Light on the Horizon

A Book Review by Elizabeth Horancover-final-300x211

Dan O’Riordan : From the Bru to the Borough.

 ISBN 978-1-326-16639-7

 RRP: $23.95; or $12.95 as ebook.  More information at http://www.brutotheborough.com

This self-published memoir is a new addition to the archive of life narratives. Recent Irish memoirs generally recount tales of woe leading to ultimate redemption by various routes, with Frank McCourt’s enormously successful Angela’s Ashes and Nuala O’Faolain’s similarly popular Are you Somebody? suggesting fame and fortune followed disclosure of early deprivation and abuse. This one is no different. The title of the book refers to the author’s Irish home-place and his new Australian home. The cover photo of a bleak Irish winter landscape sets the tone for the narrative, with a glimmer of light on the horizon.

Alcoholism, sexual abuse, poverty, violence, general misery and Christian malfunction are the standard themes in Irish memoirs. Dan O’Riordan’s brave publication covers each of these topics in the story of his first 37 years. He grew up in the relative security of an intact family, the fifth of six children, in small-town Ireland. His early childhood was compromised by what he refers to as ‘a medical issue’ with bowels he described as ‘so weak that my brain could hardly register the fact that I needed to go to the toilet’. Problems associated with his ‘lazy bowels’ lead to Dan being targeted for ridicule at school by other children and disparaged by teachers. His reports of being bullied and abused are counter-balanced by bravado accounts of retaliation which leave little room for sympathy and it is often difficult to get a reading on his moral compass.

Dan describes his father as tough and widely feared, known to the Gardai, frequently incarcerated for drug-related offences and ‘for fighting or damage to windows of pubs that refused him service’. He recounts stories of his father beating him, his mother and random passers-by to unconsciousness and at other times demonstrating care and affection while defending him against authorities. His mother is described as a ‘gentle four-foot nine-inch woman’ who on one occasion when she found Dan outside the classroom without a coat in the snow as punishment

barged in the classroom door and tore strips off the old nun. ‘I’ll tear that fucking vail off your head you old bitch! Don’t you ever again treat my child like that. I’ll fuckin kill ya!’ she said.

He and his siblings bonded over periods of incarceration in their bedrooms where they were ‘grounded’ as punishment for misdemeanours including not attending Sunday Mass, being expelled from school, stealing and telling lies.

Truanting and behaviour problems lead to Dan being placed in a children’s home when he was eleven for a year. He encountered the usual mix of more and less caring caregivers and gave a telling account of the consequences of loose boundaries and poor oversight of staff that was commonplace in those days. When he returned home he remarked he got on better at school and that ‘the social worker’s plan actually worked’.

Despite this moderately positive outcome Dan’s mother wrote a long letter of complaint about his treatment at the home to the South Eastern Health Board. He returned there for another brief period when he was 15 when his main complaint was being forced to wash dishes and vacuum carpets. His experience is far removed from the accounts of brutality we are used to hearing from other institutions in earlier times, what doesn’t change is the heart-ache of being separated from home and family.

In the midst of this, between the age of twelve and fourteen, Dan fell in with a solitary neighbour, Tony O’Shea, a friend of his father’s, who supplied him with company, alcohol and cigarettes in return for sexual favours, under the apparent cover of helping him to repair bikes. Dan states he found ‘nothing wrong’ with the almost daily routine of visiting Tony to look at his pornographic magazines, drink alcohol, smoke ‘fags’ and masturbate, until one day Tony’s demands changed and Dan took fright and ran. By this time he was drinking regularly and helping himself to his mother’s purse in the safe knowledge his brother would get the blame. There is no indication his parents knew he was binge drinking at fourteen years of age, or spending so much time with Tony O’Shea, but were clearly aware there were problems when he overdosed on his sister’s epilepsy medication and was hospitalised. He was fortunate to be found in time, to get rapid assistance, survive and thrive.

Dan O'Riordan, musician and memoirist.

Dan O’Riordan, musician and memoirist.

There is a secret story of survival lying beneath Dan O’Riordan’s litany of deprivations. It is the story of an Ireland where families hold together in the face of adversity, where kind people bring errant children into their homes and give them tea and sandwiches while trying to work out how to help them, pick them up on the roads and bring them safely to where they need to be, where a generous neighbour supports young talent with the gift of a drum set, where eventual reports of sexual abuse are followed through and compensation is paid and where a young man like Dan gets the opportunity to perform in front of thousands at the Rose of Tralee festival.

Finally, perhaps without knowing it, Dan O’Riordan tells the story of his redemption as a tribute to Australia and the powerful connection that exists between our two nations.He met an Australian woman, Leah, online. She had the spirit to risk visiting him in Ireland and gave Dan the gift of a return trip to Australia in 2006. She subsequently followed him back to Ireland where she managed to get a job when many Irish couldn’t, including himself.

Dan and Leah returned to Australia in 2008 and were embraced by Leah’s family and their local community. Her parents provided them with a place to stay and friends assisted with settling in to their new life together. They are now married and have three children. In this time there have been further challenges including surgery for a serious illness, Dan’s father’s sudden death at 64 and his brother’s more recent death by suicide in Ireland. In between, he and Leah have been back to Ireland for a family holiday and his mother and other family members have been to Australia twice. Not bad.

 Elizabeth Horan

Elizabeth is herself an Irish migrant who has lived in Australia for several decades, and an enthusiastic reader of social history.