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'We Were Rich and We Didn't Know It' review: Freeport author Tom Phelan's evocative memoir of childhood in Ireland

Author Tom Phelan at the Freeport Memorial Library

Author Tom Phelan at the Freeport Memorial Library with his new memoir. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

WE WERE RICH AND WE DIDN’T KNOW IT: A Memoir of My Irish Boyhood, by Tom Phelan. Gallery Books, 210 pp., $24.

Tom Phelan, the Freeport-based author of six novels, was born in 1940 and brought up on a boggy 52-acre farm outside Mountmellick, County Laois, in the Irish midlands. He now gives us a memoir, “We Were Rich and We Didn’t Know It,” a nimble exercise in storytelling in which he shapes his recollections into a series of richly detailed vignettes.

They evoke a vanished way of life, the pastimes and hardships of rural existence and the often bleak expectations for the future. In the Ireland of the 1940s and ‘50s, most people had little opportunity in their native land for a better life — or for a living at all. Practically every family had lost members to emigration.

Phelan’s father, JohnJoe, was one of the lucky ones, having inherited his farm in the 1930s after the death of his parents. A practical man, he now needed a wife — and this he secured in the person of Annie Hayes who grew up in a three-room thatched cottage with her father (a drinker and tyrant), mother and six siblings. JohnJoe, whom the author loved dearly, was a considerate husband, going so far as to pitch in on household chores — a phenomenon rarely seen on Ireland’s green isle at the time. He talked little, worked hard, despised idleness, never laughed out loud and was a great man for holding a grudge, once breaking off a long friendship over a disputed ha’penny.

For boys born in relative poverty, the one job that held promise was the priesthood. “Nothing to do all day,” declared one man to young Phelan, “only play golf with the big nobs; eating the best, drinking, too; warm and clean all the time with a woman to buy the food and cook it for you, and you not having to marry her.” Phelan was groomed for the church from the day he was born.

Emissaries from the clergy appeared at Phelan’s school, one fresh from Africa. (“Having a real live missionary in our classroom was almost as exciting as a visit from a clown in Duffy’s Circus,” he writes.) A few years later a recruiter from the Christian Brothers came, a sleek, black-suited fellow radiating an air of well-being: “His shoes were shining, with not even a daub of muck or dung on them.” He spoke glowingly of the Christian Brothers’ school in Dublin, “where brothers in training lived manly and exciting lives and ate sausages for breakfast four times a week.” The boy Phelan feels sure this is the life for him — until his father lists the more draconian aspects of Christian Brother training.

In the end, Phelan did become a priest, entering Knockbeg College, a junior seminary with Elysian playing fields, the blessed comfort of central heating and a gracious, affable rector. He left the priesthood after 11 years, eventually emigrating to the United States, where he has lived on Long Island for years, working for the Garden City Schools.

But that is not what this book is about. Instead, it captures the essence and detail of a rural Irish boy’s world. There are farmyard scenes; some like the castration of pigs and cattle are grisly; some are pictures of joy, as when Phelan watches little piglets romping in “snorty exuberance,” bucking and flapping their ears. “After a performance of some pig-game in the straw, they would assemble inside the door as a group, gazing up at me as if waiting for applause.”

The small compass of this universe lends its people, places and events epic significance. There is the gate where Phelan and his dying grandmother watched the “grunting monster” of a steam locomotive go by; the place on the lane where his father greeted a veteran of World War I, back in Ireland after decades; Rourke’s Drain, into which his uncle Paulie rode his bike when he was drunk.

And then there are the fascinating deaths, a subject dear to the Irish heart: Pakie Moore, chopped in half when his tractor flipped over; “Missus Whittle,” drowned in the river taking a shortcut; Paddy Cleary, godlessly working on a Holy Day, killed when his head was split in half by a saw blade.

Plain, honest, funny, occasionally sad and rich in material detail, this wonderful memoir has none of the hardscrabble caperings and gooped-up melodrama of Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” with which it will no doubt be compared. This is the real thing.

Tom Phelan discusses “We Were Rich and We Didn’t Know It”

WHEN | WHERE Wednesday, March 6 at 7 p.m., Turn of the Corkscrew Books & Wine, 110 N. Park Ave., Rockville Centre

INFO 516-764-6000, turnofthecorkscrew.com 

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