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My Father’s Wake: How the Irish teach us to live, love and die by Kevin Toolis

23 March 2018

Caroline Bowder reads of a lesson learnt

ATTENDING the deathbed of his father, Sonny, on Achill Island taught the filmmaker Kevin Toolis more than any reportage, wars, or epidemics. He was shown how to die, the Irish way; and poetically, with forensic detail, he is determined that we should learn, too.

In this unsparing memoir, Toolis contrasts the Anglo-Saxon, or “Western Death Machine” model — of silence, city hospitals, and denial — with the traditional Irish rites of communal display, mourning, and celebrating of the dead: often evoking the classical world of the Odyssey and Iliad, Antigone and Hector, where death was properly respected.

The writer’s childhood brush with TB, and, at the age of 19, witnessing his elder brother’s agonising hospital death from cancer, drives him to seek catharsis in further mortality — terrorism or disease — until he deplores his journalistic “ghoulish interest”. When his mother dies, he volunteers at the city mortuary, and graphically depicts “Hades” in the brutal treatment of bodies in autopsies. This is strong stuff.

Called back “home” from the British mainland to the half-ruined family house on the Island, where they holidayed every year (and lived for generations), Toolis witnesses his father’s final destruction by pancreatic cancer. Morbid, yes, but amid a hive of activity: relatives and neighbours — the whole community — gather round, to watch, pray, eat, and drink; for death is a social affair. He recounts an island wake, with its flirtatious funeral games, which he gatecrashed as a teenager.

Despite vivid descriptions, he wilfully avoids naming the Island or the unloved City — presumably the Edinburgh of his birth and education. As a “guilty exile” searching for Irish identity, he is both at home and a visitor, dogged by history: he is emotionally tied and related to the Island, but he can’t live there.

Frank and unashamedly directive, he urges us to train ourselves, and our children, to embrace mortality and the bereaved, to order our affairs, and let no one die alone. As it questions our British way of death, this book will also goad you into taking stock of life.


My Father’s Wake: How the Irish teach us to live, love and die
Kevin Toolis
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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