Home Before Night (1979) by Hugh Leonard: Compelling, funny and sad

First volume of Dublin playwright’s autobiography

Author and playwright Hugh Leonard at home in Dalkey, Co Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke

Author and playwright Hugh Leonard at home in Dalkey, Co Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

Hugh Leonard (1926-2009) was among Ireland’s foremost dramatists, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. His two volumes of autobiography, of which this is the first and probably the better, provide powerful, evocative and moving insights into Irish urban working-class family life in the 1930s and 1940s. 

Leonard’s real name was Jack Keyes Byrne, and Home Before Night covers his early life and adulthood up to the time he decided to give up his Civil Service job and become a full-time writer. Adopted by the Byrne family of Dalkey, he here creates clear and memorable portraits of his parents, grandmother, neighbours, friends and employers. “My grandmother made dying her life’s work” is the opening sentence and sets the tone and style of the book.

His gardener father (known as “Da” and the subject of a Tony Award-winning play of that name in 1978) was uneducated, deferential, gentle and loving; his mother, Ma, was “small and stout, like two Christmas puddings, one sitting on top of the other, with a weenchy one on top” that could turn nasty and vindictive when she had drink in her. Home was a two-room cottage, “one part for the living, the other as an ideal, a regret and an aspiration all in one”.

The narration alternates between the first and third person. Referring to himself in the third person was a distancing device to allow varied perspectives and to tell some of the more emotionally difficult episodes of his childhood, such as embarrassing public displays by his drunken mother, the brutality of teaching priests and brothers, the troubled lives of relatives and neighbours, and the testy, sometimes unforgiving but also well-intentioned character of Mr Drumm, Leonard’s boss and mentor at his job at the Land Commission.

Although there is much painful recollecting, it is ultimately the social comedy and humour that predominate. The attempt to drown the reputedly anti-clerical family dog that bit the nun is hilarious, as is the story about learning the 10 Commandments at school and asking Da what adultery was: Da got a glass of milk, poured half of it out, added water to what was left and said, “There – that’s adultery”.

It’s a compelling, funny and sad read, full of vivid portraits.

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