IF SÉAMAS O’Reilly is bookish and a published writer, it’s not because his father was good at cracking the whip when it came to homework.
“He built bookshelves in every room in the house,” Séamas told the Herald, “that’s the engineer’s approach to getting your children to keep up with their schoolwork.”
Thirty-five-year-old Séamas tells this example now as his book ‘Did ye hear Mammy died’ cruises to its fourth week on top of the Irish Times’ non-fiction bestseller list. It tells the story of a family of 11 children originally from Fermanagh, whose mother passed away in 1991, when the author was three weeks off his sixth birthday.
“My father did an amazing job as our only parent,” Séamas is only too happy to state, “He had the work ethic of a soldier ant but, if I talk too much about all his amazing qualities, like people tend to do after someone dies, it would feel the same as erecting a statue in a holy order.
“Daddy is still very much with us anyway, so it would be remiss of me to write a book about my childhood without mentioning all his weirdness and foibles and strange fixations.”
This humour and respectful observation of his family’s dynamic and characters is the tone with which Séamas has written his first book.
“I worship my father but he had so many strange, weird and mockable traits,” I had to ask for examples, “Well, like his love for Northern Irish Country music.
“I mean these guys are singing about dusty roads and checking out the canyon when …”
“They’re from County Tyrone?,” I proffer, “Yeah, they probably drive a Volvo and their wife works in the post office but they’re singing about ‘going to the levy’.
“Northern Irish Country music is probably second to the violence in this country as the worst atrocities to be committed here.”
With Derry during the Troubles in the 1990s as the backdrop and the life-changing event of his mother’s passing from breast cancer as the hook readers are unable to bypass, the title came from his mother’s wake when a smiling five-year-old Séamas asked people coming into their front room: “Did ye hear Mammy died?”
“I didn’t miss my mother at say, on the day I made my first communion or on Mother’s Day,” Séamas said during our phonecall, “I suppose you could say, I’ve had had some breakdown moments over the years. It was always in my sub-conscious, a certain hurting and pain.”
His debut book reflects this real life in that he writes about everything from learning to cook from a young age (“I still cook for a minimum 20 people today”), to his time working as a tour guide in Dublin’s Leprechaun Museum and everything in between. And throughout, his mother’s death remains in the background like a constant “rumble”.
The Herald spoke to Séamas from his apartment in Hackney, London which he describes as being as big as a “spice rack” and from where he is now “equally sharing” child-rearing responsibilities of his three-year-old son with his Irish wife.
His daddy, Joe came from Corrakeel in Belleek and his Mammy from Derrygonnelly.
The first eight of the O’Reilly family were reared in Mullanaskea until 1985, when the family moved to Derry. Fermanagh people may know his mum, Sheila O’Reilly, as an Irish and French teacher at St. Michael’s College and his dad from working in the NI Water Service.
“A family of 11 was unusual even for those days,’ Séamas said laughing, “We felt like freaks and we never thought it was normal.” Both his wife’s parents come from families of 12 siblings.
Reviews of “Did ye hear Mammy Died” all refer to the humour and pathos with which the former satirist and graduate of literature has written his memoir.
Marian Keys wrote: “I cried until I choked, I cried buckets, I have never been so charmed, I fell in giant love with Daddy O’Reilly. Seriously, this is a rare and beautiful book.”
Booksellers Waterstones say it is a book “about a family of argumentative, loud, musical, sarcastic, grief-stricken siblings, shepherded into adulthood by a man whose foibles and reticence were matched only by his love for his children and his determination they would flourish.”
It is a testament to O’Reilly’s writing talent and humour that he can sell stories about windows being blown out by IRA bomb blasts and the parish priest blessing the family’s 13-seater caravan before a near-death experience on holiday to readers from places outside Northern Ireland. Relateable and Northern Irish are probably the best two terms to describe this book and is a perfect read for children of the 70s and 80s from this unique part of the world.
Séamas also explained how he and all his siblings adore a friend of their family called Patricia Donnelly from Ennniskillen who told Sheila O’Reilly’s kids the less-than-perfect side to their mother’s personality.
“Totally mild stuff like she was a good-two-shoes, couldn’t paint for her life, told on her friends when they skipped the rosary,” Séamas said, “We children latched on to that because all people ever do when someone dies – especially so young like my mum – is tell you she was amazing and great.”
It would seem Patricia’s honesty and mischievousness struck a chord with the young Séamas, who writes about his family and childhood with the same truthfulness but with stories that you leave you splitting your sides with laughter.
According to Séamas ‘Did ye hear mammy died?’ is available “everywhere” so get your copy now for a trip back to the 90s and a good laugh. And cry.
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