New non-fiction

Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea

UNSETTLED. By Rosaleen McDonagh. Skein Press 2021. 111 pp. $30

The farmstead of the grabber is hungry as a stone,
But the little homes of Kerry will give us half their own.
(The Ballad of the Tinker’s Wife. Sigerson Clifford)

We knew them as ‘the tinkers’ when I was growing up in Kerry and we treated them with respect. They might come to the back door for a cup of sugar or a jug of milk or to sell holy pictures, and they were always welcomed. Their horses tidied the grass on the edges of the roads and some of their kids would come to school for a few weeks before the caravans moved on. The most able and constant chroniclers of their lifestyle were Kerry writers like Brian McMahon and Sigerson Clifford. The latter may well have been telling his truth when he wrote,
I often thought of my tinker friend and I cursed the smirking luck
That didn’t make me a tinker man, fighting the road to Puck.

The word ‘tinker’ is not used any longer for a group now formally recognised as a distinct ethnic unit in the Irish population. They are called Travellers and are not the same as gypsies or Romani. There are surnames which are common among them: Carty, Connor, Ward and especially in the West of Ireland, McDonagh. The writer of this book is a proud Traveller and tells of some of the difficulties that she faced when growing up. Fourth in a family of 20, she suffered from cerebral palsy and lived in a residential special school from the age of four.

She tells that she was sexually abused at the home when she was a young girl and at the age of 13 was diagnosed with psychiatric problems. There were suicide attempts, involving at different times cutting herself, drinking bleach or overdosing on medications. These are mentioned almost casually, as are her difficulties with mobility, especially when she moved back to her parents’ caravan.

Somehow, with her problems and movement, she managed to do schoolwork and sat an ordinary Leaving Cert. She was enrolled at Trinity, though she says that her undergraduate years were undistinguished. Today, as an adult woman, she has two Masters degrees and a doctorate and lectures from a wheelchair at her old university. She is also a playwright whose work has been widely produced and is a member of Aosdána, the first from the Traveller community. By any standard, an extraordinary woman.

This book is a collection of essays, part memoir, part social commentary, part loving tribute to her background as a Traveller and worker for disability and for feminist causes. She has a long chapter on her association with a man named David, ‘a well-known figure in Dublin,’ whose surname we do not learn. ’David has his own struggles. We loved each other. We hung out together. We slept together, but something was missing. Neither of us said it. The ‘gay’ word. … Our romance continued for over thirty years. There was no other love in my life.’

When she was studying in Trinity, she met Mary Elizabeth, also a Traveller with cerebral palsy and speech difficulties, with whom she formed a lifelong friendship  – ‘privately she called me her sister.’ They became involved in disability politics and the marriage equality campaign. She was best woman when Mary Elizabeth married her friend Helen. ‘Best beoir* is a role given to Traveller matriarchs at wedding ceremonies. … In Traveller culture, best woman is sometimes considered more important than best man.’

This is a wonderful book, only a little over 100 pages, beautifully written. Where there must have often been the urge to rant or rave or thump the table, the author is restrained, almost understating her case. She tells us the facts and then lets the readers make up their own minds.

I passed the book to a friend who wrote the following note when she returned it.

            Many thanks for sharing this book. An amazing, emotional description of non-equality for so many people, not only in Ireland. Some of her stories broke my heart because I had been witness during my years teaching disabled children and adults. I learned about the Travellers, a completely new thing for me. Thank you again.

*This was the first time that I came across the word ‘beoir’, as a term for a young female. I understand that it is probably from one of the Traveller languages, Cant or Gammon or Shelta.  

CHRONICLE OF A BURNLEY BOY. By Ray Watson, 2021. 387 pp. $30 from

Richmond, in inner Melbourne, is now regarded as a prized address. Close to the city, it has shopping and social facilities, and for those to whom such a thing matters, a champion football team – young George Pell signed with them before picking the seminary instead. The Burnley that gives this book its title is one of the main streets in the suburb and also the name of a local park. But in the first half of the last century, ‘Burnley’s’ flat land was not valued highly and was given over mainly to housing and work of the less affluent in the community’, dominant among whom were Catholics.

Ray Watson’s family moved to ‘a small house on a tiny block’ when he was still a baby. He had two older sisters and a brother of an age between the two of those. That boy was not at home, having moved to Oakhill in Sydney to do his novitiate with the De La Salle Brothers, although later in life they would get to know each other, ‘I did not get to know him in the way that I think most boys who are younger would experience an older brother. Perhaps to me our relationship was more like that of an uncle and a nephew: not as intimate as that of siblings.’

After his years at primary school, all detailed in the book, young Ray got a scholarship to St Leo’s in Malvern, a De La Salle school. There in his first year, he was taught by his brother, a situation with which he was not entirely comfortable. This was at a time when ‘the strap was an accepted part of teacher equipment … and corporal punishment was generally considered a normal part of education and upbringing.’ So every Monday morning, the class would be lined out around the walls and asked questions on their homework – Latin vocabulary or declension or conjugation, say. Those who did not know an answer were marched out to get a cut of the strap.

Because young Ray was bright, he had no trouble with this Monday morning routine, though dreading what would happen if he was given a softer cut and would be seen as the teacher’s pet. Inevitably, one day the matter was put to a test. He gave a wrong answer and marched out for his punishment, only to have his brother quietly instruct him to return to his place. To his surprise there was no comeback from his classmates, a tribute to them, and a lesson to him that they were too concerned with their own lives to pay much attention to him.

That is one of the stories that make this a delightful read. The author admits that though he enjoyed sports and competition, the best he could say about athletics or swimming was ‘I wasn’t last.’ The other area at which he was successful was at renovation, an activity in which he had success, even at a young age. ‘For me, renovation was becoming a medium of artistic expression. It was now challenging schooling and sport as a source of my self-realization.’ And though his renovation work was always competing with his academic work, he managed to be dux of his year.

The other element in the book is his involvement while at school and later in university with what would progressively be known as the Victorian ALP (Anti-Communist), then the Movement, then the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) and finally the National Civic Council (NCC). Later he would describe those activities as follows, ‘We were like moths circling endlessly around a bright light shining through a dark night. We were getting nowhere but a light which had obliterated reason was shining in our souls.’ At Melbourne university, he received no welcome to the Newman Society. ‘Perhaps being an ex-student of Xavier, St Kevins or, ironically enough, of (Christian Brothers) Parade, may have helped me more.’ Instead, he directed his efforts to setting up a branch of the DLP there.

He was at university on a teaching scholarship, ending with a year to do his diploma in education. His first teaching position was in Seymour, some 120 kms outside the city, in a region where many of the residents were either farmers or people associated with the military training camp at Puckapunyal. His qualifications in Latin, French and History were poor preparation, and the book ends at the conclusion of his first year in front of his classes, all numbering more than 50. However, it is clear that he was learning on the job and finding methods of being a successful teacher in the future.

As the story ends our hero has not yet had a girlfriend, though not for the want of trying. He is an excellent dancer and is still favouring Catholic dances at his Richmond parish or with his NCC friends. The final two chapters take up this aspect of his growth and do so in a way that attests to the role that love used to play in those chaste times when it hit a surprised twenty-one year old Catholic.

There is much to admire in this book, not least the writing. Ray Watson seems determined not to take himself too seriously and is often the subject of his own most serious criticism. There is a lightness to the prose, a suggestion that, even when dealing with serious subjects, the writer is enjoying himself.

DEFECTS. Living with the Effects of the Celtic Tiger. By Eoin Ó Broin. Merrion Press 2021. 206 pp.

Here is a book to frighten the soul, an account of the long campaign by homeowners In Ireland to persuade those responsible for faults in their homes to remedy those faults. When persuasion did not work, the owners looked to those responsible for enforcing building standards either at local or national level. That was a long drawn-out process, in which various agencies blamed each other while the poor owner with her crippling mortgage waited and fretted. Ultimately, one could go to the courts, a route that would be equally long and ultimately do little except add to the glee and the pockets of the legal fraternity.

Some of the examples dealt with in this book were probably widely reported in the Irish media. Certainly, even in remote Australia, we had heard of Priory Hall in north Dublin and perhaps of Galloping Green in more upmarket Stillorgan. The author deals with these and three other examples, all involving groups of apartments. Surveyors called in to examine the buildings used phrases like ‘poor workmanship’, ‘serious shortcomings’ and ‘radical overhaul will be required.’ In almost all cases, issues around fire safety were significant.

In his report for the Tribunal of Inquiry into the 1981 fire at the Stardust nightclub in Artane, Justice Ronan Keane observed, ‘There is no legally enforceable system of universal application in the Republic of Ireland which requires the fires safety aspect of all new buildings to be considered before permission for their erection is granted.’ One might think that this should have stirred the authorities to do something, and some 20 years later, they did. They legislated that the builders and/or developers would themselves be responsible for ensuring that all regulations had been followed in their work.

The other topic that is covered towards the end of the book is the problem with pyrite and mica, mainly in Donegal and Mayo and mostly in houses rather than apartments. Pyrite (iron sulfide) used to be called fool’s gold and was part of the hardcore used in foundations. Where there can sometimes be problems with foundations settling, in this case, the pyrite can cause them to bulk up, resulting in movement in the structure. Mica, if part of the substance used in making bricks, can be seriously affected by weather.

In almost all of the problems covered here, while the poor owner had to pay the bills, the taxpayer was the ultimate loser. To give an idea of the numbers, here are some figures quoted by Ó Broin, ‘In 1994, an average house in Dublin would cost you €81,000. By 1998, the same property was worth €160,000. By 2004 the value had skyrocketed to €311,000.’ What better invitation to shonky operators in construction, in building supplies, in money management, and in the legal and architectural professions. It was made even worse when many of the politicians who were supposed to look after the country belonged to one of those elites. The author quotes the example of Padraig Flynn, the FF deputy for Mayo West and ‘a loyal supporter of Charles Haughey’. I quote in full what Ó Broin writes,

            ‘He was one of a number of senior Fianna Fáil politicians whose close relationship with developers, including Tom Gilmartin, was to prove very profitable. Author Frank Connolly, in his bestselling Tom Gilmartin: The Man who Brought Down a Taoiseach and Exposed the Greed and Corruption at the Heart of Irish Politics (2015), estimates that Flynn received payments from developers in excess of £155,000 between 1987 and 1993.’

This is a disturbing book. Written with calm and without fuming at the injustice of the whole thing, the author, a Sinn Fein TD, tells a human story. He deals with some of the Dáil debates on housing and mentions some of his own contributions. In the last general election, his party received the largest number of votes of any political party. If Ó Broin and the way he deals with this difficult topic is an indication of what they stand for, it bodes well for the political future of Sinn Fein. 

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tintean editorial collective.

One thought on “New non-fiction

  1. Good morning Frank,

    I see you have been very busy this morning.

    Alarmingly news that you have posted ‘Royal Dublin golf club in Bull Island, Dollymount was the last men-only golf club in Ireland. In early December, it announced that its members had voted to open the club to ‘all genders’

    Ireland is certainly falling apart !! Just kidding. Actually I’m surprised there were any remaining male only golf clubs.

    Given your knowledge of Irish history are you aware of the name Lady Morgan and her Memoirs?

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