The Irish do death well. For centuries we have understood the power of grief and how it can catapult you out of your life for weeks, months, years, or even a lifetime.
In her new book Sorry for Your Trouble: The Irish Way of Death (Sandycove) the writer, broadcaster, and film producer Ann Marie Hourihane casts a cold eye on the many ways that our rapidly diversifying Irish nation deals with bereavement and its aftermath.
She doesn't escape its long shadow herself, of course. Her father dies during the writing of the book she tells us. Then she experiences the disorientation known only too well to those who have lost someone dear. “I go outside. I go back inside. I don’t know where to go.”
The strange mix of forbearance and sentiment (but never sentimentality) that marks the Irish response to death is a fact that she records here over and over. We are stoic and inconsolable, at once, the two together, like a double negative, like a photo imposed one over the other. It's not unique to us but it is uniquely us.
This is a book full of quiet compassion and a kind of understated awe, and it is so moving because it refuses to surrender to any of the easy bromides that we often hear in a death-denying culture like the United States.
Instead Hourihane, for example, watches Irish nurses lay out the body of a working woman they personally knew. They wash it with water they have gently warmed, as though the woman was still alive. Hourihane is moved by the thoughtfulness of the gesture and so are we.
Death goes on every day, everywhere, after all. But every day we find a million ways to evade this awareness, thinking it morbid or frightening or just too unsettling, but there is value to the contemplation of it, and value in facing it, the writer finds here over and over. What it reminds us of is how precious time is, how precious people are, and how strange it is that we can't seem to keep that thought foremost in our minds.
Hourihane has crisscrossed Ireland in the research and writing of this book, attending funerals of people known and unknown to her, people in the public eye, and people whose experiences are less known but no less worthy.
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