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Ordinary Time by Carmel McMahon: A gripping memoir of emigrating, getting drunk and getting sober

McMahon’s story of getting lost in New York before searching for her roots ripples out as it moves back in time

In Ordinary Time: Fragments of a Family History
In Ordinary Time: Fragments of a Family History
Author: Carmel McMahon
ISBN-13: 978-0715654477
Publisher: Duckworth
Guideline Price: £16.99

In 2011 Carmel McMahon was newly sober and “beginning to write again” when she heard of the death a young woman “who, like me, had emigrated to New York from Ireland in the mid-1990s”. The body had been found in St Brigid’s church in East Village. “There was something about this news that kicked me in the gut. An image flashed across my mind’s eye, a kind of map with a thousand points of connection: this young woman, St Brigid, New York, the Great Famine, the Catholic Church, the English occupation of Ireland, the Celtic and pre-Celtic peoples of that land. It was too much to look at, so I pushed it all away ... ”

In the early 1990s, McMahon arrived in New York with “less than a month’s rent and two suitcases of seasonally unsuitable clothes” – and a modelling contract. She would have liked to go to college but “ ‘Where would we get the money?’ my mother asked ... For us, the doors of opportunity opened narrow and brief ... on those rare occasions, we still had to push and pull and hustle and bend and scrape and sneak our way through.”

McMahon’s account of that vulnerable journey is utterly gripping. She could have so easily been lost forever too. “I could not see the wound I had left in the land by leaving it, nor could I see the corresponding wound in me ... ” In lucid prose that is both direct and lyrical, she burrows through layers of family history and Irish history while recounting the fascinating twists and turns of her own narrative.

The book’s title “refers to the time between the special markers of feast days and celebrations, and the extra-special time of Advent, when Eternity approaches earth, and Lent, when Eternity approaches consummation”. Brigid is the guiding presence here. Patron saint of poets and fugitives, Brigid also represents transformation and healing, and McMahon uses Brigid’s feast day Imbolc along with the other three Celtic seasonal markers – Bealtaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain – to structure the four parts of Ordinary Time. Like Henri Bergson, the ancient Irish believed in cyclical time which is an interpenetration of past and present. Their stories are still flowing through us from their very first telling, still swirling in and around us in ever-expanding and contracting spiralling cycles of time.”


The key words here are “connection” and “time”, and it took McMahon time to find the vital connections. Like a lot of young people, she initially thought “I didn’t need anyone or anything”. Then, as she settles into New York, working at the downtown lounge Temple Bar, where she meets her boyfriend, she breaks the alcoholic pledge she made at 18, a bargain she made with God when one of her brothers was seriously ill. With that first sip, “I felt myself illuminated from within and connected with everyone around me ... It was fitting, perhaps, that such a spiritual experience should occur in a place called Temple”.

Then another one of McMahon’s brothers is killed in a car accident, “as if Peter was the lynch pin, and once removed, my siblings and I all spun out”. Alcohol tightens its grip on McMahon. She leaves her relationship. “There was, then, nothing solid inside myself, so I blew about the place, rootless and aimless.”

Ordinary Time bears exhilarating and sometimes excruciating testament to McMahon’s search for her roots. Beginning with a road trip across the US, ending in the old cottage in Mayo where she now lives, McMahon’s story ripples out, spinning wider circles as it moves backwards in time: “ ... what irked me was unconscious and increasingly agitated. In his late years, Carl Jung came to the conclusion that some personal disturbances may be attributed to unresolved ancestral issues. While they manifest in individuals, they are in fact unresolved problems of a collective nature. There was something before and beyond me that needed to be acknowledged and this was the time it chose to rise.”

Getting sober, studying, beginning to write, McMahon finds connections with the previous Irish immigrant women, in particular those “whose bodies were used and abused by the medical establishment in New York’s hospitals”. McMahon, “who emigrated to New York in the last links of the unbroken chain of mass emigration since the Famine ... ” wonders why she had “never heard of these women in the first links?” Ordinary Time pulls those links unforgettably tight. “Today, on 34th Street, I sometimes see that ghost ... my younger self ... I didn’t even know Manhattan was an island! I’d put my arms around her and tell her, I didn’t know, for a very long time, that I was not.”

Martina Evans

Martina Evans

Martina Evans, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a poet, novelist and critic