My dad, 11 children and a 26ft caravan. What could go wrong?

Family tree: Séamas O’Reilly in a family photograph taken in 1990
My father may have been a widowed parent to 11 children, but that wasn’t going to stop him bringing us on holiday – which meant caravan parks, getting lost on a regular basis and listening to Now That’s What I Call Music on repeat

Initially, I must admit, the group chat conversation was not a massive success. The question itself was sound enough – “what do you remember most about our childhood holidays?” – it’s just that the replies from my siblings were now spinning wildly outside their remit.

It had been meant as a convenient set-up for them to discuss our annual trips around Ireland, from which I could prune a humorous collation of anecdotes that might prove pertinent to Irish readers, newly experiencing a boom in staycation travel. Surely we, the undisputed national champions on intra-island holidaymaking, would have untold riches of data for me to mine, which I could recycle, polish, and pass off as relatable yarns without having to do much work of my own.

Getting all of my siblings to remember the same event is more often like getting 10 cats to pose for a photograph

Unfortunately, my family had other ideas.

A discussion of our time at the Butlins in Mosney was now about the scrapbook two of my sisters made from images of their favourite Butlins redcoats, whose handsome faces they’d cut and pasted from promotional brochures into a frankly terrifying “love album”.

One solitary mention of a trip to Westport in the late 1980s had devolved into a fervent dispute over the exact tracklisting of Now That’s What I Call Music Vol 10, which had served as the soundtrack to that, and many other trips around that time. And no less than six possible times and locations were suggested for the terrifying incident in which a passing child was seen choking on a boiled sweet, before it was agreed that it must have been the mid-1980s, since none of the dozen or more adults present appeared to have any clue of First Aid procedures, and most probably happened in Ireland, since those same adults thought the best thing to do was get down on their knees and pray, rather than improvise the Heimlich manoeuvre.

Being one of 11 children has granted me many blessings in life, but the ability to rely on coherent group chats has not often counted among them. I often lean on my family’s collected memory for guidance, most especially when I have to write something about my own life story. This group chat had, in fact, been started some years earlier, when I began writing my memoir, as a way for me to ask specific questions – when was this? Who was that? Is that thing about the redcoat scrapbook true? – and had regularly found the process less efficient than I’d hoped.

For the book, the topics had included the events surrounding my mother’s death from breast cancer, which happened when I was five, and thus too young to remember much but the bald outline of events, and also the various ways in which our widowed father had navigated us through what came after. For while I had learned a great deal from these conversations – and had, indeed, cobbled together an eminently readable memoir from their contents – I had also discovered the limits to that medium’s ability to deliver clear and digestible information.

Séamas O’Reilly: 'Getting all of my siblings to remember the same event is more often like getting 10 cats to pose for a photograph.' Photograph: Ciara Burke
Séamas O’Reilly: 'These truly were some of the happiest days of my life.' Photograph: Ciara Burke

In theory, having 10 siblings should provide me with an infallible record of my life. You’d be forgiven for imagining it like one of those scenes in a Bourne movie; a team of crack CIA analysts combining the vantage points of multiple satellites, each unique perspective fusing with every other to build a meticulous, 3D image of the world.

In reality, getting all of my siblings to remember the same event is more often like getting 10 cats to pose for a photograph. Most won’t know what you’re talking about, and the rest will ignore your pleas entirely, preferring to roll along the ground and paw at each other’s fur.

One thing we all agreed on, was that we had no idea how Daddy ever managed to get us wherever the hell we were going. Managing our caravan was a big enough challenge itself. It was massive for a start: 26ft long from nose to arse, (which is, I believe, the technical lingo). But its length was greatly extended by the fact my father pulled it along, not with a moderately-sized family car, but the 12-seater minibus we were forced to use for daily locomotion.

The 40ft behemoth was neither swift nor nimble. It handled poorly, took corners like a dalek, and its freakish dimensions meant we were always mildly certain it was just about to topple over and kill either all of us, or anyone nearby. It was basically like driving the SIPTU building, only one filled with children singing along to Now That’s What I Call Music 10.

If a school pal went abroad on a package holiday, they were considered very similar to Christopher Columbus or Neil Armstrong

As such, taking it on even short summer journeys was precarious, and to embark on long trips was to take your life in your hands. But it enabled us to see more of Ireland than we could have done if we’d had to rent accommodation, and what it lacked in agility, it more than made up for by allowing us to go on holidays without strapping anyone to the roof. For this – if little else – we were grateful.

Gratitude was in shorter supply than it should have been, since summer holidays were a real treat, and their arrangement and execution were incredibly difficult undertakings for my dad, who had enough on his plate without planning, booking and orchestrating cross-country trips in an object the size of Luxembourg. When my mother died, he’d became sole parent to 11 kids aged between two and 17. This was, obviously, very traumatic and extremely painful for all of us. Not least my dad, who found himself, at 44, widowed of his soulmate, and left to bring up a recklessly huge family by himself, on a single wage.

Due to problems of scale and simple economics, foreign trips were a rarity in my childhood but that was par for the course with everyone we knew. We did make one particularly memorable trip to Spain in 1992, but since it was to see my auntie Aileen the year after my mum died, and involved a trip to see the interred remains of one of Christ’s disciples, we felt like it wasn’t the same as the package holidays we saw people do on TV. If a school pal went abroad on one of those, they were considered very similar to Christopher Columbus or Neil Armstrong.

It was good for at least two or three days of rapt conversation, in which they’d explain the weird fizzy drinks and breads you could buy in, say, Portuguese supermarkets, and we’d pepper them with questions about the topless women they’d seen on beaches. Invariably, these took place in the context of relatively dreary resorts that catered to Irish and British holidaymakers, filled with Irish pubs and karaoke bars, but to us they seemed unimaginably posh.

O’Reilly family: (back row) Sheila, Maeve, Mairead, Dearbhaile, Caoimhe, Orla, Joe; front: Dara holding Fionnuala, Sinead holding Conall, Séamas, Shane.
O’Reilly family: (back row) Sheila, Maeve, Mairead, Dearbhaile, Caoimhe, Orla, Joe; front: Dara holding Fionnuala, Sinead holding Conall, Séamas, Shane

Mostly we decamped to Irish locales, and in our case, caravan parks or camping sites, which were always close enough to family or friends that my father could catch up with Uncle Pat or Auntie Pauline, and close enough to play parks, fairgrounds or large, unattended fires, that we children could ignore those people entirely.

One mainstay was Bundoran, a seaside town in Donegal that was popular with Derry people for its plentiful amenities, beautiful coastline, and a safe enough distance from the Gaeltacht that our collective lack of Irish would not be questioned.

In 1960, the town was immortalised in the song, Beautiful Bundoran by Mai O’Higgins, a Kilkenny woman who had, oddly, never actually been to Bundoran, and chose to pen her tribute to the place based on words she’d read in a Donegal tourism brochure. This may explain the lack of specifics within the lyrics, which are so light on detail about Bundoran that the song remains a masterpiece of balladric bluffery, evoking at all times a very strong “last night’s homework written 20 minutes before the start of class” energy.

She certainly didn’t mention fish and chips, mobile homes, or the joy of trying to attach an awning to a 26ft caravan. This was our lot once we pitched up to our usual haunt, a holiday park with a view of the Dartry mountain range so glorious, it’s alarming how easy we all found it to ignore.

We were not great sightseers, it must be said, and preferred to exit the minibus with a clamour of yawning grunts, and unfurl ourselves into glorious indolence. My oldest siblings might at this point have been trying to find someone their own age, hopefully looking similarly insolent and moody, with whom they could bond over pilfered smokes or flirt with in the hopes of a snog. The rest would probably tear off for the beach to swim and get covered in sand and norovirus, or whatever it is that people like to do there. I was uninterested in beach activities at the time and consider myself, at best, seaside agnostic to this very day.

Family tree: a photograph taken in 1990 with Maeve (in tree), and Dearbhaile below her. Standing: Shane, Fionnuala, Orla, Mairead and Dara. Front: Sinead, with Conall on her hip, and Séamas poking over Conall’s shoulder.
1990: Maeve (in tree), and Dearbhaile below her. Standing: Shane, Fionnuala, Orla, Mairead and Dara. Front: Sinead, with Conall on her hip, and Séamas poking over Conall’s shoulder

I preferred to wander off toward the many and varied attractions of the town’s arcades, at which I would station myself for hours on end. Sometimes I did this with a roll of pleasantly exotic southern currency – we being used to the queen’s shilling back home in Derry – gifted to us by adoring relatives, and which I would rifle through with the glazed eyes and drooling mouth of a seasoned gambler.

When I’d run out, I’d scout around for coins on the floor, or trick my little brother Conall into exchanging his punts for coins of lesser value, since he was even less financially astute than I. This was one of my kinder strategies. When he was younger still, I’d have taken all his money and “paid” for him, letting him bash around on the buttons of machines that were not responding to his touch at all, but rather idling in demo mode, with him none the wiser.

These truly were some of the happiest days of my life.

I guess I’m saying that keeping us all entertained on these trips was actually easier than you might imagine, since we were raised to be fairly independent and, in any case, were rarely actually alone. I came pre-packaged with 10 built-in security guards who may not have cared very much if I was, say, trampled by a fairground donkey or caught in the blades of a combine harvester, but would relish the opportunity to save me from either fate, since it meant they would be praised for doing so, and better yet, might get me in trouble.

To evade the scrutiny of six or seven of my siblings was fairly doable, but to get past all 10 was rare enough that my father could usually rest easy in the knowledge that his network of informants would never let him down.

My older siblings certainly shared their horror at being gawked at, but it was something I found inordinately pleasing as a younger child

Not that we didn’t sometimes slip through the net.

Mairead developed a knack for disappearance so profound, by age 10 she’d had her name read out over the tannoy of every zoo, theme park and religious retreat in Ireland, usually before we’d clocked she was no longer standing beside us. One time she got lost so fast, I think her name was read out before all of us had even exited the minibus. If we did somehow notice she was missing, we would simply make our way to the Lost Child kiosk in any such establishment, the staff of which my father eventually knew by name. At Dublin Zoo’s help desk, I believe she may have had her own chair.

There were other complications, of course. Certainly, if you wished your disappearance to be noticed, it was best to go missing alone, since two or more missing kids was more likely to suggest a planned outing than a terrifying absence. This was something Dara and Shane discovered to their cost on Lough Erne, when they pushed off from the shore in a pokey rented boat only to discover they’d forgotten to grab any oars, and spent four hours drifting aimlessly across the water, alternating between fighting and crying, before making it back to the caravan without anyone having missed them at all.

Sometimes being noticed was the problem. It’s true that the size of our family did occasionally make us something of a cause celebre. This was doubtless embarrassing for my parents, which made their commitment to travelling the country with us, often singing, in a large, vaguely municipal 12-seater minibus all the more impressive. My older siblings certainly shared their horror at being gawked at, but it was something I found inordinately pleasing as a younger child. As the ninth of 11, I always felt I was denied the attention I was owed (the fact I’ve made a career out of telling stories exclusively about myself has been a massive shock to all who know me) so it was nice to be regarded as some form of celebrity, even if the nature of that fame seemed to be more of the “look at those freaks” variety.

Séamas O’Reilly’s childhood memoir, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?

Mostly, this attention was harmless enough, as at religious sites like Knock where my father might get random handshakes from passers-by, impressed at the one-man industry in pale, freckled Catholics he had clearly overseen. Sometimes people were genuinely quite sweet, like that time the minibus broke down, and an elderly man secretly slipped money into my dad’s coat pocket when he overheard him worrying about the cost of the repairs. And sometimes, it was slightly less congratulatory, as in Westport, when Maeve met a little girl from the impossibly exotic English locale of Halifax.

“She told me her parents said our mammy and daddy were at it like rabbits,” Maeve recalled, as our group chat really started to stretch its legs, a full hour after I’d first asked my question. “I had to ask Daddy what she meant,” she added ruefully, “but he just said that it wasn’t a nice thing to say.”

Given all this, I’d like to tell you we spent summer holidays fetching my father drinks, fanning him with palm fronds and telling him how great he was. In fact, now that I have a child of my own, I’d like to tell you that very much indeed. Unfortunately, our behaviour on these trips was much the same as any other cohort of children – whinging, whining, oscillating between fervent boredom and manic hyperactivity – only multiplied by three or four times the number of actual children.

In some sense, we spent our entire childhoods proving just how giddily self-absorbed kids can be, and I suppose this is the cruel fate of all wonderful parents; if your child doesn’t take your parenting for granted, to some extent you might have failed somewhere. In fairness, if we’d spent every waking moment weeping at my father’s magnificence, he’d probably have been pretty freaked out. Luckily for him, this prospect never arose.

Nowadays, we no longer travel en masse in a single vehicle. We’ve mostly moved away, put down roots, and grown other, smaller, families of our own. The caravan was sold for scrap 10 years ago, a full decade after its last recreational use. But in late summer each year, we still get together for a week, renting some place which can hold not 12 but 36, since that’s what we now tally once siblings, partners, and children are accounted for. Those kids are on a shorter leash than we were. Few tannoys are troubled with their names and none have yet got lost on an oarless boat. But in the wee hours of those August evenings, you might still hear us laughing, or crying, as we ask my dad how the hell he got us where we are.

Séamas O’Reilly’s childhood memoir, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? – which is funnier than that title makes it sound – is published by Fleet