My Father’s Wake by Kevin Toolis: moving but unconvincing
Journalist examines how the Irish way of dying and mourning is unique
Kevin Toolis examines the theme of death in his memoir My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us To Live, Love and Die. Photograph: Channel 4
My Father’s Wake How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die
Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Sonny Toolis was born on Achill as was his wife, Mary Gallagher. They had seven children but had to take their family across the water leaving their son, Kevin, stranded, still wondering where he belongs – his birthplace (Edinburgh) or on Achill where Sonny and Mary took the children in summer or wherever he grew up?
His memoir is a journey towards death – possibly his own but certainly his father’s – for Sonny ended his days back on Achill among people he knew, cared for by loving family members. What more could a man ask?
A lot, it seems. Kevin Toolis has led a life very different from his father’s. Sonny worked as a builder, was good with his hands, provided for his family, mourned his wife’s early death, saw his own death approaching and then died, assisted by the morphine pump.
I needed the shock of death like a drug, an inoculation, to protect myself from everything I saw and felt
His son, though, attracted to what has elsewhere been called the glamour of violence, has written extensively about Ireland’s Troubles and other troubled places around the world. He has travelled from Gaza to Glasnevin, from home to hospital, these journeys ending always with this preoccupation with death, aided by the journalist’s facility to locate the drama within: “I needed the shock of death like a drug, an inoculation, to protect myself from everything I saw and felt in my own life,” he writes. What was going on was his brother Bernard’s early death. Added to this is his mother’s sudden death from a heart attack, his godfather gone and lost at sea. The list continues and so in the end, it seems, there is no way of inoculating himself against death other than the Achill way of dying with acceptance, common decency and pain management heading the list.
A death dirge can be a doleful thing – and not helped by the statistics offered by Toolis, who is a bit of number cruncher. How many Americans live to be 100? Answer: 0.0173 per cent. Yes, but how many? Want to predict the year of your death? Add this, take away that and I find my own death occurred unbeknownst to me, way back.
We learn how they wake the dead on Achill and, intriguingly, Toolis ties this in with similar practices in the Odyssey including wailing women, burial rites and bringing the body home. But apart from Sonny, there are few people we really get to know in this narrative except Fingers, the man in the next bed in the TB sanitorium Toolis was admitted to as a child. The Male Chest the ward was called. Fingers was classy, had worked in a bookies and had not one but two women at his bedside during visiting hours.
There is a terrible beauty in the sawing apart, the blood and guts, the engorged flooded lungs . . . the reddish cod roe brain
This is what Toolis is good at – the short snappy portrait bringing life to the stats. We even know what sort of cigarettes Fingers smoked. We watch a young Malian as she buries her lifeless infant, first removing a bracelet from the tiny wrist. We follow Toolis into a morgue where, wearing his journalist’s hat, he describes what we don’t normally see: “There is a terrible beauty in the sawing apart, the blood and guts, the engorged flooded lungs… the reddish cod roe brain.” In another context, I did wonder if Toolis took pleasure in writing like this for a voyeur readership.
Far from death?
I read this book in two sittings but remain unconvinced that we have moved so far from death that we no longer talk about it, and that the Anglo-Saxon ethos carries less feeling than the Achill way of death. In Birmingham, a small girl requests her fairy wand be put on her grandfather’s coffin as the crematorium curtains open to receive it. In Cambridge the corpse of a man awaiting burial lies in a wicker basket as his daughter provokes tears and laughter when she recounts his Sheffield father’s advice to her as she left for university: “Don’t get drunk,” he told her, “ and don’t get in club.”
Same tears, same sadness, just another way of expressing them
Kevin Toolis has given us a heartwarming and very personal account of a life well-lived, his relationship with his father partly mediated by the island culture of Achill which might not have been possible in an Anglo-Saxon setting, he suggests. But here I disagree. Thirty years ago, my husband’s coffin was carried into the crematorium by myself and his three children. Later that day, we walked through the hilltop village in Buckinghamshire and scattered his ashes around the windmill there. Same tears, same sadness, just another way of expressing them.