Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? is–maybe surprisingly, given its title–a lovely book, funny and poignant in equal measure. And it’s exactly that combination of the two, the balancing act between gravity and levity, that makes it work so well as a memoir. Right from the get-go, the opening chapter of the book tells you all that you need to know about the kind of tone you’re getting here,
“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 . . . ‘Sometimes,’ croaked Margaret, ‘when God sees a particularly pretty flower, He’ll take it up from Earth, and put it in his own garden’ . . . 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 aether 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.”
And to be sure, it’s not an easy tone to strike. This is, in many ways, a sad book: O’Reilly confronts the loss of his mother head on, a loss that is made all the more tragic because he was so young when it happened. It’s also a loss that follows him throughout his life, as he tries to recover his early memories of his mother, the very little that he had of her before she passed away.
And yet, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? is never a sad book, per se. O’Reilly takes many things seriously–bereavement, grief–but he also knows when not to take things seriously, and that’s what makes this book so charming in the end. That’s not to say that sad books about grief are somehow lesser–that O’Reilly’s book is “better” as a memoir because it’s not just sad–but rather that this particular book accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to combine the serious with the funny, and look at the ways in which the two can and do intersect.
“I was simply too young to grasp that the only thing sadder than a five-year-old crying because his mammy 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 sunnily through the throng, appalling each person upon their entry to the room by thrusting my beaming, three-foot frame in front of them like a chipper little maître d’, with the cheerful inquiry:
‘Did ye hear Mammy died?'”
Something else I loved about this book’s tone is O’Reilly’s earnestness. It’s a memoir about his mother, yes, but also about the rest of his family: his dad, who features prominently in many of the chapters, and his ten siblings. There are lots of fun and funny dynamics at play here, and I think O’Reilly does a great job at teasing out some of the notable and illustrative anecdotes that speak to these family members. His dad especially is quite the character (in the best of ways): I love the way he gently pokes fun at his little quirks and mannerisms. Regardless of who or what O’Reilly is talking about, though, that earnestness is always there: you can really tell how much he loves and cares for his family, and that shines through in the writing without it ever being sentimental or saccharine. It’s just a simple fact for him, and he treats it as such.
I just really enjoyed Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?–and especially because I listened to Séamas O’Reilly himself narrate the audiobook. His literal voice and narrative voice compliment each other perfectly, and the humour of his writing very much comes through in the way that he narrates the audiobook.
Altogether, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? really is such a charming memoir, one that I frankly can’t imagine anyone not liking.
Thanks so much to Hachette Audio for providing me with an audiobook ARC of this in exchange for an honest review!