11 children

The cords were inordinately delightful to fiddle with, most especially when I flicked my finger up and down their pleasing grooves, stopping only each time a super-heated nail forced a change of hands. I think it’s fair to say I had no idea what was going on, save that this was all very sad and, worse, making Margaret sad. In that way of five-year-olds, I feared sadness in adults above all things, so I leaned my head upon Margaret’s shoulder to reassure her that her words had scrubbed things clean. In truth, I found the flower story unsettling. I couldn’t help picturing Mammy awakening to a frenzy of mechanical beeping as the roof caved in and God’s two great probing fingers smashed through the roof to relocate her to that odd garden he kept in heaven, presumably so he’d have something to do on Sundays.

In fact, my mother died from the breast cancer that had spun a cruel, mocking thread through her life for four years. The hospital rang my father at 3am on Thursday 17 October 1991. Their exact words went unrecorded, but the general gist was that he’d want to get there quick. I can’t imagine the horror of that morning, my father racing dawn, chain-smoking as he managed the 90-minute drive from Derry to Belfast in less than an hour. When he arrived, she had already passed. Sheila O’Reilly was dead and my father drove back to Derry as the sole parent of 11 children.

Contrary to the expectations of non-Irish people, it was highly unusual to have a family so large. My parents were formidably – perhaps recklessly – Catholic, but even among the ranks of the devout, to be one of 11 was singularly, fizzily demented. At best, you were the child of sex maniacs, at worst the creepy scions of some bearded recluse amassing weapons in the hills.

In some school years, it was easier to isolate the age groups in which we did not have a representative. Even within our own home, it was necessary to erect internal subdivisions that simplified things. This we did by separating into three distinct castes, which ran in age order thus: the “Big Ones” (Sinead, Dara and Shane), the “Middle Ones” (Maeve, Orla, Mairead and Dearbhaile) and the “Wee Ones”, (Caoimhe, me, Fionnuala and Conall). When my mother died, the youngest was two. I was three weeks shy of my sixth birthday although the celebration of that was, I have been led to believe, a decidedly subdued affair.

It’s an infuriating quirk of the brain that I remember my first taste of a banana sandwich, but not the moment I was told Mammy had died. The closest I can manage must be some moments – perhaps hours – later: a clear image of walking through pyjama-clad siblings who were crying in all directions.

We’d been to see Mammy the preceding weekend. I once more find I only have very faint memories of that final visit. I can see her in bed, tired and pale, laughing through the web of tubes taped to her face like a child’s art project, but it’s impossible to know if this was on that occasion or some earlier trip. Those tubes were a common point of reference for us in the years after her death, my sister Maeve becoming convinced they’d strangled her.

Apart from that I can remember very little of that week, save that morning with Margaret and a smattering of sensations from the subsequent wake. My father had called Phillie and Margaret with the news, so they could look in on us until he returned. It also fell to them to intercept Anne, our housekeeper, a saintly woman who tended to the house and its numerous infant contents, most especially since Mammy had fallen ill. Anne was as steady as rain and implacable as taxes; the kind of strong, rooted Donegal woman you could imagine blithely tutting if her hair caught fire, but we watched as the news made even her steadfast frame crumple backward.

This was, of course, a mere precursor to the sight of my father returning to sobs and screams, holding us all as we heaved, and crying loudly himself. The sight of my father crying was so dizzyingly perverse that I couldn’t have been more shocked and appalled if bats had flown out of his mouth. Daddy’s stoicism was a solid fixture in my life. This was the man who had forged time and space with his own rough hands, unafraid of heights or the dark or spiders or anything, save for being caught without some WD-40. In many ways, my father’s grief in that moment hit me harder than anything else. It would be from the wreckage of that moment that he would reassemble the universe for us.

Mammy’s body returned that afternoon and was to be waked in our home, a great big bungalow on the border of Derry and Donegal situated far out from the city so that we rarely had many visitors. Now, there were people everywhere, the life squashed out of them, all serious and nervy as they carried dishes about the place and sheepishly searched, cupboard by cupboard, for whisks or dish cloths. Over these two days we would host a throng of well-wishers who’d come to pay their respects, see how we were doing, and inevitably bring us food, plates or cutlery.

In the time-honoured tradition of all Irish crises, sandwiches were liberally distributed. Egg and onion, of course, but also ham, and not merely the thin, wet slices you got for school lunches, but the thick, rough-cut chunks of ham that still had the fat on – the type used exclusively by millionaires, Vikings and, it was taken for granted, Protestants. To add to the sense of occasion, 15-year-old Dara had been dispatched to pick up 200 Regal King Size cigarettes. The 160 that made it back from the shop were distributed on oblong trays of polished silver. Individual cigarettes were also offered freely to guests by hand, as if we were not a gathering of grief-stricken Northern Irish Catholics at all, but a cabal of New York sophisticates toasting a dazzling new biography of Lyndon B Johnson.

Everywhere stood puffy-eyed people with features so red and blotchy it was as if bandages had just been ripped off their faces. Most guests, already sombre and teary when they arrived, were stunned into traumatic shock once they greeted the body. Gripping the coffin’s edge, they stared at my mother, who lay stately, pale and dead at 43. Some regarded her casket as if it were a grisly wound they’d discovered on their own body, registering the sight with a loud gasping horror that made all around them redouble their own racking sobs. Some collapsed in the manner of someone cruelly betrayed, as if they’d arrived at the whole maudlin affair on the understanding they were being driven to a Zumba class.

In any case, a sniffled consensus prevailed that my mother looked “just like herself”. This sentiment was always spoken with an air of relief that suggested Irish morticians were sometimes in the habit of altering the appearance of the dead for a laugh, but on this occasion had read the generally melancholy feeling in the room and realised it would be best to make up her face to look as much as possible as she had in life.

My memories of the day itself are scattered, but I do remember a system had been put in place to try to marshal the movements of us Wee Ones, who were too young to understand what was going on. Of course, my ebullient run-around ways couldn’t be suppressed forever and, before long, I was wandering free. I was simply too young to grasp that the only thing sadder than a five-year-old crying because his mammy has died is a five-year-old wandering around with a smile on his face because he hasn’t yet understood what that means.

We laugh about it now, but it really is hard for me to imagine the effect I must have had skipping through the throng, appalling each person by thrusting my beaming, 3ft frame in front of them like a chipper little maître d’, with the cheerful inquiry: “Did ye hear Mammy died?”

The solemnity, not to mention the permanence, of my mother’s death was lost on me then, and it would take a while to sell it in a way I really took to heart. Months later, in much the same manner of a man who remembers a packet of Rolos in his coat pocket, I’d straighten my back with delight and perkily ask the nearest larger person when Mammy was coming back, on account of how she’d been dead for ages and was, surely by now, overdue a return.

Mammy was laid to rest in Derry’s Brandywell cemetery, looking down over Derry City’s stadium. Some years later, a fibreglass statue of a paramilitary volunteer was erected a few graves in front of hers, as a fascinating departure from the ambience of angels and urns graveyards typically aim for. Mounted by the INLA – very much the Andrew Ridgeley of Irish republicanism – it was a striking addition. To this day, any time I visit my mother’s grave, it hovers on the edge of my vision like a giant GI Joe, only one who’s about to give a prepared warning to the world’s media. If you were to construct a heavy-handed visual metaphor for how large a shadow the Troubles cast over everything in Northern Ireland during my childhood, it wouldn’t be a bad shout.

In the months that followed, the shock would subside and the slow, rumbling grief would come in successive, parallel waves. The impacts would come to each of us individually and at different speeds and then be magnified by all of the subsequent considerations of everyone else’s grief, cross-bred and multiplied by the 12 of us trying to make sense of it.

The shock subsided and the slow, rumbling grief came in waves

My mother wouldn’t be there any more to kiss grazed knees or carry me to bed when I pretended to have fallen asleep in the car or dry my hair with the static force of a hydroelectric dam. She would never cock an eyebrow at the socialist-tinged T-shirts or abstruse electronica of my teens. She would never smile politely at girlfriends she found overfamiliar, or text me to say she loved them the second I got home. Mammy would never send a text message full stop. She would never read an email or live to see the words “website” or “car boot sale” enter a dictionary. Mammy didn’t even live to see Bryan Adams’s (Everything I Do) I Do It for You get knocked off UK No 1, its perch for four months at the end of her life.

It seems blasphemous that my mother’s death even existed in the same reality as those moments that subsequently came to define my youth: taking the long way home so I could listen to Kid A twice, or poring over the lurid covers of horror paperbacks in a newly discovered corner of Foyle Street library. How is my mother’s passing even part of the same universe that gave me the simple pleasures of ice-cream after swimming lessons in William Street baths, or scenting the sun cream on girls’ skin as they daubed polish on their outstretched, nonchalant nails?

My life wasn’t over from that point on. I’d laugh and cry and scream about borrowed jumpers, school fights, bomb scares, playing Zelda, teenage bands, primary school crushes and yet more ice-cream after yet more swimming lessons. I’d just be doing it without her. To some extent, I’d be doing it without a memory of her. The most dramatic moment of my life wasn’t scored by wailing sirens, weeping angels or sad little ukuleles, nimbly plucked on lonely hillsides. Mammy’s death was mostly signalled by tea, sandwiches and an odd little boy in corduroy trousers, announcing it with a smile across his face.

Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? by Séamas O’Reilly is published by Little, Brown at £16.99. Buy a copy from guardianbookshop at £14.78

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