Ann Marie Hourihane's new book, Sorry for Your Trouble: The Irish Way of Death, examines death, dying and the rituals that surround them in Ireland. It's a powerful, richly detailed work that begins with Hourihane spending time with a dying woman in a hospice and ends with a chapter about the death of her own father, Dermot Hourihane, in July last year.
In between she spends time with funeral directors, embalmers and gravediggers. She attends the funerals of Big Tom, Liam Og O’Flynn and Lyra McKee. She writes about sectarian violence, drug deaths and Ireland’s shocking legacy of institutional abuse. It seems like every issue Hourihane has dealt with in her decades of journalism is revisited here through the prism of death.
The book begins as Hourihane is woken in the middle of the night to go to the deathbed of a woman named Bernie Brady Walsh. "I haven't really got an explanation for how amazing Bernie was or how incredibly brave she was," she says. "And it wasn't just me who thought she was unusual. People who deal with death and dying regularly thought she was really unusual, including the man who officiated at the funeral and the nurses. Very few people are able to look their own death in the eye like that and to organise their funeral, to choose their own coffin."
Why did Bernie agree to participate? “I don’t know… But she completely eased the path for me and she talked to her children about it… I found that dying people were incredibly generous, incredibly open.”
Was it difficult to be there? “I felt honoured and privileged. A deathbed isn’t a linear thing. You go in. You go out. The nurses have to come. There’s loads of breaks. There’s loads of shifts. Then people have to go. Then more people arrive. So all of that was happening after Bernie died.”
Hourihane went straight from Bernie’s deathbed to watch the nurses washing her body. They warmed the water and spoke to her as though she were alive. “In the hospice you get to build a relationship with people,” she says. “Nurses were sending postcards to Bernie from holiday. She knew all about their children. She talked to them as a fellow working woman... So therefore, when she died they had had a relationship with her that was personal and they talked to her… And I thought the fact they warmed the water was extraordinary. The tenderness of it.”
What was Hourihane’s attitude to death before she started writing this book? “I did a lot of planning my own funeral, like, imagining it – sobbing relatives, an orchestra, people rushing up the aisle going, ‘I was so wrong!’” She laughs. “I would say I had a pretty common or garden attitude to death. I knew it was true, but I didn’t really want to think about it that much... I was very interested to be talking to people like gravediggers and funeral directors who are around death all the time and it’s their business. And it’s really interesting how many of them have not made any plans for a funeral.”
She was kept on an even keel by the professionalism of the people around her, she says. “If I’m with a director or an embalmer and it’s routine for them and they’re not alarmed… that takes a lot of the anxiety out of it for me. I was anxious going into the embalming [the subject of one chapter]… But [the embalmer] was so kind and so meticulous. And I just thought, this is amazing that this goes on every day, every single day.”
There are things she finds to be unique about the Irish attitude to death. She writes about the rowdy Irish wakes of the distant past. “You were allowed to keen and go crazy and just to register the fact that death alters things,” she says. “I would feel it was a relief. I would feel that my grief had been assuaged…. Fights. Matches made. Sex games with the whole parish.”
Life actually can't be solved. There's a preciousness about people's lives and how they relate to each other which isn't reflected in our public discussions
For the book she also observed more modern funeral rites. She went to the big public funerals of Liam Óg O'Flynn and Big Tom. "To see people jiving at Big Tom's funeral was wonderful. Not to be so cowed and to feel we have to be very respectable around death… And also the beauty of the music at Liam O'Flynn's funeral was really startling. The respect in which he was held, that he was one of them."
But not all deaths are the same. Hourihane also attended the funeral of Lyra McKee, the talented young journalist shot in Derry, and the inquest of Joseph Kierans Regan, a young man who died of an overdose. She writes about the deaths of children, violent deaths and those who died in institutions in this country. The circumstances around many of the deaths she examines leave people feeling tragically unresolved.
“Life actually can’t be solved,” she says. “There’s a preciousness about people’s lives and how they relate to each other which isn’t reflected in our public discussions.”
In a lot of ways the book sees Hourihane revisit subjects she has reported on previously but from a very stark and clarifying perspective. She has been a journalist across a period of great change in Ireland. There’s footage that sporadically circulates on social media of her as a young woman arguing with conservative men on the Late Late Show about the need for frank discussions around sex. She seems fearless.
“I was about as far from fearless as it is possible to be, but I wasn’t afraid of what I was saying because I knew it was true,” she says. “I also want to point out, I wasn’t the only person who held those views.… There were a lot of people working a lot longer than I was. So, in a way, it’s a bit embarrassing that that clip makes me out to be warrior lady.”
Hourihane's first book of reportage, She Moves Through the Boom, documented the start of the Celtic Tiger. "Nobody was really writing about the boom," she says. "I remember going to my publisher and being really upset because they told me the publication of the book would be delayed until January 2001. I said, 'You don't understand, it will be over soon.' It just shows you what I knew."
She desisted from writing a book about the subsequent economic crash because, in contrast, so many people were writing about that subject. “I wish I had written about it,” she says. “I don’t think there was a lot of talk about what it was like to go under, to go into mortgage arrears, how it felt to emigrate or how it felt to be buying your petrol 2 litres at a time in a country garage. We get a lot of headlines but we don’t get a lot of human stories. And I think human stories are the most interesting thing. I’d rather talk to a garage attendant than a politician.”
The process of writing this book was often good for her, she thinks. “To be writing about death every day and going to meet people about death every day was, in many ways, a really good thing… You were lucky to be alive, happy to be here. So that wasn’t stressful or depressing.
“I think the lowest point of the book for me was after Bernie died and then again after my dad. But, I mean, I regard both those things as natural. I don’t think that you can write about death without having an emotional response. The problem with Bernie’s [death] was I was kind of going…” She singsongs… “‘I’m fine.’ And then whumf. But that’s only natural.”
She never expected to end up writing about her father’s death. Was that difficult? “Writing about it wasn’t difficult… Living it was very difficult. There are different deaths. And the future for my father was very grim [he had Parkinson’s]. He knew that. I don’t think you can be sorry that somebody you love has stopped suffering.”
Where all physical imperfection or mental imperfection is regarded as a failure, death is like the ultimate failure
Did writing about it help? “I don’t feel I’ve laid down a burden or anything,” she says. “Big things can’t be laid down… And I don’t want to let my father go or the sorrow of his death go or the fact that I miss him go… It’s like an old man I heard about whose wife died and they said to him, ‘You should really have grief counselling because it’s very helpful.’ He said, ‘Grief counselling? Grief counselling? I hope I will always remember my wife.’
“I do believe in counselling and I was a counsellor myself at one point. But I think there is a way we hope that everything’s going to be alright and everything is going to be resolved if we work hard enough at it emotionally, but in my view that’s not the case… And it’s okay. It’s okay to be feeling shit, feeling sad, feeling sorrow. All those things are okay. And if you didn’t feel them, you wouldn’t be human.”
Writing the book has made her think more about the ordinariness of death and to think less about death as an aberration.
“Our mode of thinking is that death is this devil that comes and mugs you in the night,” she says. “And it’s very, very hard for us to come to terms with the fact that that is not the case. I do think that in an industrial consumer society, where all physical imperfection or mental imperfection is regarded as a failure, death is like the ultimate failure. And so that affects how we treat people who have long illnesses who are not going to get any better.”
Part of what makes Hourihane’s book so powerful is that it’s a moving work of reportage without glib conclusions. Was she ever tempted to lean into a self-help message when writing it?
“Jesus, no,” she says. “I’d write nursery rhymes before I’d write a self-help book. I’m not dissing them. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross [who devised the five stages of grief] did great work. If someone comes up with a five-point solution to problems that I have, or how to decorate your house, or how to really lose a stone in 15 minutes, or any of those stupid daily problems that we have, I read them. I’m part of that culture. I’m not disdainful of them.
“But I think that there’s a belief in modern culture, not just in Irish culture, that you can manage life, manage your wardrobe, manage your diet, manage your fitness. And, actually, death shows us you can’t manage life and you can’t manage death either… Nothing’s going to change the fact that life is constantly surprising.”
Sorry for Your Trouble: The Irish Way of Death by Ann Marie Hourihane is published by Sandycove