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Going to My Father’s House: Deeply personal story by a pioneering historian

Review: Patrick Joyce’s memoir offers an authentic and urgent examination

Going to My Father’s House: A History of My Times
Going to My Father’s House: A History of My Times
Author: Patrick Joyce
ISBN-13: 978-1839763243
Publisher: Verso
Guideline Price: £25

In Child Language Acquisition, Bernard O’Donoghue explains how categories native to academia come easily in the Irish countryside:

"So there was nothing new for us about
The dialogical imagination.
All useful training for the life
Of letters, learning to distinguish
Between revisionists in the horse and trap,
Modernists off to the pictures, realists
Drinking tea from a gallon in the meadow,
And historicists taking it all in."

Patrick Joyce’s Going to My Father’s House is written from inside the world of dual knowledge. It is at once a meditation on change by a pioneer of left-wing social history and the deeply personal story of the son of Irish countrypeople, from Galway and Wexford, who spent their adult lives in west London. If it is fluent in the language of the academy, and it carries an understanding of the Irish as a people shaped by silence as surely as by speech.

Written in an elegant, wry voice, this is the memoir of a man who grew up with the British welfare state – the state of freedom, as he elsewhere calls it – in a bombed-out London, and, from Catholic schools through good universities, became a person of note in a world above and beyond his parents’ ken.


Defining forces

For Joyce, three forces defined his times: the social and demographic regime in rural Ireland that sent its surplus – his parents, their people – to industrial Britain; the passage from world war to peace, and the decline of the old manual working class, the class which his emigrant parents joined. His early life was bounded by "all things and places Irish and Catholic", the parish and school, construction sites and public houses, county associations and Irish centre, but above all, the family home – his parents' house functioning like the homes they had left behind, homes to which, with no little ritual, they returned in the long summers of his childhood.

Patrick Joyce was taken first to his father's house, in 1949. Johnny Joyce emigrated to London in 1929 and worked as a skilled builder until he was trapped under rubble and seriously injured during the German bombing of Portsmouth. Later, he worked as a council labourer and kitchen porter before dying aged only 55. His son remembers a depressed man whose symptoms he describes with all the delicate indirection of his father's homeplace. Both parents lie buried in St Mary's cemetery, Kensal Rise, facing west "and so to Ireland".

That sense of the west as sacred horizon propels Joyce’s search here. With him, we journey from the west of Ireland to “cloth-cap respectable” and increasingly multicultural Paddington and Notting Hill in the west of London; then back to Maamtrasna and the “memories of memories of memories” of injustice done.

Following an intimate map, we move from London to Derry and Dresden, tracking Joyce's preoccupation with war, violence and memory and the "corpses of the British state". And finally we range from Manchester to Belfast, Burnley and Stoke-on-Trent via a set of urgent questions about deindustrialisation, heritage and leisure capitalism.

Joyce is scathing about the ways in which a certain kind of heritage enterprise burns off the painful parts of the past in the name of bright spectacle. He is ever alert to damage wrought by populist visions of Britishness, whether in the shape of Jeremy Paxman’s “horses**t” histories or Brexit itself.

Non-elite voices

Joyce is a social historian trained in and deeply attuned to non-elite voices and sources. He listens to people, encountered in the home, on the street or on the page. Cousins, friends and former students guide the journey, their insights sharing space with the reflections of historians, poets and critics – Walter Benjamin and John Berger, Seamus Deane, David Lloyd and Breandán Mac Suibhne, Susan Sontag and Carolyn Steedman and especially WG Sebald, whose writings on the Allied war against Germany fuel Joyce's rage to remember the civilian dead.

Two things jar. First, perhaps as might be expected when you chat to an emigrant cousin, is terminology. The repeated use of the term "peasant" may connect trends in Irish social history to wider comparative contexts, but it will still sound odd and unwelcome in the small Irish places about which Joyce writes. And then there is his mother, Kitty Bowe. Though many of Joyce's childhood summers were spent on Great Island, Wexford, in the parish of Kilmokea, this is a journey in search of his father's house and not his mother's people. Men's voices dominate throughout the book and lend their shape to another kind of silence.

There is a fierce frankness to Joyce’s book: he has made his choices. Along with an unmistakable authenticity in the telling and real urgency in the analysis, Going to My Father’s House is a book to read for the pleasure of mind and memory at work.

Claire Connolly is professor of English at UCC