Book review by Trish O’Connor
Patrick Deeley. The Hurley Maker’s Son. Transworld Publishers Ireland Ltd
ISBN 13 9781781620373 RRP$26.57
Patrick Deeley’s memoir, The Hurley Maker’s Son, takes the reader on a journey back to country life in Ireland from the 1950s through to 1978. Set in the townland of Foxhall, outside Loughrea in Co Galway, the story focuses on the author’s early years, and the family, the community and the landscape that shaped him.
This exquisitely written book captures a period of transition not only in Irish society but also in the author’s own life. It spans the time immediately before and after electrification, and explores the impact this had on country life as new technological options became available for the home and work. This is also a coming of age story as Deeley develops from child to adult, diverging from family tradition to become a teacher and later, a renowned poet.
One of the most striking features of Deeley’s work is his capacity to recreate people and place in such a vivid manner that sound, smell and vision reverberate through his words.
My father’s face was long and sturdy-boned, with nimble bushy eyebrows, a humpy nose and a mouth easily moved to laughter. Once, when I was about two or three years of age, he lifted me up in his arms – a rare occurrence – and carried me outdoors. I pushed my fingers through his thick black hair and tiny specks of white sawdust rose, making me cough.
In conveying the father’s craft as a hurley maker, the reader becomes captivated by the sounds of the mill, the smell of the timber and the actions of the father as timber is transformed into hurleys.
He explained that wood is made of fibres and that these are perforated with many tiny pores through which it breathes and sweats. In fact we could smell the sweating and the breathing wood around us. ‘Ash has hardly any smell,’ he continued, ‘and oak is generally mild, though it can be as sour as a cat’s piss. Larch holds a small whiff, but the tar-and-turpentine smell of the lovely Scots pine- aah, that’s the dominant one.
Yes, the wood smell emanated from the workshop just as the smell of fresh loaves emanated from Hope’s bakery in Loughrea. The hurleys, the clean lengths for handles of farming implements, the stakes and planks, all were breathing and in this sense seemed still alive. The sawdust and shavings, maybe even the motes of dust that floated in the air, exuded their particular perfumes.
Likewise, the reader is spellbound by the sights and sounds of Deeley’s beloved Callows, a wetland teeming with life that inspired so many of his well-known poems.
The Callows was big when I was small. It was also totally treeless, apart from a few diminutive blackthorn bushed nibbled by the wind as much as by any grazing animal. It had never been ploughed or treated with fertiliser, and this gave its range of highly specialised plants and animals a chance to survive. Its rivers, too small to carry names, trickled quietly along in summer but when they flooded after heavy rain, all I could do was gawp at the force of the fresh current that linked them to the main river flowing across Foxhall Little and away outside the reach of my thoughts. I’m certain that the further back I go into my childhood, the slobbier, wetter, more truly itself the Callows becomes.
The Hurley Maker’s Son is a book that may well draw the reader back time and time again, each time adding to the richness of detail and emotion of the story. The poignancy of the closing passages of the book will certainly resonate long after the book is read.
Dr Trish O’Connor is from Co Meath and has been living in Australia since 1993. Her PhD thesis was on immigrants who arrived from Ireland between 1980 and 2001. She now lives in Geelong and works as an evaluation consultant in Melbourne.
Patrick Deeley has published six highly acclaimed collections of poems. These poems have been widely translated and have won a number of awards.