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Poor by Katriona O’Sullivan: What will you do to change society for people like this?

O’Sullivan is not just an author and an academic. She is a truth-teller, holding a mirror up to us all

Author: Katriona O'Sullivan
ISBN-13: 978-1844886210
Publisher: Sandycove
Guideline Price: £14.99

It was 2011 when I first met the now-published author Katriona O’Sullivan. She stood at the top of the lecture hall in Trinity College Dublin in a beige cardigan down to her knees, blue denim jeans and a pair of runners. She spoke about addiction, and I couldn’t quite tell if she had an accent like mine because of her English twang.

I so wanted her to be one of us, the working class, and I felt it in my gut that she was. I deeply longed to see myself in the structures surrounding me and felt she was a bit of me. I loved meeting smart, successful women who were very grounded in working-class culture and identity, and I knew I was in the presence of someone I could learn from.

Twelve years later, I get to sit here and write a book review for one of the most important books I have ever read. I don’t say that because O’Sullivan is my friend – though she is – but because she has written a memoir that brings the reader to the edges of their tolerance and empathy and profoundly challenges the judgment that readers may harbour towards families like O’Sullivan’s.

She makes you want to change the world with her, for all the little O’Sullivans. She is not just an author and an academic. She is a truth-teller, holding a mirror up to us all; what will you do to change this society for people like O’Sullivan, for the poor and the dispossessed?


How can something so unfair be so beautiful? When reading this memoir, I am sure people will find it difficult, enraging, traumatic, empowering and courageous. Still, it is also a beautiful telling of determination despite the odds, not because of them. O’Sullivan understands the realities of poverty intimately. She has not just experienced it; she has sat within its web and got to know it like another family member. There isn’t a silk thread of its orb she hasn’t faced up to, stepped into and untangled. In this story, her life brings the reader on a journey that is often tragic, but with every turn of the page you are rooting for her and her family, all of them caught in the same web.

O’Sullivan’s story demonstrates why we must never give up on anyone

Risk is a situational concern, and until one understands the context of a person’s situation, one cannot judge the risk inherent in that person’s day-to-day existence. When choice, free will and safety are absent, there is a risk attached to every decision that is made. O’Sullivan faced risk when she opened her eyes every morning. It didn’t disappear when she slept.

Would she be hungry that day? Would she have to tend to another overdose in the household? Would the kids be able to see the shame that followed at her heels every morning? Would her Da, who she adores, give up the smokes and the drugs and save himself? If he couldn’t save himself, who would save O’Sullivan, and what would their fate be?

Clearly, O’Sullivan didn’t want a world where she would be the only one that found solid ground. We see this in her efforts to place her experience within her parents’ experiences and her parents’ experiences within their histories. O’Sullivan expertly gives us an insight into the genuine harm of her parents’ addictions but by no means defines them by it. She beautifully and lovingly tells the story of two whole people. Two people who struggled and fought, who lived a life shrouded in pain and poverty, but also in song, loyalty and books.

We aren’t just one thing, good or bad. This book has no absolutes. Instead, there is an array of moments when decisions were made out of necessity or survival, and beneath that, survival was a deep love and connection between O’Sullivan and her parents. O’Sullivan pushes us past the addiction and the difficult moments and forces us to confront the humanity of the people at the core of this story. The book delivers a powerful message to society about how we treat those who struggle with chronic addiction. She wants the reader to see them, and we do.

It takes a special person to see beyond the wrongs that one has endured and then use one’s wounds as the basis to create something big. As you follow the story beyond O’Sullivan’s early years, she keeps doing big things: overcoming big hurdles and traumas, achieving huge dreams, and creating changes and challenges to the status quo. I think O’Sullivan would have made it anyway, but you can’t ignore the moments along the way that helped.

There is a moment in the book where a former teacher tracks O’Sullivan down to a flat she was living in after a period of homelessness and becoming a teenage mother; when I say I cried, I mean I bawled my eyes out. Not just for the moment of kindness, but in recognition of what the world could be like if teachers like that were the norm and not the exception. O’Sullivan’s story demonstrates why we must never give up on anyone, and why young people and vulnerable adults must be offered a way back daily.

O’Sullivan has dedicated her life’s work to changing society for other women like her, but she has rightly dedicated this memoir to herself

Being so exposed in the world, first as a child in need, then as an adult in the public eye, comes at a cost. This cost is all the greater for someone who is as open and forthcoming as O’Sullivan, someone who shows all parts of herself, both light and shade. It is apparent that O’Sullivan has weighed the personal cost of telling her story and set it off against the cost to the world of not telling her story. That cost might be the world’s continued blindness to, and misunderstanding of, lives like hers. The implicit hope in this story is that, through its telling, the world may become a less hostile place for its characters. The hope is that cycles may be broken; that fewer children might be left behind, judged, shamed and discarded by the structures meant to protect them.

O’Sullivan has dedicated her life’s work to changing society for other women like her, but she has rightly dedicated this memoir to herself. For all the women who faced similar struggles, there is a little girl inside of them who will feel seen by the young O’Sullivan in these pages. The hope is that this book will lead towards a brighter future for all the little Katrionas who are still out there. Childhood lasts a lifetime, so read this book and pass it on to everyone, especially those with the power and privilege to positively affect the childhoods of all.

Recommended reading

It’s Not Where You Live; It’s How You Live: Class and Gender Struggles in a Dublin Estate by John Bissett. Bissett’s book is a mix of theory and storytelling, taking us deep into the lives within a public housing estate in Dublin.

Corrections in Ink by Keri Blackinger is another triumphant story of a woman’s will to live and to flourish. Overcoming her struggle with addiction and her time in prison, Blackinger uses her voice to advocate for other women who didn’t have the safety nets she had to succeed.

I Am Someone by Aisling Creegan. Creegan’s book, like O’Sullivan’s, is both brave and beautiful, and doesn’t shy away from brutality. Creegan is a powerhouse, and like O’Sullivan, her intention is to create and affect change.