The last time I was in isolation, I had the whooping cough. I must have been aged eight or nine, in Sister Consilio’s class and laid up for so long in April, May, June, I was worried I wouldn’t be “promoted” come July.
The first weeks are a blur of coughing, whooping, tossing and turning in a hot, hot bed and my usually harassed mother being unusually nice to me. I could hear my three younger brothers playing outside, but the noise made my head hurt more – I didn’t want to run out to join them. My six older siblings were away in boarding school.
Later, I remember crying when I was forced out of bed and made to walk. First round the bedroom, then downstairs and out into the back garden for the fresh air that was going to make me better. Then the “real” walk, a little bit further every day, out the gate and down the boreen that we called the lane-road.
The route had landmarks: first Tommy Carroll’s meadow with buttercups and late primroses in the hedges; past the Nuns’ Field that was lumpy and tufty and looked much more like our own mountain land. Mr Walsh, who brought us our milk in tin cans every day, kept his cows there. Next past Bernie Joe Forde’s field and please, please God, don’t let the bull break out and get us; then the ultimate goal – the Lake.
And the bribe for making the effort to walk an extra field every couple of days without whinging ? I was allowed to read in bed.
So whooping cough gave me the greatest gift of my life – my love of reading. First it was The Grey Goose of Kilnevin,The Turf Cutter’s Donkey and anything else by Patricia Lynch. Then David Copperfield, so brutally wrenched away from his mother. Poor Pip in Great Expectations. And Jane Eyre – the heartbreak when Jane’s only friend Helen dies of consumption in Lowood School.
Our world has changed, but books and their ability to both comfort and inspire us have not.
And now, forced into isolation once more, I have the joy of re-reading Tatty, Christine Dwyer Hickey’s wonderfully tender evocation of childhood. Written in 2004, and the choice for this year’s Dublin One City One Book, this is a modern classic, a work of profound beauty.
Tatty, the little girl at the heart of the novel, isn’t physically isolated. But as she tries to make sense of life, she is separated from the world by her desperate need to hide the painful circumstances of her family. They’re a hurly burly of six lively young siblings starting to fall apart as both parents become more and more dependent on drink.
Daddy is the extravagant, great-crack life and soul of pub and race course. You’ll recognise him at once – every town and village in Ireland sported them. Mam sits around kitchens with her sisters and friends to “give out stink about the men”. Until she slides into the sort of drinking that was for so long Ireland’s best kept secret – a depressed woman alone, behind closed doors.
The story is deceptively simple in construction: it’s told from Tatty’s perspective in 10 chapters as she ages from four to 14. As she grows, so do her perceptions and the complexity of the novel grows on the reader. This is a heartrending book, but it’s not depressing. It’s a book to illuminate our isolation. Written with delicacy, it draws us into the essence of family life, of all our experience, shared and unshared.
There’s warmth, affection, rough and tumble alongside bewilderment, embarrassment, burning shame and sheer awfulness as children lie awake at night, holding their breath and trying not to hear the screaming rows raging downstairs.
There isn’t an ounce of sentimentality. For instance, Tatty’s name is really Caroline, Tatty her nickname. Daddy’s pet, she loves gadding about with him from pub, to races to betting shop. But she also loves coming home and innocently blurting out to her mother all the excitements of the day. Which frequently puts her father in a tight spot, so he denounces her as a tittle-tattle tell-tale. Shortened to Tatty, the name has affectionate overtones, but with a slightly cruel edge to it that a sensitive child would feel.
Yet for all the slow, sad breakdown of a dysfunctional family, the book is full of generous gestures, good humour, love. There are no real baddies, no villains, just vulnerable people trying to cope with the way things were.
Mostly it’s about childhood. The lovely, innocent, neglected child is a constant theme in Dwyer Hickey’s work – lost Alec in Last Train From Liguria, lonely Richie and struggling Michael in her current novel, The Narrow Land.
Christine Dwyer Hickey says Tatty has a strong autobiographical streak. But it’s not a memoir. It’s a stunning work of fiction, informed by her own experience. Her creative life started early. She recently told Pat Kenny in an interview: “When I was a little girl, I used to lie in bed at night and rewrite the day.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Christine Dwyer Hickey was prevented from coming to talk to the Irish Literary Society as planned. The event was postponed. But we look forward with great pleasure to her reading from Tatty and sharing her own life and times with us when we all come trooping out of isolation once more.