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Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? Remarkably funny exploration of childhood grief

Book review: Séamas O’Reilly pens wonderful tribute to his late mother and devoted father

Séamas O’Reilly’s family. O’Reilly is one of 11 children and their mother died when he was five years old
Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?
Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?
Author: Séamas O'Reilly
ISBN-13: 978-0708899229
Publisher: Fleet
Guideline Price: £16.99

The writer Séamas O’Reilly has won widespread affection in recent years for his weekly column with the Observer on parenting and his articles on politics and media for The Irish Times, New Statesman and the New York Times.

He has also established himself as a joyously absurd presence online, and especially on Twitter through endeavours such as “Remembering Ireland”. This parody of Irish nostalgia sites featured invented moments from Irish history and viral threads recounting events from his own life, such as the night he had to serve drinks to his boss and Mary McAleese while high on ketamine.

O’Reilly’s writing has often made reference to his unusual background. He is one of 11 children and their mother died when he was five years old. Now he has written a book that explores in more detail the legacy of these “disarmingly baroque” circumstances. Anyone with prior knowledge of O’Reilly’s work will not be surprised to learn that this is not a heavy or ponderous read. In fact, it may be one of the funniest books ever written about the death of a parent.

There is of course real sadness documented here. Much of it is centred around O’Reilly’s sense of dislocation about what has happened, and his limited ability to frame it afterwards. He remembers tasting certain foods for the first time, he says, but not when he was told that his mother had died. Instead, he relies on some videos and a small stock of memories he has written out, eight in total.


He describes the confusion he experienced in the immediate aftermath of her death. Too many people strain to reassure him that his mother, a devout Catholic, has ascended into heaven and is ecstatic now. He is unable to understand why they are grieving so much if she has indeed gone to a better place. All he wants is for his mother to return.

“I want to tell her how sad we all are, and how sad it makes each of us to know how sad the rest of us are. We don’t know what to do, and we don’t know if we’re making each other worse.”

The book is a wonderful tribute to Sheila O’Reilly. She is depicted as an exceptionally compassionate, selfless woman, a gifted linguist and teacher who is mourned by their entire community on the Derry-Donegal border and beyond.

Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? is also a portrait of the parent left behind, Joe O’Reilly, the grieving head of a family of 12, a clever, loving father with eccentricities that O’Reilly delights in describing. This is a man who takes pride in recounting the licence plate of every car he’s ever owned “and will dispense this list so readily it’s hard not to think he occasionally practises it”. He is even more obsessed with dogs, hardware stores and the career paths of various clergy across Irish dioceses.

Above all, Mr O’Reilly is a devoted father, and it is hard not to be moved by accounts of his logistical challenges as he minds the 11 children, who are aged between two and 17 when their mother dies.

It is notable that O’Reilly derives such mileage out of his father’s enthusiasm for details. His own uproarious descriptions of Crazy Prices’s merger with Stewarts in Derry to become West Side Stores and eventual evolution into Tesco alongside their attendant marketing strategies betray the same endless appetite for minutiae. He concedes that they both are devoted to archiving, a “bulwark against the terror of losing”.

O’Reilly’s siblings play less of a role as individuals; their numbers are just too large, he thinks, to align with any functional narrative. They are divided into three lots, the Big Ones, the Middle Ones and the Wee Ones, which includes the author. Access to Home and Away marks the main divide between the bottom two groupings.

They grow up in a bungalow on the Border, and the events of Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? mostly take place when the Troubles were ongoing. In some ways the family were removed from the worst of the horrors, and yet of course it impacted on everyone within that era. O’Reilly provides an insightful account of the conflict’s rhythms from this perspective. He remembers how plans might abruptly be derailed. A bomb scare in Derry is the basis of one of his few maternal memories. He recalls his mother’s sudden display of warmth and reassurance and her obvious concern.

O'Reilly suggests that this ability to entertain has formed part of a process designed to insulate himself from further grief

O’Reilly has interesting observations too on the role of Catholicism. His parents are part of a network of volunteers within the church. He distinguishes between their commitment and the political Catholicism that has partly defined the conflict.

There are moments when the structure of this book seems a little unclear, but O’Reilly is such a gifted and entertaining writer that it mostly doesn’t matter. Every paragraph is compelling, and it all makes for a very enjoyable read.He suggests that this ability to entertain has formed part of a process designed to insulate himself from further grief. He has long introduced the subject of his mother’s death first so he could better control it.

It’s a method very much in keeping with the broader Northern Irish way of expressing difficulty through humour, for similar reasons of self-preservation. There are limitations to this approach; sometimes the performance is all the non-initiated can see. And, of course, sometimes it doesn’t go well for the performer either, when they are left not knowing how they themselves feel.

It is perhaps impossible to know the optimal way to express grief. Towards the end of his book, O’Reilly considers a visit he makes to the Guggenheim Museum. Here he sees Maman, a piece by Louise Bourgeois of a female spider guarding a nest of eggs. The installation overwhelms O’Reilly, and he finds himself railing at his future wife that it is actually male spiders who protect their young while the mothers just disappear.

Moments such as this remind the reader of how great this weight must have been for the heroic, hilarious O’Reilly family.

Sinéad O'Shea is a writer and filmmaker. Her most recent film is A Mother Brings Her Son To Be Shot.